It’s nearly October, which means that another academic year is about to begin. I still find it strange that UK universities begin their years in late September/early October, rather than at the beginning of September. The early-September Labour Day weekend always brings back memories of first-year move-ins for me.
On the plus side, this means that my September is more open to travel than it once was. If you’ve been following my tweets at all, you’ll know that I’ve been travelling a lot this summer. Well, the month of September is no different. I’ll be spending an extended weekend elsewhere in the UK at a conference, and another week of summer school in Germany. Immediately upon my return, it’s Freshers’ Week (which is really Freshers’ Fortnight here, because one week couldn’t possibly be enough), which will welcome us into another nine months of undergraduates once again dominating the campus.
Quite truthfully, travelling this so much in such a short period of time has been both physically and mentally exhausting. Although I enjoy travelling and am grateful for the opportunities to share my research and learn new things in such exciting places, I’ve struggled with being at home for less than two weeks each month. Recently I spent a Saturday by myself, which prompted me to realise that I had not actually been alone for more than about two waking hours for a month and a half. Completely unaware that I had been desperate for some temporary solitude, I revelled in my lack of plans by watching garbage television, doing my nails, and reading eighteen-century smut (Fanny Hill is actually turning out to be pretty good).
In addition to learning a lot of fun new Digital Humanities things this summer, travelling so much has forced upon me some other valuable life lessons about the need for self-care, particularly when in unfamiliar places. Readers, because I know how much you love my cheesy lists, here’s one more about travelling as a PhD student.
Accommodation type is important.
You’ve gotten accepted to your conference and now you’re looking to confirm your flights and accommodation. You’re a PhD student and your conference fund is limited, so you’re more than likely flying with Ryanair or easyJet and you will not be paying extra for that checked baggage, thankyouverymuch. There’s much more flexibility with accommodation, though. Whether you’re booking it yourself or your University pays a specialised booking company to help you out, you are often the one responsible for deciding what kind of accommodation gets your money. Always bear your budget in mind, but you will typically have three options:
A shared flat (i.e. someone renting out a spare room on Airbnb): The shared flat can be a great option if you’re hoping to meet a local with whom you can develop some sort of meaningful relationship. Airbnb hosts offering their spare bedrooms are often excited to meet their guests, offering guidance for places to go and tips for eating out and getting around. A shared flat can be good for those who want to meet other people, but don’t want to be thrown into what can sometimes feel like an animal house (see: hostel, below). There are Airbnb rooms for almost any budget – just be prepared to take some public transport if you go for the super-cheap options that are often just outside where all the action is. This time spent in transit can be good for catching up on necessary reading, or reviewing your conference paper prior to your presentation time.
A hostel: Hostels tend to get a bad rap, portrayed as places where drugged-out backpackers stay to party. Look, friends. I’ve stayed at a lot of hostels, and this is almost never the case. Absolutely, there are party hostels, but if that’s not your thing you can often weed these babies out by just reading the description of the hostel on your booking site. No curfew and heavily-discounted drinks on offer every night? Maybe not the place for you if you’re looking for something quiet. That said, even hostels with their own bars know that some guests may not be so keen; bars are usually in the basement, or somewhere else that is away from the bedrooms.
Hostels are cheap because you’ll usually be sharing a bedroom for three to fifteen other people, with everyone sleeping in two- or three-tier bunk beds. Sometimes these beds will have curtains for privacy; often, they won’t. Bring a sleeping mask and earplugs, just in case. You may also need to bring your own towel, or pay an additional fee for towels and linens upon arrival. Also, be sure to bring your own small lock with you, so you’ll be able to use your bedroom’s lockers to keep your belongings safe from potential thieving roommates. If all this is turning you off the shared room idea, but you still want to try out hostel life, never fear! You can opt for a private room in your hostel, but be prepared to pay a premium.
I prefer staying in hostels because they are (1) super cheap and (2) a great way to meet lots of people from different countries. Most hostels will have kitchens you can cook in, and these kitchens are great places to socialise. Hostels don’t just cater for backpackers, but for all kinds of travellers, and you’re bound to meet someone whom you’ll want to hang out with after a long day of conferencing. They also often have spaces that are suitable for answering emails and small writing tasks, so they can still be good if you have some work to catch up on.
A hotel: Looking for some space to yourself? Need some quiet to get your work done? A hotel room might be your thing. In a hotel, everything is taken care of for you: your bed is made, your towels washed, and sometimes a little chocolate is put on your pillow. Hotels often don’t come with kitchens, though, so be prepared to spend some extra cash eating out. On the plus side, many hotels (and hostels!) offer free breakfast, so keep your eyes peeled for that when you’re booking.
Your preferred type of accommodation may differ from trip to trip. Sometimes you just have different needs. Pick the one that’s right for you so you can make the most of your time away.
Don’t forget to make time to explore.
It’s easy to get so wrapped up in work that you forget to take some time out to explore wherever you’ve found yourself. Book some time to go on small adventures. There’s usually time allowed in the mornings or evenings, but a lunchtime break may also be convenient, depending on where you’re working.
The key to this one is planning. Go to TripAdvisor and/or Atlas Obscura and/or any other travel site you like to figure out what your destination has to offer before you arrive. Pick what you’d like to see, and prioritise it. Yes, work is important, but so is your happiness and sense of childlike wonder. Balance your time to ensure that you also get to experience the local culture, food, and sights. Remember that your conference budget likely won’t paid for these exploits, though, so have some of your own money on hand.
I’m not saying that you need to run to the local coffee shop and befriend all the locals. All you need to do is turn to the person sitting next to you at your conference and say hello. International conferences aren’t just great excuses to explore exotic destinations; they also attract people from around the globe. It’s great to meet locals wherever you go, but you can also expand your academic, professional, and personal networks by just making an effort to chat to other people who have travelled just as far – if not farther – to get to wherever you are.
Many conferences will have optional social activities booked into the schedule. Try your best to attend at least some of these, as they’re there to help people get to know each other. Once you’ve met one or two people, you can always ask them to grab a coffee or some lunch during your scheduled breaks. Alternatively, every conference has at least one person who accepts responsibility for organising informal drinks and/or dinners – see if you can pinpoint this person, or one of this person’s friends, to snag an invite. You’ll have to pay your own way for these informal gatherings (and conference budgets rarely cover subsistence), but they’re worth it for the drunken antics. Not your drunken antics, of course. Other people’s. Obviously.
Take time for yourself each day.
Meeting new people can be taxing any day, but when you’re meeting new people in an unfamiliar place and you’re supposed to be working and you’re also presenting a paper and OH GOD, DID I PRINT THAT PAPER?! … Things can start to suck. Travelling is great fun, but it’s important to take a second away from adventuring to check in with yourself and recuperate. I always make sure to eat my breakfast alone. As I eat, I do a few crosswords (I carry a book of crosswords with me whenever I travel) to warm my mind up for the day. Whenever I travel, I also carry one book for leisurely reading – I pull this baby out whenever I find myself on a subway or train, or when I just have some extra time to kill.
And there you are, folks. Travelling as a PhD student can be difficult, with the limited budget and time restrictions, but it can be a fantastically rewarding experience if you remember to take care of yourself throughout your journey. Also, don’t forget to your travel insurance. It’s cheap. Just buy it.