Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Lounging on the Beach

Do you find it annoying when other people assume that when you are away from your office or lab that you are not working? You may be working at home, trying to finish that proposal by the deadline and can’t afford the interruptions at the office. You may be a telecommuter and spend part or all of your time at a home office. Your job may require extensive travel—to do fieldwork or meet with colleagues/clients, for example. Most scientists travel to attend conferences a couple of times (or more) per year. Even when your off-site activities are clearly required to meet your job responsibilities and for career development, does there still seem to be a suspicion that you are getting away with something?

Somehow, official travel has become an activity that is viewed by outsiders as a “perk”. Maybe it has something to do with reimbursement for expenses (and the suspicion that you are getting a free vacation). Maybe it’s just the fact that you are allowed to escape the office drudgery periodically while others are not. You’ve probably read those newspaper articles that list travel expenditures of government officials who have gone on “junkets” somewhere--usually a resort setting; such revelations are often followed by expressions of outrage by the public as to how their taxes are being wasted. Maybe some of these trips are boondoggles, but most are probably not. The average person likely does not understand that conferences and workshops are often held in resorts or resort settings, and that the traveler typically does not have anything to do with the choice of venue.  Newspaper reports can sound quite damning: "'Government Official X' made 8 trips in 2009 at a total cost to the taxpayer of $15,000."  That's less than $2,000 per trip--very reasonable.  However, the article often questions the need for these trips (as if the employee had a choice) and implies that the cost is not warranted.

Travel by scientists (e.g., to conferences) is sometimes questioned by administrators, but at least we (and our expense reports) are not held up to public scrutiny (yet).  More about this in the next post...

Travel becomes even more suspect (in others' minds) when it involves a destination known for recreational opportunities such as swimming, diving, fishing, skiing, etc. As an example, I do a lot of fieldwork in coastal areas that contain a variety of habitats extending from the ocean to uplands: beach, dune, swale, and wetland (the latter being my research focus).  Some of these locations one might want to visit on vacation. Unfortunately, I’m not on vacation, nor do I have time to relax and also get my work done.  And even if I did have time to relax, lying on the beach is not my idea of fun.

My research sites are characterized by lots of mud (into which you might sink up to your thighs), vegetation so thick that it takes fifteen minutes to traverse a few feet, extreme heat and humidity in summer and cold and rain in winter, sometimes dangerous animals (crocodiles), and of course, a myriad of biting insects that would drive a normal person quite crazy. The accommodations in some field locations are quite rustic--no running water; intermittent electricity (if any) and definitely no air conditioning, TV, or internet; an outhouse on the end of a pier (unless it’s been washed away by the latest hurricane and you are reduced to using a bucket)....definitely not Shangri-La. I happen to love the rugged simplicity, but most people would be very unhappy campers when faced with such a setting for weeks on end.

But people only hear that you are off to ‘Fabulous Location’ and immediately jump to the wrong conclusion. Even co-workers who know better.

Just prior to departure for some distant shore, I invariably will have some person say to me, "I hear you are off to 'Fabulous Location'. I wish I could go places like that." Others will make more snide comments such as, "Well, aren't you lucky...getting to go to 'Fabulous Location'."  Yes, I feel lucky, but only at the opportunity to do research in an interesting ecosystem, which is my job.

One of the first, disturbing interactions I’ve ever had in this regard was when I was a graduate student and had to meet with the chair of the graduate school. Although the subject of the meeting had to do with my resident status, he asked me about my dissertation research. I naively explained that it entailed field study in a foreign tropical country. He immediately began grilling me about why I had to do my research in that particular setting and ultimately insinuated that I was not really doing research but was instead cavorting in a bikini (!!) on a beach somewhere. I was flabbergasted. The harder I tried to convey the actual conditions surrounding such field research, the more suspicious he became and the more outrageous his comments. I got out of there as fast as I could (my request regarding residency was ultimately denied).

My relatives are usually the most resistant to the idea that I might be working while away from the office. Despite numerous explanations about the nature of my work, their automatic assumption, upon hearing I'm headed for another field trip to 'Fabulous Location', is that I will be lying on a beach somewhere with a cocktail in my hand. When I protest, they grin and say, "Yeah, right. You must think I'm stupid or something."

I've finally given up trying to explain and respond to such remarks with, "Well, it's hard work, but someone has to do it."

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