• GradHacker

    A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online


Dissertation From a Distance

One GradHacker reflects on writing the dissertation in a different state than her graduate institution.

September 29, 2015

Wendy Robinson is a doctoral candidate at Iowa State University in Higher Education. You can find her not tweeting about grad school @wendyrmonkey.




Just over a year ago, I carefully labeled a moving box with the words “research- don’t lose!” and loaded it into the back of my jam-packed Subaru. As my husband buckled our two kids into their car seats, we watched as the moving truck pulled away from our now empty Iowa home. We were headed north, on to a new life in Minnesota.


Since that day we’ve settled in nicely. My son loves his new school, our new house is in a friendly, walkable neighborhood, and the job I moved here to take has been interesting, challenging, and supportive. All in all, it was the perfect post-grad school move.

Only one small problem: I’m not actually done with grad school yet.


My husband and I had known for several years that the Twin Cities is where we wanted to put down long-term roots and had agreed that we’d set our sights on a job there once I completed my PhD. But when my current position opened it was too appealing to pass up and now I find myself struggling to finish my dissertation at a distance, hours away from my advisor, the other members of my cohort and that fabulous computer lab that had free printing for grad students.

When we first moved, I still had one semester of coursework to finish, easily remedied by an independent study research project and an online class that satisfied a degree requirement. I returned to my campus at the end of the semester for comps and approval of my dissertation proposal.


That was nine months ago and since then I’ve talked with my advisor on the phone a handful of times and solved challenges ranging from IRB hiccups to mixed methods panic attacks via email. While other members of my cohort meet at the on-campus coffee shop for writing sessions, I try to plug away at the desk in my office after hours, all alone.


I’ll be honest: there are some disadvantages to doing a dissertation from a distance. I miss the camaraderie with other students in my program. Sometimes it would be nice to be able to pop into my advisor’s office and chat about my research. But then I see my family happily settling into life here and I realize that I’ve never enjoyed a job as much as I enjoy this one and I feel confident that I made the right decision to move.


I’ve also learned that there are some ways to make the process of finishing a PhD at a distance a little less challenging:

1.      Find a buddy: I don’t have my fellow classmates here, but I do have Susi. I met Susi at the park when our sons were climbing the same tree but quickly discovered that we have more in common than just two kids who were born without a sense of self-preservation or a healthy fear of heights. She is an anthropologist with a doctorate from an Ivy League university and is happily willing to go out to lunch with me and listen as I whine, moan, and fret about the dissertation writing process when I feel like I’ve been plugging away alone for too long.

2.      Make technology your friend: Skype, FaceTime, and Gchat have all come in handy in my research and writing process, allowing me to connect with my faculty and classmates.

3.      Embrace the independence: Quite simply, if you need regular feedback and hand-holding from your advisor, DO NOT leave the state where that person works. Sometimes I wish I had a little more feedback but I also have come to feel proud of myself for puzzling through problems and roadblocks on my own. I think I’ve actually become a stronger researcher and thinker as a result.

4.      Set your own deadlines: I don’t want to say that I’m “out of sight, out of mind” when it comes to my committee members but I do feel like there is a greater chance that without external accountability there might, for some people, be a greater chance that they’ll end up ABD. My way of combating this is to make sure that I set regular deadlines for myself and that I update my advisor on my progress every month or two in order to keep myself accountable.


As much as I love my new life here, I do occasionally miss Iowa. Good thing that I’ll have built-in reason to go back for a visit… just as soon as I have something to defend when I’m there!


Is moving before graduation a kiss of death in your department?


[Image by Flickr user Teresa Boardman and used under Creative Commons Licensing]


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