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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George
George
6 years ago

It seems that the best route of action for this student is to enroll in an MA program before a PhD program. To be sure, there are plenty of students with bachelor’s degrees from traditional schools who must follow this route; sometimes, even the best bachelor’s students from mediocre (or worse) schools cannot expect admissions in PhD programs without an MA.

On a personal note (which one might feel free to dismiss), I cannot fathom how this particular student (with that sort of education) would be prepared for a PhD program at all.Report

Nobody Important
Nobody Important
6 years ago

How are other distance-learning MA programs (for instance, at the Open U in the UK) viewed for the same thing?Report

Nick Byrd
6 years ago

Great question! I find that many academics think, implicitly at least, that face-to-face interaction with academics adds value to someone’s education (over and above the value of the non-face-to-face stuff like electronic correspondence, reading, writing, etc.). I suppose this seems intuitively plausible, but — for many reasons — I’d be interested to know of formal arguments for this, and I’d be especially interested in relevant data. Thanks in advance to anyone who points me in the right direction. (And sorry to hijack the comments for my own purposes).Report

Matthew
Matthew
6 years ago

So many people with first degrees are utter morons; those with the nous (yes, nous) to study in a self-directed manner at least have this going for them – along with life experience, whatever that has been worth to them.

One factor regarding face to face contact that should be more frequently begrudged our university cultures is that that many students (usually the most visible ones on campus) have learnt only to converse in the same manner as their lecturers, having a comically grand manner and gravity of opinion, and who have learnt nothing of the modesty and creative intuition that is required to actually philosophise in any interesting way. Whomever you accept onto your PhD courses, please don’t accept any more self-proclaimed moderates with their holier-than-thou administerial manner.Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

First, it sounds as though this student will not get sufficient feedback on their writing to prepare them for a PhD. This is bad, as a writing sample is a big part of PhD admission applications. Second, no contact with professors has further undesirable consequences. Professors do not get to know the quality of your work. They do not get to know you as a student or a person. They do not get a feel for anything about the student, really. So how is it that a professor could write someone in this program a latter of rec? They cannot. This is also bad; letters are also very important to admission committees.

To sum, this prigram disadvantages students who want in to a PhD program in two big ways. They do not seem to provide the constant feedback required to prepare the students to writr at a high level. And they program seems to preclude the student from having letters.Report

Ludvig
Ludvig
6 years ago

The thing with writing samples: are there any customs on how to get feedback on them? Or does one simply ask some experienced writer?
LudvigReport

Eric
Eric
6 years ago

Hi all

I’m the UoLIP student who posed the questions in the OP. Thanks for your comments, and thanks to Dr. Weinberg for posting my questions.

Although I asked about UoLIP students in general, it might help round out the discussion a bit if I fill in some of the details of my personal situation. For given the nature of the UoLIP program, there are a number of ways one might go about completing the BA. For instance, I should add that since my aim is to pursue my studies beyond the BA, I’m working with a tutor (a professor in the UK) who provides me with detailed comments on the essays I write for the modules I’m working on. I should also add that according to the Birkbeck handbook for internal students, the maximum number of essays the most enthusiastic students can expect to complete per module is about eight (one for each tutorial). However, since I work throughout the year, I can finish double that per module (which is what I did last academic year). And again, each essay is reviewed and commented on by a well qualified tutor (so I’m not talking about quantity alone). I wanted to add that because although Anon’s excellent comments on feedback and getting to know professors may apply to many UoLIP students, they’re not necessarily applicable to students in my situation (though I’ll most likely only get to know one professor (who will have read well over one hundred of my essays by the time I graduate!) extremely well as opposed to getting to know a few well; I’m not sure where the advantage lies there!).Report

Former Applicant
Former Applicant
6 years ago

^ “though I’ll most likely only get to know one professor…”

You’ll need to apply to MA programs. PhD programs (and MA programs too, actually) will want three or sometimes four letters of recommendation from experienced philosophers that are in a position to evaluate your work. It sounds like you will not be able to provide such letters. Even if you are very good, it seems like most schools wouldn’t be interested in accepting a student that can only provide a letter from one philosophy professor.

MA programs in the US like Georgia State, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Northern Illinois, Houston, Missouri-St. Louis, etc. are always looking for brilliant students that suffer from weak or lesser known backgrounds. These programs too are very competitive, but they would probably be more likely to take a risk on a promising non-traditional applicant than any PhD program would.Report

junior prof
junior prof
6 years ago

I suggest to all potential applicants — even if I believe them to be competitive for PhD programs — that they also apply to MA programs. Doing an MA at a good school significantly improves your chances of getting into a top PhD program, which in turn (tends to) significantly improve your chances on the job market. So I strongly second the advice to apply to MA programs. (If you’re in the UK, the norm is to do an MA prior to the PhD in any event.)

But there are things you could do that would make you more likely to be competitive. If you could arrange to have a second professor give you feedback on your work, having two profs who’ve seen 50 of your papers each would be better than one who’s seen 100. Either way, they’d be in a good position to write you a letter at the end, so you could get two letters rather than just one. (If you do this, I’d suggest that you send both your work throughout the degree, so that they each (a) see your progress and (b) are familiar with your most recent work at the time of letter writing.)

One additional thing to keep in mind: I don’t know what the structure of the Birkbeck program is, but if the essays your tutor(s) are seeing are very short exam-style essays, you should be sure that they also look at and give you feedback on more substantial work of yours. A strong letter will speak to your potential for depth and originality. Also be sure that you get feedback (ideally from multiple people) on your writing sample.Report

UoLIP's prospective student
UoLIP's prospective student
6 years ago

I believe that commenter should not focus too much on Eric’s personal situation because it’s just too specific. It’ll be better for everyone if commenters answer about distance learning in general, as has been pointed out by Justin.

(I guess that less than 0.1% of distance learners have access to a personal tutor, I know that I won’t)Report