Doing a PhD while living elsewhere - can it work?



My Master's supervisor was saying the other night that I should be thinking of applying for a PhD in a Uni 70 miles and a 2 hour train ride from where I live (I don't drive). I've got three school-age children. Although we don't live together any more, me and my ex get on very well and I see my children often as they only live five minutes walk away. I don't want to disrupt the happy modus vivendi we've all worked out together.

Has anyone had experience of how pratical it is to do a PhD at a distance? How much time do you actually have to spend at your institution?



I did my MA at a Uni that sort of distance away, and always felt like I was at 'arm's length' from the department and its staff and students (as I was only around for scheduled seminars and not able to socialise much or attend talks by visiting speakers etc.). And it did get to be a pain, and rather isolating, doing the dissertation while living a four-hour round trip from the library (!) and with only occasional meetings with my supervisor to go in for. Because of that experience, I thought I'd get more out of my PhD if I was able to participate in the wider life of the department and make more use of uni facilities/training services etc., so I decided to do it closer to home.

Having said all that, I don't see why it shouldn't be perfectly *possible* to do a PhD at a distance and only go in to uni for (say) monthly meetings with your supervisor, plus the odd library visit (assuming we're not talking about a lab-based project here!). It's more a question, I think, of what opportunities you might miss out on (e.g. teaching work, attending work-in-progress seminars & talks by visiting speakers, training in research skills etc.), and how you'd feel about commuting, working in isolation etc.

If you were happy to do that commute a couple of times a week, there might not be an issue at all.


I think it would depend on the topic in that would you need the University facilities in order to do the research? I would think it would also depend on your supervisor in that would he / she require you to attend the University on a regular basis?

I very rarely attend the University and it works for me but it wouldn't be for everyone. I am mindful that my face isn't known around the department but since I don't want an academic or research career it doesn't really matter.

I'm actually doing the PhD because it would be difficult for me to move at present.


I moved 150 miles away from my university to live with my partner and I commute once a week during semester time and stay with family for a few days so I can spend time seeing my supervisor, using the library and teaching. Luckily I did my masters there and started my PhD while I was living nearby so knew a lot of people anyway and meet up with them whenever I am up there. But if you are making a new start at the uni and will only be able to go in occasionally then you may feel more isolated. I find the travelling quite tiring but it can be done. If you enjoy your work and it is the only place that you can do the research you want, and you have good support at home then it can be done. During holidays I don't go up very much at all and only plan to go in once or twice between now and October so you don't have to be there that often. But you should find out whether you can use the library facilities at a university near where you live (where you did your masters?) as it's a pain when you realise you need certain books but weren't planning to travel to your uni for a while, and I have just had an e-mail saying an inter-library loan book is ready for me to collect, but I'm not going there for a month.


I did my undergrad degree at a university with that sort of commute, and am doing my MSc there as well. However, as I drive it most of the time it only takes me 1 1/2 hours max, not too bad at all really and you do get used to it. I did it 3x a week and although it was tiring, it was definitely do-able. I just made sure that I got there reasonably early (about 9.30) and left late-ish (about 4.30-5) so that I could make the most of it; lectures, tutorials, seminars, library etc.

I would imagine that with a PhD you are in university less, maybe once or twice a week? I think you'll be able to manage it fine, however if there are other things going on like guest lectures you might have a problem if you can't make it. If your supervisor suggested it they obviously think it would be a good opportunity for you, do you agree with them?


I've been doing my PhD by distance and it hasn't been a problem, although it wouldn't be for everybody. I live about an 8 hour drive away from my uni (that's each way!) and I've only been there twice in two years. My supervisors and I sometimes Skype, sometimes teleconference, and exchange emails regularly. The library is not an issue, as they are well-equipped for dealing with distance students and will post books out. And of course, many journal articles are available online. They also offer regular online tutorials for various research skills. I have also forged links with my local university and have been able to do some teaching there, so I am gaining that experience as well. If you are considering working this way, you must be self-motivated and able to work independently even when there is no one looking over your shoulder making sure you are working. But if you can do that, it is perfectly do-able.


I'm not at a big distance from my university, but I'm severely disabled, and practically can't go in very often at all. I've made my home my base. That is a big of a problem for my research, as a history student, because normally I'd go to archives all over the place to do research (and not in my home city). Instead I've dragged the primary source material to myself in the form of photocopies, microfilm copies, and digital photographs. Then I can analyse them at home.

Having said that I am expected to attend the university for training sessions, and of course the very occasional meetings with supervisors. Generally though I don't go near the place. This does have downsides - I'm very cut off from fellow students - but is the only way practically I would be able to complete the PhD. And I'm nearly finished.

If I was a science lab-based PhD student (as I was indeed over a decade ago) this form of working might not be possible, since they're generally required to be in the lab/university on an every day basis. It could also be a problem for students who are required to take on teaching duties, and so need to be in the university more often.


I live quite close to the uni, but my problem is that I work full time and have a very unsupportive headteacher, who won't let me attend anything during school time without filling in forms and 'proving' that I make the time up - as if I don't do enough overtime to cover it several times over as it is. Consequently I might just as well be miles away as I can rarely get in for anytihng that runs during the day. I do go in for Saturday and evening events which I suggested might be good especially for us part-timers, but most of the other stuff is done via e-mails and an occasional meeting with supervisors. Its OK, the only advice I would add to that already given is that it might be a good idea to get to know the library staff and the system they use to get stuff to far flung students, and the IT and admin staff to make sure that everything in those depts. is sorted, like your student card, your access to the right bits of the website etc. so you will be able to work away from the campus.


I'm an hour and a half away from mine (by rail) and go in five days a week. It is tough sometimes but doable. It is possible though that your woirk efficiency will not be as high as it could be because commuting is so tiring.


Thanks everyone - that's very helpful. I am a bit worried about working alone. I don't thrive as a postgrad being by myself and I've found the MA much more socially isolating than I'd expected it. Everyone else is younger than me and some of them live together. I was looking forward to the informal socialising that I thought would accompany the course but I suppose they don't particularly want an older man hanging around (there are two men and six women on my course). I know that situation might not be repeated at the new Uni but I think the theme of isolation which comes up in the replies is something to bear in mind.

Thanks again


I did my PhD remotely. I only went to the uni for supervisor meetings and of course the Viva! I am a particularly driven person so I actually managed with the loneliness of it and completed. If you can work well unsupervised and drive yourself it shouldn't be a problem. The biggest problem will be if you have to complete a taught research methods element in the first year. I have three children myself so I know the problems but I managed it all okay.


I am doing my PhD from distance, in fact I am based in another country. I go to my uni every 3-4 months to meet with my supervisor. At the same time I am working full-time as a special needs teacher. I don't say that it is easy, but it is doable if you really want to do it and you love your research! I still do, but I have only just finished my first year (I hope that I will go on loving it to the end!!!!!):p