Completing Your Ph.D. Remotely

Marcelle Dougan offers tips for staying on track.

January 30, 2015

Completing a dissertation is a challenging process that requires meticulous planning and sustained effort for an extended period of time, and the rewards are not always apparent or tangible. Completing a dissertation remotely has its own unique challenges. Writing from personal experience, when I was two years into my doctoral program and had just taken my qualifying exam, my husband received a fabulous opportunity in the San Francisco Bay Area. We packed up the family from Boston, and I completed the remaining three years of my program remotely. Here are some tips for making the process manageable so that you can stay on track.

Make a plan. The old adage says if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. This is especially true when you completing your dissertation remotely. It is important to have a regular work schedule with milestones -- which will be continuously refined as you get more or less done than you originally anticipated. You also need to make sure you’re eating well, exercising regularly and sleeping well. 

Start work at the same time every day -- same as you would when you’re doing a regular job. Set up a regular time every one to two weeks, no less than once a month, to connect with your advisor and provide updates on your process. Make sure your workspace is organized and clutter-free. If it helps, consider posting motivational messages around your workspace to keep you focused -- it’s easy to get sidetracked when there are other demands on your time. If you’re having difficulty managing your home/work lives, hiring a dissertation coach for some part of the process can help you get and stay on track.

Line up the resources you need. Because you are far away from all your resources, you can’t simply walk down the hall or across the street to ask someone for help. Avoid delays by having handy a list of resources that can help you when you are stuck. Who is the programming expert at your university? Who is a good writing resource? Having a list at hand can keep you moving forward.

Stay connected with your university. When you’re working remotely, it’s easy to get disengaged from the graduate community and the entire dissertation process. Stay connected with a few of your classmates -- they are going through the same challenges as you are for the most part, so they can be there to support you when things get difficult and you are feeling isolated. Review departmental seminar schedules as soon as they become available. Depending on how often you have to travel back to your university, perhaps for committee meetings, try to coordinate these trips with special events, e.g., career-planning sessions or presentations/lectures in your area of research, so that you can maximize your time away from home to your benefit.

Get connected locally. Because you’re working remotely, you have no natural “home” -- no forum to stay engaged outside your research, which is another way to get easily isolated. Check your alumni directory and look for local alumni who are working in your field of interest and connect with them. They can be a valuable resource when the time comes to find a job. Check the Web sites of universities close to you -- offer to present your research (if appropriate) and meet with faculty -- you never know where it could lead. Continue to expand your network any way you can. 

Attend and participate in research conferences. Participating in research conferences is a good way of establishing yourself in your field. If you can, register for conferences. Oftentimes, organizers offer scholarships to students to defray the costs of attending -- look for conferences that interest you, register early and present your work. This is a good way of getting comfortable with talking about your research in front of an audience, which is always good practice for your defense. 

Finishing your dissertation remotely has its own brand of challenges but the unique benefit of being able to tap into a wider network than you normally would were you working locally. With a solid plan and the right support, you will be able to manage the complexities that are part of the process.


Marcelle Dougan conducts epidemiological research on diet, lifestyle and in utero exposures in relation to reproductive health outcomes and cancer.


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