What are my options for doing a PhD long distance?
November 17, 2012 7:27 AM   Subscribe

What are my options for doing a PhD long distance?

I finished my MA in Literature in March of this year. I'm currently considering my options for doing a PhD, either full time, or (probably) part time.

I live in New Zealand (Auckland). I did my MA at Auckland University, and am looking into potentially completing a PhD via distance at a university in another part of the world.

I'm looking for recommendations of universities that are open to, or have a track record of, accepting long distance PhD applicants. Naturally, enrolment fees will play a part in such a choice, but I don’t want to limit my options at this point according to any particular criteria.
posted by anonymous to Education (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
If you're thinking about US schools, it's going to really tough to find reputable programs.

The first question I'd ask you to consider is: why do you want a PhD? You should consider a PhD, particularly in a humanity, to be a professional degree that qualifies you for the profession of teaching and research at the university level. And if that's really your end goal, a long distance degree is not going to cut it.

A large part of the doctoral experience is learning to be part of an academic community, and that's done in person: working directly with professors and other grad students, giving talks at department colloquia, building connections, and heck, even just having a beer and shooting the breeze about the latest, I don't know, dueling Hegelian and Foucaultian critiques of Cien Anos de Soledad or something. Proximity to others expands one's immersion in the field. Also, knowing people is how you get jobs, and academia is no different than any other industry. You just can't get those things while working remotely.

If your goal is anything other than having a professional qualification to teach and research in academia, then you should reconsider the entire endeavor, as it's a lot of time and money to sink into something with little return other than personal edification that you could get by reading and writing a lot on your own. A lot of people mistake a PhD for a credential that says "The holder of this degree is smart." While that may be true some of the time, there's no causal relationship there, and a PhD really means "The holder of this degree worked really hard on something for a long time and stuck with it." And while either is nice, a degree isn't necessary to prove either intelligence or fortitude.
posted by The Michael The at 7:53 AM on November 17, 2012 [13 favorites]

There are online PhDs, but most in the US at least have a residency requirement. It's part of the definition, which is why Shaq got an EdD. It's also a doctorate, but doesn't have the same residency requirements.
posted by idb at 8:09 AM on November 17, 2012

Previously. That question was targeted towards science & technology PhDs, but honestly, a lot of the advice there applies just as much towards the humanities.
posted by Johnny Assay at 8:30 AM on November 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

I can't really comment on the wisdom of doing a purely distance PhD. However, you're probably better off looking at the UK than the US, as they're more purely research degrees, while in the US, there's usually (always?) coursework involved.

Depending on your subject, once you're sufficiently far along, it can be possible to never come to campus and/or be in another location entirely, so that might increase your options if you're willing to go somewhere for a period of time.
posted by hoyland at 8:35 AM on November 17, 2012

I'm not sure you can do a PhD entirely long-distance. There are good insitutions that don't require you to be based on campus all the time, like the Open University, but as far as I know you still need to physically go from time to time.
posted by philipy at 8:39 AM on November 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

It will be very difficult to do what you want to do. At a highly ranked program, it would likely be possible to spend long stretches at a time out of the area, but as said above basically any reputable PhD program worth attending will have some requirement for coursework (which will have to be done in-person on campus) and teaching assistantships/lectureships (which will have to be done in-person on campus).

At the program I attended, which takes a minimum of 6-7 years to complete even coming in with an MA, your education and employment prospects would look like this:

Year 1: coursework (have to be on campus) / research assistant
Year 2: coursework (have to be on campus) / RA or teaching assistant
Year 3: reading for exams (could be done elsewhere, though it might not be recommended) / RA (could be done at a distance), TA or lecturer (would have to be on campus)
Year 4: exams, then first dissertation chapter / RA, TA, or lecturer (same requirements as above)
Year 5: fellowship year (could be done at a distance)
Years 6 and above: competitive fellowship year (various requirements) OR RA, TA, or lecturer at half-wages

So in theory you could be gone in years 3+, though you'd probably have to work extra hard to make sure you were always assigned RA work (which would hurt your CV for the dreadful academic job market later, as you'd be lacking in teaching experience). In practice, though, no one really manages this, in part because the program has genuine requirements for TAs and lecturers that they expect their grad students to fulfill and in part because it's officially forbidden to be gone before year 5, so you'd have to do everything under the radar.

