I recently learnt that the Auckland University of Technology (AUT) has Doctoral students all over New Zealand. At first I was surprised but I quickly realised that with the variety of communication channels open to us today, and savvy supervisors and students, there is no reason why a Doctoral student could not carry out their research ‘at distance’ from their university. I decided to talk to a Doctoral student studying outside Auckland and was put in contact with Susan Knox, a Wellington Doctoral student in the Faculty of Health and Environmental Science. We connected via Zoom technology.
Susan is a Public Health Practitioner with a background in midwifery and 20 years’ experience in the Public Health sector. With her research proposal approved, and 18 interviews completed, Susan is moving on to the analysis phrase of her doctorate. Her research project will take 4-5 years as she has work and family commitments to manage as well. A Ministry of Health contract to improve maternal nutrition led to her current research project.
Susan Knox – PhD candidate, Faculty of Health and Environmental Science, based in Wellington
Susan is taking a phenomenological approach to her research and has already given a conference presentation to the New Zealand College of Midwives and is drafting a paper for publication in collaboration with her research supervisors and a colleague at a Scottish University.
When I asked Susan about her AUT experience as an ‘at distance’ student, she responded with incredible enthusiasm and described her journey so far as “Fantastic! Supported! Inspired! Committed!” The key to her response is her supervisors whom she says have invested in her project, “They have wonderful relational skills, challenge me, support me and help me appreciate the significance of my project.” They communicate every 4 weeks using skype or zoom and in-between use the normal communication channels of emails and phone calls.
In addition to wonderful supervisors, Susan’s research journey also began with expert assistance from her mentor when writing her research proposal … “[he] helped me craft a proposal, find my research niche and gave me solid direction. He shared my proposal with a variety of potential supervisors.” So with her proposal accepted and two supervisors on-board Susan was able to move swiftly ahead with her research.
With hind-sight, Susan regrets not being a bit more proactive in finding a scholarship before beginning her study. Fortunately though, having a supportive family helps her to juggle work and research commitments.
I was also interested to know if Susan had faced any challenges as a long distance Doctoral student. She commented that she had had very few challenges so far. Some of her research budget is used to purchase travel from Wellington to Auckland and rather than talking about challenges she preferred to talk about the benefits.
Being a distance student means that students can achieve that real focus on the study without the added elements of being part of a research team. While there are amazing benefits from doing your research apprenticeship in a team (where you contribute to the team’s goals) it doesn’t help with progressing your writing.
It is obvious that Susan enjoys having less distractions while carrying out her research in Wellington. However, she says, “…I see value in connecting wider – cross universities – as learning comes from other students doing similar topics in a variety of settings.” Susan meets with Wellington-based Doctoral students from other universities and connects with other AUT postgraduate students at conferences and symposiums. Presenting her research proposal also gave her an opportunity to meet other AUT students.
Finally, Susan recommends that students just starting out their research or thinking about enrolling for a PhD should consider the wider skills needed and how transferrable skills from their voluntary or paid work experience can be utilised e.g. project management or creative writing. She concludes, “There is no bigger project than a part-time PhD. Any writing practice is good!”