The student’s life (a flexible life)

It’s 9am and probably close to 40 degrees already, at the end of September. I’m sitting with some friends under a tin shelter. Ants march around the perimeter of the concrete pad that is our designated camping space. Our sheets are hanging from rope strung between the car and the tin roof, drying after an unexpected heavy shower surprised us from our sweaty sleep the night before.

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In the distance is the Cockburn Ranges, an impressive table top range that towers over the flat catchment of the Pentecost River. The range is a hazy blue, obscured by the heat. It looks dangerously old and still.

A week ago I drove with my partner from Broome to Kununurra, as he was attending a work event in the region. For a few weeks I debated whether I could afford the time. My proposal, the only compulsory piece of writing that I must submit this year, is due next week. Still, the thought of missing time in the east Kimberley was a good motivator and I completed enough work to self-justify my attendance. After a day and a half of staring out of the window, appreciating the changing colours and trees, I was in Kununurra.

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When I mentioned to a supervisor (I have four) that I wasn’t sure if I could afford the time away, his voice over the phone waved away my concerns. He suggested that no one is counting my hours, as long as I get the work done, added almost as an after thought. It was all the encouragement I needed.

The week away was worth it. By design and by coincidence, I had (PhD related) face to face conversations with people I am normally hundreds of kilometers away from; conversations that would have been much more difficult in a formal setting or over email. And I still kept in regular contact with my supervisors via email, as they respectfully and rapidly responded to my needs within hours. Not to mention valuable time with friends in amazing locations…

I now understand one of the real benefits of conducting a PhD as an external student – complete freedom (well almost) to choose hours, fiddle with timetables, come and go, and complete flexibility to formulate a workspace from any corner or just using my knees. As long as I count my hours, the world is my office.

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