Alisa Clark is a librarian and researcher in higher education, a wife, blogger, tea drinker and mum-to-be from Queensland, Australia. She took a six-month career break with her husband to travel through South America and Europe. In this interview, she speaks about how the experience has given her a new perspective on work–life balance, made her a better professional, and allowed her to grieve the loss of her mother.
Why did you and your husband decide to take a travel career break?
Though we each had our own, slightly different reasons and goals, we both wanted to learn more about ourselves and our marriage before moving into the next chapter. The travel career break was time to pause, step off the ‘hamster wheel’ of busyness and just ‘be’ for a while.
We had worked hard through our twenties to establish ourselves and achieve success in our careers. Post-graduate study and extra professional commitments took up time and energy outside of our day jobs.
As a young couple, we had already been through burnout and personal challenges such as surgery and my mother’s sudden passing in November 2014, which were starting to impact on our professional selves.
We both needed to break away from everyday life for a while, and travel is something we enjoy doing together.
The short answer is, we couldn’t not go. It was a case of “if not now, when?”
How did you approach the situation with your workplaces, and what support did you receive?
We both approached our employers around three to four months before we left.
I work in higher education as a librarian. I disclosed our plans at a job interview and was surprised to find a fellow ‘career breaker’ on the interview panel who was very supportive. I was successful for the role and worked in it for three months before heading off on our travels.
My husband, on the other hand, works in corporate finance and had been at his workplace for several years. When he shared our plans for a travel career break with his employer, they were supportive and held his position for him, contracting a backfill for the six months we were away.
How did you plan and save for your career break?
The whole inspiration and planning process took about four years to come to fruition. We started with a wish-list of destinations, countries and experiences, then researched the best times of year for each. We prioritised ‘must do’ destinations such as South America and Iceland, and created ‘pillars’ around which other destinations were planned.
Summertime in Europe is also conference season for the library and information professional community. I gave myself permission to attend a conference if I was a speaker. I submitted a proposal to the Australian equivalent of a national conference in the UK and was accepted.
“I came out the other side of the travel career break with more sense of who I was, self-acceptance and self-worth.”
Attending a conference and speaking internationally was a career goal of mine, and though not the primary purpose of the travel career break, the experience was worth the effort. Plus, how could I pass up an opportunity to hear from the Librarian of Congress?!
With our ‘must dos’ and conference dates set, we drafted up a budget, then saved, saved, saved! In addition to day jobs, I worked extra contracts as a research assistant and sessional academic, and sold my car.
By the time we left, my husband had accrued three months of paid annual leave, so those funds more than covered our mortgage. A friend moved in and looked after our house for us and paid for his own utilities.
Where did you go, and what were the standout experiences of your travels?
We travelled for six months, from April to October 2017. Two and a half months were spent in South America and three and a half were in Europe. I presented at the UK conference mid-way.
In South America, we did a couple of tours to start with through Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. Then we travelled independently in Argentina before spending time with friends in Brazil. After Brazil, we fitted in two and a half weeks in Ireland before my conference in Manchester.
Scotland was next, followed by Amsterdam and five weeks through Spain and Portugal. We made last-minute decisions to visit Berlin and Prague before our Iceland road trip and returning home to Brisbane, Australia, just in time for footy finals weekend.
Standout experiences included the Amazon Jungle, hiking the Lares Trek in Peru and seeing Machu Picchu, watching the sun set on the Salt Flats in Bolivia, sharing stories over a few too many pints of Guinness with locals in an Irish pub, sampling whisky on the Isle of Islay and exploring the ‘out of this world’ landscape and Northern Lights in Iceland.
What did you learn from your travel career break that you would never have learned otherwise?
Not working for six months was probably the scariest and best thing I have ever done.
By the third day of our first tour in South America, everyone had introduced themselves, shared their stories and what they did for a living. I then felt like I had run out of things to talk about. I suddenly didn’t know who I was anymore, and I was riddled with self doubt.
Possibly for years, I had wrapped up almost my entire identity in my work. I thought about my friendships and other relationships back home and wondered if this was impacting them. I came out the other side of the travel career break with more sense of who I was, self-acceptance and self-worth.
“Busyness is a spectacularly good hiding place.”
Especially in the first half of the trip, what I call ‘Mum moments’ would come out of nowhere. I would tear up at random times or when all I had to think about was placing one foot in front of the other on a hike. This frustrated me, until I realised what was happening.
I was finally grieving the loss of my mother. Taking work and other busyness-type distractions ‘off my plate’ exposed me and made me vulnerable to the fears, thoughts and feelings I sub-consciously didn’t want to experience. Busyness is a spectacularly good hiding place.
Did you find it difficult to return to working life after the journey?
I actually looked forward to returning to routine and work life. I could hardly wait to get started again. I arrived home with renewed enthusiasm for my work and profession, but I knew I had to look after myself better by setting boundaries and being conscious about extra commitments.
I still find saying ‘no’ and sticking to my boundaries difficult. Some days I feel like I’m not doing enough, both in my job or out, or I mustn’t be as committed as before the travel career break.
To overcome these doubts I only need to re-read journal entries from the trip to reassure myself I am making the right changes for my health and those closest to me.
Do you think your travel experiences have changed your approach to your professional life?
Absolutely. The travel career break provided us with an opportunity to gain perspective and clarity on our values, strengths and capabilities individually and as a couple, and how we wanted life to look like going forward.
My husband and I checked in with each other regularly, shared and bounced ideas around about how we were feeling with regards to our careers, whether we were going to change direction or pivot and identify priorities for future development.
“The travel career break made me realise how important managing my time and energy was to sustainable career growth.”
Although we both chose to return to our jobs, I believe we have become better professionals through the experience. Sometimes to move forward, you have to grow as a whole person. You can cram as much professional development into your calendar as possible, but if you don’t take time out to attend to, and connect with, who you are as a person, you’re not going to be an effective professional.
The travel career break made me realise how important managing my time and energy was to sustainable career growth and progression. It also helped me to understand the importance of cultivating professional relationships in the workplace.
Do you have any travel plans for the future?
Always! Though travel will look a bit different as we move into the next chapter of becoming parents. We are expecting our first child in March.
At least for the next few years, travel will be more local, exploring our own backyard with camping and road trips mostly in Queensland. In time, we hope to revisit ‘across the ditch’ to New Zealand and South Pacific destinations such as Fiji and Samoa.
What advice would you give to other people who considering taking a travel career break?
Definitely understand your ‘why’. Write it down. Discuss it with someone you trust. Be clear on the purpose and your goals. This will help you to decide whether one is for you, where you go and what you do.
There will never be a ‘perfect’ time for the travel career break. So don’t wait. Plan, set a date and go for it. Life will sort itself out.
Alisa also writes in her professional capacity as Alisa Howlett at www.acrystelle.com.
More career break interviews
Feeling inspired by Alisa’s story? Read more of our interviews with career gappers:
- How a travel career break inspired a teacher to start her own business
- The NYC firefighter embracing van life after a travel career break
- How travel inspired a preschool teacher to retrain as a culinary nutrition expert
- A legal researcher’s travel-inspired decision to move to Zambia
You can start planning your own adventure with our ultimate career break guide.