A Different Kind of Long-Distance Relationship

Tips on how to make remote advising work for you
APR 2020
Anonymous
St.

Now that we're working from home and many of us have relocated from campus, maintaining effective communication with our advisors remotely presents an additional stressor (on top of trying not to catch coronavirus). But some of us are already well-acquainted with the joys of skyping in sweatpants and rolling out of bed ten minutes before a group meeting. I was remotely advised for about half of my PhD, so I wanted to share some tips on how to make the most of a long-distance advising relationship. Advising relationships are already a tricky subject for a lot of grad students, and when it's taking place online, communication can be even more difficult. So here are some things that I found were most important for online advising success.

Schedule and communicate effectively

One of the biggest challenges with remote advising is staying in touch with your advisor and being able to get the guidance you need when you need it. This can be difficult in person and even harder online - there are no doors to knock on or labs to pop into. My advisor and I scheduled recurring check-in meetings, and we found that this was a good way to make sure they were up to date on my work.

That being said, just because a meeting is scheduled does not mean it will happen. So, communication is essential, and reminders can go a long way. It can be stressful to just send an email reminder because it might feel like you're bothering your advisor, so what I would do is send an email the night before a meeting with a brief update or some slides I wanted to discuss. That way, it looks like your email has a purpose but also serves as a reminder.

Design your slides for a distracted audience

I found explaining research results to be much more difficult online than in person - there's just something about a face-to-face conversation that facilitates communication of ideas. What ended up working for me was to put everything I wanted to say on my slides;  that way, my advisor did not need to rely as much on my narration. This approach was initially counterintuitive to me because I had learned to not overload slides and to represent things simply. However, this general slide design advice relies on being able to seamlessly communicate with your audience, which doesn't always happen in online meetings. I also usually wrote out everything I planned to say in the notes section of the slides. I found it easier to get distracted in online meetings, so if I lost my train of thought, I would be able to look at my summary notes and get back on track. It also seemed like my advisor had trouble staying focused during online meetings, so the slide summaries were probably useful for them too.

Look out for your labmates and advocate for each other

If you can't get in touch with your advisor, check whether any of your labmates have heard from them recently, and ask a labmate who has an upcoming meeting to casually mention your existence. Similarly, if you have a meeting coming up, offer to pass along any messages from your labmates or to remind your advisor that others are waiting for a reply. Since you're all working for the same advisor, you are each other's best support system.

Take advantage of the flexibility

There are definitely advantages to remote advising, even besides being able to have meetings from your bed. When you're working from home, your work hours can be whatever you want them to be, as long as you get your work done! Some grad students already have arrangements like this, but for those who don't, now is a great time to take advantage of the flexibility. Although coronavirus is severely limiting what we can do with that flexibility, we still have plenty of control over our work schedule. You can also take more time for self care during the day, since we’re in the middle of a pretty stressful time.

When I found out that I would be in a remote advising situation for a big chunk of my PhD, I was initially skeptical. But I made it out, and having a virtual advisor ended up being one of the best things that happened to me in grad school! I had more freedom to design my daily schedule and work on personal projects that led me to discover new passions, while still meeting my advisor's expectations. Hopefully this quarantine will end soon, but until then, have fun going to meetings in your pajamas!