Walking coast to coast
November 10, 2012 6:37 PM   Subscribe

I am 29, have a PhD in a physical science, and am in the second year of a postdoc at a top university on a relatively prestigious fellowship. My postdoc ends in several months, and I have applied for jobs. If I get a good offer, it's likely that I will take it. But if not, I am thinking of walking coast to coast (from San Francisco to NYC) for a human rights organization. I think it could be worthwhile, and also love the idea of having some alone time. But would this destroy my chances of a career (in academia or otherwise)? Would it mean throwing the rest of my life away? Is even considering this irresponsible? Or should I go for it? Thanks in advance for your input!
posted by auctor to Travel & Transportation (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Sounds like a great break to me. I can't even remotely imagine it destroying your career prospects assuming you're not breaking any promises to anybody.
posted by treblemaker at 6:52 PM on November 10, 2012

The only problem that I see is an employer asking about that gap of time on a resume. However, if you walk across the country you'll certainly have something to tell them about, and gain valuable experiences at the same time that will probably help with your career.
posted by lharmon at 7:16 PM on November 10, 2012

The specifics of the walk and the organization could be relevant to the possibility and likelihood of incurring any negative impact on your future. One person's human rights may be another person's ecoterrorism, for example.

It might also matter how formally associated with the event you are.

Finally, I can well envision that doorways to certain career paths (such as certain government jobs requiring intense background checks) could conceivably close due to such a thing.

Assuming it is an above-board operation, though, which it very probably is, it's hard for me to imagine participation in such a thing in and of itself having a drastically greater effect on your future prospects than any number of other perfectly legal life choices.
posted by perspicio at 7:28 PM on November 10, 2012

Response by poster: I mean:

1) the "publish or perish" thing, if I later apply for academic jobs again;
2) the impression employers may get of me not being committed to work enough (6 months is a pretty long gap on a CV/resume, and I am not sure walking across the country - even for a good cause - is something employers will appreciate as a good enough reason for it);
3) missing out on opportunities (e.g., grants for young researchers that you can apply for only within 3 years of completing your PhD).

However, getting into another postdoc, a tenure track position or a job in industry would certainly preclude me from taking a long break for at least a few years. So what I am wondering is:

1) how much harder getting a job later on will be, and
2) if the experience of walking across America will be worth the possible complications.
posted by auctor at 7:28 PM on November 10, 2012

Best answer: I am thinking of walking coast to coast (from San Francisco to NYC) for a human rights organization. I think it could be worthwhile, and also love the idea of having some alone time. But would this destroy my chances of a career (in academia or otherwise)? Would it mean throwing the rest of my life away?

I didn't walk across the USA, but I did spend 6 months after finishing my Ph.D. bumming around Europe and interviewing for jobs in between jaunts abroad, which I also combined with giving conference talks. Didn't hurt my job hunt at all. You might want to consider the possibility of getting a job offer ahead of time.

I'd definitely do it.
posted by deanc at 7:30 PM on November 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was offered a choice job after my "bumming around" period, and after that job, I was offered a prestigious postdoc which I could have parleyed into a career in academia. So that gap in my resume didn't hurt me at all.
posted by deanc at 7:31 PM on November 10, 2012

Response by poster: perspicio - the organization I would be walking for is a respectable international human rights advocacy group. I would fund the walk myself, trying to keep the expenses low. Along the way, I would arrange to speak at college campuses, public libraries, to interview with local media, etc., to raise awareness of human rights issues around the world.

deanc - thanks, your story sounds reassuring. Getting a job ahead of time might be the best course of action, yes.
posted by auctor at 7:43 PM on November 10, 2012

In light of your clarifications:

The price of a six month gap on a resume/CV is virtually nothing, whereas the value of such an experience is incalculable.

That's quite a favorable cost/benefit ratio.

Moreover, seeking out experiences that will tend to broaden your perspective and deepen your character is the very opposite of throwing any part of your life away.
posted by perspicio at 7:44 PM on November 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: GO FOR IT. Walking coast to coast (or attempting to) isn't bumming around. It's a worthwhile adventure. Heck, I'm thirteen years into my career and last summer I decided to check out and spend four months in the woods in Alaska to volunteer for a nonprofit. My colleagues and business contacts back home respected that I took the chance, and many have said they wished they had the drive and freedom to travel.

Adventures like this are once in a lifetime for many. They help energize you, ground you, and give you perspective, regardless of whether you have the best time on the road or the worst time ever. Ask yourself: If you were hiring someone, wouldn't you rather work with someone fearless and creative who'd grabbed hold of life's opportunities? Would you really prefer to work with a candidate who'd cowed at risk, who'd shied away from trying something different and eye opening?

Do eeet. Your adventure will set you apart, and in the most positive way possible.
posted by mochapickle at 7:57 PM on November 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks, all - great comments so far! I am relieved to see that everyone seems to consider this a positive thing. I think I will wait and see if a tenure-track position, or otherwise irresistible offer, comes out of my job applications. If not, I will do the walk and try to arrange for another postdoc ahead of time (which shouldn't be too hard). I must say, the latter option almost seems the more tempting of the two.

b1tr0t - I think almost any organization with a cause comes with at least some political connotations. Then again, I don't make a secret of my political views (which are not all that radical, anyway). But I will look into that, thanks.

mochapickle - "Ask yourself: If you were hiring someone, wouldn't you rather work with someone fearless and creative who'd grabbed hold of life's opportunities?" Good point. Guess, I haven't thought about it that way.
posted by auctor at 8:30 PM on November 10, 2012

I've been in a position to hire people for more than two decades. Trust me when I tell you that this plan is not a "gap" on your CV, it's a significant addition.

