Coastal Diss-patch: Graduate Students Work and Learn Far from Campus

(This article first appeared in The Leveller, Vol. 6, #6: http://www.leveller.ca/2014/03/6-6/)

There’s a new graduate student in town.

Just kidding, we’re not in town.

After finishing PhD course work and exams, Kelly moved to Victoria, British Columbia, and Amanda moved to Irvine, California. We have chosen to continue our studies about as far away from Ottawa as you can get and still be on the continent, leaving us with one foot in the Pacific and the other in the Rideau Canal.

Why would we do this to ourselves? It’s complicated. Our decisions to leave campus were motivated by any combination of fieldwork, finances, relationships, wanderlust, employment opportunities, and affinity for a warm(ing) climate.

The relatively recent and still somewhat unusual opportunity to work and live far from campus is made possible by the Internet and new forms of digital pedagogy. However, we have quickly realized that within these new opportunities there exist unique challenges for those who work and study remotely.

Many graduate students face the difficulties of isolation. For those on-campus, there are opportunities to engage with the university community by attending talks, working on campus-based initiatives, and socializing in the grad pub. For students working remotely, this lack of a campus-oriented schedule can be wholly replaced by the cycle of teaching, writing, and research. When combined with isolation, feelings of being overwhelmed are intensified. Continuously working on a growing list of projects, rather than socializing or eating vegetables or even leaving the house, becomes the new normal.

If you work from home, like we do, it’s all too easy to sit around in your pajamas eating ketchup chips; dissertation deadlines are mentally present but geographically distant.

That’s why it’s important to keep in touch with your department. Get news (and gossip!) from on-campus students and schedule regular online or phone appointments with your supervisors and supportive mentors. Work on fun and fulfilling collaborative projects (such as articles in The Leveller!) with fellow graduate students suffering from pajama-and-ketchup-chip-induced malaise. (In case our supervisors read this, we’ll add that we’re also co-authoring a peer-reviewed journal article.)

In your new location, try to attend public talks and get involved in local events. This was made easier for us when we both relocated to towns with nearby universities. It is hard to balance life in two places – you can’t give up your student status and forget your home
institution, but you need to find ways to build a new community to supplement the one you left behind.

In our experiments with PhD-ing remotely to date, the division between here and there was made most clear when our fellow Teaching Assistants (TAs) took a strike vote and gave CUPE 4600 a strong bargaining mandate. As TAs for online courses, we continue to follow the struggle for a fair contract, but we remain unable to participate in the show of hands that follows discussion and debate.

Whether you’re off campus temporarily for fieldwork or indefinitely for personal reasons, know that you are not alone. As stay-at-home grad students, we offer these suggestions to the relocated and their supporters:

– Share your off-campus predicament with your department. Encourage your department to start and maintain an active presence on social media and digital forums. Inquire about opportunities to digitally attend lectures and events via online chat platforms. Ask your friends for support. Build alliances and encourage inter-university cooperation. Student and labour unions are connected across Canada and have the potential to be an important resource for relocated students.

– Share your stories. If your friends are the ones missing from campus, let them know you’re thinking of them. Send them emails with pictures of the Ottawa snow to remind them that they made a good decision to move somewhere warmer. Catch up with them at academic conferences, invite them to contribute to the departmental blog, or cut out this article and mail it to them.

– Share your desk. If students from other institutions have moved to your town, offer to share your work space, offer them recommendations of quiet coffee shops, or invite them to grad activities. If unfamiliar faces attend talks at your university, get to know them and invite them to start a writing, walking, or reading group.

Although we miss the on-campus opportunities for free food, the challenges have also presented new opportunities to collaborate, expand our scholarship, and experiment with online pedagogy. Whether you’re off-campus, on-campus, or in a host community, we hope sharing our experiences can help you build community, learn, and grow wherever your studies (and travels) take you.

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2 thoughts on “Coastal Diss-patch: Graduate Students Work and Learn Far from Campus

  1. Pingback: Coastal Diss-patch | This dissertation is going to be fun, like dessert

  2. Pingback: Part II: Straight Talk on the Job Search | This dissertation is going to be fun, like dessert

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