Developing Online Resources for Postgrads: Student Binaries

This is the second post reflecting on my involvement in an initiative developing online facilities for postgraduate research students in the School of Education at the University of Nottingham. The project has highlighted key sociocultural aspects of digitally mediated doctoral practice that have resonated with my PhD research, and here, I continue to explore the ‘taxonomy’ of binaries that emerged, describing some of the interrelated contexts that often underpin these types of initiatives. In challenging some of the common assumptions associated with the student-staff binary in the first post, a number of additional interrelated and equally messy student binaries also emerge, primarily associated with mode, location and stages of study.

Doctoral student experiences of departmental support vary considerably through factors that are both sociocultural and related to individual agency. Practice profiles and study routines are heavily dependent on the many complex issues surrounding identity development, socialisation and a whole range of external factors. PhD students have shown to be highly strategic in how they negotiate different peer groups, and appropriate them for social and professional purposes (Baker & Pifer, 2011). Yet despite the access to external and increasingly networked (inter-) disciplinary communities, most doctoral peer networks and collaborations occur within cohorts defined by the structural and proximal attributes of formal programmes and institutions (Pilbeam & Denyer, 2009). University departments therefore strive to maintain the identity and social cohesion of formal cohorts whilst encouraging interaction and socialisation within the wider doctoral student community.

The role of online provision in this is often primarily oriented towards the needs of distance students, partly in an attempt to somehow replicate the perceived social and cultural benefits of the campus-based experience. In particular, there is an overwhelming sense that distance students routinely miss out on the informal, everyday discussion and interaction associated with the campus environment. Clearly, such an environment is seen as enriching the general experience of studying. But we should not underestimate how important a role the regularity, informality and collegiality of everyday interaction plays in providing students with access to key information about contacts, resources and ‘academic hacks’ that can significantly influence student progression. Online environments such as social networks, forums and blogs can augment such activities. However, historical attempts at replicating the informal ‘in real life’ interaction and communication on online platforms have been mixed at best. Arguably, once any form of informal interaction becomes structured or decontextualised, there is a risk of loosing both the authenticity and informal spontaneity that sustain such processes.

Of course, we always run the risk of homogenising distance students, often – in the case of international students in particular – at the expense of recognising cultural diversity and local needs (Deem & Brehony, 2000; Goode, 2007). In reality, distance students will experience varying degrees of isolation, partly depending on location, digital access and ability to travel. Conversely, ‘campus-based’ students often choose not to fully utilise campus facilities for any number of professional and personal reasons. Often, the distinctions we make between formal full-time and part-time modes of study are similarly over-emphasised. In the lifespan of a doctoral programme, many full-time students will operate at part-time levels of study for significant periods of time, by necessity and by choice – often not fully disclosing ‘extra-curricula’ activities to supervisors or administrators for fear of compromising programme or funding requirements.

The study trajectories of doctoral students – at least within the Humanities and Social Sciences – are often characterised by a fragmentation of early-stage cohorts, as individuals disperse to do data collecting or engage in intensive solitary periods of analysis and writing up. For distance students – who may have had the opportunity to establish a short-term cohort through an initial campus-based foundational period of study – this might be even more pronounced. Students typically arrange to meet up with each other periodically, either on campus or elsewhere (distance students may be usefully located within ‘regional’ clusters), and generally, departmental activities and communications continue to serve as conduits, keeping them informed of research projects, events and training opportunities. But how can departments best utilise online provision to facilitate more systematic methods of continued peer support that maintains the identity and social cohesion of cohorts and provides students with the means to continue interacting with familiar and trusted colleagues?

The chance to engage across doctoral groups and cohorts is also valued, helping students establish useful connections and initiating opportunities for informal mentorship. Any opportunities for early- to mid-stage students to tap into the personal insights and experiences of late-stage students or recent graduates may be particularly valuable, as they share advice on finishing theses, negotiating vivas and career progression. On campus, internal events such as student seminars and conferences typically provide opportunities for interaction across cohorts, whilst special interest research / reading groups can cultivate sustainable networks within the student body, within and potentially across departments. Everyday campus-based interaction can provide the opportunity for less formal and loosely structured forms of mentorship to occur between students at different stages of their doctorate, though this is very dependent on the physical environment, and the configuration of both study and recreational areas (departments often purposely implement inter-cohort environments). Online provision can augment many of these activities; facilitating network and community development through shared research interests, maintaining communication between events or group meetings, and supporting other inter-cohort interactions that are also inclusive of distance students.

In the next post, I’ll be looking at the internal-external binary.


Baker, V. L., & Pifer, M. J. (2011). The role of relationships in the transition from doctoral student to independent scholar. Studies in Continuing Education. 33(1), 5-17.

Deem, R. & Brehony, K. J. (2000). Doctoral students’ access to research cultures – are some more unequal than others? Studies in Higher Education, 25(2), 149-165.

Goode, J. (2007). Empowering or disempowering the international Ph.D. student? Constructions of the dependent and independent learner. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 28(5), 589-603.

Pilbeam, C. & Denyer, D. (2009). Lone scholar or community member? The role of student networks in doctoral education in a UK management school. Studies in Higher Education, 34(3), 301-318.

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