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March 16, 2017 – MCAT CARS Passage
Question: What is your summary of the author’s main ideas. Post your own answer in the comments before reading those made by others.
I became a distance learning student when a failed PhD funding application ruled out a London university with a 30-minute commute. Instead, I accepted a place at a university 100 miles away, enticed by funding and my first-choice supervisor. But moving across the country wasn’t practical, so I decided to study from afar.
The demand for distance learning postgraduate courses has soared in recent years. There are now more than 1,500 such master’s programmes in the UK, and 13 of the country’s universities allow students to study for a PhD in this way. These courses are promoted as ideal for those with jobs or family commitments elsewhere; students have access to tailored support, interactive assignments and online discussion forums to make up for the lack of a physical student community.
But there is an invisible group of distance learners, who are not enrolled on these courses. They are studying on standard postgraduate courses, but they live – by choice or necessity – at a distance from their university. They lose out in two ways. They cannot access the targeted support offered to students on distance learning courses and they are isolated from the community of students who live on campus or nearby.
This was my experience. Determined not to let the distance affect my postgrad life, I made the 200-mile round trip once a week, fitting in seminars, supervisions and socialising as best I could. But I quickly learned that I couldn’t make up for my absence on campus the rest of the week. To the other students, I was a ghostly figure, whose status was something of a mystery.
I had to give up on building meaningful relationships with my peers. I tried to fill the void with other friends and activities nearer home, but the nagging feeling of loneliness never quite went away.
Some students in this position hide the truth about where they are based, as some universities demand that they live within a certain radius. Yet this is often impractical. Postgraduates face a far more limited choice of courses and destinations than undergraduates. They may even decide to study for a PhD based on the opportunity to work with a particular professor or on a certain research project. Even if there are several options, the amount of funding offered (or the lack of it) often forces a decision.
Academic couples have it particularly hard. Emily and Daniel* are both studying for PhDs, in Surrey and Wales respectively. In Daniel’s second year they lived in Shrewsbury, which offered train routes to both universities but meant that they were isolated from family and friends. Now they live in Oxford.
“Travelling to my department can be tiring and difficult to organise,” Daniel says. “But being cut off exacerbates the isolation of doing a PhD.”
It’s hard to avoid hearing about loneliness at the moment. Whether it’s the John Lewis christmas advert or a growing recognition of the problem among young people, these discussions are long overdue. PhD students are particularly vulnerable, but much of the advice offered is only applicable to students who live near their universities. We’re advised to join a postgraduate writing group and meet other students for coffee. For people like Lisa*, 28, studying for an MSc in Sussex but living in Stockholm, such opportunities are out of reach.
Forced by financial reasons to move back to her hometown to complete her degree, she says it was easy to become detached from the course. “You feel as though you are working in a vacuum,” she explains.
Illness can have a similarly isolating effect. Vivienne Dunstan, 43, was diagnosed with a severe neurological condition at the start of her PhD in computer science. Forced to quit, she retrained as a historian, which allowed her to work mostly from home. Despite living close to her campus, she felt excluded from university life. Web-based forms of student interaction were available but little used. “I was often the only poster, and eventually gave up,” she says.
For students such as Rachel*, 25, studying for a PhD at the University of Cambridge, looking ahead to post-PhD life can be equally daunting. “Aspiring post-docs have to come to terms with the reality that many roles would require a substantial shift in location – to uproot your life and move across the country, or even across the world, or else face a hefty commute or time split,” she says.
“I look around at the senior position-holders at my university, and most of them seem to have found a model that works for them and their families,” she says. “But how they got there – the decisions taken, the compromises required, the sacrifices made, and not just by them – rarely gets discussed.”
With the rise of the internet, the possibilities for studying at a distance have exploded. But the consequences for students are being ignored. We are left to forge our own support networks and, feeling detached from our institutions, we struggle to motivate ourselves.
We must give ourselves a voice and force universities to acknowledge the existence and needs of isolated learners.
Adapted from theguardian.
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This was an article on Education.
Have a great day.
MCAT CARS Instructor.