Digital nomad PhD – Working from Washington DC, Newark and Philadelphia

Hi all! I’m back in Portugal and, in the day I wrote this post, I’m feeling like a digital nomad again. I’m right now on a bus to Braga to attend a conference for my PhD program and to visit some special people in my life. I just finished a conference abstract on my phone and now I’m using the time to start this blogpost. From Lisbon to Braga it’s 4h30min on the bus and it’s quite a long time to waste. I didn’t download any series or audio books and I get motion sickness if I try to read my book.

If you regularly read my blog, you might know that my year at MIT ended in the beginning of February and that I used the last week in the US to travel in Washington DC, Newark (Delaware) and Philadelphia for a week. How did this idea of traveling while working too start?

Let’s flash back to the beginning of my stay at MIT. I remember that one of the first serious life goals conversations with my then friend and now boyfriend was about digital nomadism and academia. I told him I’d like to work for a year as a digital nomad after PhD, but in the meantime I’d like to do that during my PhD too and have travels specifically for working while getting to know the lifestyle of a new city without being for a conference. He liked the idea and we incorporated that in both our travels to some extent. Including the pain of having to wake up before 8am while in Vegas to have a Skype with my Portuguese supervisor due to a pending deadline I had.

However, I needed to do that too alone to branch out of my comfort zone. One night in January I was at the Muddy Charles with some friends working and, after some beers, I had reached the conclusion I was free of being at MIT in person from February 3rd. I looked for cheap flights within the US for February 4th and one of the cheapest was to Washington DC. After all, most of my friends had already been there and I didn’t want to leave the US without going to the capital. I was tipsy but all went well and I booked the correct hour, day and destination. From this step, crafting the trip took some time and I decided to have a random stop to visit the University of Delaware in Newark because the Megabus from DC cost $1 only. Then, I went to Philly and little did I know how much fun and unexpected events I’d have during this week!

Day 1

I started by realizing that February 4th would be the day of Super Bowl LII between the defending champions, New England Patriots (the team that Bostonians cheer for) and the Philadelphia Eagles. The later team became the new champions. I regretted not being in either Boston or Philly, but my hosts were going to parties to watch the game and I joined. That day I didn’t work at all, as tired as I was from the flight and from visiting Hirshhorn Museum (a must for contemporary art fans like me! Join a free guided tour, it’s so fun).

Day 2

I had booked a visit to the US Capitol and then a guided tour of the Library of Congress. It was wonderful to get to know better the US political system and to visit a library with a whooping 140 million items, with 15000-20000 items coming in every day.

This morning I went on two free guided tours: to the Capitol of the United States and to the Library of Congress. The Library of Congress is the largest library on the world, with over 140 million items and with 15000 to 20000 new items coming every day! That's insane! This is the reading room where you can go for free for research purposes. The Jefferson Building, which is the one I visited, opened in 1897 and has a wonderful Renaissance inspired decor with plenty of paintings symbolizing virtues, science, and even the four seasons. Totally worth a visit, my Capitol tour guide was not wrong when he said this was one of the most beautiful buildings in DC. . #visitdc #visitthecapitol #libraryofcongress #washingtondc #digitalnomad #cityexplorer #districtofcolumbia #phdlife #UnitedStates #bookworm #Libraries #scisites #womeninstem #womeninscience

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I decided to splurge and spend $12 on the National Geographic Museum. Why? As a middle school senior, I was one of the 5 students of the Lisbon district that, after taking a test, was selected to participate in the “A Grande Aventura” (Portuguese version of The National Geographic Bee). I came 2nd in the district final and didn’t go through to semi-finals, but I won a one year subscription of the National Geographic magazine. That time shaped so much my knowledge of the world and inspired even more my travel bug. I thought the museum would have more things, but it has an awesome virtual and augmented reality exhibit about the Tomb of Christ. They even show the groundbreaking lasers and ultrasonic devices used to help restore the Holy Sepulcre Church in Jerusalem, Israel.

