Can you see me in the distance? (A blog about distance learning)
This is a guest post by Catherine Aitken, a first year PhD researcher within Management at the UofG. Catherine is currently researching Social Enterprise Business Models.
The majority of PhD researchers live in and around campus, immersed in a vibrant research environment with likeminded peers and daily support staff. These supportive conditions can ignite inspirational and motivational spirit, as you interact with people from all over the world daily. Doesn’t this PhD life sound like a wondrous experience?
However, if you strip this ideology away and replace it with absolute isolation, where a lone researcher only has the internet as a means to connect to the research world, it sounds less appealing. Nevertheless, this is the life of distance learner. A life where the research environment is conceptual and relationships are virtual.
My PhD experience falls into the latter category, enabling me to draw insight into common pitfalls and offer practical tips, tricks and support for those who are orbiting in a disconnected PhD world. Although, through research of the topic I have found that these issues are not limited to distance learners, therefore this blog is for you non-distance leaners too.
Dangers and how to deal with them
- Absolute isolation A PhD is an isolating period for any researcher, but distance learning magnifies this situation. PhD guidelines recommend at least 35 hours of research per week. However, for many distance learners this often means 35 hours of “absolute isolation” without seeing or speaking to a single soul for the duration of your working day. On a regular basis, this can have a negative effect on your mental wellbeing. Without a “work” environment you have little support. Tip: Online is your friend. Online cannot fully replace face-to-face contact but it’s all we have, so use it to its full potential. This means joining WhatsApp groups, Facebook groups and/or discussion forums. Reach out: post, discuss, chat and support others. PhDs are tough and your peer network is the most important form of support! If you are struggling to find the right groups, create one and build the environment you need.
- Stay Motivated It’s easy to become disengaged and discouraged with your research when you feel alone in the journey with little support. Tip: Stay on top of this by setting yourself daily research goals,g. read a journal and take notes or write 1000 words etc. Take pride in ticking tasks off the list because creating small wins helps highlight the overall progress! Moreover, speak to your supervisors. You should be meeting with them at least once a month (by Skype if necessary) and let them help set goals and keep you informed of expected milestones.
- Workspace variation Different environments stimulate different thoughts and streams of creativity. When working off campus do not lock yourself away at home, this will lead to feelings of isolation. Get creative in your choice of workspaces. Tip: I love to use the café at my local library, it helps reduce the feeling of isolation and the bustling environment inspires me (I’ve had some great ideas here). Even renting a desk at a lively co-working hub can help you feel part of a work environment and allows you to network at the same time (I’ve made great contacts this way).
- Support systems As a distance learner, it is harder to access support services physically because it requires (sometimes expensive) travelling and more planning in advance. You can’t just pop by to make an appointment. Tip: You may not be able to access support services physically, but there is a wide range of online support available for distance learners. PG writing advisors do skype appointments! Contact Jennifer Boyle for more information. Moreover, Moodle has great online courses and advice and tips on successfully completing a PhD. It’s worth revisiting Moodle periodically for new material. The University also provides a really useful, extensive online self-help area. This allows students to care for their own physical and mental wellbeing, by accessing online courses on mindfulness and stress reduction (amongst other things).
- Home life pressures You might be home but you still have work to do! It can be difficult to separate your personal from your professional life when it takes place in the same space and you have no set working hours. Tip: Remind your family and friends it’s not a day off to hang out with them. Learn to say no where appropriate and remind them how important and demanding your PhD can be, as well as your contractual obligations to the University.
Trust me, it’s not all doom and gloom
Distance learning for me is hugely rewarding for a number of reasons, but the biggest being work-life balance. Working from home allows me to spend time with my family and I don’t feel like I’m missing out on special (or everyday) family occasions. I think that’s called “having it all”. For that, I am extremely grateful to the University for allowing me to work in this way.
It’s economical; I save money on travel expenses. I actually consider myself as hybrid learner, I live close enough to visit Glasgow regularly (I’m on the east coast of Scotland), but far enough to deter me from the daily commute. That would be financially and time demanding.
What I’m saying is life is full of payoffs and sometimes the benefits are worth the cost. Mine just happens to reduce my access to the research world but increases my connection with my family. However, by implementing these tips, the experience can be more invigorating than isolating.
I’ve learned that securing the PhD experience we want is our responsibility, so ask yourself: “What can ‘I’ do to make this experience better?”
If you would like to connect or have ideas for building a more inclusive environment for leaners who have reduced access, please email me. I would love to build a supportive environment for everyone – firstname.lastname@example.org
There are many Facebook groups designed for specific PGR groups. See for example: Management PhD's at the UofG, Postgraduate Researchers at the UofG, PhD and Early Career Researcher Parents, and the PhD Women's Group Scotland.
Moodle offers great courses and tips for distance learners, for example the 'Research Master Class 2016-17' and 'Management Research Methods 2016-17 for Management Students. More general courses can be found when you log in and search in Moodle for 'Strategies for a Successful Start to your PhD'.
Career advisors are available via Skype! Contact Katrina Gardner for more information.