A 3 body problem, part II

Recently I wrote about my family’s newfound challenge to find a place to live in that has both career opportunities for my partner and me – and the medical resources and community support for my special needs kid. Thanks again to all who shared their stories of how they’ve confronted this issue in their own family.   Fortunately, since this last post, my partner (who is currently on the job market while I am a year or two away) landed an academic position with a lot of growth potential in a city with great resources for our kid. To say I am pleased would be an understatement. I’ve been crying a lot – mostly out of gratitude to the universe at large (and probably in part still due to all the new mom hormones).

So with my partner and my kid’s needs apparently taken care of, I’m now the third body. With up to two years of graduate school left, I am trying to line up my ducks for: 1) successfully completing and defending my dissertation while living far away from my lab group   2) (hopefully) successfully lining up employment post-defense in this new locale.   Let’s break these down.

Finishing Up

In some fields, it’s fairly common for dissertators to finish writing up off-site. In the lab and bench sciences though, this is much less common. Maybe it’s because of the importance of lab meetings and the close advisor/advisee relationship. Maybe it’s because students are often paid by research assistanceships led by their advisors or teach classes on campus for their funding. On my campus, there is definitely a culture of expecting biology students to be around for all semesters of their graduate study, regardless of their funding situations.

In the age of skype though, continuing to participating in lab group discussions and grant team meetings should theoretically be possible and straightforward.   I would be much more concerned about the logistics if I still had experiments to finish up but based on committee feedback over the winter, they think I can write up what I have in hand, as I can remotely work on analysis and writing.   But I’ve never met a student from my campus who finished up remotely! Neither has my committee! If you have, regardless of what field you’re in, I’d love to crowdsource some advice for graduate students trying to finish up remotely. Please leave a comment below!

I have a sneaking suspicion that this is becoming more common – off the top of my head, I can think of 3 female graduate students in my department that are spending 1-2 semesters of their last year away from campus due to balancing their studies with a desire not to live away from their families (i.e. their partners, who are not academics, took jobs in other places and the timelines didn’t match). It’s surprising that I can’t think of any men in similar positions on my campus. But with the rise of dual career families and graduate students often returning to studies after working or a career change, graduate students are often balancing school with the rest of their lives.

In the spirit of treating graduate students like the adults that they are, I’d also be curious to hear from faculty who have successfully advised students finishing up from afar. Of course, stories of students NOT succeeding would also be helpful, so that we can all learn better ways to be and to support each other. I know of one friend who intended to finish up remotely but since their funding didn’t travel with them, they took a job outside of their academic interests to keep afloat – ultimately leading them to another career path and never (yet!) completing the PhD.

Getting a Job?

There are so many resources out there on tackling the job market for graduate students, whether or not they’re aiming for academic or nonacademic positions. But since the place we’re moving to has great resources for my kid, we want to stay there indefinitely. So my priority is finding a job in this new place. This means a change of job search planning when I’m finishing up. I’ll be looking for positions inside and outside of the academy, basically anything relevant within driving distance. So I’ve been looking for resources on how to tackle this dual approach to the job market (especially since the timelines for academic and nonacademic jobs are wildly different).  On one hand, it’s freeing to know that the search is limited to a narrow geographic area. On the other, since this is an area of the country I’m not familiar with, it’s slightly terrifying.  But I am hopeful that with 1 -2 years left, I can try to make some professional connections (especially since the age of spousal hires seems to be mostly a thing of the past in this age of supposed austerity in higher ed).

Again, if you’ve been in this boat – would love to hear your thoughts.  Despite not knowing what this new place or new future will look like, all in all I feel like a huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders — and my partner is also far less stressed. The kid is oblivious to this, of course. But we’re so excited that we will be able to provide (along with many others) the resources they need going forward!

