The tyranny of distance

By Ruth Fielder

Another ReDTrain email arrived yesterday.

These emails arrive so regularly I could set my alarm to their arrival, but it is an alarm I could do without. The ReDTrain alarm is a bitter-sweet reminder of how far I live from campus: and it makes me feel lonely because I want to be with other PhD-ers. But being on campus is not an option for now. This is a third or fourth-hand story of another external PhD candidate’s (Ahhh*) battle with the tyranny of distance, and was shared by a fellow external PhD candidate (Jeezz*).

Ahhh lives in the deep tropical rainforest of far North Queensland. Ahhh’s problem was that his PhD was based in Toowoomba and he was allergic to cold westerly winds. So allergic, that his eyes and nose would run at the mere thought of cold or westerlies. The only viable way do the PhD was to enrol in an external program.

There were some good reasons to study off campus: no on-campus distractions, and he was still surrounded by the world he loved and knew. Supervision was via Zoom. Emails were a great way to ask quick questions The supervisor gave Ahhh her private phone number, so that when weekend supervision was needed or the unstable internet connection was down so he could stay in touch. Ahhh felt like part of a big fuzzy community.

One day, Ahhh was seized by panic and lost confidence. There was no way that this PhD would be a success. ReDTrain notices were informing him of candidates’ topics and by comparison, his topic was vague. It did not have real word application. It was insignificant. It was boring. His supervisor suggested that a face-to-face meeting and a week long campus visit was in order. So, Ahhh reluctantly made the flight bookings and drove 300kms to the closest airport. He was glad it was summer in Toowoomba–-the cold would not threaten his health.

Ahhh was taken back by not only the beauty of the Toowoomba Campus, but communication with his supervisors was much easier and productive. Face-to-face conversations flowed more easily than Zoom conversations, and responses to questions and ideas were instantaneous compared to email. He got more done in five days on campus than a month at home.
Rather than a distraction, campus activities added the richness of his on-campus time. It was not home, but he still managed a laugh or two while having a cuppa and lunch with Jeezz and others. Parting from campus was tinged with a little sadness and longing to return. He even experienced a twinge of jealously toward on-campus candidate.

I got a lot out of Ahhh’s story.

While external study has its perks, and zoom meetings and emails are critical for progress, extended campus visits are invaluable. And who knows, I may even make some lifetime friends. The ReDTrain alarm is no longer a bittersweet reminder of the tyranny of distance, but rather it keeps in me focused and serves to remind me of the fuzzy community I have decided to join.

* To protect the identity of candidates’ these are not their real names.