Working Remotely, Abroad
(posted on behalf of @Andrew Nixon, Ph.D. Student Representative)
I didn’t expect to spend the bulk of my doctorate at home. My master's had been full of conference travel, events, and hanging out on campus without fear of getting infected with anything worse than the common cold. Before agreeing to apply to my Ph.D. program, I had negotiated with my supervisor to spend four semesters abroad, part of this was to mitigate my cardinal sin of staying at one university for all three degrees — I knew I needed to expand my network beyond the campus I was becoming too comfortable with. I started my Ph.D. in Fall 2019, so I had about one and a half semesters before the world shut down and all my plans to be somewhere else disappeared.
This past year as the pandemic travel restrictions eased, my partner and I felt like we needed a reset our settings. We had spent the year in a 500-square-foot one-bedroom condo with a puppy to keep us company and interrupt us anytime we had a Zoom call. The world had opened up again, and we wanted to take advantage of the flexibility afforded by a Ph.D. in the social sciences where we weren’t tied to a lab constantly running experiments. Both of us just need a laptop and an internet connection to write our dissertations, so why couldn’t we work somewhere else? We decided to max out our visa-free period in the Schengen area, which is a luxury afforded to passport holders from most countries outside of Asia, the Middle East, and Africa that allows 90-days of access to 26 European countries. We spent 89 days in Spain from May to the end of July, and I wanted to share a few pros and cons of my experience of trying this out.
How did we afford it? I have a generous scholarship but am not exactly rich to afford a trip like this without giving up our apartment and stashing our stuff in my partner’s parents' garage! Airbnb offers long-term rentals where you receive a 20% discount for stays 28 days or longer, so we were able to find places to stay each month that were pretty close to our rent in Canada (~ CAD 1600/month with everything included: rent, parking, utilities, internet). We stayed our first month in Sedella, which is a small village about an hour outside of Málaga in the province of Andalucía. We were in San Sebastián in June and spent July in Valencia. We were lucky to book our flights early enough that we avoided the huge increase in airfare that came later this year; we paid $878 each to fly into Málaga in May and fly home from Barcelona in July. The cost of living was more affordable in Spain, so over the three-month period we were there, even including our flights it was not much different financially than what we would have spent if we stayed in Canada.
Here are the benefits I found from this experience:
- Drawing inspiration from new surroundings. This inspiration can be work-related (by visiting other universities and meeting with other students and professors) or taken from the new culture (through museum visits or just appreciating different lifestyles and approaches to work-life balance—shout out to the siesta!). I cannot say how much the new settings did for our mental health after so much time spent at our desks in a small apartment.
- There is an email time zone difference. Anyone back home who would be trying to ask us to do things was six hours behind. This means that you have from about 9 AM to 3 PM to focus on your own work before new emails and requests for your time start coming in. It also makes you look nice and productive when everyone back home wakes up to your messages!
- Feeling out what working in a different country would be like. My partner and I are considering applying to European institutions when we graduate, so this was a safe trial run to see if we could handle it. We were worried that the separation from family and friends would be too much and while that was hard, overall, we felt that we could make Spain our home for at least a few years. We did not want to come back by the time it ended!
This experience was not without its cons though:
- The distractions are greater. There is tension between the constant pressure of productivity expected from Ph.D. students and the feeling of being in the region for a short period of time and wanting to explore the new area. Admittedly, I did not always balance these pressures well, but I was adamant that this wasn’t a three-month vacation and we were there to work, so we set aside touristy days, and that motivated us to make sure we did not fall too far behind in order to enjoy them.
- Zoom meetings can be tricky. This is the inverse of the quiet email period, where you have a smaller window of time to connect over a call with friends, family, supervisors, and colleagues back in our home time zone. Being six hours ahead meant that we would do late afternoon calls most often and the summer semester is often slower, so we did not have as many meetings as we would have if we went in the Fall or Winter semester. While there was the odd unavoidable late-night meeting, we tried to be protective of our evenings.
- We left our dog at home with my partner’s parents, and Spain is actually very dog friendly! We got pangs of guilt every time we saw another dachshund walk by, which is surprisingly often since salchicha (sausage) dogs were popular there. So, if you have a pet and want to bring it with you, do more research than we did on the attitude toward animals in the country you’re going to.
This is my last post as a Ph.D. Student Representative, it’s been my pleasure to represent the doctoral students of the ENT Division. I hope readers enjoyed some of what I wrote over this past year, and if you want to follow up on anything, my email address is email@example.com.