Getting Out Of That Academic Rut

by G. Michael Schneider / Sep 15, 2011 / 0 comments

Most overseas working vacations are the end product of due diligence and hard work–making cold calls, filling out applications.  Occasionally, though, dumb luck pays a visit, and you find yourself with a golden opportunity through no effort of your own.  But even when presented with unexpected good fortune it's surprising how many people let it slip through their grasp like water through cupped hands.

In early 1990 my school, Macalester College, signed an educational and cultural exchange agreement with Miyagi University in Sendai, Japan.  The agreement specified that every August two Miyagi faculty would visit Macalester while every January two people from Macalester would spend three to four weeks in Japan. Visitors stay on campus for seven to ten days meeting faculty and students, giving public talks, and presenting guest lectures.  The remaining two to three weeks is spent traveling the country and learning about its history and culture, with all expenses covered by the host institution.  In simple terms the agreement traded one to one-and-a-half weeks of (not very intense) academic work for a fully paid two to three-week Japanese holiday!  Even better, this odyssey met your teaching responsibility for the four-week January class every faculty member was required to offer.  To me this is the very definition of dumb luck, and I submitted my application on the first day they were accepted.

Macalester has 160 full-time faculty with two selected to participate in the program each year.  With 80:1 odds against me I doubted that I would be in the initial group and was simply hoping the program would last long enough for me to reach the front of the line.  However, I had not accounted for the lethargy and lassitude of so many of my colleagues who were content following their unchanging daily routine – work, eat dinner, play with the kids, watch TV.  They would play poker on Monday, bowl every other Thursday, have sex on Saturday night, and spend a week or two each summer "up at the lake." Over and over and over.  It is so easy to fall into this rut and, once in, so awfully hard to get out.  The end result of their inertia was that of the 160 eligible faculty ONLY THREE APPLIED, MYSELF INCLUDED!  (Sorry for shouting.)

I will give some of my colleagues the benefit of the doubt.  Roughly fifty were untenured and working their butts off to get it by the end of their sixth year on campus, so I can only assume they did not want to fully disengage their noses from the academic grindstone.  Another fifty or sixty had young children and may not have wanted to travel without their spouse or leave the children with friends or family–although I think that overseas travel is one of the great learning experiences for young children.  But that still leaves fifty or sixty of my senior colleagues who were either unmarried, had no children, or whose children were grown and out of the house.  Of that cohort, only two showed any interest in adding some spice and adventure to their daily routine by participating in this unique no-cost East Asian experience.  Because of this indifference those 80:1 odds against morphed into 2:3 odds in favor, and that January I boarded a plane (with a colleague from the Economics Dept.) for a glorious, all-expenses paid, one month Japanese adventure, an adventure that was the experience of a lifetime.

One fact that is clear to me is that there is no shortage of short-term, overseas work opportunities, only a shortage of the motivation needed to go after them.  My passion in being the Academic Travel Editor on this blog is not simply to relate fun stories and provide a bit of "how-to" advice.  It is also presented in the hope that these posts will motivate you to consider a working vacation of your own. Reading someone else's adventure stories may be a pleasant diversion, but it is nothing like the thrill of experiencing those same adventures for yourself.   No matter how enjoyable your professional life may be, it can only be made more enjoyable by the personal growth and intellectual excitement that derives from living and working, however briefly, in a new culture. Theodore Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, the beloved children's author, captured this idea far better than I could ever hope to in Oh, the Places You'll Go! (New York: Random House, 1990).

You have brains in your head.  You have feet in your shoes.  
You can steer yourself any direction you choose.
You're on your own.  And you know what you know.  
And YOU are the guy who'll decide where to go.



So, have fun whenever you get to your ultimate destination and, please, do send some email when you arrive.

Michael Schneider is the Academic Travel Editor for Wandering Educators.
You can read more of his work at, and learn more about his new book, entitled On the Other Guy's Dime: A Professional's Guide to Traveling without Paying.