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Travel for business, travel for pleasure

If there is one thing I love more than research, it has to be travelling. Every chance I get I try to book a holiday somewhere new. As you can imagine being a researcher and travelling to conferences on a regular basis is a perfect fit for me. However, I treat most of my conference trips as a holiday… meaning that I always intend to do work on the long plane flight and in the hotel room, but never do. Being in a different city or country there is always a hundred more interesting things to do than rewrite a manuscript for the tenth time. I mean, you might only be there once, right?

However, I’ve always admired the people you see on the plane and in the hotels who always seem to be working on something really, really important. Every spare minute the laptop is open and anywhere with a power source becomes their office. What I admire is not so much the motivation and the drive to get work done in their spare time (I’ve come to peace with myself over this and realised that I work best in small efficient bursts – another topic for another post), but probably more the fact that they can work from anywhere. I’ve always thought that this couldn’t be me – I wouldn’t be able to access my journal articles or my data or speak to my colleagues or use all the cool programs on my office computer. I just couldn’t do research without the office.

My whole idea of how I work as a researcher was shaken up this year when I had the crazy idea to work the last few months of my fellowship from overseas. As I write this post, I am in a city called Kumasi in Ghana. How I got here is totally another story (big thanks to my supportive supervisor for letting me go - thanks Prof!), but in short I wanted to see how I went at blazing a trail for research collaboration in Africa. This meant a few things: i) I had a lot of projects still going on back home that I needed to continue, ii) I needed to stay in contact with my supervisor and the students I was supervising, and iii) I needed to be able to fit all of my work stuff into my backpack.

When I considered these things, I realised that a lot of this can be done quite easily. I put together a list of things I deemed to be essential for research anywhere, most of which I was surprised to find I took for granted working in a research institute:

  • The computer – your best friend, ever thought of doing statistics without it? Writing manuscripts?

  • Documents – earlier this year I moved to the “cloud”. At the moment I have an account with Dropbox (www.dropbox.com) which stores a secure copy of all of my documents on the internet, meaning I can access them from anywhere and share them with anyone. There are a number of these file storing programs, some more secure than others – which is an important consideration if you are storing patient data.

  • Software – stats programs, graph programs, reference management programs. While these are licensed and available at most institutes, I had to make some careful decisions about which ones I considered essential and was willing to fork out for.

  • Internet connection – for obvious reasons (Skype, email, football results). While not the fastest or the most reliable, a USB modem can be bought in most countries and for a decent price too. Without it, I could imagine myself spending way too much time in dingy internet cafes.

  • Data – here is a tough one. Obviously for most research you need data. Being a postdoc I am in the lucky position of having students collect data for me. I do other studies on existing data sets and through systematic reviews. One of the main reasons I am overseas though is to try and collaborate with local researchers, meaning I want to collect and use their data!

  • Journal articles – definitely a bonus of working in a big institute or for a university is that you have access to journal subscriptions and full-text articles. Luckily, I managed to keep my library card while I am away and can still access this (otherwise I would probably send a whole list of articles I want to someone to get for me). I gave up on printing these a few years ago and have been trying to maintain my personal collection of PDFs in some sort of order on my computer.

So with all of these things, most of which fit on the computer, I can research from anywhere! I guess it is kind of like working from home every day and for me it is surprisingly motivating. Obviously it is a pretty personal thing, might not work for everybody, but I’d love to hear your reflections on this.