a doctorate at a distance – take two

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


About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in doctoral research by distance, office, PhD by distance, supervisor, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to a doctorate at a distance – take two

  1. Kim says:

    Very interesting post Pat and a lot of your points resonate with me. As a distance PhD-er my experience ebbs and flows, in that there are times I love it and other times not so much. While I do not have the distractions of others aspects such as teaching and other researchers, it is an isolating process. Not to mention that’s you miss out on opportunities that seem fall to others regardless of your experience. So for me some of the best advice i can offer is:
    1) develop a strategy to help with the isolation of the process – going for coffee with friends, relocating to work on certain days, getting a group of likeminded PhD-ers together
    2) consider going paper-leas – there is only so much space to store things at home
    3) get friendly with your library support officer – you might need access to specific items or books sent out
    4) try to have defined working hours
    5) if possible, try to engage with the department activities or other local activity where possible


  2. therealnatasha says:

    There is an incredibly supportive and helpful Facebook group called PhD and Early Career Researcher Parents – which also has a connected Virtual SuaW page. Not all of those on the site are doing their PhD by distance, but a large proportion are, and also dealing with the significant challenge of carer responsibilities at the same time. I would recommend it for anyone in the same position.


  3. Helen Kara says:

    Just caught up with this series; not sure how I managed to miss the first one. I had a very similar experience at the OU 2003-6. I was already a professional researcher and writer, and mostly very happy just to crack on. I didn’t have many external responsibilities apart from the need to earn a living, but as I was self-employed I could focus entirely on my PhD when business was quiet. I saw my supervisors four times a year to begin with, six times in the last year when I was really motoring (I was a part-time student but did my PhD in three years anyway). I had an excellent group of PhD buddies who lived quite locally to me, we met up fairly regularly and helped each other through. In terms of advice, Pat, I think you’ve got it covered!


  4. bronscott says:

    I completed my Doctor of Education via distance for the second half when I moved from Sydney down to Melbourne. I agree with the advice you’ve included here. I started on my dining table, but one of the best things I did was turn my spare bedroom (which I was lucky enough to have) into a dedicated work space/office. It was ESSENTIAL to be able to get away from that space, to shut the door and keep the rest of my flat relatively doctorate free! Working at home is hard!!! I live on my own, and the social isolation was something that I found very difficult. I was lucky enough to have a fellow Doctoral candidate in the same city with whom I could have coffee/debrief/ cry-on-shoulder sessions with, and this was really helpful. I did not have frequent supervision but it was regular enough for me – mainly conducted via email or phone, and occasionally face-to-face if I was in Sydney.
    One of the most useful things for me was the online community. It was discovering groups such as #phdchat that really got me into using Twitter, and I got so many useful links and resources this way. This really helped with the isolation factor. I also found both your blog and the Thesis Whisperer incredibly helpful and supportive (and I sent you both a thank you tweet when I passed back in 2015!). Particularly when things were tough, it was very useful to know I wasn’t the only one struggling with issues, and I found a lot of useful strategies to help me through the harder stages (especially toward the end). So thanks again for all that amazing online support! And now of course, the hard bits are all just a dim memory, and I’m very glad I persisted and achieved my goal. It’s changed how I think, and made me more resilient.


  5. Laura says:

    Than you for this post. It’s just what I needed to read right now! I’m a full time teacher, have two children under 5 and my husband works away most of the time. Im a part-time and self funded distance PhD student. I can only do my doctorate work after my children are in bed at 8pm and am a little exhausted right now! Passion for my subject area keeps me motivated most of the time but sometimes I feel less competent than full timr PhDers! Guilt that my mind is sometimes on ‘I should be reading or writing’ when I am with my family is difficult. This post reassures me that what I’m going through is all part of the journey.


  6. Jane S says:

    I recognise – with feeling! – all points made to date. Distance PhDs are difficult, especially part-time, in competition with various life issues / emergencies, and that ever-nagging feeling of ‘I should be reading / writing’. I guess we’re all acquainted with the doctoral candidate who sailed through the whole process, had his/her supervisors on tap, never hit a glitch or experienced a lack of self-confidence. …
    As a vainly-trying-to-finish writer of some 90,000 words, I wish I could remember the heady feelings after the proposal was accepted. Gearing up for a research degree over four years, the positive enthusiasm of the first year: ‘I CAN Do This Thing!’ (‘Bite’ and ‘chew’ are the two words that now come to mind; mental and physical exhaustion seem to be part and parcel of the process.)
    Originally, the mountain didn’t loom too large on the horizon. It appeared relatively simple from a distance. What could go wrong? Oh, plenty! In my innocence, I thought it can’t be too different from writing a book. Sit down, rack your brains, put it on paper or screen, scrub it out ~ slowly the thing takes shape, the words pile up to the magic number (or, in my case, far beyond!) But a thesis is a ‘book~plus’ project. It’s not imaginative creativity. It requires the same hard slog, the same skills and techniques. It contains the same *longeurs* when nothing much happens, or you hit dead ends and blind alleys. And, of course, that thing called ‘life’ gets in the way. On the other hand, I did discover that rigid schedules don’t work for me, personally. The thesis wasn’t produced in neat tranches but in fits and starts.
    But the hardest stages *do* come at the end, and I agree, supervisors and researchers should have a firm personal contact agenda. If they don’t hear anything from, or see, their distant students for some time, even months, perhaps a quick email, text or phone call, if only to establish if one is still alive? It’s too easy for busy academics to believe that if no contact is sought, everything’s OK. Often it isn’t.


  7. Pat,

    In response to “My routines and ways of organizing 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.”

    I agree. Yes, yes, and yes.
    1. You must be organized, very organized, probably beyond what you think you should be
    2. You must be in a place you can work productively
    3. You must have a support community, either remotely and/or locally




  8. Mary T. says:

    As one currently in the research phase of a distance PhD, with my supervisors across an ocean from me, while working full time and supporting with a spouse dealing with cancer and aging parents, this is a very encouraging post! Just knowing others have “been there” helps to keep at it. Thanks to all for sharing your experiences.


  9. Pingback: Thesis writing advice | A Roller In The Ocean

  10. I know it isn’t a PhD, but I am seeing so many similarities in the challenges. I am doing my MSc through distance and this is such a helpful post. I just finished the classes and about to start the dissertation. I am across the ocean from my University, I work full time not to mention a lot of general life things that have to be done and unexpected that can happen. I appreciate knowing that others have experienced that it can be isolating and that family (and I’ll say co workers) may not understand.
    Being about to start my dissertation I finding it so helpful reading everybody else’s experiences putting a thesis together at a distance. Thank you all for sharing!.


  11. Hi Pat,
    I am 2-3 weeks from PhD submission – I did all my research and writing in Israel while studying through Monash University in Australia. Previously I completed my MEd in the same way. This has been an extremely long and challenging journey, but this mode of study has worked very well for me.
    For years I have been getting up to write at 4 am before going to my full time job as a teacher educator and a vice-principal in a school. Those quiet hours, when my family were sleeping, were my only means of squeezing the PhD into my busy life.
    Alongside my two wonderful supervisors, your blog and books have been a great help to me.
    I have reached many understandings about distance learning and would love to share them with you after my submission.
    Nikki Aharonian


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