In October of 2012 I made the decision to finish my dissertation remotely. My partner accepted a full-time tenure-track position at a college in south Florida in August of 2012 and I remained in College-Station, TX with the intention of finishing the program while my partner relocated to Florida. Three months in and I realized this wasn't the best fit for me; living with all male roommates at the age of 33 just doesn't have the same positive feeling as it did in college, so I packed up and reconnected with my partner and began writing and working from home.
My boss, and dissertation co-chair, Laura Mandell, was gracious and understanding and allowed me to continue my fellowship with the Initiative for Digital Humanities, Media, and Culture (IDHMC) remotely. Margaret Ezell, my dissertation chair, and the other committee members were understanding and helped me prepare for what was to come. I actually thought it was going to be easy; I thought working and writing at home was going to refreshing and I would just immerse myself in my writing in a way that I never could before because of my deep involvement in my university community.
I was wrong.
For the first few weeks I did absolutely nothing. It's not that I didn't try to do anything.
Every morning I grabbed my laptop and sat down to begin, but nothing would come. I couldn't write. I almost just didn't even want to and then the worrying and anxiety hit. After two very unproductive weeks I decided to seek help. I talked with my committee members and they gave me some good advice. Margaret and Laura suggested I contact some folks who have, or are working remotely and ask them for advice as well. I sent out a call on Twitter and I received an incredible number of responses and was able to email and talk with four individuals who are either currently, or have worked remotely.
Melissa Terras (@melissaterras), Co-director, UCL Centre for Digital Humanities - Reader in Info Studies, UCL London was more than happy to exchange emails. Melissa sent me a post in which she talked about working in her shed, an excellent space she created for the time she needed to work from home (see http://melissaterras.blogspot.co.uk/2009/07/she-sells-shed-sanctuary.html?m=1). I asked Melissa if she could talk about her experiences working from home and for any advice she would give to someone just starting this process. I found some very helpful responses in her reply. She noted that she uses the shed as a place to work, "it's not a place I hang out for fun." It's a space separate from the house, so when she sits down to work, she works. Melissa also uses Facebook and Twitter to keep in contact with people if she likes and she has contact with the real world throughout the day: "I have the benefit of balance: the best of both worlds, frenetic time in town, reflective time in my shed."
In my email conversations with Shawn Graham (@electricarchaeo), Assistant Professor of Digital Humanities at Carleton University, he had similar advice regarding communication. Shawn noted that he had constant contact via Skype for "a sense of being at work" and during the time he worked remotely for an education organization in Arizona he had weekly conference calls. During this experience, Shawn and his colleagues created "wins" files to share things that worked, which helped those who might feel discouraged. I asked Shawn about his specific experiences regarding PhD work, and admitted that I worried about not meeting expectations. Shawn gave an honest reply. He said that as a PhD student things went "off the rails" a bit, mostly because expectations were miscommunicated. He shared the importance of formal expectations for open communications balanced with an always open channel, but to cautioned to be careful to not let that become a channel for negativity.
Katina Rogers (@katinalynn), Senior Research Specialist for the Scholarly Communication Institute at the University of Virginia, was nice enough to exchange a few emails regarding her experience working at home, in NYC, for an 18-month, grant-funded position at UVa. Katina also discussed her experiences with writing the bulk of her dissertation from home, far from her advisor and home department in Boulder, CO. Katina, much like Melissa, suggested strict discipline for working at home. Working during the day and writing in the evenings, and on weekends, she made self-imposed timelines for turning in chapters. Katina also humbly expressed that her "natural tendencies are exaggerated when [she's] working from home" and introversion is one of those tendencies. She noted that she could work all day without talking to anyone and that didn't "feel healthy." One of the biggest disappointments for Katina was the "absence of social clues that drive a workplace," admitting that she missed those "surprising conversations," which would start from simple questions, from shared experiences. To help with this, Katina, her colleagues, and boss have clear expectations regarding communication and they try to vary their modes of communication. Katina also pointed out that for her, "being able to physically put things away has been important," so she tucks her laptop away when she's not working to keep her from looking at her work materials all the time.
