Distance Education and PhD Admissions


The University of London’s International Programme (UoLIP) is a distance learning program that’s administered by Birkbeck College that offers a BA in philosophy. How does it work? A student in the program writes:

The philosophy BA comprises twelve modules, one of which is a 7,500 word dissertation. UoLIP students receive materials for the modules they’re working on at the beginning of each academic year — essentially: (1) a subject guide for each module that contains short introductions to key ideas and extensive reading lists, (2) access to past exam questions and to examiners reports for each module, and (3) access to an online library — and then proceed to work through them on their own throughout the course of the year.

There are no online lectures or tutorials — indeed, there’s no contact whatsoever with Birkbeck professors or TAs  — and we’re not required to complete any coursework throughout the year. Some students receive tutorial support, generally in the form of essay marking, from independent tutors (that is, from tutors working independently of UoLIP, some of whom are Birkbeck graduate students), but many students do not. At the end of the year, UoLIP students sit for exams at an approved exam center. Their completed exams are then sent off to London where they’re graded by University of London examiners in accord with the standards that students working on the internal BA are graded.

The student has several questions about how such an education looks to PhD admissions committees:

How would philosophy departments in the U.S. view UoLIP students who are applying to their PhD programs? Would our complete lack of contact with professors and fellow students count so strongly against us that no other factors (short of genius, which is always in short supply) could counterbalance or even outweigh it? (I understand we can get recommendations from Birkbeck faculty based on our exam performance, and I suspect that students working with tutors could get recommendations from them.) Or would this desideratum be counterbalanced, or even outweighed, by the notion that we’d have to be very well organized, highly motivated and quite plausibly fairly talented to receive, say, First Class Honors while working largely on our own? Would the nature of our program make it likely that we would not gain acceptance to a decent PhD program unless we first completed an MA (which would then provide us with the contact with professors and fellow students we lack), or would that be more person-relative rather than program-relative (e.g. dependent on the strength of the writing sample, etc.)?

While the student is asking specifically about the UoLIP program, I imagine that the same kinds of questions arise for some other distance education programs. It would be great if readers could share their thoughts on these questions.

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