"As we grow older, it's not the things we did that we often regret, but the things we didn't do." ~ Zachary Scott

"Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." ~ John Lennon
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 9:36 PM on November 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Six months is a gap? I hire people and I probably wouldn't consider a 6 month break a big deal at all especially immediately after completing school.
posted by 26.2 at 10:04 PM on November 10, 2012

I've hired a bunch of PhD's and this kind of thing would be a real positive addition to a CV, makes you stand out from the crowd. Just be careful that's is just what you said; a discrete project executed for a good cause and that it doesn't turn into a year just bumming your way across the states.
posted by Long Way To Go at 11:01 PM on November 10, 2012

Best answer: You remind me of the author of The Daily Coyote blog and book. She had a good job in her field in New York then had an impulse to ride across the country on a Vespa. She found so much on the trip, including a home and life she could have never imagined. She published a book about the trip before the Coyote experience.
posted by Mertonian at 2:03 AM on November 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

A strategy that might help if you are worried would be to delay your official graduation date until the end of the six month period, if you can afford paying the continuation fee for the semester or two that would take (most graduate schools I know of have such a fee that is less than full tuition, for grad students in the abd stage who may be off starting a job while still finishing up writing, for example). Then it doesn't look like there's a gap on your CV.

Get any papers submitted right before you head out on the walking trip, so that you can be walking during that waiting around for reviews to come back period so that stuff is getting done toward your CV that doesn't require your active participation.

And definitely try and give some talks along the way. Could be speaking about the human rights organization you'd be walking for. Could be giving talks related to your dissertation at universities that you pass by where there are faculty who have related research interests (especially if you have applied or might in the future apply for a postdoc there!). Could be working with local schools or libraries in towns that you pass through doing outreach activities related to your field of study (that would look pretty good on your CV if you later (after requisite number of postdocs in your field) apply for academic positions at institutions that actually care about teaching).
posted by eviemath at 4:34 AM on November 11, 2012

Response by poster: I am actually a bit surprised that no one thinks a 6 month gap in a CV is a big deal. That isn't the general sentiment among my family, friends and colleagues. But it is reassuring to hear, especially from those in position to hire. I guess, 6 months may seem long to someone who has never been between jobs for nearly that much time, but it isn't really.

Long Way To Go - "Just be careful ... that it doesn't turn into a year just bumming your way across the states." That shouldn't happen. I am pretty organized. I made a point of publishing at least one paper a year over the past 10 years (not spectacular, but pretty good in my field, especially considering I started as an undergrad). Given all the uncertainties of research, that meant learning to manage time and risks. Consequently, I was one of the very few people in my department that graduated on time, without requiring an extension. I would plan my trip carefully, have a timeline and a budget, and stick to them. I can imagine circumstances that could delay me for, say, a month, but hardly by more than that. There are, after all, plenty of people who have walked across the US in 6 months or less.

Mertonian - Interesting, I will read the book. I am a fan of Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance", btw.

eviemath - as mentioned in the question, I am a postdoc, not a grad student, so I can't delay my graduation date. In theory, I could apply for a break to my fellowship grantor, but I have an inkling that this would be a huge pain.

"Get any papers submitted right before you head out" - that goes without saying, any other course of action would be crazy.

"And definitely try and give some talks along the way" - I will be speaking about human rights advocacy in any town I can. Doing research talks as well was an idea that went through my head. Not sure if it actually helps my CV much, but it certainly won't hurt. I expect to pass a number of cities with major universities - Denver, St. Loius, Lafayette, Columbus, Philly - and many towns with smaller colleges.
posted by auctor at 7:37 AM on November 11, 2012

Would either your old department or the place you are doing your post-doc at be willing to keep you on the books in some unpaid capacity? "Visiting Associate Research Fellow" or some other honorary title that paid nothing would make your CV look gap-free without costing them anything; so would your idea of pushing out the end-date of the post-doc.
posted by Forktine at 8:34 AM on November 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Forktine - sounds like lying to me (unless I actively collaborated with the group, which seems a bit unrealistic, considering I would be walking, speaking, keeping a travel log). I believe in owning the decisions I make.
posted by auctor at 9:17 AM on November 11, 2012

One year out is no big deal, esp if you have a great story to tell about what you did with the year and why. If anything, doing something striking like you plan to do might make you stand out from the crowd of applicants.

The only thing I'd worry about is getting a bit rusty, which is more of a problem in math-based subjects than you might expect if you've never taken that much time out since childhood. In math it's a bit like a pro sports-person not playing their sport for a year, which is something that happens a lot due to injuries. Sure they'll still be pro caliber and be able to get back in the game after their break, but it almost always takes a while to reach the level of fluency and sharpness they used to have.

If you are on the math-heavy end of the physical sciences and you can find a way to keep your hand in somehow while you travel, that might be advisable. Even if you can't though, I wouldn't envisage it being a dealbreaker for anyone thinking about hiring you.
posted by philipy at 11:45 AM on November 11, 2012

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