Lastly, I had an excellent Skype conversation with Alison Tara Walker (@pixelparchment), Postdoctoral Fellow for the T-Pen (Transcription for Paleographical and Editorial Notation) Project with the Center for Digital Theology at Saint Louis University. Though her fellowship is with Saint Louis University, Alison lives in Seattle, WA and has been working remotely for four years, two years as a PhD student working remotely. Alison described some important obstacles she faced during this time. Library access has been a particular difficulty for Alison. Settling into a routine was also difficult, but Alison tried to find a community where she could find additional support. She started using PHInished PhD (http://phinished.org), an online community and had someone to write with on LiveJournal. I asked Alison to share what worked for her the most, to get on track with writing as I was having trouble doing. She said that her best days where when she got up early and started working. She started doing something, writing right away, to get going. She also changes up her workplace, maybe going to the library instead of the coffee shop. Always staying connected was another important aspect. Recently, she shared that she has been working the routine of a newborn baby; working within the 45 minutes she has while the baby sleeps means she's become proficient at writing job letters in that timeframe.
It's been almost five months since I talked with these wonderful folks. Their advice and their experiences where enlightening. When I began working at home I had no place to work. I'd always kept my office on campus and if I needed to work I did so from there. Luckily our new house in Florida had enough room for me to create my own office space. I took Melissa's advice and created a space for work. I got back into my routine of waking in the morning, grabbing an energy drink, and sitting down in the morning to write. Taking Alison's advice, I kept the lines of communication open. I leave Skype on all day and I use Twitter and Facebook to keep in touch and communicate with friends and colleagues throughout the day.
Shawn's and Katina's advice to set up clear expectations for communication with my advisors and with my work was a great help. I now meet with my dissertation chair every week and we discuss my progress and use the space for a positive conversation about my work. Laura Mandell always makes sure I'm included in meetings (they created a little cart with a computer and webcam, so I can be "present"). These changes have been a great help to me throughout the past five months. I've also been working on getting a couple of PhD students together for a writing group to keep a sense of community with PhD students still at Texas A&M. One thing that hasn't gone as planned: I've found it very difficult to separate my work life from real life. The sense of waking up at home and walking into the office to work is difficult still and when my partner comes home I find it difficult to work and maintain that separate space. This means my time "at work" is less than I'd like it to be, but this is something I'm working on by taking Alison's advice and changing up my workspace. I created a little "coffee shop" space for myself in our sun room where I can do casual work like reading or working on data visualizations. There are few coffee shops nearby, so this has been a great help.
Writing the dissertation has been a slow process, but a good process and I hope this post can help others who are struggling with working remotely. The advice given to me has been a great help, more so than I can ever truly express, and I hope others find it just as useful as I have. I also want to add a few pieces of advice myself. The library difficulty pointed out by Alison is one I can't overcome. It is extremely difficult to get the material I need on time, or at all. Each university is different and some universities will give students access to their collections, but I, like Alison, am in a situation where local universities won't give me access and thus I have to rely on a three-week mail delivery of books I get from Inter-Library Loan (and they only send out one book at a time). However, folks on Twitter have been awesome. Sometimes when I just need a chapter, or an article, Twitter has been a great help.
Finally, the best advice, at least for me, is to give yourself a break. "This shit's hard," said every graduate student ever. Talking with Melissa, Shawn, Katina, and Alison made it very clear that it's okay feel nervous and anxious and that communication is a healthy way to express fear and to overcome some essential blocks that come with working outside of a community setting. In the past few months I have been able to work, but not write as much as I would like. I have gotten a lot of work done, and it's taken me a while to acknowledge that the work I do, outside of dissertation writing, is just as important and just as helpful for my research as writing the dissertation. For all the adjustment to expectations I did with my committee and with work, the expectations I didn't work on were my own. This is a piece of advice that was always there, but it's the hardest piece of advice to take. I want to write all day every day and that's just not something that is feasible, and I have to keep telling myself that every day.
Nevertheless, adjusting your expectations are important and it's the best advice I can offer. Some days you will not write and some days you'll write ten pages. It's important though not to beat yourself up because it doesn't go your way all the time. Katina was absolutely spot on when she said working at home exaggerates her natural tendencies. For me, I'm a social writer. I know that now. It's not that I ever did more work while on campus, but I thrived on being a part of a group and being with friends who were dissertating with me. When I moved, I felt that loss, and it hit me hard. When I didn't produce, when I didn't meet my own outrageous expectations, I kept trying to find the thing that would get me back to work. In reality, I just needed to recognize that being alone is difficult for me. But what I realized from these conversations was that I needed to give myself a break. I've worked hard to build a community that can work with me and not against me.When I asked others to help me they jumped at the opportunity because we all need a little help from time to time. Take some time. Find out what works for you and always enjoy writing.
Share some of your thoughts and experiences with us and join the conversation in the comments!