Dive into the sea! . The capsule you see in the picture, the bathysphere, was a small submarine for deep sea exploration that was used for the deepest human dive in history. The first descent was in 1930 at the Bermuda coast and, in 1934, the deepest descent was performed of 3028 feet, about half a mile. The two pioneers, William Beebe and Otis Barton, were fearless and certainly not claustrophobic! This allowed them to witness deep sea creatures in their natural habitat. . You can see the bathysphere at the National Geographic Museum in Washington DC. By reading my most recent blogpost #linkinbio, you'll find a bit more about my personal connection with National Geographic and why I wanted to visit the museum. If you do it now, don't miss the Tomb of Christ exhibit, it's an awesome VR/AR experience! . Tonight, at 22h GMT (5PM EST), I was going to make a live chat here to talk with your about the #digitalnomad #phd experience. However, I'm still recovering from a flu and need to rest and certainly not with the best face to go on camera. That will be postponed to February 28th, hope to see you there! . #natgeo #nationalgeographic #bathysphere #historicdive #deepsea #stem #traveltheworld #scisites #scicomm #womeninstem #phdlife #Washingtondc #USA #pioneers #diving

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After this, I decided to take it easy and work on the blog and some PhD tasks at Shake Shack and Le Pain Quotidien. I know these are all food chains but the internet and spaces were good.

Day 3

The next day I went to Georgetown University as highly recommended. First of all, the Georgetown neighborhood is so so pretty. Reminds me of Chelsea in London! The campus is so nice and reminds me of Princeton, Yale and Boston College with its English medieval inspiration (Harry Potter anyone?). I went to the library and worked for most of the morning there. It was inspiring to be surrounded among so many students to force me to get in the mood for working. After I started feeling starved, I went to the Happy Hour at Clyde’s, an historical building and vintage looking American restaurant that has the best $5 rose wine on happy hours to go along with my chicken sandwich. I wanted to save, but also to savor little pleasures. In the evening I met with my hosts at Tryst, a nice coffee house in the lively Adams Morgan neighborhood that I bet would be a great place to work from. I saw lots of people doing so.

My stay here in DC has not been just leisure. I am on a mission to show that a #digitalnomad #phd lifestyle is possible for who works in computational fields. Today I strolled a bit around the lovely Georgetown neighborhood and spent some hours at the library. I managed to finish and publish today's blogpost (which you totally should check out btw), draft a required 3 month plan, send follow up emails and collaborate with projects I had planned to. Check my stories for lovely pics of Georgetown today 🙂 . . . #Georgetown #washingtondc #districtofcolumbia #gradschooltips #productivity #thestemsquad #WomenInSTEM #phdstudent #college #University #cityexplorer #scisites #travelettes #stemettes #girlslovetravel #girlvsglobe #solotravel #sheisnotlost #collegegeek

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Day 4

The first thing I did in the morning was strolling through the National Mall, passing through the Washington, Lincoln and World War II memorials. I always find incredible how America really makes a point to give a lot of focus to their founding figures and key decision makers. Something that probably we don’t see as much in Portugal.

I resisted the urge to go to the Air and Space Museum. However, after watching the Falcon Heavy launch by SpaceX, it was undeniable! I spent 3h on the museum and didn’t see everything. I went on a free tour with a guy who had worked for NASA at some point and watched the first landing on the Moon in 1969 live on TV, which changed his live forever. It was wonderful to learn from someone who knows so much about the aircraft and spacecrafts preserved on the museum. My favorite airplane was the first one that flew in North Carolina, in 1903, by the Wright Brothers. I completed my tour by going to the Planetarium and watching the movie about the stars (narrated by Whoopie Goldberg) and the one about Dark Matter (narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson). Wonderful visuals and such intense knowledge.