19 thoughts on “A 3 body problem, part II

  1. I advised a student who finished remotely. She didn’t face any issues — the key was that all of her data was collected and we were in a virtually un-scoopable field. She took two years to finish writing so progress was slow, but she was able to finish papers and her thesis without being with us (though, as I said, very slowly, mostly because she was also the primary caretaker of two small children at the time). Critical to finishing was that the work had to be written up without presuming additional data. That probably did decrease the impact of the work. In addition, no one else was doing very similar work so she didn’t have to worry about someone else publishing before she did.

    Another important factor was that she was planning to shift fields on completion of her thesis, so making a splash in this field wasn’t as important. It just had to be enough to get her a post-doc at the end of the position, which she got. She then went on to do very well in the new field and has a faculty position (near tenure) at a non-flagship campus that is the kind of teaching/research job she was looking for.

    Finally, she did not get a stipend from the lab while she was writing her thesis — that would have been difficult to justify while she was working remotely; the family relied on her spouse’s salary.

    • thanks for sharing your perspective — I am hopeful that with full time daycare and funding, finishing up will go smoother than without those resources!

  2. I don’t have the extra complications of a child, but I am married to a guy who started his PhD two years before me. He started a postdoc in Europe last winter, and I still had a year to go to finish up my degree in the western US. Living on separate continents was not a viable option, and I was lucky that my advisor was very accommodating and flexible about me working remotely. It helps that another student he co-advises has been primarily living in another state (but same time zone!) with her partner for the past three years. Her work is more modeling based, while mine was all lab-based, but it at least set a precedent.

    I was able to arrange to do some of my remaining lab work over here, which was nice because it helped provide networking opportunities and chances to meet others who were doing interesting science. I was in close email contact with my advisor, and we Skyped occasionally. I also had a couple long trips back to my university throughout the year to wrap things up. Overall, I really liked writing remotely. There are so many random things that you get asked to do when you are around your lab, and so many distractions. When I was back on campus, I found myself getting sucked into making just a few more measurements, or help younger grad students in my group. Both of those are valuable things, but I also needed a few months at the end to just sit in isolation and write, and living far away helped me get that space.

    It was also helpful to be living in the place where I was trying to find a post-graduation job. I feel like in many ways it was helpful to focus my job search on one geographical area (as long as that area is one with multiple opportunities, which it sounds like your new home will be). Potential postdoc mentors were understanding of my situation, and no one seemed to judge me for geographically limiting my search.

    Good luck!

    • thanks for sharing your experience — I agree that there are lots of ways to get “sucked into” doing things in a lab setting. But now as the most senior grad student in my lab group, I like that community and looking out for the newer students. I honestly think I will miss that – even if it means fewer distractions, which will also be welcome.

      There are definitely multiple universities in driving range of our new place — which is good, because my husband’s school-to-be doesn’t have many grad students. I looked into temporarily joining a lab and there just isn’t a relevant one on site.

  3. As a grad student, I was part of the second entering class in a new department, and was my advisors first student, so there was no precedent either way for whether I should be on campus or not. I was lucky to be funded independently from the University. I spent most of my time in grad school one state over, where my also-academic-husband has a TT job. I finished my PhD last summer, and now have a great post-doc in the new state. I got this postdoc in part because I was more or less local to the new institution, and so asked everybody I knew what opportunities were there, and did my best to meet people here in my field. I also had my spouses contacts looking out for postdocs for me. When I heard of a good opportunity, I sent a CV and cover letter in the next day saying I was working locally and would love to meet the PI in person, he invited me to give and informal sort-of-job talk three days later, and decided to hire me instead of going through the advertisement and search process.

    My strategy in grad school was that I told (rather than asked) my advisor that I was planning on writing from state 2 instead of state 1, and I really did fly back to University once a month for meetings. It was a very effective way of getting my committee members to read and comment on my drafts, and keeping me on schedule with my goals as well. Eg. for the Sept 15th meeting, I will have XXX analysis and XXX chapter drafted. I will send them to you by Sept 5th, to give you time to read and review. If I send them in after the 7th, then I won’t expect you to have read it. This schedule was expensive (and I had to pay for the tickets out of pocket), but my fellowship was generous, and I think it was really important to keep me on track and moving forward. During my monthly trips out, I made sure to meet with all of my committee members, individually and as a group if necessary, and also sought out social time with my peers – keeping in touch with them was important for moral support. I tried to schedule the meetings to overlap with big lab meetings or important departmental events if I could, to show face time with that group. Because of this, a lot of other faculty members didn’t really know I wasn’t living in state anymore. I also wrangled writing space and library access locally through my spouses job, which gave me space to feel like a member of an academic community rather than a housewife.

