August is a strange period in academia as it goes impressively quiet for a month while everyone flees to sunnier climes for holidays. I’ve written about the summer academic exodus before, this article is not about the eerily quiet labs you’ve left behind – this one is about your holiday.
While you’re away, the important thing to do is switch off and unwind. Something that used to (in the 90’s) be very easy. Not being in the lab meant that you couldn’t actually do anything: no e-mails, no phone calls – pure lab isolation. However, these days you have so many options for communication, thanks to the wonders of the internet and our big, new, connected world. You can continue to communicate via e-mail and even various connected lab systems, where you can actively monitor labs remotely.
So the decision is yours. Do you check e-mails while away or do you pretend to be visiting an Amish community and ignore the messages as a decadent technological waste?
The case for checking
Checking e-mails while away is a no brainer. You have a phone/tablet/laptop which is already setup to receive e-mails. You’d have to actively turn that off for a start and wilfully not hear about your lab and its trials and tribulations. You are doing the technological equivalent of putting your hands on you ears and going “LALALALA, I CAN’T HEAR YOU!”.
You’re obviously not actually paid to spend your holiday reading and answering e-mails but not everything in your e-mail account requires hours of work, and is often just short questions by people with their own deadlines and small issues that they want sorting. Being able to quickly fire off answers can save them lots of time, and is one less thing to do on the day you come back to work.
There is nothing worse than returning from holiday to spend an entire day sat in front of your computer starting all your e-mails with “Sorry, I was away last week…”. Repeated over and over again to everyone asking simple things like “Where’s the screw driver?” to more complicated “I’ve spilt acid on my leg, it’s eating through my clothes, what do I do now? URGENT” – although the last one is probably no longer urgent…
I mean, how dangerous/exciting is your lab that you can’t go more than a week or two without a major disaster?! It surely can’t be so often that you are phobic of ever checking e-mails while on holiday and possibly helping out a few colleauges.
The case for avoiding e-mails
Do you know what would start your holiday off really well? Just imagine sitting lounging on a chair by the pool, drink in you hand, flicking through your e-mails… A new one pops in from a journal, with the subject line “You paper was not recommended for publication”. You open the e-mail to read a series of reviewer comments dissecting your paper with all the finesse of an alien chest-burster. Enjoy obsessing about that for the rest of your holiday, mulling it over, really thinking long and hard about it.
Okay, granted that is unlikely. Firstly, because I’m sure you all write instantly accepted papers; secondly, because you might not get a reply while you are on holiday (journals take anything from 1 to 6 months to reply) – but would you want to run the risk?
Besides, it might not be a paper – there are tons of other stress-inducing things that might go wrong while you’re away. The majority of which can’t be fixed remotely, particularly any e-mails with the subject line “About that crater where the building used to be…”. Granted, you might miss out on some e-mails you do want to take, but that is a small price to pay for not having to worry about any disasters you can’t do anything to fix. There are trained fire fighters available to put out all the actual fires, and anything else can probably wait. Or at least, will stay fairly localised and not spread to the surrounding labs.
Disconnecting from work is hard enough without the constant *ding* of reminders dragging you back to the lab.
I’m not sure there is a definitive conclusion to this debate. I think different people like to do different things. Let me know in the comments how you feel about e-mails while away from work? Although, as I finish writing this article, I’m thinking maybe I also need to write an article about commenting on blogs and social media while on holiday…