Saturday, 3 September 2016

Working from home during your PhD

Andy (@AndyRowe7) writes about how working from home while doing a PhD can be difficult, but offers some tips and advice to help students stay in the loop and combat isolation

-Andy Rowe

In the last blog post I talked about peer support for postgraduate students, and mentioned working from home. In this blog post I will cover the working from home aspect in a bit more detail. This aspect of working is often forgotten about and PhD students who work like this can feel underrepresented by their institution. It often feels like people who work from home do not matter because they are not on campus, and I know first-hand how this feels as I am a home worker myself. 

There are many reasons why we decide to work from home. These include living too far away from the institution, departments not offering adequate facilities, parental responsibility, family responsibility, illness (including mental and physical), disability and feeling more comfortable in familiar surroundings; among others. It does not help when supervisors and members of academic staff do not understand and judge us based upon our lack of attendance within the department – they must think we sit at home and just watch daytime TV all day! But the fact is you develop a routine and work where you feel the most comfortable. After all, being happy with your surroundings is a key facet in productive working. 

It also means that you do not have the distraction of working in an office environment. Yes, there are distractions at home, but these are of your own making and you can have no one to blame but yourself if these lead to procrastination. However, with working from home there is also the isolation issue (and its associated impacts) due to a lack of interaction with friends and peers; but there are general things you can do to lessen the impact:  

  1. Go for a walk: a clear head can lead to clear thoughts. Often the questions of self-doubt, associated with isolation, can cloud your mind. 
  2. Utilise social media: interacting with others who are going through the PhD journey can often lead to friendships and networking – chances are there are people out there going through exactly the same issues as you. 
  3. Discussion groups: provide effective means for PhD students to discuss problems with one another. 
  4. Write a blog! (Like me!) Often getting your thoughts and concerns down on paper can be fantastic therapy and help clear your mind. 
  5. Take breaks: don’t be afraid to put your work away for an afternoon. Go to the pub with friends, watch a DVD, have dinner – these activities can ease loneliness. 
  6. Speak to the counselling service: there is often a stigma attached to mental health issues and talking about them but the counselling department at your university are specially trained to help you deal with issues you may be facing and can put you in contact with other initiatives/schemes which can help you. 
  7. Communication: you may know of only one other PhD student at the university but make a special effort – text them, email them (they’re probably going through the same things and might be glad of the chat!) It is important to keep in contact with other friends (who you may know from school and/or undergraduate/master’s level) to take your mind off things – they won’t want to talk to you about your thesis.   
  8. Find common interests: send an email out to your department to see if people want to join you in a gym class/football match/university society – you’ll be surprised by the response! 

These points are not a panacea, but are advice in trying to combat isolation associated with working from home. You have to make an effort, don’t close yourself off from people - working from home should not mean that you don’t meet people. Even if you join groups outside of university, closer to where you live for example, at least you are breaking down the barriers of isolation and loneliness. It is important to, providing you don’t live too far away, try and visit the campus when you can to keep in touch with supervisors and others who you may have developed contact with. 

I do know how difficult it is and certainly the perception I have found is that if you work from home you are often ‘forgotten about’ but the fact is, universities possess numerous PhD students who work from home and once more attention is placed on combating issues surrounding working from home, and general non-academic postgraduate research support (of which we are only touching the surface), can universities further enhance the PhD experience.  

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