3 PhD life hacks for the remote researcher (Caroline Baker)

Photo by Andrew Neel | unsplash.com 
To embark on a PhD can be a big life decision. To do it remotely may be an even BIGGER one!

More and more, Universities and technology are opening opportunities to learn flexibly and remotely. What does this mean for you as a PhD student?

Can PhD students successfully make progress and complete their study remotely (i.e. be interstate/international/regionally-based from their University)? Can the learning experience be rich and rewarding?

I'm currently a postdoctoral research fellow with the Centre for Research Excellence in Aphasia Recovery and Rehabilitation, La Trobe University, and I say YES to these questions!

But I'd follow up with a proviso that it does depend on your research field and you need to navigate the terrain!

People say PhD research can be isolating in the first place, so why choose to be remote?

As a speech pathologist in Melbourne, I was seeking postgraduate study opportunities to extend upon undergraduate studies and 15 years of clinical practice. By chance, I saw that Professor Emerita Linda Worrall from The University of Queensland (UQ) was seeking PhD students via Twitter! I responded to this and we got talking via Skype (!) about my topic area of interest – psychological wellbeing for people with aphasia. I was soon enrolled, with her as my primary supervisor.

Aphasia is an acquired communication disorder most commonly caused by brain injury after stroke.  Stroke survivors with aphasia can have difficulty talking, understanding others, reading and writing. For many, this sudden loss of communication negatively impacts on their mood, quality of life, relationships, work and previously enjoyed activities. Many stroke survivors don’t get the psychological care they need. The prospect of focusing the next chapter of my life’s work on this area of high and unmet need had me feeling determined and excited to begin!

I was exceptionally fortunate to have Professor Miranda Rose (La Trobe University) and Dr Brooke Ryan (UQ) join the supervisory team. My supervisors supported me to seek PhD scholarships, both locally and remotely. I was successful in gaining an Australian Postgraduate Award (full time scholarship over 3 years) through UQ. And so began my journey as a fledgling, remote UQ PhD student.

There are two sides to the coin of remoteness. It can open up opportunities but it can also feel frustrating at times!

My learnings from this experience are distilled into 3 PhD life hacks:

1) WORK TO STAY AND BE CONNECTED – ‘it takes a village to do a PhD’

I viewed my ‘remoteness’ to be a win-win situation. I established - and still enjoy today - connections with colleagues at UQ and I have close working relationships with my colleagues at La Trobe.

What helped? Getting to know and work with remote and local supervisors, other graduate researchers and clinicians in health networks.

  • Plan, schedule and organise study visits to your remote campus and present at conferences local to your University (e.g. Postgraduate Research days/meetings). Think logistics: an office space to work; face-to-face meetings with supervisor/s and other students.
  • Maximise your time spent on campus by booking in a workshop or seminar to coincide with your visit (e.g., face-to-face library session on using Endnote).
  • Initiate and join in for social activities (e.g. go for coffee/lunch!).
  • When home, maximise the use of technology to connect. Use Zoom (or similar) to be a remote attendee on research/student meetings. Attend as many as you can and be consistent in attendance. It helps that colleagues get to know who and where you are, and about your research work and experiences. 
  • The same points above can be said for your local supervisor/s and peer group – get out of your solitary study space and keep connected with your local people. I drew upon, and contributed to, the strength, energy and vitality of our local research group. 

2) EMBRACE TECHNOLOGY – ‘use it and talk nicely to your computer’

I consider myself far from being tech savvy! But that’s how my journey began – by joining Twitter and learning from others by following PhD-related handles and hashtags (e.g. @thesiswhisperer @PhD_Connect @PhDForum @PHDcomics #PhDchat).

What helped? Setting up and maintaining my equipment; getting help from IT experts when I needed it; communicating my IT needs and issues with colleagues at my remote campus.

  • Consider what helps you to access and get the most out of remote attendance via videoconference/Zoom/Skype. Be assertive so people at your University understand the challenges and can help you resolve them. 
  • In my case, I wrote up a guideline on ‘Skype etiquette’ for our research meetings and presented this to the group. For example, it was important to have the webcam showing others in the room or the presenter, rather than pointing up to show the ceiling! There was a commitment from those on campus to help put the etiquette into practice.  
  • Keep in touch with IT services via email/phone for help (e.g. setting up Virtual Pathway Network (VPN) to access shared computer hard drives, etc).
  • Attend professional development seminars or workshops via videoconference. If something doesn’t seem accessible remotely, ASK if it is and KEEP ASKING. If Universities offer remote enrolment, they need to work hard to make these events accessible.
  • Back up your work, back up your work and then back up your work again – my computer hard drive died twice during my PhD. Fortunately, work was backed up in multiple places (clouds, portable hard drives, etc). Did I mention to back up your work?

3) WORK-LIFE BALANCE DOESN’T ALWAYS EXIST – ‘there will be ebbs and flows’

At times, it’s ok not to feel ok during your PhD. There will be highs and lows.

You can be strategic, plan, work hard, but life goes on and sometimes things happen beyond your control. The important thing is to get help and support.

  • Some people say 'work-life balance' doesn’t always exist and I tend to agree. There will be times of hard work and pressure to get work done, and there will be times of relative ease. Aiming for a 'balance' tends to make me feel unnecessarily pressured in itself! 
  • Try to keep to a routine and have boundaries around your work.
  • Try to maintain a steady flow of self-care – this will only enhance your productivity and creativity ( e.g. do stuff you enjoy and look after you!). Don't be backwards in coming forward for help!
So, YES, it can be done, you can complete a PhD remotely.

BUT to enhance your learning and get it done, you need to be: connected, supported and embracing of the tech. It’s one step at a time to navigate the terrain until, one day, down the track ... you are proudly holding your awarded PhD.

Photo courtesy of Caroline Baker


Caroline Baker is a speech pathologist and postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre for Research Excellence in Aphasia Recovery and Rehabilitation (@aphasiaCRE). 

Caroline was awarded a PhD in speech pathology from The University of Queensland and holds a Bachelor of Science with major in Psychology from Monash University. Her PhD studies combined her interests to investigate the translation of stepped psychological care for people with aphasia after stroke. She is based at La Trobe University and works across two research programs of the Aphasia CRE: ‘Optimising mental health and wellbeing’ and ‘Treatment effectiveness.’ Caroline also holds clinical and honorary research positions at Monash Health.  

She tweets from @CarolineJM26.