A Phenomenological Exploration of the Student Experience of Online PhD Studies

Kyungmee Lee
International Journal of Doctoral Studies  •  Volume 15  •  2020  •  pp. 575-593

This article investigates thirteen students’ lived experiences on an online PhD programme, aiming to develop a better understanding of the nature of doing a PhD online.

A large number of adult students with full-time professional roles and other social responsibilities have returned to universities to pursue their doctoral degree in order to advance their personal and professional lives. Online PhD programmes are now one of the viable choices for those who wish to combine their PhD study with other professional and personal roles. However, little has been known about students’ lived experiences of doing a PhD online, which are seemingly different from those of other doctoral students who are doing their studies in more conventional doctoral education settings.

The present qualitative study employs a phenomenological approach to develop an in-depth understanding of doctoral students’ lived experiences in doing their PhD studies online. The present study was conducted in an online PhD programme at a Department of Education in a research-intensive university based in the United Kingdom (UK). Thirteen students voluntarily participated in a semi-structured interview. The interview transcripts were analysed following Van Manen’s (2016) explanations for conducting a thematic analysis.

The paper presents seven themes that illustrate the essential nature of doing a PhD online, answering the two questions: (1)What are the lived experiences of online PhD students? and (2) What are the particular aspects of the programme that structure the experiences?

The characteristics of online PhD studies are multifaceted, including different elements of PhD education, part-time education, and online education. Those aspects interact and create a unique mode of educational experiences. In a more specific sense, the journey of an online PhD – from the moment of choosing to do a PhD online to the moment of earning a PhD – is guided by multiple, often conflicting, aspects of different doctoral education models such as the professional doctorate, the research doctorate, and the taught doctorate. The present study demonstrates that experiential meanings of doing a PhD online are constructed by the dynamic interplay between the following six elements: PhDness, onlineness, part-timeness, cohortness, practice-orientedness, and independence. Throughout the long journey, students become better practitioners and more independent researchers, engaging in multiple scholarly activities.

It is essential to understand the unique characteristics and experiences of PhD students who choose to pursue a PhD in online programmes. Based on the understanding, online doctoral educators can provide adequate academic supports suitable for this particular group. The study findings highlight the importance of supporting students’ adjustment to a new learning environment at the beginning of the programme and their transition from Part 1 to Part 2.

It is crucial to develop a separate set of narratives about online PhD education. Common assumptions drawn from our existing knowledge about more conventional doctoral education are not readily applicable in this newly emerging online education setting.

It is important for online PhD students and potential ones in the planning stage to better understand the nature of doing a PhD online. Given the growing popularity of doctoral education, our findings based on the reflective narratives of thirteen online PhD students in this paper can support their informed decision and successful learning experiences.

A comparative study can more closely examine similarities and differences among diverse models of doctoral education to capture the uniqueness of online PhD programmes. It is worthwhile to investigate students’ experiences in online PhD programmes in disciplines other than education. A more longitudinal approach to following an entire journey of PhD students can be useful to develop a more comprehensive and holistic understanding of an online PhD. Some critical questions about students’ scholarly identity that emerged from the present study remain unanswered. A follow-up phenomenological research can focus on the existential meanings of being a scholar to this group of students.

online doctoral education, PhD programme, part-time doctoral student, co-hort community, supervision, scholarly identity, phenomenology
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