In short I think you'll have to plan on doing the PhD in residence somewhere.
posted by gerryblog at 9:35 AM on November 17, 2012

You can do a distance PhD in the UK system; some info here, although further details would depend on the institution. I'd second The Michael The on the perils of that path if you want to go into academia, though.
posted by Catseye at 2:27 PM on November 17, 2012

I don't know all that much about the US system, and can really only speak to my own UK university (Cambridge). I will say, though, that our PhD is 3 (or 4) years, and we have a residence requirement of six terms (i.e. 2 years) for the PhD. This means, obviously, that you can spend one or two years abroad. My understanding is that you can't do this unless you have good reason too - i.e. you're doing research abroad for your degree (usually historians and anthropologists are the ones who go away for a year). You have to apply to be allowed to have Leave To Work Away (it involves writing up a statement about why it is necessary), and it has to be approved by your supervisor, your department, and the degree committee. Again, I can't speak to the UK situation more generally, but if Cambridge is typical, I wouldn't count on being abroad at all, for a literature PhD, and if you are allowed, it would typically be one year (probably your middle year of three).
posted by UniversityNomad at 5:24 PM on November 17, 2012

I did my MA and PhD degrees in English Lit at Auckland. It's a seriously good department. If I'm correct in my supposition that "Literature" in this case means "English," why not look to complete your PhD there? You'd be able to remain in Auckland and you'd get the benefit of face-to-face supervision, physical library access, an existing social network of other doctoral students, and access to the regular courses run by the (actually rather good) CAD. And you'd be able to pick teaching experience as a departmental Tutor.

It seems to me that it's really unfeasible to imagine that you can complete a viable PhD via distance. One of the most important parts of the degree is forming solid academic networks that will get you to the next phase of your career. And secondly, picking up some teaching experience. You can't get those via distance: you need a relationship in the physical world with a supervisor and a peer group. (And Auckland actually does have some scholars of note who would make good supervisors.)

So, you have two options: 1. use your MA to get into a good PhD programme at another university and move. When I was doing my MA (mind you, this is in the late '90s), a number of my MA class-mates managed to get into US- and UK-based programmes: Cornell, Brown, Sheffield. (Auckland actually has a rather good record at getting its MA students into Cornell.) Talk to your MA thesis or dissertation supervisor about whether you have a shot at doing this. Option 2: do your PhD at Auckland if you (for whatever reason) can't move cities. It's a good university, with a solid postgraduate culture and some star professors. If you work hard, get out to overseas conferences as much as you can, do some departmental tutoring, and publish, you might have a shot at the job market. To my mind, you do not have option 3: doing any kind of PhD via distance that will have any likelihood of netting you a job. These for all intents and purposes don't exist.
posted by Sonny Jim at 9:05 AM on November 18, 2012

Echoing Michael above. I'm a New Zealander, who finished the MA at Victoria and then went to the US for the PhD in English. I'm now a tenure-track faculty member at a midsized US university. Executive summary: if you want to be an academic, do it at Auckland or move overseas. If you don't, consider why you need the PhD.

The problem with doing it long-distance (if, and this is a big if, you can find a nonresidential program) is that a PhD in the humanities is primarily a professional degree that trains you in the academy, and as such the reputation of the program will play a big part in whether you can get a job. I can tell you from my experience in *way too many* search committees in English, that we wouldn't even consider hiring a distance PhD, partly because of reputation and partly because the PhD (in the US, at any rate) professionalizes you - by giving you teaching and research assistantships, sending you to conferences, and establishing the networks with other students and senior faculty that are absolutely crucial if you want to succeed. There are, of course, parallel nonacademic career paths in the humanities with a PhD. But I don't know how that would translate to NZ.

Second, there's the money issue - most PhD programs fund their students and waive tuition by paying them to teach. You won't be able to do this, and PhDs are expensive, especially if you're paying nonresidential tuition. I think my PhD (at a relatively low-cost state school) would have cost me in the region of 16k per year (including living stipend and tuition waivers). Multiply that by 5-6 years and you're looking at serious money.

If you don't plan to leave the country, you'd be way better off getting your PhD from a NZ university - Auckland is an excellent school. And if you do plan to do it, why not leave now?
posted by media_itoku at 12:16 PM on November 18, 2012

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