How to Navigate Finishing Your Ph.D. Remotely

Written by Sepideh Dadkhah, Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Kentucky

They say that graduate skills can bring on unexpected twists and turns. I have heard a few myself, like having a global pandemic happen or having to start all over on a project after many years of work. Fortunately for me, my latest “twist” was my husband finding a job many states away. I have heard of “two-body problems” in academia where both partners have limited choices in pursuing a career but with two toddlers, our issue was more of a “four-body problem”.  If you know me, you have probably heard me tell you how my program and advisor have been understanding and supportive during my graduate studies. I had a year left in my graduate studies and fortunately, the remaining majority was to process the gathered data and microscopic images as well as the scary part, writing. Many stars aligned and I was awarded a departmental fellowship that relieved me of TA duties to make the story short, my program manager and advisors kindly allowed me to continue my research remotely. This past semester and a half I have obtained some experience that I would love to share.

1. You can do this

First, take a deep breath. Yes, you will cry (or sob) when you leave your lab for the last time and yes, you will feel like you don’t belong anywhere. But, if you were born before 2020, you remember the devastating global pandemic. You have done this before; this time, everyone knows how to use Zoom. Give yourself time to adapt to new circumstances and use the support of others to make this time more productive.

2. Plan

There will need to be a great amount of planning involved to ensure you are progressing toward your graduation goals. Make a list of everything you need to do to graduate and make a plan to get everything done before key deadlines. In my experience, this included analyzing the data, writing different parts, and organizing figures and graphs, among other things. Depending on your research topic, your list may vary, but it's crucial to identify all the steps necessary to complete your research. You will have to relay this plan to your advisor and committee members. This step is crucial because it lets them know what to expect and helps them understand how you plan to conduct your research. They can also provide feedback and suggestions to improve your plan.

3. Find a location

I think my greatest challenge was finding a space to not be distracted. Is there anything harder than trying to focus on writing pages and pages of a thesis? I have tried coffee shops, the public library, and student study lounges at a local university until I found somewhere to be free of distractions. Just like I would do if I was going into a lab, I tend to work from 9 to 5, with breaks in between. Sticking to a set schedule helps to keep you accountable and free from distractions.

4. Network

You will still need a job after this so don’t forget to network. You might be wondering whom you are going to network with if you are miles away from school. One silver lining of covid-19 was that many programs and conferences are still being held online. You can also connect to local universities and research facilities. Just like you would if you were on campus, you can still look for opportunities and connections with the new professionals you meet.

5. Socialize

If you are an introverted scientist, then you are in introvert heaven. But if you are the annoying lab partner that must share all their life events with their colleagues then you will feel sad and discouraged when being remote. A main highlight of my graduate studies was chatting with fellow graduate students, and I missed that greatly. Plan to keep in touch with your friends through “virtual lunches” on Zoom. You can also find graduate students and scientists in your new town by attending research seminars that are open to the public. This will also be a great opportunity to network!

6. Stay in touch

I will say this again. I have a great advisor. It might feel harder to connect and stay on the same page when there is a great physical distance. I felt that having a scheduled Zoom session for weekly meetings held me accountable and prevented me from shying away from walking to my advisor’s office. Make a plan to meet with your advisor and make sure to stick to it.

7. You will feel guilty

Since I am no longer available in person, I found myself working harder to prove the many hours that I poured into writing. If it was a bad week with life events, I was compelled to send my advisor Doctor notes because how would he know I was sick? I was also worried about missing important department seminars and training sessions and all the small commitments we have as graduate students. I overcame this feeling by focusing more on writing and reminding myself that even in normal settings, this phase of thesis writing needs great focus. I also strived to attend any virtual event that followed departmental news.

Overall, because of the support of my program and advisor, it’s been a very positive experience. Keep in mind that research is a process, and it may take longer than you initially anticipated. Stay focused on your goals and be patient with yourself. If your path brings you to being remote, do not worry, and give yourself the time to adapt to the change and learn how to be a remote graduate student!

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