Working from Home as an Academic
Updated: Jan 22, 2020
If you enjoy the flexibility of working from home as postgraduate student or academic there are lots of benefits. But based on my own experience it’s something that takes time to master. My PhD and earlier career in marketing taught me a few things about working remotely. As a marketer I was sometimes based regionally, so being in a different office everyday became my new norm along with a hellish and unpredictable commute. This was before the era of slack and Macbook Airs. So it was fair to say that my hot-desking adventure doubled up as a gym workout, while I lugged my clunky IBM laptop, multiple mobiles, and a pile of marketing gear. But over the years I have now mastered the ability to work from anywhere: trains, planes, bus stops, coffee shops, the kitchen table, leaning on a pile of cookbooks when your house is being renovated (yes, six months to be exact). In this post I share some of my top tips:
Photo courtesy of unsplash.com
You’re not at anyone’s disposal
First things first, just because you are at home doesn’t mean that you are at the disposal of your family, partner or housemates to do the extra chores or pick-ups. This is work time and needs to be given the same level of attention and care. Be clear on when its work time and communicate to those around you. You need to set those boundaries from the start, otherwise you can lose your focus at a time when you need it most.
Structure is key
Now I don’t mean your working from home days need to match one another but whatever day it is, set out a structure of how you are going to spend your time. Schedule the hours however you wish or however you are contractually obliged to deliver, but have a clear start and end point. Also, think about when you work best and try and create a schedule that matches your energy levels.
Now the other part of working at home goes a little like this…. you get an email in your inbox and it’s contents are about to screw up your day. When these things happen working from home makes things a little more difficult. You can’t turn round to your workmate and say, 'hey, what do you think of this?' or head down the corridor to chat to a colleague and sound-out potential solutions to the problem that has just hit your mental in-tray. Create a network of people you can reach out to, your manager, a friend or colleague so when the sh*t hits the fan then you are not sitting there all day 'stewing' on something that would have taken all of half an hour to resolve.
Tidy space = less screwed up brain
One thing I find working from home is that I can’t think clearly without a clear space. So get the space set up the night before or a little beforehand. It’s a tiny thing but for some reason it really affected how I worked during my PhD and I was quite surprised by how much, given that i'm not OCD on having the perfect home. So set everything up as much as you can beforehand that way you are ready to get going first thing and your space is more inviting to work in.
I don’t mean a blow dry, new nails and bringing out the Manolos,,, just don’t skip the part of getting ready in some form. Gym kit and coffee work for me. Gym kit is a good one - you won’t scare the Amazon delivery guy (we’re on first name terms) and then you are ready to walk the dog or hit the gym later in the day. For me the coffee is another psychological conditioning thing, so create some rituals that signify it’s time to work.
Take Breaks & Exercise
Yes have a lunch break that is not hunched over your desk - embrace the freedom that working from home provides. If you are working from home you are most likely not going to notch up those steps normally walking to and from the car park, catching the tube or wandering around the office. You need to make sure you are getting some exercise in, least of all its good for your brain. Schedule it as part of your day. Some days on the PhD I was doing a terrible 1000 steps and that is fast pass to you know what. So I made a point of getting off my bottom and hitting the gym for a run or a walk outside with my dog for fresh air and vitamin D.
Nowadays I’m adulting on an ever so slightly grander scale. As I began to work from home more frequently I kitted out my shed so it became a fully functioning home office. However it wasn't always this snazzy. Prior to this, you would find me hunched on the sofa. So if you are going to do this whole home working thing longer term and are able to invest - whether its a new desk (Ikea special or second hand) or a fancy schmancy a home office then it's worth every penny. You are going to spend a lot of time there, so make it somewhere you want to work. Side note: I spent my PhD in our shed writing away seven days a week as I mentioned a few moments ago and now I have a complete aversion to it. So now you’ll now find me working from the dining room table. Lesson - make sure you have a few spots to work from at home to change things up if you can.
Dr Sam’s Kit List:
Noise cancelling headphones are a must. Even if you are not listening to anything it’s just something to block out the goings on in your household or to listen to music. I find it just helps me get in the zone when I need to start concentrating and it is a polite signal to everyone else around me.
Decent lighting - a little desk lamp that's easy to move around is super cheap and uber effective. £5 one from Ikea is all you need.
Spotify - I took a liking to old school 90s trance music when doing research data analysis - don’t judge me!
Decent chair - back ache is not a good look.
Don’t be a loner... all the time
Here's the biggest tip of all. The problem with working from home is that you don’t have anyone to chat to (unless you have a pet - Archie, my dog, is very informed on data analysis although our conversations were a little one-sided). I found Twitter a great space for feeling part of a community while working from home. Whether it was popping onto feeds such as #academicchatter or #academictwitter or @academicchatter. It was a nice way to be part of an accessible community when you needed it most. Particularly, during the PhD hurdles Twitter was an especially great source of support.
You can also hit up Twitter and find a regular writing group @IrelandSuaw is an example of a #shutupandwrite club. Where you can join a weekly scheduled session and crack on with your research or writing with others and not feel quite so much as solo flyer in the process. It’s definitely helps get a bit of momentum and you can find one in whichever timezone you wish by searching #suaw.
If you are still struggling there are what is known as 'study with me' videos on Youtube where you can follow someone else who is studying for a set period of time. At first I thought it was a bit weird but it actually works. I tried it one day and wahlah two hours of solid, focused research writing work was the result - so don’t diss it until you’ve tried it. Jamie at The Strive to Fit posts some good ones - she’s an ER doctor who was studying for her Medical Board exams from home and created these for other students.