Online Doctorate Degrees

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Only a few years ago, online PhD programs were few and far between. The distance learning business was in its infancy and people understandably questioned the legitimacy and quality of advanced degrees earned online. Things have changed significantly since then, with both reputable primarily online providers and well-established traditional colleges and universities offering fully accredited doctoral degree programs via distance education. This page focuses explicitly on PhD programs online, with a number of resources and tools to help students take the next step toward a doctorate.

First, the search tool at left provides a convenient method of finding online PhD programs quickly. See which colleges and universities have the higher educational qualities you need. Second, the detailed program listing takes a look at top colleges in the U.S. for online PhDs. See which schools have the most distance-learning doctorates and a directory of what they offer. Finally, for those who want to learn more before making a decision, the page includes an in-depth guide to online PhDs, which includes a detailed rundown of what they entail and how they work from start to finish. Find online programs or continue your research.

Online PhDs: The Inside Scoop

Online PhD programs attract students and working professionals who need maximum flexibility while earning an advanced degree. Although less popular than undergraduate and master’s programs, online doctorates now exist at a wide range of institutions, from fully online schools to traditionally campus-based colleges and universities. The latter already have top faculty and resources to handle PhD-level coursework, and are adding tech resources and other support services to accommodate online learners. This gives online PhD students the best of both worlds.

PhD programs with distance-learning elements use two different types of delivery methods: real-time and self-paced. Real-time, or synchronous, online PhDs include discussion sessions and professor and peer-based communication on a set schedule. Students may also be asked to take exams or submit materials on a specific timetable. This method gives students many of the communicative elements of a campus-based education, but in conjunction with the remote aspects of the program. In contrast, self-paced, or asynchronous, programs yield the most flexibility, with a majority of work done and exams submitted at a student’s own page. For online PhDs, however, synchronous programs may be more common simply due to the amount of collaboration needed, especially before and during the dissertation process. Like campus programs, online PhDs involve comprehensive examinations and the creation and defense of dissertations, all depending on subject and specialization.

The Campus Visit

As mentioned above, some online PhD programs may require real-time communication. What’s more, others may ask students to visit campus periodically to coordinate with professors, meet fellow classmates and take care of necessary administrative issues. While this essentially makes the program “hybrid” in nature, campus visits tend to be limited to once per semester, with the rest of coursework performed remotely. Highly collaborative programs, such as business administration, can fall into this hybrid bucket. Before enrolling in any online program, no matter the level or the subject, be sure to check for any in-person requirements. The travel expenses will likely be on your own dime.

Local Hands-on Training

Although many professionals degrees earned online have a hands-off, academic slant, some may necessitate tactile training. If that’s the case, a good online PhD program will work with the candidate to find local companies or other appropriate facilities at which to learn. The most notable subjects for these local visits include education (visiting schools), nursing (hospitals) and anything tech-related (labs or companies).

The Online PhD Timeline

Anyone thinking about earning a doctoral degree online should take the time to seriously consider the commitment, not just in monetary cost, but also in terms of time and effort. The time between earning a master’s degree and completing a PhD can vary significantly depending on the school, subject matter and the full- or part-time status of the student. However, some studies indicate that the average student in the United States today requires over eight years to obtain his or her PhD, the biggest hurdle being completion of the dissertation.

Colleges have begun to respond to this tail-dragging problem by placing a maximum time limit for earning a doctorate, averaging from seven to nine years from initial registration to degree completion. Notwithstanding average completion times, most schools outline their campus and online PhD programs across a three- or four-year time span for completion of coursework, followed by several years for the successful defense of the dissertation. The following timeline lays out the academic requirements for an online PhD program based on a typical six- to nine- year completion plan.

Application and Admission

Regardless of degree type or subject, anyone interested in beginning an online doctoral degree program must, of course, first apply and be admitted to that program. Admission requirements vary by school, but some programs require conferment of a master’s degree from an accredited institution in the same, or a closely related, field of study as the sought-after doctorate.

It is also important to distinguish between admission to an online PhD graduate school program and admission to candidacy for the PhD degree. Admission to the graduate school allows a student to begin the coursework that must be completed before he or she is considered for candidacy. Admission to candidacy typically requires completion of all required coursework, passing a series of comprehensive exams, the recommendation of the student’s department or program, and approval of the graduate faculty.

Year 1

  • Coursework and Residency:

    Most doctoral degree students spend their first academic year focused on required coursework. Many graduate schools mandate a minimum number of course credits or hours that must be earned through the degree-granting institution itself (in other words, non-transferred credits.)

  • RA’s and TA’s:

    Many doctoral degree programs mandate that a student fulfill some form of service as a research or teaching assistant. RA and TA requirements may or may not begin in a student’s first year of study, but normally must be completed prior to admission for degree candidacy. Online PhD students should work with the university to see exactly how these work in a distance learning environment. Some may have very different parameters, while others work much in the same way (leading a discussion group) but online.

