A vacationing scientist.

“I wish those flowers were closer and then we could pick them and you could do the work.” –my daughter to me while on vacation

“I wish those flowers were closer and then we could pick them and you could do the work.” –my daughter to me while on vacation

Last month we traveled as a family to Corsica for a real honest to goodness vacation. We spent days on the beach and exploring medieval towns. It was mostly sunny and warm and relaxing.

But…I did bring my computer. I had minor heart palpitations when I realised that the cottage we were staying in did not come with internet but it helped me actually have a vacation. I was reduced down to a few hurried email sessions at cafes or restaurants where I answered the most critical emails and sent off a few promised items. I worked a little on a paper I’m currently facing down a deadline for but not nearly enough to make this week back to work a breeze. So I vacationed but I didn’t truly drop everything. I rarely do. Some might find this a horrid part of the job—flexible enough to always follow you around but for others that is some of the joy of academic life.

I’m curious how many academics really take full vacations where they don’t look at work at all. I can’t say I worked hard but I can’t say that I left everything behind either. I have difficulty leaving home for any period of time more than a night without taking my computer with me. I think I’m pretty good at striking a reasonable work/life balance most/some of the time. But I don’t often just let work go. Sure for a few hours, a weekend or so I have no problem tuning out my research and work responsibilities but for longer times I always feel like I might want to do a little bit here or there, so along comes the computer or whatever.

Rarely truly leaving work is one aspect of carrying my work around with me. The other is that I have a tough time turning off the scientist in me. I used to just love being outdoors for its own stake. The longer I spend in academia, the more I also look at the world as a potential project or research question. I don’t want it to sound like I don’t appreciate nature anymore, I do. But there is often a little voice in my head that frames questions that are not simply curiosity driven but in terms of hypotheses and grant ideas. On Corsica I looked at plants with dry fruits still clinging to the plants and thought: “hmmm, that would be convenient for estimating fitness”. I can’t help but examine the species around me and think about what would be interesting evolutionary and ecological questions. And while I didn’t ever pick flowers and ‘do the work’ while on vacation (I guess that is my daughter’s impression of what I do), I did think about what I could do if I were to work on Corsica. And I have no intention of switching my research there, it just seems that I can’t help but have these questions pop into my head. There’s really nothing wrong with it and I don’t even mind (probably why I do what I do!) but I generally keep my musings to myself. Not everyone wants to discuss floral ecology and evolution on vacation!

So even if I leave my computer behind, it is unlikely I will ever have a vacation from my scientist brain. How about you?

10 thoughts on “A vacationing scientist.

  1. I had a 2 week holiday with no internet, no laptop, no work. It was the most incredibly relaxing experience I have had in a loooong time. I thoroughly recommend it and learnt that things that we think are urgent, can actually wait.

    And I don’t think taking that holiday makes me less commited to research and less of a scientist!

  2. When I am lucky enough to actually take a vacation with my family, I do not bring work with me. If there is internet access….I might check emails but I try to minimize it since 1) vacation time with everyone together is rare and precious 2) there is little I can do from a distance. However, I cannot turn off my scientist/naturalist mind and do enjoy the biology/ecology of where I am. As a working mom, everything is compromised and juggled. I try to take a vacation from that. Corsica sounds lovely.

  3. Good essay. I’ve thought about this a lot over the past few years as I try fitting the career I’ve built in the absence of a family, with my new life as a husband and father. Vacation, or even a weekend at home, the fact that you never leave your work behind isn’t surprising when you love your work. Like a hobby, we squeeze our work into any available free time. It’s also not surprising that, as a field biologist, you see potential research projects in every setting. In graduate school a non-biologist friend of mine pointed out the difference in what he saw on one of our hikes versus what he thought I saw. He said, “This place must look so different to you. All I see is different shades of green and brown, but you must see a ton of detail even in a single leaf”. My goal now, in the middle-ages of my career, is to resist the urge to understand that detail, yet appreciate it while vacationing with my family.

  4. Amy, if you think what you do is work, you are in the wrong business (which you are not). Label it something else and enjoy it for its own sake. There are two kinds of vacations – one to Corsica and one to your “lab”. Try doing Corsica on your “work schedule” and it will pale, very, very quickly. Just like doing your lab on a Corsica schedule and it will equally be not where you want to be. Don’t encourage the polarization of the two. Mix and match. The only work you should be doing is taxes and writing exams. All the rest, yes, has of course necessary parts, including sitting on that damned plane to Corsica, but move towards enjoying all of it, all of it. Get good at leaving out the parts that turn into “work” and really are not necessary but the rest of the sheep love to impose on you for a whole lot of obvious reasons that do not merit elaboration here. Push that envelope too, not just the science stuff you have been writing about (I would say the same to Terry, but he is already a bit further down the trail).

  5. Good to know that I’m not the only one who does this when on vacation, nature hikes, or wherever! It’s hard to explain to non-Biologists how we never really leave “work” at the office; pretty hard to escape thinking about it when biology is literally everywhere around us.

  6. Great post, thank you. I have been contemplating this lately myself. I think we only worry about doing ‘work’ on ‘holidays’ because modern society’s norm is to work 9-5 Mon-Fri. If this were 200 years ago, when work and life went hand-in-hand, we probably wouldn’t feel guilty! :) But many scientists today have relative flexibility with work hours (compared to say a school teacher or a receptionist at a business office), in that they can work from home sometimes, work around children’s school schedules, travel to conferences, field work etc. So I guess the trade off for having that relative freedom of work hours, is that we have to do it whenever we can, especially all the work that isn’t officially work (reviewing papers, journal editorial, collaborating outside of specific projects). But if you’re doing something you love, you’ll never work a day in your life, as the saying goes.
    And isn’t staying curious about the natural world, even while on a holiday, inherent to being a scientist? – it shouldn’t mean we don’t appreciate nature anymore, on the contrary. After all, the greatest scientific discoveries have come out of someone observing something in nature and questioning it!

  7. I have always been flabbergaster (sorry couldn’t resist using this word) that when scientists take a ‘sabbatical’, it means no teaching but intense research whereas pretty much everyone else on a sabbatical would travel, paint, garden, enjoy…

  8. Great post and great questions! We spend a week at a cabin as a family every year, and I don’t bring any work or check emails (or FB or Twitter or blogs). Given that I’m usually going right from end of spring term into research with students into teaching in a high school program, I don’t really have much down time over the summer, so I need that unplugged week to recharge. I do make sure that I’ve finished all the important projects and such so that I don’t have anything hanging over my head so that I really can unplug. This year, our vacation is right at the end of August, so I unfortunately will have to check email periodically (particularly since we have a lot going on the week I return, plus we have a new faculty member starting, and as department chair I feel like I should be somewhat in contact that week).

  9. I was going to write about how I spent weeks of vacation without computer and without work. Then I remembered that I finally read that book about insect evolution that came out a couple of years ago… Yeah and then it was that entomology textbook that I read because I might want to use it in teaching … And those hoverflies and beetles I collected because I really need to broaden my entomological knowledge to improve my teaching… As an ecologist you probably need to vacation in a place really dominated by concrete in order to totally disconnect from biology – and who wants to do that.

  10. My family vacations are always just visiting my wife’s parents or grandparents. Both live in lovely places hundreds or thousands of miles away, so that’s fine, but sometimes I need a break from in-laws. I’ll grab my laptop and do some work in a back bedroom. So my answer is: I always work on vacation! It may help to keep me sane sometimes.

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