Surviving Getting a Higher Degree as a Digital Nomad
In my final year of college, I took the plunge and decided to travel with a dance company and finish school online at the same time. Theoretically, I would have time to finish assignments during our ample travel periods and still be present for rehearsals and shows.
How picturesque that seems, in hindsight.
The reality turned out so much different — and I still wouldn’t trade it for normal semesters.
I had arranged to leave my position of office manager at a chiropractic clinic with an interim manager until I returned. My boss, unhappy with his prospects, drug his feet appointing a new manager and didn’t give me enough time to adequately train her.
As I left to head out on tour, I ended up taking remote training duties and some office work with me in addition to my online course load and my full-time position as a dancer. It ended up being one of the bumpiest and lesson-filled years of my life, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
If you’ve got the travel bug (and who can blame you) and don’t want to wait until you’re out of school, I’m here to tell you: You can absolutely finish school online and work as a digital nomad. Before you hop on your first flight, make the transition easier by learning from my mistakes.
Be Careful Saying Yes
Tread carefully. It’s so easy to take on so much. Without a concrete schedule and heap of ambiguous time sitting in front of you, you’ll imagine you can accomplish anything.
It’s not the answer you want, but it’ll save you a lot of headaches if you learn to say no now. If you take on too many things, the reason you’re doing this — the sights, the sounds, the freedom, and the creativity — will slip away and disappear between deadlines before you realize what’s happening.
You may be a master multi-tasker and an eternal optimist, but take it from me. I thought I was, too, and I crashed and burned the first semester I tried to merge travel, work, and school. In round two I cut back my course load by one class and created a written agreement of my duties for the office I was remoting into. It was better for all involved.
So think realistically — what can you accomplish in a given amount of time? If you had an in-office job, what would a reasonable workload look like? How would your time be allotted? Plan wisely, use all the tools available to you, and don’t overextend yourself.
Your Biggest Obstacles
Traveling, school, and work all carry their own stressors. When you combine them, you get a big boiling pot of uniquely distressing situations. Here are the major ones to look out for:
If you’re traveling by plane, train, or some forms of commercial transit, there may be opportunity to pay for Wi-Fi service, but not all lines will offer it. If you carpooling across countries with other nomads, you’re almost certainly out of luck for internet access.
Some destinations will have consistent web access available in public spaces — when I landed in Paris and found that I had misplaced my hotel address, I got lucky with internet service for the price of an espresso at a little cafe. Crisis averted.
Metropolitan destinations have more consistent internet access, and you may even be lucky enough to find a coworking space. But, if you’re traveling to a rural destination or will be spending a long time in transit, you may not be so lucky. Scout for resources ahead of arrival so you know what to expect. (Check FourSquare for W-iFi passwords!)
Download any resources you think you’ll need for homework or office tasks and complete as much work offline as possible. Papers can be written offline using saved web pages and downloaded PDFs for sources. I even went so far as to draft my emails offline and then copy and paste them when I had web access. It just takes a little creativity.
It’d be great if everything could be spread out evenly so that you always experience an even workload. Unfortunately, this is hardly the case.
School work (and its gravity) will increase as your semester wears on — you’re going to have a larger volume of more important work in the weeks surrounding midterms and finals. Try and work ahead when you can. It’s age-old advice, but I never found it to be more helpful than when I was trying to squeeze homework in around putting out fires at the office.
Offices will have minds of their own. If one catastrophe comes up, you can count on two or three more to follow. Stress levels at home and abroad will rise, and you can count on more phone calls and video chat requests. If you’re ahead on your projects and school work, handling the chaos will be that much easier.
Fear of Missing Out
You’re in a new place and you want to see everything and do everything and taste everything (or is that just me?). You’re going to feel like you’re missing out on the amazing place you’re in because you’re stuck inside (or outside) working. You have to keep it in perspective to stay productive.
First, you have to pay for those experiences somehow. That revenue stream is necessary for your lifestyle, and as for school, you’re investing in your future ability to travel and work with better compensation.
Second, you’re already one step ahead of everyone who’s at home working in the same place they’ve always been. You’re eating new food, working at internet cafes and absorbing local culture, and walking home in a brand new neighborhood. Even if you’re not sightseeing daily, you’re immersed in the culture. You just have to see it.
Is It Even Worth the Effort?
Yes. Absolutely. Completely. Totally. Definitely. One hundred percent. Without a freaking doubt. I don’t know how many more ways I can say yes.
Not only will you have a pocketful of new experiences and a shiny new degree, you’ll also get a boost for your CV with all the things you did and develop a worldwide network. If you’re reading this, chances are I don’t need to convince you that you want to do this. I need to convince you that you can do this.
Here are my tips for successfully balancing working as a digital nomad, finishing an online degree, and still seeing the world:
Schedule, Schedule, Schedule.
And then schedule some more. Because it can be easy to get distracted on overwhelmed with so many tasks calling for attention, it’s important to block your time out and then stick to your schedule as much as possible. Delegate enough time to study for tests and quizzes, break down assignments into smaller checkpoints, and keep an ongoing study guide. Set aside specific times to contact work; deciding to ambiguously check in once a week can become a battle with time zones in the way. If time management isn’t one of your strengths, consider using an app to help you along.
Bribery works wonders! Part of your schedule should be time for you, and only you, exploring your latest destination. You’re going to need brain breaks, and exploring a new environment is the perfect light at the end of the tunnel. You can also use local treats to bribe yourself into working more efficiently; if you finish your paper early, treat yourself to a croissant from the patisserie down the road.
Overlap Your Opportunities
You have an incredible opportunity in your situation, once you get your system down. You have a whole host of experiences to draw on for school and work — and maybe some freelancing if you have extra time (ha!). Figure out how to merge your responsibilities. If you’re writing a paper for a communication class, sit in a cafe and observe the locals — you’ve got a personal tap into intercultural differences. For work, watch the way people work together; inspiration comes from the most interesting places. Talk to your waiter, make friends on the tram, and do your best to absorb all the culture you can — it’ll help. Trust me.