Academic Travel 2: Getting There and Being There

This is part two in a series about what has worked for me during a year of busy academic travelling.

The First Great Western trains in the UK now have in-seat entertainment!

Part 2: Getting There and Being There.
In this post I’m going to cover plane (and train) travel, exploiting your accommodation, and your “kit”.

For the previous post: Part 1:  Preparing For The Trip.
[Updated 23/10/2011]

1. Don’t Write Your Talk on the Plane Mrs Jones

While it’s true that you can get a surprising amount of work done while sat in your seat at ten thousand metres up, the nature of that work should ideally never be the talk you’re about to give. Two reasons:

1. Your laptop can and will fail. This happened to me twice this summer: once at the very beginning of the trip, and once halfway through the conference but before I gave my talk. Both times my talk was done and safely saved to my Dropbox (more on that later), and it turned what could have been an absolute disaster into just a small annoyance.

2. Travel is stressful and unpredictable enough without leaving writing your talk until that 2/5/8/13 hour journey. And it doesn’t matter how long the journey, you really only have the battery life of your computer to get it done. You could be using that time to strategise your conference networking, reading papers to flesh out the fine points of your arguments, or watching a Drew Barrymore comedy on a tiny screen.

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science and design are both about communication

Mike Dickison’s blog Pictures of Numbers is fab. It’s all about clear, simple, effective data visualisation for scientists. Three posts that I thought were particularly useful were:

Better Axes: improving readability, increasing the information content and decreasing the clutter in your graphs.

Fixing Excel’s Charts: Surgery for the annoying defaults that Excel has, and how you can actually get an effective and high-impact piece of data presentation out of the poor maligned piece of microsoftery. [I spent a fair bit of time mucking about with building custom templates for graphs while I was writing my thesis, and they’re really worth the time investment.]

Maps for Scientists: Two posts, one about choosing maps and one about using them. Both sensible and aimed at presenting and highlighting the right types of geographical information.

His tip list is also a good reference, as are the handouts on his workshops & handouts pages

My colleagues are probably bored to tears when I bang on about design and science, so it is great to see a kindred scientist out there. 

scientific presentations

Garr Reynolds, at Presentation Zen (a moment for fangirling, please), has a post linking to resources for scientific presentations. Often presentation advice is geared towards commercial or creative models, and while it’s helpful to extract what works/what sucks from those sorts of domains, a Zen-approach to scientific/academic presentation couldn’t come soon enough. From the editorial “Let There Be Stoning” by J. H. Lehr, which Garr links to (available in entirety here and well worth the read) I snuck this gem:

Without exception a presentation … can and should be made extemporaneously. A scientist who cannot retain in his head the essence of his latest work can hardly be said to be enraptured by his subject. If a speaker is not excited enough by his area of expertise to weave it comfortably into the fabric of his cognitive thought processes, then how can he hope to excite an audience to an acceptable level of appreciation?

Presenting scientific work we’re constrained by the need to provide a certain base level of technical information or background, and results are generally graphical or in tables–not leaving much room to get crazy with the style. But 90% of academic talks err on the TMI (too much information) side, and by doing this, often they preclude people asking questions. I attended a talk yesterday and made a conscious effort to not look at the slides unless they had a picture, table or graph, and you know what? I didn’t miss anything important at all. Sadly, the speaker relied on looking at her laptop or reading off the screen in many cases, which is just as irritating as the philosophy-model of literally “reading a paper”.

I’m determined that the next talk I give will be pared down to the bare essentials, and that the focus will be on me and my information.

Teaching presentations are of course a different kettle of fish, but I’ll re-visit those issues when they’re pressing.

updated website

I finally updated my academic website.

  • Updated CV with two publications 🙂
  • Changed old diary to point here.
  • Updated the Links page to point to my bookmarks, as keeping that kind of thing current is a time-vortex best left unvisited.

In the process, discovered that my site counter/stats tracker code was incorrect, and hasn’t been logging visits for the last three years. *headdesk* I’m really annoyed at myself for this, because part of setting up a blog was to have it point there, and now I’ve lost that tracking info. Que sera, I suppose, but if you’re reading and have visited my UCL page before, I’d be rather grateful for your catch-up click.


I dug out my PDA (a Visor Neo, in up-to-the-minute monochrome) this weekend and have just synched it all up with the Oyster1. My mac is probably having hissy fits about being attached to such an antique piece of technology, but it’s plenty good enough for the diary and contacts function, which is what I am re-trialling it for.

I’m not having much success with the paper diary method this time around; it worked when I was working in design and had it open on my desk constantly for appointments etc. I never remember to take the diary with me though, and the PDA is a bit more bus-friendly. My scheduling is more a case of one or two “appointments” a day (if that) and then a series of tasks to complete. I’d like to track the time spent on those, so we’ll see how this goes.

I’m not really enamoured of digital diary software either; iCal is okay, the Palm Desktop is a bit mouse-intensive. My main problem is that I seem to spend more time entering things than actually doing them. Anyhow, this is the start of a new experiment.

1. My laptop is called Pearl, so it makes sense that my desktop is the Oyster. Right?