Can distance really work?

Isabel Cook
Department of Archaeology
University of Sheffield




Having moved away from my home institution just over a year ago, I thought sharing my experiences and reservations might help someone else decide whether or not to make the jump. I spent the first year of my PhD living in Sheffield, and I really did enjoy my time there, but my project doesn’t require me to be in department often at all. There is a great sense of community amongst the PhD students in the Archaeology Department, but I decided to move to Peterborough to live with my partner of five years. After two years of long-distance, neither of us felt really at home in the places that we were living because we were travelling to visit each other every other weekend. It was a bit of a leap of faith, truth be told, but I figured that if there’s any good time to move around it’s now, when many of us can be completely flexible with when and where we work.

Obviously, moving to a new city is always exciting and weird at the same time. One piece of advice that I would give to anyone who works predominantly from home is to make a home office. The dining table within arms-reach of the fridge and tv-remote, or the bedroom with a comfy bed just a few feet away, is never going to be the best working environment for even the most strong-willed. I found my motivation and productivity increased massively when I put a desk and chair in our spare box room and called it my office. This also means that, when 5pm comes around (or 4.30, let’s be real), I can close the door on my office, closing all the stresses and worries of the day in there, rather than bringing those feelings into the rest of my life.

I found it pretty fun to try working in new environments, trying out different cafes, and exploring my new city at the same time. Many now offer free WiFi, and becoming a regular in an independent establishment means that you get to know the owners too, which really helps you start to feel part of the community. One thing that was a godsend was finding out that I could work in the Anglia Ruskin University library on their Peterborough campus. The Society of College, National and University Libraries (SCONUL) Access Scheme allows postgraduate students work in, and borrow books from, other university libraries that are part of this scheme (over 200 institutions are involved, I counted, you’re welcome). You have to sign up to the scheme, and then take the letter to the library that you want to use. Once you have signed up, you can receive a library card which lasts for three years or until the end of your course, and can be used in any of the participating libraries. Although sometimes it’s nice to work in cafes with a foam art-adorned macchiato, the academic surroundings are much more conducive to hard work (and easier on the wallet), while still getting you out of the house.

In all honesty, there were obviously times (especially at first) when I felt a bit lonely – many of us as PhD researchers work alone most of the time, but not knowing anyone to see in the evenings other than my partner was a challenge. However, it actually pushed me to do things I never would have had the guts to do before in the quest to make new friends. I tried out rugby (definitely not for me), and then Crossfit, which has really had a profound effect on me in many ways (not to sound like a stereotypical crossfitter). Not only did it introduce me to a wonderful tight-knit community who were so welcoming, but as is often said, exercise is the best stress reliever. The friends that I have made through this are diverse in terms of race, background, occupation, and age, and it has opened my eyes to how narrow a world academia really is, and how many other ways of viewing the world exist. If nothing else, moving away from my home institution has definitely enriched me as a person if not as an academic, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

On a practical note, it is worth remembering that for Small and Large Award funding, WRoCAH will only fund travel expenses to and from your home institution rather than from your place of residence (unless the latter is cheaper). This means that, if you have to undertake fieldwork or partake in activities that are far from home but near your institution, you will have to pay for the travel yourself. This can cause costs to add up, but it might not be a big problem for everyone. Anyway, if the move will make you significantly happier, it might be worth the cost of a few train tickets.

Moving away from your home institution does not mean an end to your friendships and connections in your department; I still go back up to Sheffield for parties, events and meetings. This might be more difficult if you plan to go much further away, but the internet is a wonderful thing and skype/whatsapp/snapchat/Instagram/facebook/email/good old-fashioned snail mail can help you keep those connections going.

Everyone’s different, so any experiences or advice are going to be very personal and might not be relevant in all situations, so I apologise if I haven’t helped your decision. It’s worth remembering, though, that we’re able to be pretty flexible as PhD students, and the fact that you put ‘University of York/Sheffield/Leeds’ on presentations doesn’t mean you’re tied to the place if somewhere else is calling your name.

Izzy Cook