Almost the Same: Five Ways Remote PhD Students Can Mimic the Residential PhD Experience

Maha BaliMaha Bali is a part-time, self-funded (well, by my parents, thank you), remote location PhD student at the University of Sheffield, studying Education. Her PhD thesis (recently submitted and awaiting viva in October) is entitled “Critical Thinking at University: A Study of Critical Thinking Development at an American Liberal Arts University in the Middle East”. She started her PhD in 2006 while working full-time as a faculty developer at the American University in Cairo, and finally submitted it while on a two-year maternity leave from work in 2013. Maha has written several articles on www.al-fanar.org and www.moocnewsandreviews.com. You can follow her on Twitter via @Bali_Maha

If doing a PhD is a lonely pursuit, wait utill you have tried doing it remotely! Remote location, part-time PhD study can be beneficial and even empowering! But there are a few aspects of the residential PhD experience that I missed out on, and this posting shares my experience dealing with them to try to approximate the residential PhD experience. I have no idea how common my struggles are, or how useful these tips will be, but I imagine and hope that, at least for international, remote location, part-time PhD students, these tips will be beneficial.

#1: Network with other researchers. I start with this one, because I find it the most important. I assume that residential PhD students have some kind of interaction with academics and peers in their department at their institution. Remote location students only have official access to their supervisor(s), and have only fleeting interaction with peers and academics at their institution. During my remote location study, I visited my supervisor about once a year. During that visit, I tried to attend at least one seminar or workshop each time I visited, and tried to stay in contact with some of the people I met (professors were much friendlier than students, I found!). However, these are still people I met only about once a year, so I focused my attention on building networks in my local context, which in my case, varied throughout my PhD (my husband and I moved several times). When I had no university affiliation, I attended public lectures and free workshops at nearby universities. When I did have university affiliation, I volunteered in research projects and attended conferences as often as possible – sometimes these weren’t directly related to my field, but networking with researchers in similar fields was useful just the same. All of these forms of networking provided an avenue for intellectual conversations to keep me stimulated; helped me develop my “academic language”, and provided insight into “how research is done” by people other than myself! Where possible, access to other research students can provide moral support and advice, and sometimes even direct help reading drafts, for example. Networking with more senior colleagues can help with advice related to publication, and other advice regarding the PhD and viva. Some older colleagues will also be willing to read drafts of your chapters, and provide invaluable feedback on them.

#2: Access to important references. As a remote student, I only had access to online library resources. While these were substantial, there still remained many important journal articles (e.g. old ones not digitized) and books that I could not access. If you are lucky like me, you’ll have access to a local academic library and even free document delivery service for articles and book chapters (I think remote students should get free document delivery from the institution granting them the PhD, but that’s another conversation!). For entire books, however, I drew upon further resources. First, peers and senior colleagues were often willing to lend me their books (see point 1!). Second, you will be surprised how well-stocked some public libraries can be with academic books (in the UK and US at least). Local universities you are not affiliated with might also be willing to grant you temporary on-site access as a researcher (the American University in Cairo does this, for example). One further resource I discovered is Kindle books. There are some academic books that you can borrow for a modest fee. Most books also offer free samples, which often cover the first chapter (sometimes, that is all you need; other times, it helps you decide whether the book is worth buying). One other strategy I did when I could not access a book I needed (and this happened to me a few times during Egypt’s political upheaval when the American University in Cairo’s library was closed) was to look for articles by the author of the book/chapter I needed. Often, someone who has written a book/chapter on a certain subject has also written an article or two about the same subject, covering the key concepts. Sometimes, that is all you need! If all else fails, try asking your supervisor if s/he has the book and is willing to lend it to you temporarily!

#3: Disseminate. As a remote student, I did not have access to the opportunities for PhD students to present their research in a relatively safe environment. So I just tried as often as possible to do so at conferences. To reduce costs, I often chose a conference that was at the same time I was visiting my supervisor in Sheffield, and one that was located in Sheffield or a nearby city. It took me a while to work up the confidence to disseminate my work, but once I started doing it, my confidence built further until I felt confident enough to submit my thesis.

#4: Teach. Whenever the opportunity becomes available, and if you can manage your time, teach in or around your subject. I was not directly teaching what I was studying, but the teaching experience helped me reflect much more deeply about my research, and I found synergies there I would not have anticipated. It is possible that someone who is studying social work, for example, would benefit more from actually doing social work rather than teaching it (but I assume most of them do so already?). But I still expect teaching to be beneficial across fields, because it helps one think of one’s subject on a meta-level and reflect on it from a different angle than the one usually used for research.

#5: Use technology well. For a remote location student, all kinds of technology will make your life easier. I believe remote location students should always be assigned a tech-savvy supervisor! Using Skype with your supervisor might mean you can get to talk to him/her more often than if you called internationally. Using shared wikis or blogs with your supervisor (if they are willing) or track changes/comments on MS Word can help you have an asynchronous conversation with your supervisor. Returning to point #1, you can find online support communities to help you through your research. There is so much on Twitter to support PhD students (SocPhD and PhdForum being two!!!). There are useful podcasts (e.g. VivaSurvivors). These online communities gave me support that helped me sprint through the final stages of writing.

If you have different experiences or tips worth sharing, please post them in the comments.

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4 Responses

  1. […] responsibilities that entails – including difficulties to travel for conferences. I got my PhD remotely with few visits to Sheffield, so i did not have the chance to network with other academics […]

  2. […] With my online life, for a while I was “one of them” PhD students about to finish their PhDs, learning tips on how to finish writing and how to prepare for the viva. But I was never really “one of them” because I was a remote student, not a residential one. My challenges were different. […]

  3. […] I started using it to connect with other PhD students and it saved me near the end of the PhD. Twitter saved […]

  4. Thank You Maha for your advice. I am in the same process and it is really important to feel that someone went through all that and succeeded. Thanks also for the tips !! They are really useful

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