Some people love graduate school, but most of us want to finish it up and get started with our real lives.
About a year ago I met a nice guy from Utah who was finishing his thesis at a university about 5 hours away. He had just moved here to take a job. After only two weeks, he was totally immersed in his new job, and I asked him if he was concerned about being able to finish up his thesis. He said, "Oh, no, not at all. My university's only 5 hours away, and I've only got a couple months of work left on it."
The idea of starting a new life or a new job a few months early – say, before we’ve completed our dissertation – sounds pretty good. After all, lots of people Zoom and Skype from home, so it should be a snap to web-commute back to the university and finish up our dissertation away from the anxieties of campus. For instance, you could now start your new gig (maybe as a professor) in June instead of August. Your plan would be to move, get settled, wrap up the dissertation, and get two months of a tempting new salary.
When I was a PhD student, someone told me that if you want to know how long it will take to finish your dissertation if you move away, you use a simple formula. You take your best guess of how long you think it will take to finish, then you triple it and add three months. So if you think you have 2 months left on your dissertation, and you move away in June, you won’t be finished until following March – in 9 months instead of 2 months (2 months x 3 + 3 months = 9 months). This is a rough rule-of-thumb, that varies across schools, departments, and people. Still, when I heard this, I wasn’t going to take any chances. My apartment lease with my two roommates was up, so I spent the last two months crashing at the apartments of different friends so I could wrap it my dissertation and graduate before I move away to start my Asst Prof gig.
What happens when you move is not only that it takes time to get resettled and you no longer have the support structure of your PhD program (and the “in sight & in mind” attention of your committee), but you also don’t feel the urgency to finish. You’re settling into a new role, and everybody's happy to have you around. You start to put off the uncomfortable pressure of you incomplete dissertation because it feels so much better to be treated as an an adult over here than as a sniffling child over there. But in a few months when your new department chair asks whether you’re through with your dissertation, it’s going to be awkward to answer.
You might not have the option of completing a dissertation on campus, but if you can, it’s worth sleeping on couches until it’s done.
The Rest of the Story: Four months after meeting the guy from Utah, I ran in to him again at the same boardgame cafe where we had originally met. He was very excited about having moved, and he was very excited about his new job. What's notable was that he never mentioned anything about his dissertation, how it was going, or whether it was finished. Since his dissertation had been an enthusiastic 80% of our conversation during the first time we met, I'm guessing he hadn't made the progress he had expected to make or he would have mentioned it.