When I started my PhD in October 2012 I had already formulated an opinion on what the journey was going to be like: you’ll get your own office, or at least share with a few others, get a shiny new laptop/desk-top computer and be able to attend dozens and dozens of conferences, all of which the University will pay for. I was quite shocked when I found it was not like this – at all. Being a small cohort within a larger department we struggle for funding, so the little pot of money which is on offer is given to those who want to present – and even then it barely covers flight costs (if presenting abroad).
The other main issue and probably the reason why I decide to mostly work from home is the office layout. We do not have offices with half a dozen people in, not even ones with a dozen in, but an open-plan layout akin to the mid 2000’s business strategies to increase productivity and aid interaction. So, this equates to a room shared with hundreds of others including administration staff and postdoctoral researchers – listening to phones ringing, kettles boiling, people talking and even the odd baby screaming. One colleague said to me ‘the noise gets that bad, I have to put ear plugs in with ear defenders over the top.’ The very thing it was designed to do does not happen – you cannot force people to talk to one another. The implementation of hot-desking still sees people sit in the same place, day in day out, with the odd scowl if you dare sit in ‘their seat.’ Each day, books, papers and laptops are cleared away into a lockable drawer (which could be at the other side of the office to where you’re sat) – I just struggle to find this way of working feasible or beneficial. I am a sociable person and like to meet new people but even I find working in an open-plan environment difficult.
Of course, each person has their own way of learning but I would find it better to work in an office with a couple of people, with my own desk and computer space – somewhere which is an extension of my office space at home not some sterile, characterless environment. So this is why I decide to mostly work from home with the odd few days in the library thrown in for good measure. I’ve spoken about why I prefer to work off campus (or why I don’t like to work on it!) but what about my working environment at home and why it’s beneficial to me and how I cope with certain issues?
There are obviously going to be advantages and disadvantages of any method of working whether it be at home or on campus and I am not saying that I particularly want to work from home all the time but if there existed better office working I would be in my department a lot more often. Certain people reading this may have similar issues of working on campus and my advice to you would be: work where you are most comfortable. I do work in the library where possible (particularly over the summer when the undergraduates are off-campus) and it is almost a middle-ground between working at home and in the department.
Working from home is sometimes due to people not mixing well with others, departments not offering adequate facilities, feeling more comfortable in familiar surroundings, or purely due to long commuting distances. In addition to the issues I have mentioned, it is easier for me to work from home – all of the data I need is here and I am fortunate enough not to get too distracted. If you are fortunate enough to have understanding supervisors then this makes it easier although making sure you keep in regular touch with them is vital – you do not want to keep them in the cold!
In the PhD Support Network we have had people come and talk to us about working from home and how to deal with certain issues it can bring – isolation, procrastination and loneliness to name a few. Firstly, all PhDs are solitary affairs. When you carry out doctoral research you are the only person working on the topic. Others may be looking at similar subject areas but your title is unique to you. Typically the sciences involve spending more time on campus, especially in the lab, where you’ll be surrounded by people using the same laboratory equipment and thus the opportunity for interaction is greater than those study the social sciences for example. There is more scope to work from home, or outside of the department, if you do a social science related PhD. However, this does not mean that solitude does not occur in the sciences – the inner workings of a PhD can mean that there will inevitably be some period where work will be done away from others.
You are at a stage now where you are no longer an undergraduate (sorry to break it to you), the partying days are significantly reduced, the work is a lot more difficult, the amount of coffee consumed is considerably more and you work far longer hours. You may not get chance to stop for lunch, or dinner for that matter, and days can merge into weeks very quickly; before you know it you haven’t spoken to anyone for a while. Well stop. Only when research slows down do you have more time to think and this is when isolation can sneak up on you. It is unlikely that you will have a bustling social life whilst doing a PhD and you might not even know anyone – this is where the PhD Support Network comes in, by encouraging researchers to take a lunch break and meet new people from different disciplines. It is a means of developing friendship networks and reducing the isolation barriers which are so common when undertaking a PhD. The routine of having lunch with others in an informal setting provides the perfect distraction from research. However, we understand that this type of network is not common-place so short of meeting people in your own department, your Graduate school training sessions (if you have any) are the perfect opportunity to meet others. We know that routines often dissolve at different stages of a PhD and this sometimes cannot be helped but talking to others can really help your piece of mind. The issues regarding working from home are not talked about enough – we have numerous people at our drop-in sessions who work from home and just come in for a ‘change of scenery’ and to combat isolation.
If you work from home, like me, and are wondering what you can do to lessen the impacts of stress, isolation and loneliness, here are a few things to consider:
- 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.
- 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.
- Discussion groups: provide effective means for PhD students to discuss problems with one another.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 and loneliness 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. The emotional well-being of a PhD student is absolutely key in their PhD journey, it can be the difference between dropping out and carrying on and the amalgamation of both academic and non-academic support means all aspects of PhD study is covered.
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