Elizabeth Elliott -
the thesis nomad
LAST UPDATED DECEMBER 15, 2020
Office for the day: Elizabeth writes an article from a cafe in Bali in 2018
She’s writing her PhD about Laos from an idyllic café in Bali
Like many people in the nomad community, Elizabeth Elliott can’t easily sum up what she does for a living. She’s mainly a student working on her PhD thesis about the healing traditions of Laos, but also a remote employee who’s being paid as a freelancer.
“It’s quite complicated,” she laughs. “The money for my project management job comes from the EU. But it’s managed through the French Research Institute for Development and they pay me as a freelancer via their office in Laos in dollars.”
She finds it totally extraordinary that she can be working in academia and managing a research project remotely, and often makes the most of the situation by packing up her laptop and heading off to a tropical island to write a new chapter or really get her head into a research topic. But she doesn’t define herself as a ‘proper’ digital nomad.
“I’d say I’m a partial nomad because I have kind of a base in Laos and I have ties to my university in the UK, so I’m not completely location independent. At the moment, I think you’d call me a ‘thesis nomad’. Maybe a refugee from the UK too!”
To put it another way, Elliott is somebody seeking optimal working and living conditions. She explains: “I’m not particularly accountable at the moment to either my university or my job and at the same time I only have a limited amount of money to live on because I’m working part time. It’s putting that together and thinking how do I want to spend my time? How am I going to maintain good health, a good mental state and productivity, whilst going through this quite intense process, which is trying to finish a PhD I’ve been working on for years?”
She seems to have it sussed. When I met her in Bali in 2018, where she was spending a couple of months in intense writing mode, she’d get up early for yoga and meditation, before heading to an idyllic café to get in a few hours of work. “The really nice thing about this lifestyle is that you can create your own routine – it’s not imposed on you,” she says. “No one has told me I have to sit at this desk from nine to five, but I know my best writing time starts at 9am. So I’ll do four hours until I start to feel like my concentration is waning.”
Then it’s time for an afternoon swim, and possibly a sunset coconut, before getting a few more hours of writing in. “It’s something that for me occurs really naturally. It’s not like I’m having to force myself into something. Also, when you remove other demands from your life, you’re really free to choose the routine you want, which I think is brilliant. It’s a real luxury.”
After work drinks: always better on a Balinese beach
After those few months in Bali, Elliott returned to her base in Laos, where she has an office and colleagues. “I find it’s quite good to go in and out of phases and have times when there’s lots going on and other times where I retreat from that and say, this is my solitary writing time. Changing my scenery is really helpful,” she says.
Once her thesis is finished, she has no intention of giving up her freedom or flexibility. “The thought of being tied to one place and a particular schedule, I think I’d find that quite difficult,” she says. “I’d be open to doing something more structured if it was something I really wanted to do and a place I really wanted to be, but if it was a matter of going back to the UK and getting a job in a university where they exploit me, it doesn’t appeal because I’ve now seen there are other possibilities and other ways you can live your life.”
The biggest lesson she’s learnt from her experience as a ‘thesis nomad’ is that you don’t have to be stuck in a life you don’t like. “Once my PhD is finished, I want to sit down and think about where I want to live and how I want to live my life. What actual intentional choices do I want to make, rather than just falling into something and being trapped in a situation I don’t want to be in, which I think is what happens to so many people.”
Her advice for other nomads, particularly those who are studying, is to look at your situation, work out what you can do and work out what you want to do. Then try and put those together. “And don’t worry about what anyone else things because it really doesn’t matter,” she concludes.
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