A doctorate at a distance – take one



I did my PhD by distance education. This wasn’t terribly common at the time I did it – but it wasn’t all that unusual in universities that specialised in catering for remote, working or part-time students. However, the doctorate at a distance is relatively common now.  As more and more people enrol in doctoral degrees, more also want to work with a supervisor and university that aren’t on their door step.  And that makes it important to talk about what it means to do a research degree somewhere other than ‘at home’.

A caveat. I generally don’t write much about my own PhD much. N=1 and all that.  I prefer to use my research and teaching for the ‘stuff’ of this blog. But I’ll make an exception on this topic. But I do also supervise doctoral researchers who don’t live in my city and I read the research on distance education.  And I am concerned that there is still not a lot of discussion and writing about the PhD or professional doctorate by distance despite the increases in enrolment. What little there is comes largely from universities whose history is in distance provision. The doctorate by distance is a topic that merits much more airing IMHO. I’m particularly keen to see more discussion online about distant doctoral researchers as here, in the cloud, is where many distanced doctoral researchers hang out.

So this is my contribution to talking more. Here are two things that I think are important if you are thinking about doing a doctorate in a university far, far away.

(1) Think long and hard about how you will cope with distance education

I didn’t choose to do a PhD by distance mode.  I wanted firstly to be at a particular university. I knew a lot of the staff and their work, and I knew that they would actively support the kind of research I wanted to do. But this choice meant that I either had to move states – not likely – or do the PhD remotely.

I wasn’t afraid of distance education as I had previously done postgraduate taught courses in this mode. In reality, this kind of study was a good fit. But I wouldn’t have chosen distance if the university hadn’t been right.

Distance education doesn’t sit well with everybody. My partner for example did a postgraduate taught degree by distance and he found it enormously frustrating. He wanted more regular contact, and to be part of a supportive social cohort which had lively discussions. The online interaction he was offered seemed far too impersonal and, although he passed well, he didn’t enjoy the experience. I, on the other hand, am a bit of an auto-didact. I’m not worried about having to organise myself or live with my own thoughts. In fact, I rather relish solitary intellectual work. So, doctoral work by distance and I got on pretty well.

If you are considering a distant doctoral experience, it’s important to think honestly about your own preferences and habits. If you find solitary work alarming or you have difficulty motivating yourself, then doctoral research may be tricky full stop – but distance education won’t work at all, as it intensifies both isolation and the need for strong organisation and self-discipline. Or, if you are like my partner –  the kind of person that does best when you are with other people, and when you are somewhere you can hang out in the library and café, catch your supervisor in the corridor, easily meet up with other doctoral researchers – then wandering lonely as a cloud through the doctoral experience may not be your best choice.

If however you are more like me, and happy to get on with things largely by yourself, then studying away from your university home base can be a great option.

(2) Choose your university carefully

I did my PhD at a specialist distance education university. Deakin University in Australia, like the Open University in the UK, supported its doctoral researchers very well. In particular:

  • The university offered a wonderful and comprehensive library service and were subscribed to almost every available journal in my field. We are of course speaking of a time long, long ago, before books and journals went digital and got more expensive. Then, in this pre Web 2 age, all I had to do was to email the library a list of journal papers that I wanted and they sent them to me – as a bundle of photocopies. Books were ordered up the same way, and were returned in prepaid envelopes. Getting a big, fat parcel of new papers or a book in the post was always an exciting day!

These days, when all universities are online and books and journals come in digital form it is not postal efficiency that you require. You want a university through which you can access everything that you need, and preferably a specialist librarian contact with whom you can talk by Skype or email if you have a particular query or problem.

  • There was an annual summer school where doctoral researchers from all over the country came to share their work, meet their supervisor, and focus on some shared issues. One of the regular summer school events was a talk by a recent doctor who discussed their experiences – see, it’s possible. It was in fact at one of these summer schools, where I was the recent doctor talking about how I had approached writing my thesis, that Barbara and I connected and we began our long academic writing collaboration.

These days, universities can offer online as well as face to face venues and fora for remote postgraduates to connect. Social media also can be used effectively to create discussions and circulate information. And you also might have a Grad School that can put a lot of support and resource material online, and offer online courses and webinars. But organised and financially supported face-to-face options are still very beneficial – it is a different experience to meet peers in the flesh than online, and then you can easily organise open and ‘non-programmed’ time with them at the time and afterwards.

It’s worth investigating how much your proposed university caters for distance doctoral researchers. Is there a summer school? Hot desks to use when you visit? A seamless way to organise accommodation, parking, email etc when you are actually on campus?What online provision is there specifically for you and your distanced colleagues? Can you easily meet other doctoral researchers and talk with them?

  • Academic staff at Deakin were generally prepared to talk with doctoral researchers other than those they were directly supervising. There was an unspoken shared responsibility for doctoral candidates, which I took advantage of. I often had very helpful discussions with generous non-supervisors – sometimes with a bed for the night as well (thanks in particular to Jane who saved me from horrible hotels and student dorms and patiently listened one night as I thrashed out my thesis structure).

These days, it is possible to have some of these kinds of complementary supervision conversations online. Blogs, vlogs and websites offer advice ranging from writing to organisation to discipline-specific book reviews and essays. You get constant leads on new and old research of interest. There are free online methods courses and webinars.

And synchronous and asynchronous conversation. Lots and lots of it. You can talk to all manner of academic people online. Meet your reading list. Ask them that burning question. Hierarchies of career stage, so important in universities, are much less so in the digital ether. However, social media conversations generally tend to be shortish, particularly if they are twittered. But you can build networks, establish friendships and collaborations online, if you work at it. All of these things can make research by distance much less isolated.

But it is still worth finding out how accessible staff other than your supervisor might be for specific advice or the odd chat.

So this is a start on the things that I think are important about doing the doctorate by distance. But this is not all that is involved. Not by a long shot. There’s much more. And I have take 2 on the topic ready and it will come next week.