  • Exams:

    Online doctoral students may also be required to complete year-end qualifying examinations in order to proceed to their second year of studies.

Year 2

  • Coursework and Residency:

    Students continue in online coursework and fulfillment other academic requirements, as needed. Coursework can take on a wider range of forms, including digital seminars, workshops and methods electives.

  • RA’s and TA’s:

    If a particular program includes the fulfillment of a RA or TA requirement, participation will most likely begin no later than the student’s second year of studies.

  • Exams:

    Again, students may be required to successfully pass year-end qualifying examinations to move on to year three of their degree program.

Year 3

  • Completion of coursework, RA’s and TA’s:

    Generally, all coursework associated with the doctoral program must be completed by the end of year three. Additionally, degree RA/TA requirements must be met by the end of the third year of studies.

  • Exams:

    At the end of year three, students will be required to take and successfully complete a series of comprehensive examinations (both oral and written) in order to advance to candidacy for the online PhD degree.

  • Admission to Candidacy:

    In addition to passing the comprehensive exams, students must also fulfill all requirements for advancement, and be admitted to, degree candidacy. Admission to candidacy for a doctoral degree program is typically granted by the major department based upon faculty judgment that the student has the potential to successfully complete the remaining degree requirements (including the dissertation.) Candidacy is commonly valid for a stated number of years (often five or six) and all degree requirements must be completed before the candidacy expires.

  • Dissertation:

    The dissertation process, in some cases, may begin during the third academic year (particularly for those degree programs that require completion of the dissertation by the end of year four) and may include submission of the dissertation prospectus.

Year 4

    In many cases, the dissertation process begins in earnest in the fourth year of studies, following the completion of coursework and the passing of the qualifying comprehensive exams. Some elements of the process may begin earlier, however.

  • Dissertation Prospectus:

    The dissertation process starts with the student’s selection of the subject of his or her dissertation, usually with the input of a faculty advisor. Once the subject has been selected, the student prepares a dissertation prospectus. The prospectus includes the statement of the thesis, an extensive description of the intended contents, proposed methodology, list of expected source materials and bibliography.

  • Prospectus Colloquium:

    Once the prospectus is completed, the student schedules a dissertation colloquium. The colloquium is typically a public event in which the student presents his or her prospectus to a department advisory committee, as well as other faculty members and fellow students. During the colloquium, the student is questioned and must defend his or her thesis to the committee. If the prospectus is approved, the student then begins work on the dissertation itself.

Year 5

  • Dissertation Preparation:

    Following approval of the dissertation prospectus, the student spends one to several years preparing, researching and writing the dissertation under the supervision of a faculty advisor. The dissertation is an extensive work of significant original scholarly research and analysis. Once completed and approved by the faculty advisor, the dissertation is submitted to the department for reading and review.

  • Final Oral Examination/Defense of Dissertation:

    In most cases, the student must again face an advisory board in a public lecture and defense of his or her dissertation. The results of the lecture and defense are then conveyed to the graduate school.

  • Completion of Degree and Graduation:

    The notice of degree completion and approved dissertation must be submitted to the graduate school on a specified date prior to the end of the semester in which the student intends to graduate.

Online PhD Q&A

What technology is required to take an online PhD program?

Distance learning degree programs typically employ a number of course delivery technologies, including online tutorial systems, web-enabled synchronous conferencing and voice tools, and popular distance education systems such as Blackboard. Students are normally required to provide their own computers and access to a variety of common online services including high-speed internet and a supported internet browser. Specific programs may also require software such as Microsoft Office or other more specialized tools. However, some institutions provide all necessary technologies to their students as part of the degree program. A few even supply students with laptop computers for use during their period of enrollment.

How do online PhD programs handle residency requirements?

Both primarily online providers and colleges with physical campuses that offer online degree options typically mandate that students complete some form of residency. In many cases, residency for an online doctorate degree will require students to attend a minimum number of classes or seminars at an actual campus location. The duration of the residency can vary significantly from program to program, some lasting a semester or longer. On the other hand, there are a few institutions that have done away with physical residency requirements entirely for distance learning students. It is very important that an individual fully understand the residency requirements of any specific online degree program before signing up.

How is the dissertation process handled for online doctorates?

The dissertation process for distance learners is commonly handled in much the same ways as it is for students pursuing a doctorate on a traditional campus. Presentation and defense of the dissertation, however, may require the student’s presence at an institution’s physical campus. Again, check the details of all degree programs under consideration before enrolling.

Should I consider an online J.D. degree program?

There are a small number of distance education providers that offer J.D. degree programs. Such programs with regional accreditation are rare, however, and a student should be very careful to make sure that an online J.D. program provides the necessary eligibility to sit for the bar exam in the state where he or she intends to practice.