Since the experience of the pandemic, distance learning became the norm. Studying away from campus can seem like a daunting prospect, but with new and established tools in place like Zoom and the University’s online resources and courses, you will be well supported to undertake your PhD by distance learning.

Thankfully, due to the nature of postgraduate research study, doing a PhD by distance learning is not all that different to a normal PhD. In both ways, you work independently towards the completion of a thesis. The main difference, however, is that your interaction with your supervisors, staff at the university, and fellow students, will be online. PhD English Literature student Ellen Addis writes about what else to expect when studying for a PhD by distance learning.

A lot of screen-time and online communication

As a distance learner, your research and communication with your supervisors will primarily be online. Be proactive in your communications with your supervisors and PhD network to get the most out of distance learning. Making sure you are on top of emails each day and have regular supervisions is paramount to establishing a good working relationship with your supervisors and that your project progresses well. At the beginning of your first supervision, set out expectations, boundaries, and how frequently you would like to meet. Knowing that you have a supervisory team that supports you will help the distance seem shorter.

Person working on a laptop

Research what is available to you

The University of Birmingham has extensive online library resources, training, and courses on Canvas and also the PGR Development from the Library Research Skills Team is invaluable, providing workshops from everything to structuring your thesis, literature searching, and increasing your productivity. You can view the full range of digital services available for students.

The University’s library also has a wide selection of e-books available for use, and more can be requested from MoreBooks@Bham.

Self-discipline, organisation, and motivation

Due to the flexibility that distance postgraduate study offers, students require a certain degree of self-discipline and motivation to be successful. It can be easy to detach yourself from university life and campus when you are so far away from it.

The thesis can be overwhelming, especially when you are not embedded into the university environment. To be successful, set realistic and achievable goals for each day, week, and month with deadlines will help you gain perspective on the work that you need to do. Keeping a digital calendar with alerts for deadlines and projects is also useful.

Planner with post-it notes

Working independently

Being a distance learner PhD student means that you are less likely to run into your supervisor on campus and go for a quick coffee to talk about your research. You also won’t be working in shared study spaces like Westmere on campus, so you will have less in-person interaction with fellow students. Independence is key to PhD study, but by distance learning there is a risk that you might feel isolated.

To avoid this, make sure you are proactive in your communications, especially in your emails. Check your emails every day and make sure you have regular meetings with your supervisors. There are multiple online-only reading groups available to interact with other students in your department and make you feel a part of the Birmingham community while being outside of the city. The University Postgraduate School runs helpful ‘Shut Up and Work’ sessions frequently where you can study with fellow students online, and there are a plethora of events run by them and your own school and department that you can look into.

Establishing your own distance learning community is important to not only stay on top of your PhD, but to feel less alone. The University also has a Mental Health and Wellbeing Service available for all students.

Create a good working environment

You will not have access to the campus PGR study spaces a distance learner. Therefore, creating a working environment that is quiet and conductive to productive independent work is extremely important and will help you in the long run. Spend time making a place which is calming, where you can close the door and not be distracted by everyday tasks and chores so that your research can take precedent.  


Although you may be a distance learner, there are ways that not all your research has to be online. If you are a PhD student based in the UK, you can apply for SCONUL Access,  a reciprocal scheme which allows many university library users to borrow or use books and journals at other libraries which belong to the scheme. The scheme covers most of the university libraries in the UK and Ireland. This is a useful tool for finding library resources and study spaces close to you and will help you feel connected to a university environment.