Productivity in Backpacking: tips from a nomadic PhD student

By Madeleine Arber

I decided to contribute a blog post to ReDBlog about my time solo backpacking whilst continuing my research studies. I’m fortunate enough to have the ability to drop everything (apart from my studies) and travel anywhere I want whilst working, within reason of course! This isn’t my first time backpacking or travelling solo. I have fine-tuned the art of living as cheaply as possible in any region of the world over the years (sometimes this involves sleeping in a car on a secluded beach). But this trip I wanted a new challenge: to fine-tune the art of backpacking and working at the same time. This article may contain some tips which you can apply to everyday study or travel.

Initially I came over to Europe (where I am based now) for three months to conference-hop and complete a research collaboration, but after putting forward a strong case to my supervisor, I managed to extend those three months to six months to complete further research. The following are some working-while-travelling tips!

Your office – the thing I miss most (besides my dog):

  • Wifi – be prepared to give up all your details and your soul in order to connect to reasonable, sometimes incredibly slow wifi to check your emails to see if that thing has been processed yet.
  • Believe it or not Hostels are not the most productive of places. They may have wifi included, but your roomies will most likely want to party. Hopefully you can fall asleep in all kinds of environments! Instead head to a café and buy the cheapest thing on the menu then stay for HOURS at a time! Be prepared to listen to all types of music, from jazz to reggae. Bring your headphones if you need silence.
  • Don’t expect to get access to another university’s libraries. This is particularly common in the UK and Ireland. Access is allowed to the students who attend that university. You can apply for a week study pass if you have a letter from your university explaining why it would be beneficial for you to access their library. Unlike cafés, libraries don’t sell coffee though…
  • Know how you work best – not having an office means I don’t have easy access to printing/copying/paper in general. I’ve learnt to use ‘soft’ electronic copies on everything (including travel bookings). I found that sometimes I still need to jot notes down on paper or draw diagrams to fully understand things. This also goes for your most productive hours – are you a morning productive person? This means you get to explore the city by night!
  • Keep in contact with your supervisor! They may have no idea exactly where you are in the world, but you need to make sure you’re both on the same page in terms of timelines and work commitments. Don’t just send them holiday postcards through snail-mail, use your email, or your phone if you want a nice big bill! (Skype has affordable phone calls with skype-credit if necessary)
  • Remember to network, particularly at conferences, which are the perfect networking ground! Here you can corner the author of the research you’ve spent hours reading – think of future research opportunities it may lead to! It’s very important to also take full advantage of the conference’s food, wine, and coffee package.

Your backpack (the closest thing to home on your back):

  • Travel as lightly as you can – this means you won’t be carrying those references books you so dearly love around with you (you’ll be relying on pdfs from now on!), it also means if you are attending conferences or visiting research institutions while away, you may want to look presentable. Quick! Throw in a blazer and find clothes which don’t crush easily and dry quickly. Jeans are acceptable for most occasions.
  • Don’t move around too much and exhaust yourself trying to see everything and everyone! It is tiring enough switching between currencies, let alone travelling distances! It’s important to remember to treat yourself well – get enough good sleep, healthy food, and plenty of water.

General life advice (should you choose to accept it):

  • Be nice – most people are good human beings.
  • Try to learn your ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ in each place you visit.
  • Experience the culture, but give yourself enough time to relax and every once in a while have some familiar treats to cure any homesickness (this is just an excuse to eat chocolate).
  • Remember to enjoy yourself. Your life isn’t just your PhD. You’ve earned some time off for yourself.

Time to go see the world!