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I have a postdoc (in mathematics) lasting for less than 8 months. In the UK, at the area of the university, I find it difficult to find accommodation since no one wants to let to me for such a short period of time, which is very annoying.

I was thinking I could live with my parents, and visit my adviser once a week or so. The journey would be about 3 hours each way. And we could Skype.

As a PhD student, this would have been acceptable, but I wonder if it is different since I am now a member of staff. Is it frowned upon? Will it cause problems for the department (eg. desk space) or for myself due to tax purposes? It's an EPSRC funded grant, so I wonder if that may also be an issue.

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    What field are you in? – Bitwise Aug 13 '15 at 19:03
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    @C_Al And a PS: Its called working from home - no matter what/whose home. You could be renting a flat and find it impossible to move due to conditions etc. - doesn't matter that it is your parents home. – DetlevCM Aug 13 '15 at 22:21
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    As a PhD student, this would have been acceptable - where? (Certainly it's not a standard; and while in some industries remote work is acceptable/common, I couldn't persuade my advisor; nor I know people who did their PhD that way.) – Piotr Migdal Aug 14 '15 at 9:34
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    This really sounds like a question you should be asking your adviser. The overwhelming consensus here could be "yes" and your adviser could still say "no". Likewise, the overwhelming consensus here could be "no" and your adviser may yet say "yes". – J... Aug 14 '15 at 16:13
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    "no one wants to let to me for such a short period of time" In the UK, a standard rental contract (known as an "assured shorthold tenancy") is either 6 or 12 months so there should be no difficulty obtaining a place for 8 months. My feeling is that you're not looking in the right places. – David Richerby Aug 15 '15 at 9:28
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Only your school and your department and your group can tell you what their expectations are. Ask them.

But face-to-face networking with others is hugely valuable both for your current tasks and for being aware of new opportunities,, and think carefully before you give that up. I've been working from home for about 5 years now (commercial, not academic), and it has definitely cost me in terms of career progress despite my making deliberate efforts to stay in the loop.

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I did a certain amount of telecommuting between 2005 and 2012. That was possible because a non-trivial fraction of my work was strictly computer based.

Several notable problems needed to be addressed before it worked well:

  1. You need the permissions and support of your boss (and hopefully high levels as well).

  2. Sufficient bandwidth. I'm in Big Science (tm) and that involves some videoconferencing more weeks than not (and sometimes a lot) and occasional transfers of large data sets. Depending on where you live you may need to upgrade to business quality service to have sufficient bandwidth, and that wasn't cheep. You may also need to upgrade some kit on your computer.

  3. I needed an office space with a door and the agreement of others present not to be coming in and out and asking me to help them out with "just one little thing". You have to be able to give it full attention just like you do at the office. And then you need to get out of that office space when you are off work.

  4. You need to have arrangements to be able to go in off your usual schedule if something comes up. And your boss's agreement to think carefully about what things that come up actually justify that.

  5. You need all your collaborators who might want to contact you to have the right contact information. I consider email the preferred means of communication, so that wasn't a big deal except when I was sitting remote shifts (and I just ended up giving people my personal mobile number).

  6. You may need to adjust some of your computer based work-flow. Even with high bandwidth you'll probably experience more latency and more lost connections if working remotely on computers at the office. Using the wrong tools in that environment is tolerable for short spurts, but no good day in and day out. Switch to the right tools. Because I'm in a unix environment and use emacs that meant getting off my duff and learning screen and starting to use tramp for file access in the editor.

