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When Katrina McChesney received an email from an Australian university she had “never heard of” about free research master’s and doctoral degrees for Antipodean citizens, she assumed it was a scam.

At the time, the Kiwi teacher was working on an educational reform project in the Middle East. An academic back home reassured her that it was a legitimate proposal. She gave little thought to whether she really wanted a Ph.D., let alone which university or supervisor would be best. “I just fell into it.”

She started a master’s program and, when things went well, switched to a Ph.D. “I was enrolled at an Australian university, but I lived in the Middle East for the first half and then moved back here to New Zealand,” said McChesney, now a senior lecturer in education at the University of Waikato. “I lived in 11 houses in two hemispheres. I had a baby in the middle of it. The first time I went to my university was to graduate.”

This scenario is not all that unusual, according to the preliminary findings of an international research project into the experiences of doctoral candidates who study by distance.

A survey conducted by McChesney and colleagues in England, South Africa and Australia elicited responses from 521 current and former Ph.D. students in 42 countries. It revealed a hodgepodge of approaches, from partly online study a stone’s throw from the host university to fully remote learning on the other side of the planet.

While three-quarters of respondents had undertaken three-fifths or more of their studies off campus, one-sixth had been off campus for the entirety of their programs. And while 84 percent had studied in the same countries as their universities, 10 percent had spent the whole time abroad.

Most respondents came from social science disciplines and particularly education, reflecting the researchers’ professional networks but possibly also a comparative dearth of distance doctoral students in laboratory-based courses. Nevertheless, about one-fifth of responses came from people in the sciences.

McChesney said the figures—set to be published in full next year—reflect the heterogeneity of a largely overlooked cohort. “Institutional understandings of who distance doctoral students are, and what they need, are a bit out of date. They’re kind of invisible in the statistics. We haven’t been able to find any reported data.”

While the pandemic forced people off campus, distance doctorates were “not a new post-COVID thing.” A subset of Ph.D. candidates had “always” studied remotely because of work obligations, caretaking responsibilities or sheer distance from their universities. “We know that people do doctorates from prison. Doctorates are being done [in] places like Antarctica. I have this hunch, which I am yet to prove, that somebody must have worked on their doctorate from space,” McChesney said.

COVID triggered new practices in any number of workplaces. “That’s happening for doctoral students, too, but it’s happening quietly because doctoral students are independent and … do their own thing.” But universities were struggling to recognize the phenomenon, hampered by “institutional inertia” and a sense that “doctoral programs have always looked a particular way.”

“Until now, most of the responsibility has sat with students. It’s on you to make it work. Universities have said, ‘Here are the ways you can communicate with us and access our services.’ There hasn’t been that sense of, ‘We as an institution are responsible to make sure our provision serves all of you,’” McChesney said.

McChesney did not choose her supervisor, and her Ph.D. topic “emerged by accident” as an extension of her work at the time. As it happened, “my supervisor was wonderful … but she was really all that the university offered me.”

The university promoted itself as a specialist in distance doctoral education. “Occasionally a librarian would scan a chapter if it wasn’t digitally available. But really, I spent most of my doctorate getting increasingly annoyed at … emails advertising these wonderful networking events, professional development opportunities, workshops, speakers, seminars—all of which required you to be on campus in [another] country.”

Despite such frustrations, the survey elicited many positive stories. “A lot of doctoral students became distant students by accident, because of COVID, and found that it was really great for them.” McChesney said her team rejected the “deficit discourse” of distance study as a “second-best” option. “We think it should be tackled from an inclusion and equity lens in terms of good institutional provision,” she said.

“Financial constraints … caring responsibilities, health and mobility, anxiety, trauma—all of those sorts of experiences are perhaps particularly highly represented in an off-campus cohort. Universities … wanting to be part of the equity drive in higher education can’t [overlook] off-campus students.

“Offering a really strong distance doctorate pathway [has] got to be a good marketing opportunity. There are students out there who want to do doctorates. Be the best at looking after them, and students will come.”

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