Working from home

This week Jonathan Ward, who is part of Liveable Cities team in Civil Engineering, shares his experience of working from home as a postgraduate researcher…

working from home

Doing my PhD from home has given me an opportunity to reflect on a few things which I’d like to share with you. It brings benefits, but also pitfalls.

At first the freedom of the PhD brought excitement, possibilities. In time, I noticed a self-inflicted loss of identity. I didn’t go out to work; gone were my responsibilities: a humble student, hidden from view. I had met my ego, and had to make peace with it.

Being useful. What could I show for my day except some notes and pages of reading? Especially when my partner has a frontline occupation. They weren’t judging me, I was. I would start doing DIY and chores to show I was ‘useful’.

After the guilt came the feeling of treading water– PhDs are unlike normal jobs. It’s full of non-linear progress and periods of stasis. By yourself you can lose perspective. A sense of completion, of impact, seems essential for the wellbeing of many of us and to keep motivated.

The freedom of unbounded time and space, ironically, became a prison of inertia.  As much as I tried to confine my work to an office in the house at certain hours, mentally it followed me everywhere, nagging, making me less productive at everything. PhDs always want more from you; without discipline it will cause guilt and interfere with the rest of your life.

Isolation. If you spend most of your week at home alone four walls can feel pretty close. I was surprised at how much I needed both company and communication as a person and student. Research is done in a community, but I was closed off. This impacts on work and mental wellbeing.

What wisdom can I impart from my experiences?

  • Value your PhD as an opportunity and for the contribution you will make
  • Get regular feedback
  • Recognise your own work patterns – where, when and how best do you work.
  • Home reminds of us of other tasks that are not normally tempting, but are when faced with the PhD. Try changes of scenery.
  • Be aware and accepting of your social and mental health needs. Humans generally like company, even if just a café environment.
  • PhDs are your own work, but doesn’t have to mean working by yourself. Collaboration and discussion helps shape ideas, provide feedback, and overcome isolation. Find peers and make time to meet them.
  • Breaks to use social media or phone so you can reconnect with the world without distracting yourself.
  • Designate space for working and don’t take it elsewhere in the house.
  • Routines are often helpful, but when flexibility is required, limit your hours. Know what is enough.
  • You’ll get more done and feel better, and able to separate from your PhD if you make realistic aims and reflections at the start and end of each day. Try bullet journals or put one key task in Outlook.
  • Balance your day with other activities that provide for your wellbeing. Have the opportunity to do something practical, visible and tangible.

Do you have any other tips? Share them with us in the comments below!

If you would like to share your experience as a postgraduate researcher, please get in touch with Dr. Eren Bilgen to become one of our guest bloggers.

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