I am a student interested in doing research in the field of (transcriptomics) that is lacking in my country. There is no possibility for me to travel in the next four years due to obligatory military service.

I am concerned about emailing some researchers in the field and ask for a remote supervision (for example working with a postdoc on one of his loose end projects and communicating Online).

Does this sound good? Have you done it before?

PS. The question isn't about opinions please post your experiences if you supervised someone abroad and the academic situation e.g. is it accepted by your institute? Does it require paperwork? Is it even possible?

  • What sort of supervision are you looking for? If you want a degree or something formal, that's very different to just asking someone for some informal feedback.
    – Thomas
    Aug 31 '18 at 23:18
  • Of course it's not a supervision for a degree. But at the same time I don't want it to be informal feedback e.g.I want to work on a project agreed on between me and the supervisor similar to an internship but abroad. There is a similar program done by Google (Google summer of code). I am wondering if this is possible in academia.
    – Elmahy
    Aug 31 '18 at 23:48
  • Possible of course, but how do you think you find a supervisor who would do that?
    – Karl
    Sep 1 '18 at 15:08
  • @Karl email people and ask if they are willing to supervise a project.
    – astronat
    Sep 1 '18 at 15:25
  • 1
    @Karl look up a couple of people doing work in the field and start with them, and if they can't help, ask them to suggest anyone they know who might be able to.
    – astronat
    Sep 1 '18 at 15:48

I was supervised remotely for my Master's dissertation, so yes, this can and does happen in academia. My situation was similar to yours: there was no one working in the field in which I really wanted to specialise at my university.

My supervisor and I communicated via email and had a Skype meeting once a week (this is the closest you can get to an in-person meeting, so I would highly recommend doing it, or at least supplement emails with phone calls). I also visited him in person twice during the project (relatively easy since we were both in the same country, about 5 hours apart by train).

In my case, it was very informally organised; the course coordinator for the dissertation agreed I could have a supervisor from another university and I had a second supervisor at my own institution who I updated regularly on my progress. There was some talk of my having to pay tuition fees to my supervisor's university but in the end this didn't happen.

However, depending on the specific rules and procedures of your or the supervisor's institutions, there may be formal paperwork to submit. There's probably someone you can ask about this, e.g. the department head or administrator.

Good luck!


I am aware of a case that is a bit similar to what you need and participated as an external reviewer of the dissertation. The advisor was in UK, along with the committee. The student was in the US. However, the communication wasn't all electronic. The student travelled fairly frequently to UK and the main advisor and the student would meet fairly frequently at conferences both in US and Europe.

Many things can be done remotely, but discussions are really hard to carry out that way, being less spontaneous. It is harder to "brainstorm" with a delay and not being able to see facial expressions/body language.

I don't believe that it was a normal practice for the university, hence they consulted with me as an external expert. But I thought everything went well.

So, my suggestion is to suggest it to some potential advisor but be prepared to spend a fair amount of money and time on travel. A week end on the other side of an ocean is now possible, if tiring.

But it is good if you can get at least some local help and advice, even if it is on peripheral things that would be easy to get done for a residential student.

If you are seeking a degree, however, you will need to deal, potentially, with other requirements such as coursework and qualifying exams. Some of that may be locally available in an acceptable way, but likely not all of it.

But the case I mentioned was theoretical work, not involving laboratories. If you need to perform experiments in lab it would be a lot harder, of course, due to the likely lack of a suitable setup. Being told that "the cauldron bubbled green stuff" isn't the same as seeing it happen, I'd guess.


In order for this to be successful, it requires a lot of self-discipline and intrinsic motivation from the student. I supervised a student via distance and was quite a headache. Communication was a problem, deadlines were missed, the writing was unsatisfactory, etc. There is also a loss of the camaraderie of having this experience with other students on campus who can share tips with an encourage. This is hard to replace online

A major problem with distance supervision is focus. Students write in this situation often because they are working. Having a job, like military service, makes it hard to concentrate on research. This was another problem I had with my student was he was a full-time k12 administrator while under me. He had no time for in-depth thought and research.

  • Seems natural. It is probably worth the effort initially to work out some ground rules for the student on time/effort spent and to work with them when they seem to stray. "Your Saturdays are MINE", sort of.
    – Buffy
    Sep 1 '18 at 21:57

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