Dissertating as a Digital Nomad

Tales of an Alaskan expat researching and writing on the move

In the spring of 2019, my husband and I embarked on a new adventure: After having spent months selling or donating most of our belongings and consolidating our lives into two suitcases apiece, we ended our apartment lease and began our new life as digital nomads.

In this post, I’ll answer some questions on the topics we’re asked about most often, from choosing locations and managing costs to maintaining our travel pace and minimalist lifestyle.

Digital nomads are people who are location independent and use technology to perform their jobs as they travel.

We spent winter 2019/2020 in Valencia, Spain.

How does it work?

We’ll call Kraków, Poland, our home during summer 2020.

My husband and I work entirely online. He is a software developer for a company with a large remote workforce, and I teach and conduct research using online resources. We often work together in coffee shops, co-working spaces, public libraries, or wherever is home at the time.

I’ve chosen e-versions of books and articles for the past several years, so at this point, most of my academic library is digital. I often read on an iPad, which allows me to hand-write or type notes, highlight, or draw diagrams in saved digital files. My references are in Zotero, so I can access them wherever we go. I participate in meetings through Zoom or Skype, and I teach online with Canvas.

How do you decide where to go next?

We make plans after considering our needs and preferences regarding weather, cost of living, internet speeds, visa concerns, presence of a digital nomad community with co-working spaces, and my fascination with medieval architecture. Our favorite resources for location research are listed at the end of this post.

Italy is on our list for 2021. We’ll use the resources listed at the end of this post to decide which city to use as a home base.

How often do you move?

Some digital nomads change locations every few days, while others alternate between two places a year. We’ve adapted a middle approach referred to as slow travel: we spend roughly three months in each new location. This pace gives us time to feel the energy of a community, know our neighbors, and experience the culture in a manner that goes far beyond the typical tourist experience.

Working with a view of Kachemak Bay in southcentral Alaska, summer 2019

Isn’t that expensive?

Split, Croatia, is home for the spring of 2020.

There are many ways to be a digital nomad. Some nomads jet between several homes they own all over the world, while others walk or hitchhike to new locations and then sleep under the stars or in hostels.

We’ve found ways to feel safe and comfortable while also saving money. Our monthly expenses are now roughly half the cost of our previous lifestyle of maintaining a home and car in the U.S. We often stay at AirBnBs, which frequently offer substantial discounts on stays over 30 days. Expensive cities become more affordable through pet sitting gigs that provide a free place to stay in exchange for looking after Fido or Fluffy.

Our nomadic lifestyle has also changed our approach to shopping. Each potential new purchase is considered carefully, as it would require precious space in and add weight to our bags.

Don’t you miss your stuff?

It took us over a year to downsize our belongings in preparation for a minimalist nomad lifestyle. We emptied a storage unit, sold a car, and made countless trips to charity donation centers.

To our surprise, neither of us misses many of the items that we sold or donated. It was freeing to let go of things that were no longer serving us: items we didn’t use, didn’t like, or were tied to unpleasant memories. Now every item we own adds value and joy to our lives.

Our belongings serve us, rather than hold us back.

What about language differences?

We know only limited Spanish and Norwegian, so we rely on phone apps that instantly translate both written and spoken communication into English and vice-versa.

For example, we can hold a phone over a printed menu to read it in English. We can also speak into the phone and play a translation for another person to hear and reply. Technology will never be a replacement for fluency, but we find it helps in the meantime as we work on building our language skills.

What about your mail and phone number?

We’re based in Alaska, and maintain our physical U.S. postal address through a virtual mailbox service. Our mail arrives there, and envelopes are scanned and uploaded into a digital mailbox that we can view online from anywhere. With a few clicks, we can request that an envelope or parcel be opened and scanned or shipped to our current location. Secure mail delivery is often included as a feature with co-working space memberships.

Selecting a phone option that met our needs was more of a challenge. After months of research and conversations with other digital nomads, we opted for Google Fi, a system that provides phone and data coverage across countries without the hassle of switching sim cards and phone numbers for each new location.

How do I learn more?

This way of life isn’t for everyone — there are lots of challenges, like missing friends and family — but it’s an excellent option for us. A few of our favorite resources for learning about digital nomad life are below:

How do YOU nomad? Are you an academic digital nomad? I would love to connect. Reach me via email or social media.