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Is it a bad thing in academia if a student works from home? Missing department talks and seminars is obviously bad, but in case a student is pursuing a problem alone and he feels comfortable researching at home, is it viewed negatively? At times the time spent on travel and a crowded lab may disrupt one's flow of thoughts, so in those cases home provides an edge.

Is physical attendance deemed important by the department as long as they are kept in the loop regarding your progress?

  • Most likely, there is now difference between academia and jobs like programming, graphical design, editorial work, etc. So general advices + productivity.stackexchange.com should apply. What does make the question academia-specific? – Piotr Migdal Jun 5 '12 at 8:25
  • @PiotrMigdal Because it is. One of the hallmarks of academia is occasional flexibility, and there is a world of difference between academia and freelancing/contract work ala editorial work or graphic design. – Fomite Jun 5 '12 at 8:26
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    @EpiGrad For 'normal jobs' there is whole spectrum from 'you have to work a home' to 'you have to do all work-related things in the office'. Without a further specification, the answer will not differ much for one for a specific non-academic job. – Piotr Migdal Jun 5 '12 at 8:34
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    @PiotrMigdal True, but first it's not just a productivity question, but a cultural one, and second, academic work is just different at times. I've worked as both a freelance creative professional and a grad student - the problems and choices are different, even if the desk layout ends up the same. – Fomite Jun 5 '12 at 8:37
  • @EpiGrad Now I see it, thx. – Piotr Migdal Jun 5 '12 at 9:11
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The answer is it depends - both on the student and the culture of the department.

There are of course some situations where working from home is impossible - graduate programs that are heavily lab based come to mind. Below is a summarization of my thoughts from a more data analysis driven field, having done both.

Positives

  • Lots of departments these days don't have lots of graduate student space. While some labs might have dedicated bench space, and there may be an RA/TA office or two, there's not "a place" where students can work anyway, which makes "is it bad to work from home" something of a moot point.
  • Working from home benefits certain work styles. If you're the kind of person who prefers to work in a spread out, sprawling fashion, with multiple monitors, tons of stacks of paper, and a whiteboard or two, that's just not feasible in most grad student offices, even when they do exist. And when the only spaces that exist are transient ones, like shared desks or cubicles, library study areas etc. you also can't customize your work space at all - and expensive textbooks and laptops are theft bait.
  • It facilitates more flexible schedules. Universities tend to be closed at 3:00 AM. I tend to do my best work at around that time. This seems to be relatively common in academia, and as academia seems to promote an "always working" lifestyle, having a single centralized space you have access to 24 hours a day is nice.

Negatives

  • You do lose out on departmental interactions somewhat. The concern about missing seminars is I think a bit of a non-issue. Those are easy to miss when you're working on site, and can be attended with just a little bit of diligence on the part of someone working from home. What I've found missing more is the transient, passing in the hallways interactions. I realized, for example, one day that I had gone several weeks without talking to anyone about my field. That's not good. It also does some harm to cross-polination and ideas from unexpected places.
  • It can get lonely. Seriously, this seems to be a major challenge. It's possible, and the workload sometimes promotes, just disappearing into a cave.
  • It's possible to get distracted, as it always is working from home. "Real life" has infinitely many things to take care of, and its much easier to defend "work time" if you're at an office. But then unless you have an office its easy to get distracted in a department where your friends and colleagues are around.

Overall, I wouldn't say its bad. I know successful academics who work almost entirely in their office, and who work almost entirely from home. I'd say the best way to promote on-site work, if a university is trying to accomplish that, is not to focus on the bad parts of working from home, but on addressing what makes it appealing. I finally moved entirely to a working from home setup because I got tired of "work" involving camping out in cramped spaces, without the materials I needed, fighting for power outlets.

As for whether or not your physical presence is important to the department - it depends on the department. I've known some who don't care as long as you show up to what you need to, and others that absolutely want you there, and subtly penalize those who aren't around.

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As this relates to students, I feel it is extremely bad to work from home regularly. Being a grad student is not about being efficient, or even learning to be efficient. It is about learning your subject area and making contacts. Working from home means you miss interactions with your colleagues. You will be judged by your senior collegauges both in terms of your productivity and percieved work ethic. No department sets out to hire people who they know will predominately work from home.

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Not necessarily. With the way that some departments are rapidly running out of physical real estate, they may even appreciate students who chose to work in their dormitories, homes, or libraries. (Of course, there is a barrier where one's work needs to be able to be performed at those locales, which of course rules out lab-based works in the experimental sciences.)

When I was a graduate student the department actually sent out an e-mail to all students asking students who intend to work mainly from somewhere apart from the department building to declare their intention so that they can more efficiently assign (the very limited) office spaces. But this was in a math department and eccentricity seems to be more tolerated there.

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