There has been a wave of advice posts recently, for new graduate students making their decisions by the April 15 deadline, and for graduating PhDs who are receiving their degrees by the end of the semester. Congratulations to both groups! What I have to say today is most relevant to first or second year students ready to make an exclusive commitment to a research group.
Last Wednesday morning my alarm went off at 4:30 so I can catch my 7:30 flight. Four phone calls, six emails and seven hours later I was back at my desk, having moved my 36 hour trip to the following day since my plane had mechanical problems. The first email I read was from the lab’s travel office, wondering if I knew that the way I have arranged my summer travel right now meant I had a round trip each to China and Japan within two weeks. “Yes,” I responded, “I planned it that way.” The trips are three days apart and it’s cheaper to fly back and forth than to book a complicated itinerary with a stopover and three unnecessary nights at a hotel. In exchange for jetlag I collect miles.
Travel is very much a fact of life in high energy physics. Most people, including myself, consider it a perk. At least most of the time. It’s an opportunity to see new places all expenses paid. But it’s not without its drawbacks, and I recommend that any grad student find out about travel and moving before they sign up for it. Some of these you can ask your future adviser directly, some you might be better off finding out through more senior grad students.
Where will you need to travel, how often, for how long? Do you have to move long term (months to years) or is it an option to live near your university and travel for shifts/meetings? This is especially important for those with significant others, families or plans to start a family. Or even pets.
Is there enough funding for all the mandatory travel? This is a good one to ask more senior grad students. You want to be able to travel to a summer school and a couple of conferences throughout your few years in addition to mandatory travel. It wouldn’t hurt to find out about the typical accommodation.
If you’re an international student and need to travel internationally – do you need a visa to travel to and from your destination? This is extremely important, since it can mean being allowed or denied reentry to the US, and very few (if any) people in your department will have reliable information on it. Talk to the equivalent of the “Office of International Students” in your university, as soon as possible. Lots of arrangements are possible, but happen on bureaucratic timescales.
Another one possibly important for international travel is dietary preferences or restrictions. I now have to travel to China frequently, and my second favorite sight, after the Forbidden City in Beijing, was shelves of Skippy peanut butter at a grocery store.
Finally, once it’s time to go, make sure you talk to those who have traveled before you about their experiences. Small things like a restaurant recommendation or advice on navigating public transportation in a language you don’t speak can make your experience significantly better. If possible for your first trip, plan your travel to coincide with someone who’s done it before.