I'm currently in the first year of a six year bachelor's degree aiming for astrophysics. The course is a home/distance learning setup run by the Open University. While I am enjoying it thoroughly, I am aware of the academic politics that can dog professional science. So my question is thus: Upon soldiering on with the degree, then masters, and then PhD, will I be taken seriously within a professional setting given my inability to reference a leading university for my education? Will the format for my studying be "pitied"?

Edit: I suppose a bit more info may help. I'm 27,wife, 2 children, and I currently work as a full time chef, and self employed part time IT technician. I flunked my GCSEs, with no further education. The past 3 years have been a revelation for me, and I have discovered a before unexperienced love for academia; specifically, physics and astronomy. Last year I completed a 1 year OU maths brush up course, which at the time I really struggled with. This year I had a bout of madness and took the plunge for a BSc degree in astronomy. I am now loving the math within the physics so far (yet to hit calculus though!)

PhD, and even masters, is a long way off. Also, since this original post I've improved my understanding of what a PhD actually entails. So I realise that if I get there, it may well not have anything to do with the OU!

It occurs to me that a lot of my initial queries could have been avoided with a better understanding of the educational and qualification system itself. I now have a greater appreciation as to what a PhD actually is, realising that its a long way off and not necessarily needed for a fulfilling career in research.

I think trying to repair my broken education and fight my way into a worthwhile (and productive!) career is enough of challenge at the moment. There will be plenty of time later for worries concerning doctorates.

It is good to hear that there is at least an open mind towards distance educated professionals.

As has been said, if you've got it, you've got it - you just have to be ready to prove it.

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    I suppose there's a questionsI'd ask here which might help you get better answers: Would you be planning on staying on at the Open University into graduate studies? I ask, because it'd be a different set of answers if you were planning on staying with OU for graduate studies vs. moving to a more traditional institution.
    – Matthew G.
    Dec 16, 2013 at 23:21
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    The OU is a leading university. It is not Oxbridge, but most universities are not. It tends not to be ranked in league tables due to missing data from part time students, but performs well on both the NSS and RAE which are big factors in league table rankings.
    – StrongBad
    Dec 26, 2013 at 17:24

4 Answers 4


Distance-learning students report retaining and applying less than face-to-face students

Students overwhelmingly report retaining and applying less from online courses versus face-to-face courses.

However, this may be due to a difference in factors other than distance learning.

Irrespective of why, there is an overall perception of lower value created.

Distance learning creates value, and may still be the best option for many students

Some students live far from institutions that offer degrees in their desired fields. Sometimes the closest institution of higher learning may be 100's of miles away. Even if there is an institution nearby, it may not be well suited to the students' abilities. Distance learning provides students with options they would not otherwise have.

Is distance learning taken seriously?

Distance learning is not as respected as face-to-face learning. However, it may provide credentials that otherwise would not be available to successful people who carry gravitas that they have earned through means other than that education.

If you want your education to be taken as seriously as possible, you should prefer getting your degree at a brick-and-mortar institution and attending classes in person.

If the institutional gravitas is of less importance than going through the course of study and earning the degree itself, perhaps if you require the knowledge gained or the credential on your resume to advance in your job, then the distance learning aspect is of lesser importance.

But should distance learning be taken seriously?

Some distance learners may prefer distance learning because of an inability to stick to the deadlines required in face-to-face classes, and perhaps they perceive the classes as easier to succeed in than a local school.

Others might not have local options available, or their lifestyle (perhaps as caretakers or providers) requires the flexibility that distance learning offers.

It is best not to paint all distance-learners with a broad brush. There is a great deal of heterogeneity in the distance-learning population, and although they have chosen to earn a degree that is known to carry less weight than a face-to-face, each should be evaluated on an individual basis, taking into consideration the reasons and circumstances under which the degree was earned.

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    "Some distance learners may prefer distance learning because of an inability to stick to the deadlines required in face-to-face classes" most on-line courses still have deadlines, in fact, people who have difficulty with time-management will have a more difficult time with on-line courses.
    – Village
    Oct 9, 2014 at 5:02

My own experience of having an open university degree (computer science) is that "it depends on who you talk to". Some people value the degree highly, others put it at the bottom of the pile. I've found that the longer I've held it (ten years now!) the more value it seems to have accrued. This could be to the fact it becomes less and less relevant where your studied the more experience you build or the fact that it's become a more accepted route of study since I gained it.

Disclaimer: I work in academia, but am not an academic. I currently work for a big academic institution and they perfectly happy with my degree.

  • Makes sense, when you're a new grad it has less status but 10 years into your career all the HR drone is interested in doing is ticking the box "University degree in subject X:" Also open university is one of the most respected distance learning institutions.
    – Murphy
    Feb 11, 2016 at 13:00

It is true that open universities / distance learning institutions are not taken equally seriously, even if sometimes the work is harder due to the vast number of exercises. Still, in research it is mainly what you publish (and where) and what you are really capable of doing. In this sense, the sky is always the only limit a) if you have the ability and b) work extremely hard regardless of initial studies.

You are also too young to worry about PHDs, MSCs, since you do not know if spending your time studying is more fun to you than working and getting some real money from some real job (after graduating). So, do the best you can for now, keep your grades up and your eyes open and towards the end of your study you will know what you want to do. If you are really good, you will find your way.

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    I think the Open University is taken pretty seriously in the UK (see also Daniel Shub's comment). People outside the UK may be less likely to have heard of it, but then that also goes for a lot of pretty excellent UK universities.
    – Tara B
    Dec 27, 2013 at 1:27

IMO, distance learning does not have a huge effect on a PhD. People in your field will know enough to judge you by your work, and many PhD students spend semesters away from their home institutions, or away from their advisors, and they turn out just fine.

The worrying part is your bachelor's degree -- in the US, PhD admission is competitive (at least on the top level; I am not sure what the competition is like in the lower-level universities), and the fact that you won't know any of your letter writers personally is already going to hurt you A LOT, as there is no way your letters are going to be as strong as the ones for the students who attended universities.

I do not think that you are an American, so it is possible that distance learning is considered pretty prestigious in your country, and you have some contact with the professors. But if I were you, I would trade the possible prestige that is associated with your distance-learning university, for a lesser university close to home that I can attend in person. You would get better grades, and better letters that way.

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    +1 particularly for your first paragraph, an example of this is when I lived in Tokyo, but enrolled in a MSc in Queensland - as there is where I worked, but was also the site for the experiments performed. My PhD was similar.
    – user7130
    Dec 27, 2013 at 6:24

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