On advising Masters papers remotely

Part of my agreement with my Dean, that allows me to be remote for this academic year, is that I will document the effects of being remote on doing the job. So, now that the deadline has passed for our Masters students to submit their Masters papers (basically a thesis, only without a committee, just a single advisor), I wanted to write a bit about how it went to advise Masters papers remotely.

And here’s the short version: being remote had almost no effect at all.

I only had one Masters paper advisee last semester, and only one this semester. That’s a reduction for me, as I usually have 2 or more per semester. But given that Fall was my first semester advising Masters papers remotely, I wasn’t sure how that process would go, so I wanted to take it slow. And, I suspect now, given that I was remote in the Fall, students maybe weren’t thinking of me when they were considering who to ask to be their Masters paper advisor for this semester.

So I had fewer Masters paper advisees, these past 2 semesters, than I usually have. And fewer than some of my colleagues. (Some of my colleagues seem to do nothing else for weeks, leading up to the paper deadline, than advise students, bless them.) But more than some. So, with that caveat, here goes.

Among other advising, I give my Masters paper advisees advice on how best to utilize me as an advisor. Knowing my own preferences for working style & scheduling. And over the years, I’ve found the that the two most useful pieces of advice, from my point of view, are:

  1. Send me small chunks of your paper to read, as you write them. Very drafty drafts are fine. The smaller the chunk, the faster my turnaround time. The corollary to this is: for the love of all that’s holy, don’t write your magnum opus and then send it to me three days before the deadline, without my having seen any of it before.
  2. You tell me how often you want to meet with me. I’m happy to set up a regular schedule, or meet on an as-needed basis. As-needed, however, is defined by you. I’m your advisor, not your mother. I’m not going to sit on you to get you to work on your paper. Not that mothers sit on their children, but you know what I mean. I’m not a helicopter parent-style advisor.

Piece of advice #1 (small chunks preferred) works perfectly well remotely. My advisees emailed me sections of their papers when I was living in Chapel Hill; the fact that I now live 3,000 miles away from Chapel Hill made no difference whatsoever. They would send it to my UNC email address then; they sent it to my UNC email address now. ‘Nuff said.

Piece of advice #2 (scheduling meeting times) worked slightly differently remotely than when I was on campus regularly. Instead of meeting in person in my office, my advisees & I had to schedule phone or Skype calls. And I had just as many calls with my 2 Masters paper advisees this past academic year, as I’ve had in person with many advisees when I was on campus. Not to mention that some of my advisees, when I was on campus, were themselves remote, so we had to do phonecalls anyway. Would I have met with these 2 advisees, this past year, more if I had been on campus? Maybe; it’s impossible to know. But did my not being on campus hinder the advising process? No, I don’t think so.

So there you have it. The effect of working remotely for an extended period of time, on advising Masters papers? Negligible.

And, as a postscript, let me just add this: Of course the effect was negligible. I’m pretty technology-literate, as are our Masters students. Email and the phone are pretty well-established technologies. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out how to integrate these technologies into a workflow… especially not a workflow involving only 2 people. There are lots of distributed work teams in the world that are a lot larger than 2 people, that function just fine. But I’m documenting effects of being remote on doing the job. So there it is.

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