How to best handle off-campus graduate work?

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Posted by Brian Cody, community karma 164552

I am not living in the same city as my department, and I'm finding that the challenges of working away from the physical university community are more, well, challenging than I had anticipated.

I think that a major facet of the problem is the decreased frequency of social updates, both formal (advisor meetings) and informal (running into other grad students at the coffee shop and updating on what is in progress, complete, and in need of completion) – but I'm not sure how to recreate an environment with a high density of these sorts of social updates.

Any thoughts on social updates while off campus, or other advice for being productive when living away from campus?

over 12 years ago

5 Comments

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Jeff Lundy, community karma 227

Hey Brian,

As a long-time academic-at-large, I'm always quick to offer advice on being away from your home institution.  Here are some {maybe?} helpful hints:

1) Creating a suitable work environment is definitely key.  My strong advice is to find yourself an office.  There's something about sitting in a cube next to other people doing work that inpires work like nothing else (I think Durkheim would call this the "salutory pressure of society").  Plus, you just need a place to wake up early and head toward that isn't your home.  So, if you can't find an office at a nearby university, then find someone who will let you work in their office, or go to the local library.  A lot of big towns now have "rent an office" kind of arrangments that are fairly cheap and flexible.

2) In follow-up to point 1 -- you can almost always get a "visiting scholar" designation at a nearby university, and this will often lead to access to some kind of workspace (office, library carrol, etc.).  I have basically done this in three locations (I'm currently affliated with more university libraries than Jstor).   The big secret is that departments will almost universally treat visiting students better than their own students.  I think you just look like some kind of exotic quantity, where their own students look like the same-ol' same-ol'.   The key is to get a formal designation of "visiting scholar" which is usually very easy and free.  Then, if you're close enough to the campus, start attending talks and such.  I even got a research job networking in this way.

3) As for your advisor (or dissertation committee, or whatever) you've just got to train them to expect frequent updates by email.  I send the sociology portion of my committee an email at every minor juncture (e.g. submitted an article, got an internship, finished a chapter, etc.).  If you can, setup a regular phone call with your advisor.  Better yet, start a collaboration with your advisor, so they have several reasons to talk with you.  Collaborating with another grad student on a paper might also help with staying in touch with the academic community.

over 12 years ago
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Naomi Bartz, community karma 211

As an accomplished procrastinator I have been dealing with this issue with varied levels of success since leaving my home university (and the potential for running into a disappointed member of my committee on the street). :)


I agree whole-heartedly with J. Lund's suggestions. And even if you don't have an office, at least shower and dress for the day! I don’t care if you will just be mumbling to yourself in your tiny apartment as you try to rewrite a draft of something for the hundredth time. Don't be a graduate student stereotype! :)


Visiting scholar positions are helpful in keeping you on track. They can also be imperative if you are doing work in other countries and need to keep that visa active! Through my visiting scholar status at the University of British Columbia I have been able to meet and connect with professors in my field of study, make connections with other graduate students, organize a panel with graduate students and faculty at a conference in Canada, and audit several classes. These things definitely keep me in line and (somewhat) on task. Being a visiting scholar also has the added benefit of introducing you to the culture of other universities. I think this exposure is an added benefit in the job market because it will teach you to be flexible and brace yourself for culture shock when you end up somewhere unlike your home institute.


I am also a big fan of writing groups. I have been involved in one for almost two years now and it has both a) made sure I make my deadlines and b) improved my writing tremendously. I always feel newly energized after a meeting with my writing group - much like when you run into a friend at a coffee shop on campus and swap ideas. My writing group is completely "virtual" in that we meet on skype once a week, so you don't need to make it local by any means. We are all "orphans" from our home institute and I think we all get a great deal out hashing things out together.


Think outside the box - most of my friends in Vancouver are musicians and artists - not academics. But that doesn't mean they aren't thinking about the world in interesting and (often more) meaningful ways! I have quite a few friends here that are interested in urban studies and I started a book club that meets monthly to discuss books (both academic and non-) on urban issues. Last month we read Brown-Saracino's book which was something I needed to read for my own academic scholarship and was also really interesting to discuss with anti-gentrification activists and artists. I am a big fan of breaking down barriers between academia/non-academia so I have found this to be a fun and interesting way to engage with other about my own work and the larger context within which it sits.

Finally, I track my hours. This means I track how many hours per day I work on dissertation related things and what those things are. Not only does this give me a visual warning if I haven’t been making much progress during a week, but it also lets me know HOW I’m spending my time. If I find I am spending way too much time on “maintaining relationships with informants” (otherwise known as drinking in bars with people who know more about your topic than you do), I lay off it for a little while and dig into the always fun, interview transcribing…


Good luck!

over 12 years ago
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C. Sean Burns, community karma 149

Jeff's advice is great. Recently I read a helpful tip on this (I think through http://www.gradhacker.org/). They suggested setting up an online reading group with your colleagues using video chat software such as Google Plus or Skype. Given how busy academic life is, it could simply be a monthly gathering. I bet it would help.

over 12 years ago
Sean, I think it's this post by Andrea Zellner: http://www.gradhacker.org/2011/09/28/google-hangouts-from-hanging-out-to-making-it-work/
Rob Walsh – over 12 years ago
That's definitely the post. Thanks Rob.
C. Sean Burns – over 12 years ago
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Ben Lewis, community karma 63

I've never had to deal with this type of distance, however I've learned that weekly, scheduled meetings with my advisor are magical in terms of staying focused, productive, and generally keeping in-touch/on the same "page". That said, scheduled video-conference meetings should be just as effective, and you can have them while in pajama bottoms.

over 12 years ago
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Jessica Weinger, community karma 49

One term I had to do my program almost entirely online and work with other students from out of the area, and the best solution we came up with was a web based conference call once a week. It was a free service (of course i don't remember the name of it) and you could upload and work on documents remotely, which was awesome. Plus there was the same sort of classmate banter you get on campus. Getting information from the professor through email or the phone was always a nightmare, but peer to peer, it was pretty great.

over 12 years ago
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