By Julie Leiper

I am undertaking a PhD via distance learning. This may not be a route you are familiar with, indeed I only really heard about it myself 10 months ago, and that was from random Google searches during the small hours whilst awake with a new baby.  Doing a PhD by distance learning is attractive to variety of people for many various reasons. My cohort of nine contains students from four countries and I know the other direct learning courses within the faculty have students from around the globe.

Initially I was very sceptical about a distance learning PhD. I felt it couldn’t offer the real research opportunity that a face-to-face PhD would give me. I don’t have the opportunity to meet and mingle with students on a regular basis nor will I see members of the department and faculty with any degree of regularity which could make networking difficult. What I do have however is very frequent digital connections with my peers and supervisors. I imagine most students nowadays make use of technology to keep in touch with the supervisors and other PhD students but this route offers formalised regularity and structure to interactions. It means my supervisor could have potentially built up an understanding of me and my interests prior to my research formally beginning. It also allows me time and space to reflect consider and refine my research question in light of things I am learning along my journey.

The first two years of the of the PhD are delivered as six interactive online taught modules around the areas one would expect to be considering as a traditional PhD student. For instance, my current module is on the Philosophy of Research and my task next week is to give a five-minute presentation on the relationship of ontology and epistemology to the theory and methods I will use in my research project. Each week offers the opportunity to engage with different material, set readings, and styles of task. There is an expectation that every student will contribute to every activity. It’s not merely a case of doing nothing for the 10-week module and then writing frantically to complete the assignment.

Each September, for the duration of their PhD, all students, regardless of where they live in the world are expected to attend a week-long residential academy where we learn from and socialise with colleagues from the other distance learning courses within the faculty. This is an opportunity to put faces to the online voice you have been chatting with over the past year as well as receive some pretty intensive tuition on a variety of topics.

In order to progress onto the next stage each student must obtain certain threshold in their assessed work. Students not obtaining or maintaining this threshold can leave the course with a lesser qualification subject to their achievement and length of study.

In Year 3 I will begin my research, and things will change to a situation more like a traditional part-time PhD student living off-campus (I imagine – having never been one before!). My research will be shorter than a traditional PhD as I will have already had around 30,000 words marked and assessed over the previous two-year period. I don’t imagine for any stretch that this will make the research easier, quite the opposite, brevity is a skill which doesn’t come naturally to some.

For me the attraction comes from being able to fit the work around my real life. As a parent of small children, it is not feasible for me to study either full-time or physically attend the most appropriate university for my interests, which would be a 90 minute each way commute. The other option for me would be to wait until my youngest child is in full-time school to start my PhD which to me felt like choice between parenting and my aspirations, a choice which I wasn’t prepared to make.

Admittedly, it is quite a lonely life. Parenting by day and studying at night.  Prior to my PhD I was a clinical lead based in a psychiatric hospital with continuous interactions with members of staff. I imagine adjusting to academic life from any job would be a challenge and a PhD by any route is hardly a walk in the park.  Choosing this route however gives me control over my commitments and enables me to make the most of my children whilst they are young without having to sacrifice my research interests. I’d urge anyone thinking about choosing the distance learning route not to dismiss it as it isn’t traditional but to embrace the positives it could offer you.


Julie Leiper is a first year distance learning part-time PhD student at Lancaster University. When not in this role she can be found peeling stickers of superheros from her clothes, usually after a day completely unaware of their existence. 

Image: Distance. Pixabay