Doing a PhD by distance learning is a great option if you're needing to juggle your study around your current commitments or are unable to relocate. With an increasing number of reputable providers and better accessibility to a wide range of online resources, there has never been a better time to start doing a PhD from the comfort of your own home.
But, whilst there are many benefits of studying off campus there are also downsides. You'll want to consider how these affect you before making a decision.
The availability of online resources make an off campus PhD possible
Many institutions now offer distance learning as an option to do a PhD not only due to the increasing availability of online degrees and resources, but also due to a wider appreciation of working from home. COVID has been partly responsible for closing that gap somewhat and even many campus-based students now choose to work from home rather than an office when they can.
And if their offices are anything like my PhD office, it gets cold in the winter and too hot in the summer! It can be much more comfortable, studying from the location of your choosing.
Jay Phoenix Singh of the YouTube channel 'Navigating Academia' feels that online learning is the future, or at the very least will make up a strong component of the learning environment. When I was an undergraduate back in 2008, lecturers were still using projectors! Now even on campus options are taught with a centralised core of online-based materials. These can be accessed anywhere and at anytime.
How many students do distance learning at a Postgraduate level?
Distance learning in a PhD is more common that you think. Technically, when you undertake field trips in other countries for extended periods of time, these are counted as a remote PhD. This also applies if you undertake much of your work in an institution outside your official learning provider. In the UK, this must be an accredited university.
In the UK, over half of all distance learning courses are offered at the postgraduate level; most of these are within business, law, maths and computing, and some medical degrees. (White et al. 2010, pg. 17). Therefore it's likely that most distance learning students you'll meet will be studying one of these topics.
According to the US Department of Education National Centre for Education Statistics (2022), in 2019, 1 million postgraduate students (33% of all postgraduate students) took a fully distance learning course. This rose to 1.6 million students (52% of all postgraduate students) with the onset of COVID-19 in 2020.
So you definitely won't be alone! Whilst there has been an increasing trend towards off campus learning options, on campus learning is generally more highly sought after, particularly from younger students.
What are the differences between an online and campus-based PhD?
At the PhD level, the difference between campus-based and online courses is much less stark than with taught undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. This is because there are very few classes as PhD work is largely independent research. In the US this may be less so as I believe classes are required to begin with. If there is any training, it can be and often is anyway, done online rather than face-to-face. Quite often you may still be required to attend campus for compulsory training days or weeks. These you may take with your on campus peers.
At the beginning, it's likely there will be a slightly different induction procedure to introduce you to the nuances of remote working technology.
The major difference is the way in which you can engage with your on campus colleagues. With more restricted communication options and a lack of full social activities, engaging with on campus students can be tricky. The use of forums will likely be limited to those students who are off campus.
What are the similarities between online and campus working?
Your supervisor is a key similarity. You will meet them regularly to talk about your work. Whether you're on or off campus, the relationship that you have with them will have an important influence on the direction and support you will receive during your studies.
Research is pretty independent generally and not like a taught course. Don't be fooled into thinking the work will be any easier! You will still need to do the reading, the research, and the writing. Ultimately the work required to produce your thesis and any papers is the same. A Ph.D. still requires that you have an original contribution to the literature.
The entry requirements will also be the same. Online PhDs are not any easier to get into than an on campus one. You will also need to do the same mandatory training.
Financially, it may or may not be cheaper. Many funding providers will require you to study on campus. That being said, fees may be up to half that if you study from home (e.g. University of Reading). Alongside savings in travel and avoiding uprooting to a new location there may be significant savings to be made, especially if a leaving a job would be involved. It would be prudent to investigate your own personal financial situation and funding options to find out the overall impact it will have for you.
At the end of the process, your viva is now much more likely to be online to avoid travel, however you choose to study. Your thesis will take the same form and have the same requirements.
From these points it is obvious that with regards to many aspects, you will have no different an experience than your on campus peers. There are even many advantages to doing a PhD from home!
Advantages of doing a PhD by distance learning
Distance learning PhDs allow you to do your research at a time and place that suits your current lifestyle and commitments. Therefore they are ideal if you have a family or a job you wish to do it alongside.
It is a great option if you live in other countries and wish to study in a foreign institution without moving halfway around the world. This may also be the case if you need to access resources in another country or institute. This also applies if you work with a partnership organisation for much of the PhD.
In the US most (if not all) doctoral programs require a period of taught courses before the PhD research program begins. If this is not for you and you want to just get stuck in with your own study, then a distance learning PhD elsewhere may be a great option for you.
A distance learning PhD works well with a part time option and they are usually offered as such.
Generally there is a more age diverse cohort, with more older students.