    • thanks for sharing your experience. I did promise my advisor I would fly back to campus at least once every two months, and we agreed that it seemed important to help keep on track and feel connected with the grant team. I am sure that at least one of my committee members won’t even notice (she didn’t even notice that I was pregnant or left for half a semester after giving birth). Not sure yet if I can wrangle library access and writing space out of the husband’s school, am trying to look into that — they do seem like great things to have if possible!

  4. In a reverse of this situation my advisor moved his lab from the UK to the USA 2 years into my 3 year PhD. All lab members were given the opportunity to move too but for various reasons including family and the associated ‘down time’ of setting up a new lab I decided to remain in the UK. I was able to complete my experiments in a familiar environment with the wider support of the department and maintained contact via email and phone to discuss the results and next steps. When it came to writing I emailed drafts and received back annotated comments and feedback. For me this worked well, I don’t feel I missed out on supervision but perhaps had I encountered more difficulties with experiments and/or writing things might not have been so easy.
    Good Luck!

    • thanks for sharing your experience. Fortunately, I don’t have any experiments left – or else I would definitely be looking to travel back more often or to find a lab space in the new locale. Even still, I hope to find statistics support / fellow grads slogging through their stats in the new space, if only to have some accountability and feel connected

  5. I am not in biology/lab sciences (I’m in the social sciences), but I finished up remotely. In fact, I spent 3 years on campus, did my fieldwork overseas for a year, and then spent 1.5 years writing from off campus (my partner got a new academic job that took him out of grad school area). It worked, but I did feel a bit untethered at times. Here is what helped: I went back to grad school city a few times, which allowed me to meet with committee members in person. I also stayed in touch regularly with my primary advisor over Skype (though he was hands-off to start with, so that honestly didn’t make so much of a difference). The MOST important thing I did, though, was create an accountability mechanism for myself, in the form of a friend similarly writing up from off-campus who would ‘meet me’ on Skype/Google Hangouts for ‘writing blocks’ several times a week. We checked in every 30-60 minutes to let one another know how we planned to use the next short chunk of time, and then we did it. It helped that we were in similar fields so we could also check in with one another about WHAT we were writing, but honestly this was less important than simply having someone to hold me accountable for actually getting things done.

    I also taught classes online for my grad school university the whole time I was writing up. If that’s an option, it might be something to consider – having that experience helped me get adjunct positions teaching online courses when I was on the job market, after finishing up, and I know it also helped me get my current tenure track position. Good luck!

    • thanks for sharing your experience! accountability does seem key — will have to figure out a way to build that in. I meant to add that I’ve been exploring trying to get a desk on campus at my partner’s new institution, but they have very, very few grad departments and students, so that’s not looking possible. I’ll try to find someone else in a similar boat to hold me accountable through the internet.

  6. I am in the social sciences, but also finishing remotely. For me it has been a long process… I am in my third year at the new location and only recently have I begun to gain momentum again. Now I am in a good place, writing a significant amount and anticipate defending this summer.

    But there were some real struggles the first 1-2 years. Moving was horribly hard. My spouse was beginning a new, time-intensive job. I had our second child in that time span. Don’t underestimate the amount of effort and time it will take to get the whole family used to the community. In my case, that fell almost completely on me.

    I am fortunate to have very caring advisors who did not give up on me when I was making virtually zero progress. The things that helped me the most were keeping in touch with other grad students, finding someone in a somewhat similar situation to check in and commiserate with, and having regular skype meetings with my advisor. And, most importantly, not giving up. There were several times in the first couple years that I really just wanted to give up.

