While completing my MA, I met a student in my program who would drive 12 hours each week to come to class; she’d stay in a hotel and return home the following day or two, depending on her course schedule. She had a husband, children, and a job! You have to really want it to do that, right? And who is that crazy?
Well, apparently, I am. After getting accepted in 2011 to my first-choice university for a PhD in anthropology, I was thrilled! Could it really be that this terminal degree that I dreamed of was actually going to happen? The problem was (is), however, that I have a family, a great job, and a home in a neighboring state (not town, not village … state!) and the idea of uprooting my whole life to enroll in this program was not something I felt I could do. Thinking creatively, I talked with the graduate advisor and faculty about the possibility of commuting by plane to attend classes. They were surprisingly supportive regarding my situation – and here I am, having learned some very important skills for the savvy commuter student. Leaving my apartment (and my cat, Boas) behind, I fly 1,032 miles each week, stay at a very budget-friendly hotel, and have become incredibly creative with time management. Whether you’re a commuter student or not, maybe what I’ve learned will help you find inventive ways to stretch the oh-so-little time graduate students have!
1) Learn to get creative with your reading! And not just reading, but deep, understanding, I–better-get-it-and-be-prepared-to-discuss-it- with commentary kind of reading! And just when I thought I was ready for the week, the professor would post something else on Blackboard to read the day the before class! Any extra minute I had, I was reading in line – at Starbucks, while waiting for my planes to arrive and even on weekend dates at the local coffee shop (talk about romantic!). Take your reading anywhere you might be able to catch a paragraph or two.
2) Technology! Finding the right technology is a challenge. I tried using an e-reader rather than carrying 15 pounds of books on shuttles and airplanes (and many allow access to your books from any device online). Once, I left a book on the plane the day before a paper was due and nearly had a meltdown! Taking my e-reader with me was helpful for the traveling, but having the books at home to write in also proved valuable! I suggest something that allows you to read, take notes, mark the correct pages for citation, and store your highlights and notes in one easy place. And it must be lightweight and portable to go through security!
3) A life? Balancing my personal life along with a very large family of nieces, nephews, and cousins proved to be quite challenging! Letting my family and friends know that I would be very busy for a time prepared all of us for my inevitable absence at events. My constant mantra is: “When I get a PhD, we all get a PhD” because it takes support from friends and family to help see us through the difficult times of graduate study. Enlist support and let them know how they can help. Sometimes, it was my neighbors taking care of Boas, or going to a friend’s house weekly for dinner, or asking for a ride to the airport. Don’t be afraid to ask for help! You’re still human and you need to have a life outside of grad school.
4) Plan ahead! If you thought the commute was crazy, try adding five classes that I was teaching during my first semester! It helped that my university where I’m employed was gracious and granted me an assistant, but I still had to grade and prepare lessons, papers, and projects. Having lessons planned ahead of time and using an online system helped me to stay on top of grading and posting assignments really came in handy. In addition, I let my students know that I would be out of town for two days each week; his helped to set an expectation of availability. Planning ahead is never a bad idea, and it’s never too late to start!
I am thankful for the flexibility my professors have offered to allow me the privilege of studying and the grace of family, friends, and colleagues who have been so supportive! There are many lessons I’ve learned and many more to come. Maybe I can check back in and let you know if these strategies really did help in the long run!
Julie M Goodman is a second-year PhD student studying immigration and culture change at the University of Nevada, Reno. She also teaches full-time at California Baptist University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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