How to Live Your Research Life Without a Desk or an Office

How to Live Your Research Life Without a Desk or an Office

Cover photo by abi ismail on Unsplash

One of the more complicated aspects of being a researcher outside of the sciences or in your writing-up phase is that, technically, we can carry (most of) our work anywhere with us. While it’s nice to sometimes have the option to work in a café or a public library because of this, it can also be difficult to make yourself work if you don’t have a dedicated space specifically for it. Several research students are allocated a study space at university, but there are still those who have to wait for such an allocation. As a first-year, non-science researcher, I fell into the latter category.

Throughout nearly seven years of higher education I’ve never had my own desk, so not having one wasn’t too big of a deal at first. But I quickly found myself frustrated at not having an academic ‘home base’ and thus not being able to focus on my work as much as I needed to. Finding the right studying/researching/writing rhythm during this time took a few weeks, but I eventually managed to smooth the edges by setting a daily routine (after realising I absolutely could not work from home), making a list of tasks I needed to finish each week and investing in items that made constant commuting more bearable (insulated travel mug, reusable water bottle, headphones, etc.). My work became much more productive because of these changes.

[Image description: A take-away cup sitting next to a pile of books in front of grass.]

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

So, for all of my fellow researchers without a desk/office, here are some tips that helped me survive.

Where to work instead

Thankfully, in a city like Glasgow there are several alternative places to study and work if you don’t have your own desk/office or can’t work at home (I succumb to Netflix much too easily). With a café, vending machines and a dedicated PG study lounge, the UofG library is the perfect place if you can find a desk. Ninety percent of the time, this is an easy task, but exam periods will see the library full of panicked undergrads and Postgraduate Taught students preparing for finals. There are other places on campus, such as the round reading room, the Gilchrist Club and the Zoology Museum that suffer from the same problem – but they are all options!

Off campus you’ll find the Mitchell Library as well as other Glasgow Library branches that offer study spaces and outlets. There are also a few cafés and pubs around the city that are researcher friendly. Take a look at the Google Drive list PhD Women Scotland has put together regarding pros and cons of study spaces throughout Glasgow to decide which place is right for you.

[Image description: Glasgow’s Mitchell Library at night, photo taken from across the highway.]

Glasgow’s Mitchell Library, photo by Richard Cottrell on Flickr


When you’re constantly moving your workstation around, it’s easy to forget all the tasks you have to complete or meetings you need to attend. Having at least one planner that’s easy to transport, digital or physical, can be a lifesaver. I use a sixteen-month weekly physical calendar to keep track of my academic and personal life. I’ve made it a habit to fill out my week every Sunday morning and to look at my planner first thing every morning, just to keep my schedule and plans fresh in my mind. A few of my fellow bloggers have even offered great advice in the past on how best to keep a planner/diary, and the different journaling options you have, if you’re not quite confident in that area yet!

Bags, bags and more bags

One of the worst parts about not having your own campus desk or office is having to lug your books, binders, notebooks, laptops, etc. to and from wherever you choose to study – even if you work from home. The type of bag you use is therefore incredibly important, especially if you have any sort of back issues. I’m not an expert on bags, but I prefer the ones with shoulder-strap pads, lumbar support, a separate laptop compartment and water-bottle holders. The strap pads and lumbar support pads prevent the bag from putting too much pressure on the shoulders and back, which makes a tonne of difference when lugging around 5+ books. The laptop compartment also leaves extra room in the other areas for books, journals and other necessities. The water-bottle holders make bringing your own water bottles much easier, and with the free water dispenser machines in the UofG library and many cafes offering free water, you’ll always have a place to fill them up instead of having to spend money (side note: it’s important to stay hydrated when working! Bring your water bottles!).

[Image description: A bullet journal sitting below a journal entitled ‘Field Notes’ and a card that says ‘Never Settle’. Ear pods and a grey laptop, with a sticker that says ‘Creator State of Mind’, sit to the right.]

Photo by Matt Ragland on Unsplash

Deciding what to work on

Because you don’t have a space on campus to store all the various items you need for various different tasks, you might have to pick and choose what you want to work on each day before you leave the house. I always made my decisions based on whether I would be primarily writing or researching. If I was researching, then I would break that down further by deciding if I was researching primary or secondary sources. Primary sources meant I just needed my laptop, a notebook, a pencil and maybe one book to hold me over while waiting in Special Collections. And secondary meant all of that, plus the books I was reading on a specific subject. Long story short, unless you’re going to be reading every book you have every day you work, it’s just not necessary to carry all of them around that often.

Overall, not having an office or a desk isn’t the end of the world. It might be inconvenient and might require a little more daily pre-planning than otherwise, but it *is* manageable!

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