It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. I was supposed to breeze through graduate school without any changes: start in my hometown, comp in my hometown, defend in my hometown, and finish in my hometown. After that, I could move away, find the right girl, get married, get a job, and so forth. Here’s what wasn’t supposed to happen: I wasn’t supposed to start grad school, find the right girl, comp, move to another state, get married, and then defend and finish somewhere else. I certainly wasn’t supposed to have one committee member move to Texas. I definitely wasn’t anticipating another one getting a research fellowship in England. I understood that my dissertation was going to be a solitary struggle in some ways, but not like this. Not me, in Virginia, with the closest committee member being my advisor, in Michigan. But, life, both mine and those of the people I’m working with, “gets in the way”: our circumstances change, and we have to figure out how to adjust.
For many graduate students, however, this is a reality. Our lives change in big ways while we’re in graduate school: for many of us this includes getting married, starting families, and, at times, moving away from the town that is home to our institution. Our committee members are the same way. They have lives that are independent of their students, and may take another job, or follow an opportunity that takes them elsewhere.
I moved from Michigan to Virginia two summers ago, and I can tell you that it was a transition that took a lot of time, largely because I didn’t prepare well enough for the distance. Heading in, I gave myself too much credit: of course I would email my committee every month. Of course I’d be back in Michigan to visit them all the time. Of course I’d call my advisor if I needed something. Of course! But here’s the deal: sometimes you don’t know you’re off track, or you think everything is going well, and you need the casual observation of a committee member to tap you on the shoulder and say, “umm…what are you doing?” Of course, that’s hard to do when you don’t see them regularly. I didn’t build that into my system. Next thing I knew, it was April, and I had made only minimal progress. By the time I could get a committee meeting together, minimal progress seemed like an overstatement. I was stuck, and I needed to fix things. I took a number of steps that have resulted in some of the most productive months since I’ve moved away.
Join a Writing Group
Fortunately for me, the Michigan State Graduate School implemented more structured writing groups for the departments at the University. Even better, my department recognized that they had a number of students who are working on their dissertations from a distance, and we have set up a writing group online. We use Google Hangouts and Dropbox to meet every other week and discuss our writing, set goals, and report on our progress. This has been instrumental for me because it makes me accountable to other people. Every other week, I have to have something to talk about, and that means I have to write something.
Talk with Your Advisor…Whether you Need to or Not
On my last trip to Michigan, I made sure to schedule a full semester’s worth of phone conversations with my advisor. We now talk on the phone every other week, and these conversations have been invaluable to my research and progress. When I first moved away, I had figured I would call when I needed him. But this arrangement forces us to talk whether I “need” it or not. It forces me to have something to talk about each time, which helps me get things done. It also gives me (and my advisor) a chance to talk about my work, which more often then not turns up some pitfalls, sparks good ideas, and gives me more to work on for next time. Also, it gives my advisor a better idea as to where I am in my research: this means that I don’t “disappear” for long stretches of time.
Get on the Phone with Everyone Else, Too
As I mentioned earlier, my committee has managed to scatter across the globe, so communication can be difficult. Therefore, I have tried to talk with each committee member at least once on the phone, in order to go over drafts of what I’ve written. Simply receiving written comments isn’t good enough. If I had been in Michigan, I would have met them in their office, so the phone is the closest I can get when we’re apart.
This has been more difficult considering it costs more money, but I have tried to schedule more trips back to Michigan this year than I had previously. I have an advantage, considering my family lives there, so I can double-dip, but still: nothing beats face to face meetings with your advisor and committee members. I schedule these trips a couple weeks after a deadline: this gives me incentive to get the draft done on time, so that the trip isn’t in vain. It also puts some pressure on my committee members to read the drafts quickly, because they recognize that I am making a financial investment in the trip to discuss things with them.
Are you writing a dissertation from afar? What types of tips and tricks do you use to keep yourself focused, and to stay in touch with your committee?
[Image by Flickr user Terry Brock and used under Creative Commons license]
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