Alone. Tortured. Afraid. Staring meekly into the abyss. Waves of self doubt and self pity. A strange stain on your tracksuit pants of an unknown origin. Occasional flourishes of activity. What are the challenges of working from home? Surely it’s just a productivity gold mine.
Firstly, you save time on your commute. The time it takes me to get from my breakfast (excluding the school run) to a position of potential productivity is the fraction of the time most people spend in traffic. Without the associated road rage. I’ve seen some wild road rage in my time – including one time a very upset young man punched me through the sun-roof of my mother-in-law’s car in a paroxysm of rage. A friend of mine told me he used to play recorder at the lights to calm his road rage. Once I stopped laughing, I admitted it could be calming. Maybe.
Once I’m there, in the zone, wired in – sometimes, just sometimes, magic happens. The words flow from my fingers. Coding analysis flows forth like a stream. Ideas form and are expressed with ease. It feels glorious. I am a PhD student, so there are moments, working away that I really feel like I’m not a complete fraud and that my ideas might actually be worth putting forward in to the world.
These moments are precious – and now that both of my children at school three days a week – they are starting to come more and more regularly. However, there are times that despite your focus, someone or something breaks you from the zone, losing your thread. Disastrous. Sometimes it can be something really small or subtle that drags you away.
Working from home means that I miss out on the collegiality and support that students or workers based at a university sometimes take for granted. That lack of being surrounded by individuals who are doing something similar to myself, can be really difficult to manage. You don’t all have to be sexual health PhD students to support each other – just the fact that you are working in research means over coffee or lunch you can have a supportive conversation.
Those idle moments that seem simple enough, are really quite galvanising in continuing your work. When you’re at home – those moments don’t happen. There is no idle chat over coffee about how it’s all going. There isn’t another researcher with a similar methodology to bounce ideas off. There is no-one there to reassure you that what you are doing is actually worth it, that you aren’t just wasting yours and everybody’s time. Those moments of success, when you’ve finally ground something out – after hours of toil, to produce a real, tangible piece of academic gold; are celebrated alone. Sometimes I tell my kids. They’re supportive and patient, but they’re under seven, so you really are out there alone.
I try and get myself to as many conferences and seminars as possible to make up for those moments. I don’t have a scholarship, and don’t perform my research as part of my direct role with my employer – so unless I snare a conference bursary, I have to self-fund my attendance. This has been the way for many conferences I’ve attended in the past few years, excluding my School’s support to attend SexRurality, a Healthway grant to attend the AHPA national conference, and a bursary from Curtin to attend the SiREN symposium. Amazing support that I am truly thankful for receiving.
Part of working alone means you really have to connect more than that – so other conferences have been critical, but costly exercises in chasing collegiality and support. Even conferences based in Perth provide the challenge of travel – it’s a 400km drive one-way to get there. Its a drive I do every month, but it takes half a day of travel time each way – which means not being able to work an extra few days (whether paid or PhD) and missing time with family. That means a two day symposium is a four day proposition, with the need for three nights accommodation. Not doing this means further isolation, and really is part of the trade-off of living rural.
Another significant challenge of working from home, is the massive pull of other home-based labour activities. This is sometimes known as procrastination. Or laziness – depending on the activity. Doing loads of washing; cooking dinner and baking muffins for lunches during the week; installing a new car stereo; and performing back-burning of your bush block are all noble activities that equal procrastination. They need to happen at sometime, but could probably have waited for you to finish your insider-research paper.
You could probably add writing a blog in here too – but I maintain it gets the creative writing juices flowing before the academic stuff has to happen. A bit like a nice entrée before you attack your main meal.
Watching Game of Thrones recaps; having a stress nap; or reading everything you can find in the house that in no way relates to your PhD, in my opinion, comes in under the lazy tag. Resisting the pull of either of these when there is no-one there to ask you why you are on the couch can be grueling.
So – what do you do? You have to keep working away, head down, searching for gold. There are times that isolation, both physically and professionally can take its toll – so you need to explore ways to reconnect. I follow as many PhD students as I can on Twitter, and contribute to #phdchat as much as feasible (with being lazy or procrastinating). I use other forms of social media and my blog to get things out there in forums that they may not have – which has been great for clearing ideas from my brain, that perhaps a solid conversation over lunch with a colleague would have.
I search for opportunities to attend conferences and seminars. I rarely video conference into seminars, as VC options are more targeted to people attached to work places, using workplace platforms and services. If you are a floating entity such as myself, you may not be able to have access – or your internet connection at home may not be up to the challenge. That, and everyone ignores you when you VC in.
I try and keep my procrastination to a minimum – but when it happens, I embrace it with vigour. When you are working alone and isolated – self-loathing isn’t going to help anyone. Beating yourself up for not achieving as much as you could’ve won’t help you get more done tomorrow. I did trial a procrastination avoidance app, that blocks “time-wasting” websites, but it would sometimes over correct itself and block something I actually NEEDED. You could log in, plead your case to the algorithm, sacrifice a dove and get back on with what you were doing – but it really broke your flow. And those moments that it all clicks – then you run with it as far as you can, you can’t be searching for a dove or dipping in to the well of self pity. Those are the moments that the gold appears and it all seems worth it, you have to be ready.