Annie Tock Morrisette, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Maine
For this Khronikos post, I’ve been asked to talk about some of the challenges of being an off-campus grad student. Of course, we all have a lot more going on in our lives than grad school, and there are many compelling reasons for some of us to leave the nest early. Some folks leave to do research, and others are lucky enough to find a good job before completing the dissertation. Others find that family and financial obligations outweigh the advantages of remaining within striking distance of the home university. In any case, being a distance student is tough, but there are ways to stay connected and keep progressing toward that swanky regalia we’re all gunning for! Below are some ideas for handling distance-related inconveniences, but this post is mostly intended to encourage grad students to appreciate their time on campus.
Of course, having access to a good library is key for historians. Before I moved, I checked out every book I could find that might be remotely related to Irish sectarian riots in Ireland and Canada during the early nineteenth century. I felt slightly guilty about this, but so far I haven’t had any complaints or any recall requests. As I’ve continued to research, I’ve found additional books that I’d like to add to my collection. Because I can’t pop up to Maine too frequently, I’m keeping a list of “must-have” books and reading reviews of arguments I’d just like to be aware of. I’ve also found that, if I’m looking for a single chapter in an edited collection, there may be a pdf online. Access to microfilm readers and microfilms through interlibrary loan can also be a challenge, but for a comparatively small fee, some libraries are willing to make digital copies of their microfilm and mail it to you. This cost can be weighed against the cost of travel either to your home university or the origin library, and frequently it is worth it to have the material copied (hard copies can be a different story and expensive, it just depends on what you need).
I was expecting some library challenges, but I didn’t realize how much I’d have to rely on on-campus folks to help me do things like apply for department grants and turn in reimbursement receipts. I forgot how much running around to different offices is involved in university life, and I am really appreciative of the assistance I’ve gotten in this regard.
Speaking (sort of) of funding, when you’re off campus, you’re not likely to be awarded a teaching assistant position or one of the teaching fellowships. Not only does this severely limit your funding opportunities, but you also have to get more creative in seeking out teaching experience before graduation. I plan to apply for courses at local community colleges, and I’m also going to explore the possibility of teaching an online course. As upcoming historians in a glutted job market, we may need to be more creative, proactive, and flexible in carving out our own niches in the job world; designing, pitching, and teaching an online course can be a valuable experience, even if one eventually finds a traditional academic position.
Distance students also miss out on the symposia, seminars, and conferences hosted by the department and university. This is a great opportunity to listen to interesting presentations and meet established academics, and it is also a chance to observe different presentation styles and see how the pros handle a Q & A session. That said, attending conferences in your field can fulfill similar needs and can also be an opportunity to reunite with colleagues.
One of the biggest things I miss about the university is the community; you can’t replicate this away from campus. Professors frequently have their doors open, and I miss stopping in for a chat about research or just how things are going. Department picnics and the holiday bowling party are a good time. The feeling of collegiality in the department has led to some great student-led projects, like the speakers brought in by the environmental history students, the UMaine/UNB Graduate Student History Conference, and this fine blog that came out of one of Liam Riordan’s courses. As to fellow students, and I can only speak from my own experience, our cohort became a tight group of friends who could be counted on to be engaged and supportive in class, willing and adept at editing papers and offering suggestions, sympathetic when things weren’t going well, ready with a ride or a spare couch as needed, and always up for a night out at Nocturnem or Woodman’s for conversation that we swore wouldn’t involve work/school and almost invariably did.
So to wrap up these reflections, being away from the library and university is inconvenient, but it’s the people and culture I really miss. This sense of community can be hard to cultivate and difficult to maintain, and it is easily lost. When you’re far away from family (and you’re in Maine, so odds are you are!), these are the people you’ll potluck with on Thanksgiving and Easter, cook out with on Fourth of July, celebrate with on your birthday, and be left behind with on Rapture Day. Grad school is a transient experience; we’ll all move on at some point, so the time on campus with colleagues is to be treasured. My hope is that current students are intentional about building on and maintaining this supportive community, and that they have as positive an experience as I had during my three years on campus at UMaine.
Annie Tock Morrisette, “Missing Maine: The Challenges of Leaving Campus Early,” Khronikos: the University of Maine graduate history student blog (blog), December 11, 2013, http://khronikos.com/2013/12/11/missing-maine-the-challenges-of-leaving-campus-early/.