How to do a Distance Learning PhD at a UK university

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Why do a PhD by distance learning?

There are a number of reasons why a student might decide to study for a PhD or MPhil via distance learning. Some people, for family, career or other commitment reasons, may be unable to move near their choice of university to undertake their study. PhDs by distance learning (sometimes referred to as ‘e-learning’) are often undertaken by candidates based in a different country to the host university.

How do distance learning PhD’s differ from normal PhD study?

Surprisingly little. As PhDs are research-based rather than taught, candidates work off their own steam, carrying out research and working towards the completion of their thesis in a very similar fashion to their resident fellow students. The entry requirements, amount of work required and academic expectations are generally the same as for resident PhD students. Distance learning students still pay tuition fees (which will vary depending on the institution) and are able to study either full or part time.

The main difference is in how the PhD student’s progress is monitored and supported by the university department. The role of the supervisor is key in PhD study and distance learning students will have to be in regular contact with them by phone, email, post and/or fax rather than face-to-face. Some training or course content may be delivered via the internet and some departments may encourage interaction with other students via online discussion boards. Occasional visits to the university by the student may be necessary. Some universities formalise this process by operating an annual review meeting. Visits to the student in their own country by the supervisor may also be required. Some departments ask for a supervisor local to the student to be appointed and this may be up to the student to organise.

Where can I study a distance learning PhD?

Like any PhD study, it will depend on your subject area. Not all UK universities offer distance learning PhDs, and those that do won’t necessarily offer them in every subject. Laboratory-based research, for example, may be difficult to supervise from a distance. It is up to individual students to find out which of their preferred university departments offer distance learning PhDs in their subject area.

The good news, however, is that the number of UK universities offering distance learning at postgraduate level has grown dramatically in the last decade. In 2009, according to a report by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI –, 111 UK higher education institutions were offering some form of offshore provision, either by distance learning or overseas campuses, to more than 190,000 students. Of these, around 61,000 were postgraduates.

There are a number of websites that may be able to help you find out which universities offer distance learning PhDs in your field. allows users to search for courses by keyword, study level and study type. (for students not based in the UK), allows users to search UK courses by study level and subject area, with the option to refine the search results to ‘distance learning’ only courses.

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