Feeling alone: doctoral research as a distance learner

Kathy Chandler  is an associate lecturer and  lecturer in online teaching

I recently returned to some notes I made during an online writers’ workshop that I took part in towards the end of my EdD studies. To get us started, we were asked to choose the image that we most identified with from a selection of pictures. I picked a lone person on a bridge and scribbled a paragraph to explain my choice; in summary, I felt alone.

Photo by Alex Azabache on Unsplash

I wonder why I felt this way. Having completed master’s degrees and a doctorate at the Open University, I am no stranger to distance learning. I have also supported distance learners myself for many years. I know that becoming a so-called ‘independent’ learner does not, as many people expect, mean studying by myself.

As a doctoral researcher, I have been well supported. I have had regular online sessions with my excellent supervisors who have challenged and encouraged me. Many colleagues within the university have taken an enthusiastic interest in my work, some becoming participants in my study. And my EdD cohort have been an amazing source of support. Although our opportunities to meet in person have been few, our Whatsapp group conversation is full of shared wisdom and resources, as well as the everyday details of our research journeys. And yet, as my picture choice reveals, studying at a distance can still feel isolating. In recent years, with the restrictions resulting from Covid-19, more researchers have had similar experiences. So what can we do to minimise this sense of isolation?

Firstly, we can make the most of the connections that we already have. As the acknowledgements at the front of my thesis show, ideas to develop my research methodology were often sparked by conversations with friends and the youngest members of my family, even if they were not sure what I was talking about. Retired academic friends were also generous with their time and always encouraging me not to be scared of trying something new or different. In their day, they reassured me, there were no standard ways of doing qualitative research. They created their research methods as they went along.

Secondly, we can make new connections. This requires a certain amount of bravery, particularly for those of us who are not natural networkers. I have challenged myself to explore every opportunity to work with other people and other organisations, whether it is collaborating on a journal article, speaking at a conference, or being part of a pilot scholar scheme. The move to online working has created new possibilities. Through responding to an invitation on Twitter, I recently found myself participating in a staff workshop about online teaching at a Canadian college. I have discovered that emailing people working on similar areas of research and arranging a time to talk can be productive and inspirational, as well as developing my confidence.

Do you have experience of studying or researching at a distance? What strategies do you have for combatting isolation?

Kathy Chandler is in her 20th year as an Open University associate lecturer and about to begin a new role as a lecturer in online teaching within IET. Her doctoral research considered students’ experiences of online tutorials in health and social care.

Email: kathy.chandler@open.ac.uk

Twitter: @KathyMChandler

Website: kathychandler.org

3 thoughts on “Feeling alone: doctoral research as a distance learner

  1. Yup, I can resonate with this. Being a distance researcher can be isolating, during a pandemic (and shielding) but the support is there is you know where to look. As a long term OU student I have the hang of distance learning but like you have been eternally grateful to my WhatsApp support network.

  2. Thank you so much for writing this. Like you, I’ve studied online for a while. I completed both of my MAs online with the Open University and have studied online with the University of Glasgow. I think I’ve found the EdD journey more lonely at times because of what’s felt like the ‘enormity’ of working towards and competing doctoral research and a thesis. The WhatsApp group, checking in with my supervisors and writing with my study buddy through Teams calls has helped. The residential weekends, both online and f2f, have helped too. I’m very grateful we all got to meet in person before the pandemic as that helped us all to get to know each other a bit before the world went online.

  3. Thanks Kathy, I think one of the unintended positive outcomes of the past few years is how we have all had to switch our thinking and be more creative in reaching out for help. The exercise you participated in would have been all the more powerful for you participating online, but being able to reflect in your own space. If it had been in a room physically with other people, you may not have had the same depth of understanding with other distractions.
    My experience has been like you. Nurtured by supervisors, Saturday morning seminars, but more importantly the WhatsApp group of peers has made, a by necessity, lonely process not make me feel alone.
    Being an EdD student alongside working and supporting students in HE has helped me understand their experience better, yes to see the challenge, but also to see the opportunities.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *