Waiting on the Mail; Or, How to (or How Not To) Write a PhD From Afar

Waiting on the Mail; Or, How to (or How Not To) Write a PhD From Afar

It’s always a good day when UPS delivers a package from Amazon

If you think I look a little crazed in this picture, it’s because the highlight of my days around here is usually when Amazon delivers some obscure text I can’t track down at Emory’s Woodruff library…that, or I’ve just taken my dog out for a walk.  I also get semi-excited about putting laundry in the dryer, emptying the dishwasher, and/or organizing my office.  You probably think I’m really crazy now, don’t you?  I feel like I should defend myself a bit here–these aren’t necessarily procrastination practices (okay, sometimes they are); they are little rewards for sitting at my desk for uninterrupted amounts of time.  Example: let’s say I respond to four student e-mails and read an article or two.  My version of patting myself on the back is to get up and put another load of laundry in the dryer.  Or, if it’s lunch time and my dog is looking at me from her bed in my office, I get to take her outside.  I relish stretching my legs a bit, but mostly I relish the time that I’m not tied down to my desk or the chair in the office (for a whopping 15 minutes, I’m FREE!).   These are the only non-sedentary times in my workday.  It’s the little things, right?  I’m just going to assume you all know what I’m talking about, even if your moments of freedom don’t involve laundry or picking up dog poop.

Perhaps more backstory is necessary.  I’m working on my PhD at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC, but I live in Atlanta, Georgia.  I lived in Vancouver for 2.5 years while I finished course work and exams, and when I started my dissertation, I knew it was time to leave the great, rainy Pacific Northwest and move to Atlanta to live with my husband (who had never been able to acquire a job in a country where I only had a student permit).  Our families both live within 3 hours of Atlanta, and my husband got a job here, so back to the land of sweet tea and gentility we moved. I love living in the same house/city as my spouse and dog (no brainer), but I’m finding it more difficult than I expected to live far away from school/my advisors/my academic support system.  I thought I would be super self-disciplined once I got here (ha!) and read and write all day…every day.  I thought I would relish the uninterrupted nature of working from home, that I’d get in *the zone* and crank out a dissertation in no time flat.  [I can hear you laughing from over here!]  Wellllll working from afar hasn’t exactly panned out to be the productive, retreat-like space I envisioned, which prompted me to think about the whys and why nots of the situation.  I think at the most base level, I’ve learned some serious hard knock lessons in the school of self-discipline.  But I don’t want to go down the dark alley of PhD student guilt here, so I’m going to turn this into a list of things I think could help anyone who might be dissertating from afar (or anyone who works from home…which is most of us, I’d imagine).  Here goes!

1) FIND A READING/WRITING PARTNER

I’m really pretty lucky in this department because, as the result of a very natural (and awesome) friendship, I have an AMAZING dissertation partner.  Before I moved away and started working on my own (when I wrote this I imagined a baby bird being pushed from a nest against her will), one of my advisors told me a story about how she had a dissertation partner during her dissertating days and mentioned that it would be a good idea for me to find one.  She told me about how they met in coffee shops about once a month and encouraged each other by creating deadlines and sharing/editing drafts.  So anyway, my first thought when my advisor shared this coping strategy with me was, “oh yeah! I kind of already have one!” And then I mentioned it to Ali, with whom I had already been sharing drafts of papers, conference proposals, and various other academic and personal writing since the early days of our PhD.  Ali and I now meet at least once a week on Skype.  We keep running lists of each others’ deadlines and hold each other accountable.  We commiserate, listen, and sometimes whip out the cattle prod when necessary.  I seriously don’t think I’d  be where I am now if not for our meetings, and I know she feels the same.  Dissertating is way less awful when you feel like you aren’t totally alone!

2) GET INVOLVED IN A LOCAL ACADEMIC COMMUNITY

This one took me about a year to understand.  Yes, a year.  I spent a lot of time bemoaning the fact that I couldn’t pop by one of my advisors’ offices and say hello/ask a question/have a quick chat.  I no longer passed by members of my cohort in the halls and library or took end-of-semester trips to the library with suitcases laden with books.  I no longer had an office or a lounge to retreat to/accidentally nap in.  Basically, I felt like I had lost a community.  I felt isolated and like I could sleep in and no one would know (this was liberating for a while but quickly evolved into self loathing).  About half-way through this year of self-imposed isolation (I think you can be physically far away and still be in touch…I wasn’t seeing the possibilities for that just yet, though), I was accepted as a fellow at Chawton House Library  in October of last year, and it was only there that I began to see that community doesn’t necessarily have to exist *at your school, with your advisors and cohort, in YOUR library, etc.* I lived with three other awesome academics in Jane Austen paradise and received support and advice about everything from creating an academic blog/twitter account (thanks, Shawn) to surviving in the academic world post-graduation.  Since then, I’ve been diligent about finding new ways to get involved where I am.  I try to go to academic events at Emory, GA Tech, and Georgia State University whenever I can.  I applied for a library card at Emory, and have enjoyed the benefits of the Woodruff Library and their rare book reading room.  I’ve made some contacts, and several opportunities have opened up.  I opened my mind (and heart) to having a new community, et voilà, I gained one! Just kidding, I didn’t instantly build an academic community by just going to events/sitting in libraries, but I feel like the process has begun.  Finally.

3) MAKE A SPECIAL EFFORT TO KEEP IN TOUCH

Like number 2, this one has been especially hard for me.  I imagine my cohort and my advisors all galavanting around the library, holding hands and sharing information with each other…without me.  I had a hard time, especially right after moving away, keeping in touch with peers and my advisors.  Not a smooth move on my part.  Even though I didn’t necessarily want to move away from my program, it was the right decision for my personal life (I envision a blog post about managing one’s personal and academic lives in the future), and it’s not up to my peers/advisors/cohort to keep in touch with me.  It’s up to me.  Schedule Skype dates.  Schedule deadlines (this one’s important!).  And sometimes just e-mail to say “hey, how’s it going?”  Missing those encounters in the hallways and the lounge doesn’t have to be an excuse for not reminding the people in your academic life that you exist.  Sure, you’ve left your mark in some way (and who could forget you?), but it’s important to show those in your academic life that you’re still invested.  I’m still trying to get better at this, as with all these things, but I think this one is the most important.  Even if you don’t feel invested, it’s important to act like you are.  Fake it ’till you make it and all that. Just do it.

Beyond these three main tips for not falling into an isolated pit of dissertating-from-afar despair, I’d also suggest creating an academic twitter account.  I’ve had a protected, personal account for years, but it wasn’t until recently that I created @WritingHaywood, and I love it!  It’s community, encouragement, and questions answered all rolled into 140 characters.  I’m working hard to change my attitude about working from home, working hard to remember that my project is my life goal, but that I also have personal responsibilities.  It’s time to get back to my professional responsibilities, though, and continue to take my own advice regarding the three points I’ve mentioned.  So, what about you?  Do you have any advice for staying on the map when you live on the other side of the continent from your University?  Or for those of us who are simply working on a book, dissertation, or article from home?

Eliza Haywood was one of the most prolific writers of her time, and she most likely wrote from home (and in the face of quite a few people who viewed her as little more than a hack in her own time…and in ours).  How can I/we churn this thing out in true Haywood style?  Let’s do this!