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    What field were you working in?? I'm in math, so I cannot imagine your some of your bandwidth-based concerns. All I need is Skype to run, and LaTeX and emails. – C_Al Aug 13 '15 at 19:30
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    I'm an experimental particle physicist. And in truth, the really big data stays on the cluster or grid, but 'small' abstracted data collections can still be an appreciable fraction of a gigabyte. However, the biggest bandwidth demand was multiparty videoconferencing. – dmckee --- ex-moderator kitten Aug 13 '15 at 20:09
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    @dmckee I have used remote access with my university - and to be honest, for Skype & remote work, i.e. VNC or RDP you don't need that much bandwidth, RDP especially is extremely efficient. (It does require some little Windows-Box on campus though.) Relatively standard European internet access is fine - at home its a 4MBit/s conenction with 1MBit/s up and that is more than sufficient. I was even running RDP (via a VPN) via my mobile when we had some landline issues. – DetlevCM Aug 13 '15 at 22:23
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    I find that connecting remotely to the cluster containing the terabytes I need, is almost as fast as connecting from work to the same cluster. – gerrit Aug 14 '15 at 9:01
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    @DetlevCM My point was: When I am at work, I log on to the cluster located 40 km away. When I am at home, I log on to the same cluster 45 km away. In both cases, my workstation lacks both the storage space and the processing power required. It's true that I could copy a small amount of data over to my local machine, but I don't see the benefit in doing so. – gerrit Aug 14 '15 at 9:45
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That seems more like a question about internal policy of your academic institution, and not about academia per se.

Telecommuting is seen as a lessen form of working for some people. "Real" work is performed only on-site. And Skype won't change this situation. The rationale behind this is not just a question of being used to other forms of work, but there are reasons to be against telecommuting, and this might be your department's policy. It's annoying not be able to talk in person, and you are forcing others to adapt to your schedule, since no one wants to re-schedule a meeting with you at the last minute, if you had to travel 3 hours to be there. It's also difficult to be sure the person is really working on the project, if he's far away. That can lead to disgusting surprises. So, do no wonder if your adviser is against this.

On the more practical side, I doubt you can't find any place to crash, no matter what part of the UK you are talking about. There is always Airbnb, or people who need to sublet their room. And this applies to London, and to university towns as well, where landlords might prefer a long-term student to have a tenant for the next years.

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  • I really don't mind when my co-workers work remotely. I think it depends on individual preferences and the kind of tasks to be performed. There are more advanced collaboration tools than Skype (e.g. Cisco WebEx, Adobe Connect, etc.). – Franck Dernoncourt Aug 13 '15 at 17:38
  • People shouldn't be rescheduling a meeting at the last minute whether I'm working remotely or not. If they're getting snotty about working remotely breaking their ability to be so careless and undisciplined, that's their fault! Thank goodness they can no longer do that, if they are the sort of people who don't understand the damage they do when they get away with such actions. (Sadly, as a remote worker, I regardless get this problem all the time with conference calls and it's insanely frustrating.) – Lightness Races in Orbit Aug 14 '15 at 0:41
  • "It's also difficult to be sure the person is really working on the project" Not really, not substantially more than if they're three doors down. Note that this is a generic response — I'm not making any judgements either way about the pros/cons of remote work in this particular situation. I can imagine that people's misconceptions about doing it (e.g. what I quoted at the beginning of this comment!) may alone be more than enough to make it not worthwhile. – Lightness Races in Orbit Aug 14 '15 at 0:42
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    @LightnessRacesinOrbit: the reasons for being against remote workers can be real or imaginary. But they are still there. I would not be surprises if many departments are systematically against it. – Pierre B Aug 14 '15 at 1:34
  • @PierreB: Indeed; nor I – Lightness Races in Orbit Aug 14 '15 at 9:23
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It can be very helpful to attend seminars and chat with people over lunch, coffee or a snack.

Rents are so much more affordable when you are sharing with one or more people.

In many cities, there are ways of advertising online that you are looking for a housemate or a house to share.

There's also the bulletin board approach.

You might want to consider doing some private tutoring to bring in some extra money.

If you end up renting something a bit run down, small or depressing, you can always take a few days or a week or two here and there to go work from your folks' place.

