Distance or open learning in higher education is now closely associated with computer-mediated communication (CMC). Distance education, however, is not only a question of new technology, but of pedagogy and learning, and of the implications of new technology for these. For the doctoral distance student, a further issue may be one of identity - as a student registered with one institution, while (often) working as a professional at another. Taking as data e-mail messages sent by PhD students over the first 2 years of a (largely) distance programme, it is suggested that while one important contribution of e-mail is clearly the speed and ease of its use, this contribution is more than maintenance of a communication channel. Not only can message-senders remain in touch almost constantly, they can also take steps to obtain support, can inscribe their multiple identities within their messages, and can adapt the medium for their own needs. These can have particular value for professionals studying part-time on distance programmes.