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 by Mark Bennett
, posted on 21 Apr '20

Working From Home as a Postgraduate

I had a strange realisation the other day, whilst eating another 'buffet lunch' of cheddar à la block, followed by a course of tuna à la can: had the current coronavirus crisis hit around 2006-7, things would have been very different for me.

Back then, I would have been somewhere between finishing my Masters and getting started with my PhD. Which is to say that 'COVID-06' would have generally found me sat at home at a computer, exchanging occasional emails with a supervisor and indulging in heated philosophical debate with my live-in research assistant: he repeatedly asserting that my epistemological uncertainty as to the presence of empty food bowl in the next room had no bearing on its ontological reality, nor the existential crisis this state of affairs posed for a cat.

I did, of course, go outside, see friends, visit my campus and go to the pub. None of which I can do at the time of writing, and I suspect the same is true for most (it not all) of the people reading this. I don't for one moment intend to suggest that being a student at any level would trivialise the current situation for me, or that it should do so for you. COVID-19 is not trivial and it has, in fact, hit very close to home for me in recent days.

But my own years as a (primarily) distance learning postgrad did teach me a lot about working from home. And I think at least some of that experience may be helpful for those of you who are either forced to work from home during your present degree or, as is perhaps more likely here, are contemplating the prospect of doing so during a future Masters or PhD.

Be honest about what you can and can't do

Chances are you're reading this blog after being forced to work from home during your degree. If so, you'll be trying to manage a very stressful transition, all while trying to not to scream at the next person who suggests this must be "a great opportunity to get on with your degree!".

This is not a great opportunity to get on with your degree. But it can still be an opportunity to get on with some of it.

Marcus's blog from a couple of weeks ago offers some good perspective on this. It's hard to do research on a Bioscience PhD when your lab is closed but, as he explains, it is possible to switch over to writing up the research you have done. The same is true even if you aren't reliant on access to lab space or other facilities: you may not be able to get hold of the specific materials you need to write up the next chapter of your English Lit' dissertation, but perhaps you can do some of the preliminary reading for the one after. It isn't ideal, but it can still be productive.

Recognise the similarities

Once your degree (or parts of it) have been properly set up to operate remotely, the actual experience won't be that strange. Your desk might be a bit closer to your kitchen, but that doesn't change the work you need to do at it. You just have to try a little harder not to get distracted by snacking opportunities.

This is especially true if you're thinking about some form of distance learning programme next year. These degrees don't depend on regular access to campus facilities and their day-to-day routine generally works as well in a properly planned home work scenario as it would at a desk in your university library or postgraduate study space.

The key words there are 'properly planned'. Here are a few tips for that, from my experience.

Get a routine

There's a school of thought that says you should embrace the flexibility of home working. Do what feels comfortable for you. Go with the flow. Write up your notes at 1am, wearing a Pikachu onesie and eating a bowl of cold spaghetti.

I am not convinced by this approach. And not just because cold spaghetti is disgusting.

Homes aren't simply work spaces and work needs to begin and end. Lines have to be drawn somewhere. The alternative is a slippery slope towards living in a Pikachu onesie and writing up your notes for so long that you've forgotten what they actually mean. Also severe malnutrition.

The simplest solution is to give yourself a clearly defined working day. That doesn't have to be a 9-5. It could just as easily be an 8-4, or even a 7-3 (perfect if you want to get out to the garden, or go for a walk, whilst the sun's still shining).

Personally, I ended up with something like an 8-6 during my Masters and PhD. I found that longer hours in principle meant I felt less guilty about occasional procrastination in practice. Plus, I had no commute.

Define your work space

Setting aside a specific part of the day for work is a lot easier when you also have a specific space in which to do it.

If you're lucky, this will be an office of some sort, but it doesn't have to be. During the first part of my Masters I lived in what was essentially a bedsit. Literally: my room consisted of a bed and somewhere to sit (there was also a loo, but I don't recommend working there).

Perversely, I chose to work on the bed. I'd set up there each morning (having showered and dressed first, FYI) with my laptop and the materials I was working through. When evening came I'd head over to the desk, eat some dinner and watch an episode or two of The Sopranos.

The result was that I had a clear physical and mental routine for my day. As tough as it often was (as I've mentioned before, my MA briefly involved actually reading Kant) I knew there was a point when I'd get up and go do something else.

Bear in mind other peoples' working patterns – and expectations

There's another reason not to do most of your work at 1am: chances are your tutors / supervisors won't be. Trust me, I've worked as a university lecturer before and, whilst I have answered student emails outside IKEA, at a motorway service station and on the edge of a mosh pit, I have never done so after midnight.

Remember that working from home doesn't mean working entirely independently. Your course will still include online discussion sessions with your peers, video tutorials with supervisors, etc. You should probably be awake for them. Jury's out on the Pikachu onesie.

Go away and think

The one thing you won't expect to miss when working from home? Your commute.

One thing you might actually end up missing when working from home? Your commute.

And no, I don't mean that you'll miss standing around at a bus stop, trying to keep your face out of fellow passengers' armpits on the train or spending twice your fare on a naff coffee at the station.

In-between these moments, however, are those others when you find yourself quietly thinking through a research problem or essay topic and, perhaps more often than you realise, actually making some progress with it. Some of the best bits of my doctoral thesis started life this way, as hastily (and often hilariously) mistyped notes on my phone.

It's difficult to precisely replicate this experience when working from home (setting up a fake train station in your bedroom isn't really advisable, or practical) but I do recommend taking some productive downtime if you can. Not all good thinking occurs when you're starting at a Word document.

Go noodle on that guitar in the corner of your work space. Do the dishes. Feed the cat (again). Take ten minutes in the garden. But keep something to make notes with handy, just in case.

Get a cat

OK, so this advice probably isn't practical for everyone, but I'm a firm believer in the fact that cats make the best postgraduate study assistants.

Sits in your lap, keeping you company and keeping you at your desk. Appreciates frequent snacking breaks almost as much as you do. Only occasionally walks acoss your keyboard and 'accidentally' reformats your paper.

On that note, my cat is saying he needs fed. He's probably lying, but still.

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No, your future isn't cancelled

We've put together a little encouragement – and clarity – for people considering postgraduate study next year.

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