    • thanks for sharing. I think I will be in a similar position re: partner with time intensive job and shouldering a lot of the social/outside of work/new to community pieces, so it’s good to hear perspective on that. Glad you hear you had supportive advisers! I hope mine will be …

  7. A close friend (and labmate) of mine is planning to write up eight time zones away so that she can live with her partner, after recently taking two months “off” and finding that she was actually more productive when she was outside of the country than inside. Our supervisors have been supportive, and she’s looking forward to the change of scene. It’s not something that I could pull off, but I have a very different personality and relationship to work. Congratulations to your husband, and best of luck to you and your family!

  8. Congrats on getting things (mostly) figured out! I just want to point out for readers that spousal hires are definitely not a “thing of the past” everywhere – it’s tough when you’re a ways from finishing your PhD, but I know of a number of folks (at my institution and others) who’ve either worked out two TT jobs or if the ‘trailing partner’ is just graduating, then the institution has provided funds for a multi-year postdoc with some amount of promise to try to turn that into a faculty position later. I’m sure there’s tons of variation in this from place to place, and it seems like each case is different, but it’s always worth asking about during negotiations.

    • thanks for the well wishes! and thanks for that point. it didn’t seem like something we wanted to bring up during negotiations since we wanted to move to this city so badly (since it was such a good fit for our kid’s needs). we really weren’t sure how to play that, so we punted. maybe a bad move in retrospect but we didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize the offer.

  9. I’m in the process of finishing the last semester of my PhD in biology remotely. My husband got a postdoc across the US from where we went to grad school, so we just moved. I’ve been analyzing data and writing, emailing with my advisor, and will be going back to my home institution for my defense soon. My advice: know how you work best, and set up your situation accordingly. Do you work well from home, or do you need to go to an office to be productive? We set up a home office for me, my husband’s postdoc advisor gave me space in his postdoc office, and he helped get me appointed as a “visiting scholar” so I’d have access to the library system here, which has been useful. The hardest part, for me, has not been having a lab group to talk science with regularly. I’d strongly recommend finding a lab group with whom you share research interests at your new location, and make a point of attending their lab meetings and joining in socially. I didn’t realize how important that sort of intellectual stimulation was until I no longer had it.

    • thanks for sharing your experience. I definitely want to find a lab group for those reasons but there just isn’t a relevant one at his campus-to-be. I am looking in the surrounding area. We definitely want to ask his department for the visiting scholar post, but the school seems to have a very formal application process for that … maybe it just appears so on paper. We’re starting to feel out those sorts of questions with the department chair.

  10. My husband finished his PhD first, so I spent the last 8 months of my PhD across the US from my university. All my data were already on disk, so I was working on analysis and writing (I’m a physicist). I mainly worked from home and had frequent emails and Skype calls with my advisor. I didn’t ever go back to my university to visit (not until it was time for my defense) but my advisor and I did meet at a conference in a third location about halfway through, and were able to set aside a lot of time to work together. That was incredibly useful.

    In my field it’s pretty common for a student to spend a large part of their PhD working at a different location, but usually the student is at a large laboratory at that time. Working at home, I very much missed being part of a research community, especially when I was faced with small, fiddly IT problems of the kind that would take five minutes to solve with the grad student in the next office, and fifty to solve on one’s own with Google.

    If you do end up working mostly on your own, my advice is to spend time out of the house, even if your home office is set up just the way you like it. Working at a coffeeshop or a public library is still work, but having a little bit of variety (and seeing people outside your immediate family, even if you don’t interact with them) can be incredibly refreshing and recharging. If you can, allow yourself a little bit of time for yourself, too, outside of work. Writing a dissertation and caring for an infant (even if there are no special additional challenges involved) are both deeply consuming, isolating things. Try to find some small things that will help you center yourself after a long day, like nursing a mug of hot chocolate or taking your kid to the park.

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