Thinking back on my own doctorate by distance I can see that there were some key things that helped in the process. Of course, what worked for me won’t necessarily work for you – we are different people, and there are different resources and opportunities available in different locations. Nevertheless, four things did and do seem to be important to the far-away study option:
- set yourself up for independent study
As I was a distance PhDer, I knew I couldn’t rely on my university for a desk, computer software and IT support. Before I started, I sorted out an office space which was out of household’s harm’s way. It was where I could retreat and not be disturbed. I know that many people do end up writing their distance PhDs on the kitchen table, or in local cafes, and if that suits you then that’s all good. The point is simply that it’s helpful to think about the long haul at the start and sort out what you need by way of space to work and stuff to work with.
Before I got too far into my reading, one of my friends who had recently completed his own PhD showed me the way that he had organised his ‘stuff’. His first and best advice was to get onto Endnote straight away. He had his photocopied papers organised alphabetically and numbered, and he put each number onto the appropriate Endnote record. I didn’t follow his system but his example alerted me to the fact that you need to be able to find your original copy of something, and not just rely on remembering the reading. His advice also helped me to realise that doing the PhD was going to be a lot about efficient ways of recording, storing and retrieving information. Time spent on this apparently tangential task would not be a waste. It was the opposite – essential.
I also set up a daily routine right at the outset. It was pretty basic – write in the morning, read and prepare for the next day’s writing in the afternoon. This worked for all the days except field for days and the odd day off. I’ve written before about how I have daggy writing clothes, and usually write early with a cup of tea and use breakfast as a bit of between-writing-sessions thinking time. This was the routine I set up during my PhD and I still use it now. Of course, some mornings I did and still do have to do something else, but the PhD routine established the habit.
My routines and ways of organising myself won’t necessarily suit you, but the basic elements of being an independent scholar – having a place of your own to work undisturbed, great information management systems, and a work habit that works for you – are important. All doctoral researchers need them, but it’s especially crucial if you can’t rely on some close-at-hand version of peer pressure, peer envy, peer support to stimulate your will to study.
- organise conversation and support
I discovered another distance doctoral student living in the same city and we used to meet up occasionally for a therapeutic coffee and discussion. I was also able to join in a reading group held at a local university where I knew quite a lot of people. This group was not researching in the same area as me, but the reading group was focused on social theory and it seemed not too far a stretch from my own interests. I did end up reading some books that I wouldn’t ordinarily have picked up, but this didn’t hurt. And I did find one theorist who has stuck with me ever since. The reading group certainly helped to introduce me to the discipline of ‘close reading’ which has subsequently been a key scholarly practice. I was also lucky enough to get a bit of casual researcher employment through this group, and the experience of being on a big project and seeing how it was managed, and how ‘real’ research as conducted, was also very instructive.
You won’t have exactly the same set of opportunities available to you where you are. But there may something. There may well be someone else around who is a doctoral researcher who you can meet up with regularly, a shut-up-and-write or a PhD-in-the-pub or some other kind of self organised doctoral group. And there are often seminars and public lectures in local universities which are good to attend and you can meet local scholars in this way. And there is always social media, not only as a networking and social forum, but also as an avenue to contact other people close to you in miles and/or in topic.
The point is that it is very helpful in the distance doctorate if you can cut through the isolation with some relatively regular peer conversation, and if you can find another group of researchers that you can shadow or hang around a bit for the intellectual stimulation and mentoring.
- help your family to help you
It is very hard to do a doctorate ‘at home’. This means all kinds of things, as home circumstances are very different.
By the time I did my doctorate, I was an ‘empty nester’ with no parenting responsibilities. I did have some caring responsibilities but they weren’t onerous. I was also full time and was able, with the help of a scholarship and savings, to afford not to work. And I had a partner with a smallish business that kept him very busy six or sometimes seven days a week. It was not difficult for me to find a lot of time to spend on my research.
Many people do the long-distance doctorate much tougher than this. Working and doing a doctorate part time by distance, and with a young family or intensive caring responsibilities is probably about as tough as it gets, but people do manage it. Someone recently told me that one of their children had only ever known them as a ‘student’ – and one of the things they were looking forward to having now completed, was getting to know their children better. It’s as well to know this and think about what it will mean to work on your doctorate for some years – think carefully before you begin and talk about it with the people who will be affected by you studying. Whatever the circumstances, researching and writing from afar is always better in a supportive environment.
But partners and other family members may not entirely understand what it means to do doctoral research. They may not appreciate that at times you will – talk about things they have never heard of and aren’t really interested in, become distracted and absent-minded, get completely obsessed with a particular line of thinking, will suffer anxiety about whether you can do it, feel guilty about the time you are not spending with them, worry about the writing. They may also not be prepared for – the sheer volume of books and papers that suddenly inhabit their living space/your working space, requests to go to libraries and museums when on a supposedly weekend off, intense conversations in restaurants and on walks, taking the lap top with you on a weekend away…
Whatever it is that you’ll need, it helps to tell your loved ones that this is all part of the way that you are getting the doctorate done. Even if they don’t actually live with you, your close and extended family and friends can and will provide much needed appreciation, love and comfort.
- establish a clear contact regime with your supervisor
It is important for you to set up a schedule of conversations with your supervisor and ask for help when you need it. When I did my distance PhD, supervisor contact was either through a primitive form of email or face to face when I visited. These days, supervision contact is much easier – it can be by email, Skype, phone, facetime… But while the medium makes it easier, the point is that it is important to make supervision conversations fit into some kind of regular pattern.
Universities now usually set a minimum number of supervision sessions per year – this is both an entitlement and also an audit requirement. Different disciplines also have different patterns of supervision with some expecting more frequent conversation than others. As a supervisor, I tend to the flexible, and I allow doctoral researchers some slack in determining how supervision is arranged, whether it is on a regular schedule or whether it is more on demand. However, it is generally important not to let non-contact drift on too long.
Nevertheless, I know that some people need more, and some less, supervision connections than others. And this is why I don’t talk about my own PhD very much. I was a pretty aberrant PhD ‘student’. I didn’t see or contact my supervisor very often. Far less often than would be considered desirable these days, and far less often than was the norm even then. Three times a year perhaps, at most. But that was quite enough for me and it suited me entirely to work away on the PhD as a solo effort. I had a very clear idea of what I was doing and the theoretical work I needed to do in order to get it done. I was a mature age student and already a pretty experienced writer. And I could ask for help whenever I needed it. I just didn’t need or want much and that suited me. I couldn’t get away with that now !
So that’s my initial thoughts about doctorates by distance.
I am still very interested in hearing from other people about their distanced doctoral experience and any other advice that you might have to offer on the basis of your own experience or research.
Image credit: AntoinePound