An online PhD demonstrates more independence as with a less fixed structure of the working day (e.g. office opening times) it can be much more difficult to find focus.
Of course doing a distance learning PhD may be a much greener option due to the reduction in travel. However most students do tend to live near campus so will be walking anyway. Therefore saving on your carbon emissions may or may not be an advantage.
Doing a PhD online also has many negatives associated with it; probably more than the benefits. Consider how these will affect you carefully.
Disadvantages of doing a PhD by distance learning
Is it possible for you to study remotely?
Generally only a narrow range of PhD programs are currently offered so depending on your field, an online PhD may not be possible. Many subjects, such as those which are lab-based just can't be done through distance learning, although there may be phases of even a practical based subject that could be adapted to distance learning (Fast et al., 2022). There is the exception of location-based PhDs such as those done in a hospital or remote field centre. In this respect, you may benefit from a supervisor local to you. You need to be able to evidence that you can do the PhD with the resources available to you where you are based e.g. access to a suitable internet connection.
Some visits to campus will still be necessary and often compulsory. These can be for a few days and up to a few weeks such as the University of Edinburgh requires.
You'll miss out on the community spirit
You will need to have incredibly high self-control, motivation and time management skills; even more so than on campus where you are immersed in your subject on a daily basis. Loneliness will not be far away as you may not see or speak to your supervisors and fellow students for weeks on end. A lot of issues around PhDs and mental health issues have been raised in recent years.
One of the biggest drawbacks is that there is no access to on campus resources or community. This means you will miss out on the casual conversations and ideas which are key to navigating certain aspects of your PhD. You won't be able to benefit from the mental health and problem solving benefits that these types of social interactions have. In this same thread it will be much harder to develop certain key skills. These include:
- networking with other academics
- interactive group work
- critical review skills (as a result of discussions with peers)
- verbal communication skills
There may be financial limitations
If you have to pay the same tuition fees as on campus students then you may question the value for money of the PhD you are getting. Some funding providers do not allow distance learning.
What does the research say?
There are higher withdrawal rates of distance learning than on campus-based which Bawa (2016) attributes to:
- students having a misunderstanding of work loads,
- the lack of a comprehensive induction processes,
- a lack of staff understanding and training of the distance learning environment
- challenges with technologies
- the need for continual self motivation
Most of these are also noted as issues raised in a survey of Ukrainian PhD students (Fast et al., 2022). Many students had difficulties with the level of technical support provided in order to access and use the online content. If you're not willing to deal with technology issues then a distance learning PhD may not be for you.
Furthermore, if staff at the university you choose to enrol in are not used to dealing with an online-based student then you will likely suffer from this. Supervisors are busy people and getting the attention and support that you need through only online means will make everything more difficult for you. In this case, it is wise that you seek out reputable and experienced distance learning providers.
Universities in the UK that specialise in distance learning PhDs
It is advisable to contact the supervisor and/or university you want to work with before you undertake any PhD. Get to know them well before starting. As you'll see in the videos below, having a good supervisor is key to the success of your PhD. This is solid advice whether you are on or off campus.
There are plenty of very reputable top institutions around the world that offer a distance learning PhD. I would avoid so-called 'online universities'. Focus your search on those that are well respected in the field you wish to study.
The most well known university in the UK that specialises in distance learning is the Open University.
If you're seriously considering a PhD by distance learning, then talking to some current or previous students would be advisable. The University of Birmingham has quite a few talking heads videos on YouTube with PhD students. Here's some of them:
You'll notice that they are all middle to older aged white people ... so not an ideal cross-section of the population. But these videos also indicate two further things. Firstly that online PhDs are designed to work alongside or with current work commitments. And secondly, that you can do them in the UK from anywhere in the world. That will be make or break for many people.
What are people in forums are saying about doing a distance learning PhD
According to UCAS, distance learning and campus-based learning degrees are treated and viewed the same. They then proceed to pitch distance learning as if you will also have work experience alongside your degree. In this respect an online degree will be viewed in a good light as you are gaining the experience and management of (at least) two things at once. But done as a standalone, an online distance learning degree is not typically viewed in the best light.
A quick search in Quora and the general consensus is twofold. Don't do it if you can avoid it. But if you need to do it due to personal constraints then it's a good option. On reddit they seem to be a little more on the side of 'online PhDs are crap'.
So without some kind of valid reasoning behind doing a PhD online, it has a high likelihood that it would be judged negatively, especially when compared to the same thing but done in person. Overall it seems that a distance learning PhD is a great option if life has constraints that would prevent you from attending an on campus course. However, if those constraints are not there and the choice is between on campus and off campus, then on campus is the best option.