Overcome the Challenges for Online Doctoral Students That May Come Your Way

Overcome the Challenges for Online Doctoral Students That May Come Your Way
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Will Someone Please Throw Me a Lifesaver? I Think I Might go Under

Papers cover the desk, floor, table, counter, coffee table, and chairs. Books are stacked against the walls and on every surface. The dishes and trash that have piled up make Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout look like a neat freak (well, maybe). You’re eating Ramen noodles yet again, and you’re still cramming study time in at three am - three hours before your alarm is set to wake you up to go to work. This is because instead of working all semester on a paper, you waited, yet again until the last minute, your student loans for the semester have just about run out, and you had to use your money from your full-time job to purchase more books because the local library didn’t carry them. The books wound up costing three times what you’d expected.

Nope, it’s not a nightmare, just a scenario that many a well-meaning online doctoral student has run into at one time or another. Life happens - whether you’re in a traditional doctoral program or working on your Ph.D. online. However, there are many challenges that may arise for the online students that traditional students don’t have to face. Before your apartment is condemned - before you even begin your first semester as a graduate student - it’s important to understand the hurdles you might face and how to keep them at bay.

1. Difficulty Prioritizing Between Work Life, School Life, and Other Obligations

One of the reasons people opt to undertake an online degree program instead of going the traditional route is that it often allows them to continue living in the same place and work at a full-time job while attending school. This also allows family members to continue with their accustomed routines.

The problem with this scenario is now the student has at least two - possible three or more - roles: Employee, student, and possibly parent or partner. If the student does not prioritize tasks, soon things fall into chaos.

In order to fight this challenge, at the start of your student career, go through your school’s academic calendar. Make note of every deadline, residency, and other important date that has been already scheduled in your own calendar.

For this sort of task, you’ll want to use a PIM like Microsoft Outlook or a replacement. You’ll also want to enter in every contact. Enter in your advisor’s information, other students’ information, professors’ information, your boss’s information, coworker’s information, etc. Categorize your contacts by role (trust me, this will come in handy more often than you think).

Now, while you’re thinking about it, request off the dates for your residencies now. If you don’t have the ones for your second year yet, request those as soon as you have them. You’ll thank me for this later when you’re not huddling in a closet eating ice cream because your boss won’t let you have days off for you to go to your program’s meetings.

You’ll also want to enter in projects. Again, you can categorize by work, home, friends, family, and school. Make sure you enter every project, and list any tasks associated with those projects. For instance, if you need to write a research paper, you’ll need to make an errand to the library. If you can’t find the books you need, you’ll need to request them through interlibrary loan. This needs to be done early.

Good organization is key to success, especially when it comes to juggling multiple roles.

2. Funding Fiascos

Another common issue for online doctoral students is the lack of funding. While traditional doctoral program peers often have teaching assistantships and tuition waivers, most online candidates are forced to take out the dreaded student loans to finish their programs. The problem arises at the end of the semester when the student needs to fly out to the campus and is out of money.

Budgeting is a vital part of being a successful student - online or offline. Students are not the only ones who need to budget carefully - it’s part of life. Instead of waiting until money runs out to worry about whether your income matches your expenses, you need to monitor money very carefully. As soon as you receive your acceptance letter, budget out what you will need for your education, what you will need for your living expenses, and how much money will be coming in from your job and from your student aid package.

It isn’t enough to allocate money at the beginning of the semester. You need to constantly monitor your income and expenses. Consider setting up a separate account to keep tuition, books, and residency money separate from your household money. This will make it easier to be sure you have the money you need when it comes to the important educational expenses you will incur. At the very least, you’ll want to use an accounting program, like Mint, to track whether you’re on track.

3. Disconnecting Discord

When you’re a student, and you’re working 40 hours a week, it can be hard to feel connected to your community. You’re at work at least eight hours a day, five days a week and you’re spending at least 20 hours a week on your studies. Your friends have forgotten what you look like, and your children can’t remember if you’re Mom or the nanny.

While it’s important to work hard and make consistent progress, it is also important to make sure that you have balance in your life. Attempt to get in at least 30 minutes to an hour of exercise each day - even if you’re just walking on a treadmill while reading an ancient Greek text or jogging with your friend or spouse. Try to leave your home and office once a day. See the outside world. Take your work to a coffee shop. Meet a friend for lunch - everyone has to eat. Give yourself one full day off from everything each week. Make plans with family members. Plan your studies around those plans. Set quotas for each week and reward yourself when you meet them. You might not feel balanced still, but at least you’re making an effort.

4. Burnout Blues

Do you see the grad student huddling under covers watching reruns of Ally McBeal repeating “I should have been a lawyer?” That could be you if you work too hard. In addition to becoming disconnected with the “real world,” online grad students often get burned out because they too often burn the candle at both ends. This is the reason you must practice self care. Make sure you take time for you. Meditate, dance, read something completely mindless, watch a stupid television show. Each day you should spend at least one hour where you are not in front of a screen or reading a book. Each week you should have one full day off. Take it from me, burnout stinks, and it can ruin both your work life and your academic life.

5. Difficulty Building a Network

One of the biggest challenges for online doctoral students is the difficulty in building a network for the career they are training for. Traditional students are around their cohorts, professors, and visiting professors on a regular basis. Students working on their doctoral degree from home do not have that advantage - or do they?

When budgeting your semester, make sure you budget money for memberships in professional organizations in your field and for attending professional conferences. Submit your best work to conferences. Often, students get a discount on registration fees. Sometimes your program will pay for you to attend the conference - or maybe your work will. At the conference, do not hang out in your hotel room until your presentation! Instead, get out there, and make a game of introducing yourself to as many people as possible. Take business cards.

During your semester, make it a point to contact one person in your field each day. You can send an email, a letter, or call that person. Thank him or her for contributions to the field. Tell him or her what it is you like about his or her work. Tell him or her a little bit about yourself and why you’re pursuing your Ph.D. Finally, thank the individual for his or her time. Pretty soon, you’ll find your network growing. Take advantage of social networks like LinkedIn and Facebook. Don’t overlook the importance of staying in touch - it might just lead to that great job you want down the line!

While there are many challenges for students pursuing a Ph.D. online, they aren’t insurmountable. In fact, if you rise up to the challenge and take the bull by the horns, you’ll soon find that you’re better able to juggle. And don’t worry, if you’re in the midst of a crisis and reading this, employ some of the tips I’ve provided to help you find relief.


Ronda Roberts has spent time as a traditional doctoral student and has spoken with those in distance doctoral programs about the challenges faced in their experiences.

Image courtesy of https://www.sxc.hu/photo/1179936