Photo looks pretty vintage. Can you believe this is The ORIGINAL first airplane ever? The first plane flown, in 1903, in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina? The guys responsible for this were two brothers, Wilbur and Orville Wright. This plane had fabric wings and it was commanded by the pilot laying down on the center of the aircraft. There were two handles that helped control the speed and height of the plane, plus turns were made with hip movements of the pilot. We came so far in 115 years, that's wonderful! . Even though here I focused on the Air part of the museum (my tour guide said that, for him, this is the crown jewel of the museum), so many space artifacts, like the modules used to propel the man into orbit, lunar buggies, Mars rovers, and the Voyager spacecraft for gas planets photography (Jupiter to Neptune). I stayed in the museum for 3h and feel I truly need to come back for a full understanding of the massive history and technology involved. . Did you ever visit a space museum? What was your favorite artifact there? . #airandspacemuseum #airandspace #smithsonian #washingtondc #districtofcolumbia #museum #airplanes #wrightbrothers #firstinflight #womeninstem #stem #aircrafts #girlslovetravel #girlvsglobe #scicomm #solotravel #digitalnomad

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I was tired and starving. I had my lunch in the Foggy Bottom area and then visited the nice old Town of Alexandria in Virginia. Such cute houses and I stopped by a Café Madeleine where I planned to work, but spent my time catching up with people. So, if you want to work, don’t turn your smartphone wifi on, or just turn off the notifications.

Day 5

It was time to leave DC and head to Newark, Delaware to visit the beautiful University of Delaware campus. This is by far the most All-American campus I saw since I generally don’t go to such quiet cities. Even the dining hall has old chairs that look like a diner I would see on Route 66 or the Southeast. I didn’t get to explore much since I spent the time working before I caught my train to Philadelphia. Getting there was hard but I’m not ready to talk about it yet :p

Why I love visiting University Campuses 🎓📖 . Everytime I see a campus here, I see a whole new city and community. I feel part of a movie, and I get to see the whole culture of college sports, different societies and groups, fraternities and sororities, and how far from home you can be and how you need to form a new family. . I went to Newark, Delaware, out of the blue. The Megabus ticket from DC was $1 and I thought, why not? I don't always like to be in big towns (I loved DC but it did not tell me that much about American culture, since its a governmental and museum city with a lot of foreigners, like Boston!). I went to a poster sale, voted in a survey from a Christian group, dined in a place that looked like a diner and saw undergrads play ping pong at The Hen Place while I worked (college mascot is a blue chicken :p) . I spoke on the Uber with a man that had his son there and who will major in Bioengineering. What a serendipity, no? Also learned that the #phd program here is quite competitive. And the campus is lovely and large. . Also, University of Delaware has an history of champions in figure skating. Today the Olympics team event starts and I'm so pumped up! . Tell me, what's your favorite campus? #collegelife #phdlife #unitedstates #delaware #trueamerica #girlslovetravel #girlvsglobe #stemettes #scisites #womeninscience #uofdelaware #bluehens #solotravel #campus

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February 8th was crazy in Philly. It was the Eagles’ victory parade day and lots of streets were cut to traffic. I just went to my hostel, met some nice people there, and rested.

Day 6

I had booked a college tour of University of Pennsylvania. I love doing these tours in Ivy League schools due to all the tradition that involves these campuses. It seems the health economics program here is very good! Then, I spent the afternoon working at the cafeteria of the UPenn bookstore until I attended a book presentation by UPenn alumni in the end of the afternoon. They are a couple and co-wrote the book “Happy Together – Using the science of positive psychology to build love that lasts“. I bought the book, as corny as it seems, so that I could learn more about the research in the topic. When I finish reading it I might let you know the main conclusions. I’ve been learning mostly the effects of the right ways to express gratitude in relationships and how to emphasize mutual strengths for a more peaceful relationship.

