In an article published on this website in 2011, Sara McDonnell explored ‘How to do a Distance Learning PhD at a UK university’. Her article investigated how distance learning PhDs differed from those on campus, observing that they were becoming increasingly embedded within the UK higher education system. Three years on and with distance learning PhDs proving a popular option for many postgraduates, it is useful to explore the pros and cons of pursuing a distance learning doctoral qualification. Of course, not all subjects or universities offer distance-learning routes to the PhD, but for the ones that do, there are many similarities in how they market these degree programmes and the expectations involved on both sides. If you are considering doing a PhD, then you no longer have to limit your options to an on-campus route only. So why pursue a distance learning PhD?
Family, work and financial considerations may all prevent you from being able to move near campus to pursue your doctoral studies. A distance learning PhD, whether full or part-time, allows you to combine these commitments with your chosen area of study. It also allows you to engage with academia around your own commitments and to remain in employment should you wish or need to do so.
The UK universities that advertise a distance learning PhD are keen to stress that postgraduates who pursue this option receive the same support from their supervisory team as doctoral candidates on campus. The only real major difference is that you do not have to be on campus for your supervisory meetings, as they are conducted via Skype or Facetime. This allows you to work with specialists in your chosen field, without having to relocate elsewhere to do so. E-resources, such as academic journals and databases, are all available to distance-learning doctoral candidates.
A PhD by distance learning often involves at least some mandatory attendance requirements. Many universities will make at least one visit per year compulsory for an annual review of progress or for doctoral training, while others limit attendance to your probation meeting and viva voce. The requirements differ from university to university, so you should check them out carefully before you apply. Indeed, some universities are now offering free flights and accommodation for research training sessions or for meetings with your supervisory team, but again this differs across institutions. You are of course always welcome to attend your home institution to use the library facilities or to partake in training sessions and other research events, but attendance is not generally compulsory.
Is a distance learning PhD right for you?
Distance learning can be an excellent option for postgraduates who are self-motivated and have a clearly defined doctoral project. It can work particularly well, where your resources are based locally, or if your doctoral project is attached to your job. However, it can be quite isolating, as you are away from your institution’s academic community and from the support network that comes from other postgraduate students. Distance learning doctoral candidates need to be adept, therefore, at developing their own academic networks of support at a local level. An ability to engage with scholars at different institutions will allow you to develop the contacts that may prove useful on completion of your PhD. In many ways, a distance learning PhD forces postgraduates to engage from the offset with the skills promoted by the Vitae Researcher Development Framework, such as personal effectiveness; networking; self-motivation; resilience; and public engagement.