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  • +1 for the "discussions can be helpful" - during my PhD time (submitted now, waiting for the viva), my major issue was that I did not have anybody to properly discuss the topic in depth with for most of the time during which work was done. While having people to discuss thing with will seem redundant as long as things work, they become essential the moment you get stuck or seek a new angle. Also, opinions can sometimes be very helpful. – DetlevCM Aug 13 '15 at 22:26
  • In the post doc phase, you can afford to be a bit less single-minded than when you were doing your PhD; since you aren't weighed down by teaching responsibilities yet, you can spend some time collecting ideas for possible future projects (seminars, chit chat, etc.). Plus, as a post doc, you are a valuable role model and potential mentor for grad students. – aparente001 Aug 13 '15 at 22:35
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In addition to other observations made in other answers, I'd add, based on my own experience commuting (pre-internet) from Boston to New Haven, CT, that this completely disconnected me from people at Yale... although many were sympathetic and offered various helps, in those times! ... but, mercifully, I had been "in-house" for a year previous, so it was not professionally tragic. In hindsight, it was anti-helpful commuting like that, but the established rapport saved me... though I certainly did not understand such dynamics at the time. It would have been subtly disastrous to try to commute from Boston all along... though they would have allowed it... which I'd imagine would be an institutionalized version of incomprehension of the human element... sigh...

One "subtle" (until one thinks about human beings) point is that even if you can "objectively" take care of prescribed business, and even if people think well of it, they won't know you, and will find it (even if only subliminally) difficult to say that they see that you have a good vision for the future. That is, "commuting" without prior rapport will (I'd worry) severely attenuate letters-of-recommendation toward The Next Job.

Again, in hindsight, I'd think it might be worth risking some net loss to be in very intense contact with one's postdoc institution, "for future gain". That is, unlike my own (and, I gather, many others' continuing) delusions that some dispassionate judgement of one's work is all that matters, in fact one's affect "in the moment" greatly conditions senior peoples' appraisal of one's potential. Note: at least in mathematics, although there is pretense of objectivity about publication record, the real issue is about "future contribution". Yes, a bit correlated with "past contribution", but very weakly so (duh) for youngish people, and when one examines the dynamics of introspection...

So, whatever one thinks about conventional status-gate-keeping, the odds are very high that one should "be in close touch" with one's postdoc environment, regardless of the wonderfulness of one's work.

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This might work in maths, but you should

  1. Check university-provided accomodation for stretches of a week or 2 especially at the beginning. This is more likely when the undergrads are away but some universities do have rooms for visiting researchers (as @zibadawatimmy says). It would cost you but hopefully not stupid amounts.
  2. If not, or availability is poor, you should bank on spending quite a bit of your money on hotels or similar while you get things up and running -- go for youth hostels/backpacker stuff and work on campus perhaps.
  3. This will only work with your PI's enthusiastic support -- the school's support is probably required as well, though for 8 months you could probably do this unofficially; it can take months to find somewhere to live.
  4. Most cities have cheaper places within a decent train ride and main-line stations are often quite near universities -- do you need always-on connections or could you work on a train?
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In my experience, living 3hrs away from your post-doc institution is not that uncommon. It's often a result of a two-body problem. I know of someone who actually spent a large part of a post-doc on a different continent (but I don't advise that). If anything, I'd think the university have less reason to restrict you as a postdoc than as a student. If you want to live far away, you should be prepared to make the journey fairly frequently (of course at a minimum so as to fulfill any duties that are required of you, but preferably well above that).

However, I would agree with comments that others have made that it's not really clear that living at your parents' would be a good choice. It is unlikely you cannot find anywhere to rent for 8 months. It may be that the local policy is to take the lease for the year and find someone to pass it on to later, or possibly you've only been looking at places that are aimed at students.

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  • But the rents I'm getting at around £700-800 per month, which is quite high since I'll be getting paid around £28k a year (before tax). So signing on for a year is risky if I can't find anyone. – C_Al Aug 13 '15 at 21:03
  • It's usually cheaper to join a house-share (I don't know if that's what you're quoting, but given the number I'm guessing not). Of course it's your call, but personally I would say the emotional cost of living with your parents as an adult can be high. – Jessica B Aug 14 '15 at 7:10

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