Dr. Kris Hill, who completed her Anthrozoology degree this year, sat her living room in Berlin immediately after her viva. Learn more about Kris’s research and related interests here: https://katzenlife.wordpress.com/

University profile: https://eprofile.exeter.ac.uk/krishill/?section=1

In 2019 I embarked upon a part-time PhD in Anthrozoology. On 4 July this year I passed my viva from my home in Berlin, Germany. I am immensely grateful to Exeter for the opportunity to work remotely, and hope the university continues to support this more inclusive mode of study.

Why would anyone not want to live or study on campus?

Funding is inherently biased towards certain subject areas, and those from non-traditional academic backgrounds are less likely to be awarded funding. Distance-based study is not cheap (tuition is the same), but it becomes more financially feasible if you have a steady income and are spared the expense of relocating. The distance-based option allows someone to pursue a research degree without going into debt or quitting an established career prematurely. 

Even with funding, leaving behind family and/or an established support network might not be ideal or even possible. This is especially so for individuals with disabilities or chronic illnesses. Furthermore, bringing minors or other dependents along for a temporary move can be unnecessarily disruptive for them. Likewise, a spouse may not be able to relocate due to lack of employment opportunities, meaning the family might have to live apart for several years.

Does inclusion take away from the in-person experience?

I encountered some push-back when advocating for my distance-based peers. And I do appreciate that for many people the in-person experience is invaluable and irreplicable. However, it is misguided to imagine that promotion and accommodation of distance-based PGRs will lead to the demise of the on-campus experience. With a bit of effort, the traditional postgraduate experience can co-exist alongside more inclusive remote/hybrid options.

Why is it so important to support distance-based PhDs?

Distance-based study is the ONLY option for many, and distance-based education at all levels opens doors and is essential for inclusivity and diversity in academia.

Inclusion of distance-based peers enriches the social and intellectual experience of younger, campus-based researchers by exposing them to peers with a wider range of life and professional experiences outside of academia. We can all learn from each other!

How can distance-based PhDs assert their presence?

Maintaining connections with campus-based peers and staff post-pandemic is challenging, but something everyone needs to work towards.

When I started in 2019, I did not feel like I was part of the wider research community. However, I was fortunate enough to have a pre-established peer-network from my distance-based MA programme. During the pandemic lockdowns my peers and I led the way in helping our campus-based peers adjust to our way of working.  

The ongoing challenge now is to ensure that the effort continues. That may mean being the ‘annoying voice’ that gets ignored more often than they should. It also means attending as many relevant online/hybrid events as you can and thanking organisers (even when you cannot attend). Oftentimes organisers will facilitate online access to a seminar or regularly reading group if you just politely ask! You might also meet other distance-based PGRs (as well as campus-based peers) by joining online forums and groups such as the PGR Study Space.

What can campus-based PhD (and staff) do to help distance-based peers?

Distance-based PGRs typically have additional challenges or commitments outside of their PhD that impact upon their capacity to self-advocate, volunteer, or be proactive in organising student-led events. Thus PGR-led activities are predominantly organised by fully funded, campus-based students, and as such cater to this demographic. 

This is where faculty-level support is essential and an issue all PGRs (and especially representatives) need to keep bringing up at PGR-staff liaison meetings. When funds are allocated to support PGR-led events, someone should be employed to ensure remote access is set-up and that all members of the research community feel welcome and valued. While no one should put pressure on PGR organisers to do extra work on behalf minority groups, assistance is something that PGRs can insist on when requesting support for events from their departments and faculty. Exeter is committed to Equality, Diversity & Inclusion (EDI), and online access is important to those who are unable to attend campus regularly.

The Doctoral College as an exemplar

I have found it useful to point faculty and departments to the Doctoral College as an example of how to achieve the right balance between catering to both online and on campus PGRs. The Doctoral College have been dedicated to developing online resources, workshops, and courses for many years (even prior to the Covid19 lockdown). In 2022 myself and two other PGRs received a Researcher-Led Initiative award from the Doctoral College’s Researcher Development and Research Culture team to host a workshop series on distance-based practices for academia. See here for an introduction to the workshop series.

The programme we developed included a presentation by Researcher Development and PGR Welfare team members, Kelly Preece and Cathryn Baker about the development of various courses and resources for PGRs. Versions of all training courses and interactive career development workshops run by the Doctoral College are available to distance-based PGRs.