Why you should visit UPenn 🎓📑 . – This University was founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1740. Franklin was one of the founding fathers of the United States and had a series of wonderful quotes. The last one I saw was "Write things worth the reading, or do things worth the writing". Can you feel me fellow #phdstudents here? :p – It is where the first student union of the country was established. – there is a cafeteria entirely run by students, Williams Café. – The College Hall inspired the house of the Addams Family movie. – The first undergraduate school of the country, Wharton Business, is here. – They boast the reputation of being the most social and outgoing Ivy League – They throw toasts to the football field every third quarter of the football matches. . And the campus is simply beautiful and lively! I spent a lot of time in the bookstore today taking care of bureaucracy for work but I learned all this during the college admissions tour. Are you making visiting university campuses an habit in your travels too? #ivyleague #upenn #Philly #Philadelphia #Pennsylvania #college #collegegeek #campus #gradschool #solotravel #girlslovetravel #girlvsglobe #sheisnotlost

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Day 7

I left my hostel very early in the morning so that I had time to see most of the sights. I visited Liberty Bell, the Reading Terminal Market, Chinatown and the City Hall, which is the largest public building in the US. Then, it started raining, so I headed back to the hostel to eat and work some more. After the rain stopped, I visited the famous Rocky stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Eastern State Penitentiary. This visit was very eye opening to see differently the prison system and inspire some ideas for change, in particular in the US, which is the country with the highest percentage of imprisoned people. After this, I read at the nice OCF Coffee House, which I can totally see myself working at.

Day 8

On my final day in Philadelphia, the rain was intense. I just wanted to go to the Magic Gardens and I waited until the rain stopped in the afternoon to do so. I spent my morning at Old City Coffee working and chatting with someone I met in the hostel who also worked with health economics. After lunch, I worked from Menagerie Coffee and I met a lovely lady on my table who connected me to her son in law, who also works with health economics. Such serendipity in the same day!

Digital nomad week is done! . I had the most wonderful time as a #digitalnomad #phdstudent this week traveling alone in Washington DC and Philadelphia. I met incredible people, explored amazing cafeterias, university campuses and museums, got inspiring work done, and also managed to blog regularly. I even got a friend inspired to do the same thing too. . It's incredible the things that can happen when you step out of the usual routine. While very different from my usual rushed travel style, I appreciated the beauty in small things, chatted about digital nomadism, health economics and climate change, and I even had guys in my hostel tell me it is great that scientists are also branching into social media influencers. I believe I will do one or two more of these retreats during my PhD. Would you do this? . As a matter of fact, I'm flying home to Portugal tomorrow and saying goodbye to MIT as a visiting student for good. It's been incredible, but like bicycles always inspire me, "Life's like a bicycle. In order to keep your balance, you must keep moving" . #sheisnotlost #girlslovetravel #girlvsglobe #solotravel #phdlife #eastcoast #Philadelphia #pennsylvania #unitedstates #travelintheusa #magicgardens #phillymagicgardens #bicycle #rainyday #challengeaccomplished #stemettes #WomenInSTEM #thestemsquad #womeninscience

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Now that I told you how my days were, I will answer the question you probably are waiting for…

Is it possible to do a PhD as a digital nomad?

Yes! But it takes a lot of special conditions. First of all, you need to be on a computational project and your supervisors have to be willing to have some meetings with you on Skype or other video conference apps. Second, you need to choose cities where you have universities, or have a VPN to access the internet of your own university, so that you can download papers and other exclusive content. Third, above all, you need lots of discipline! You have to be able to focus on work and balance that with exploring the sights on the chosen city. Remember, you’re trying to be a local!

I don’t know yet if I would be able to do this lifestyle for a full year, but I hope to do a week like this as a retreat for writing sometime again during my PhD. I feel that the change of scenery and the more quiet working environment helped me, while I met incredible people still.

Now that I told you how my week was, I want to chat with you both about the travel in these cities and the digital nomad PhD experience! Tomorrow, February 21st, I’m hosting two live chats! The first one will be in Portuguese on Facebook at 21h GMT and the second, in English, on Instagram at 22h GMT = 5pm EST. I would really love to have you chat with me, the last time was so fun!

See you,

Cátia

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