Should You Get an
Online Ph.D.?

Expert Advice, Tips & Resources

While completing a four-year undergraduate degree is an admirable feat, finishing a doctoral program requires academic focus and stamina for several additional years. In fact, depending on one’s chosen area of study and if they already hold a master’s degree, a Ph.D. program may take up to nine years to complete. The following guide helps prospective Ph.D. students take into account several important decision-making factors related to present-day Ph.D. life and whether or not this degree is right for them.

Meet the Expert

Deciding to Pursue a Ph.D.

Ph.D. Pros

Earning a Ph.D. increases your earning potential. Depending on the field, those who work full-time and have a Ph.D. could earn up to 27% more than those with a master’s degree, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Professionals who have earned the Ph.D. are widely considered to be experts in their area of study. This distinction can help diversify the types of work available to them in both the public and private sectors. As an expert, Ph.D.s are authorities as teachers, researchers and government employers and are effective consultants in numerous fields.

The types of research, writing, public speaking and presentational skills one needs to make it through a Ph.D. program are useful skills beyond academia. Therefore, earning the Ph.D. in a specialized field does not necessarily make one exempt from branching out and seeking gainful employment in a non-academic area. In today’s competitive job market, a doctoral degree can be a distinguishing factor and separate you for a pool of candidates even if a Ph.D. is not required for a position.

Living life as a professional teacher, researcher, or analyst may be an excellent fit for some individuals. Those who are naturally curious and, over the years, have spent their free time conducting small research projects or hobby experiments can feel supported and be rewarded in many careers commonly held by Ph.D.s.

Ph.D. Cons

The workload and amount of stress for most Ph.D. students is heavier than what many students experience during undergraduate degree programs. Depending on the field, doctoral students can expect several hundred pages of reading assigned each week, on top of writing and research deadlines and any kind of part-time work or assistantship they may have.

Completing Ph.D. coursework and conducting research is a solitary effort with less social interaction than most undergraduate academic programs. Whether online or on campus, Ph.D. students must understand that much of their time in school will be spent alone researching specific topics that, depending on how esoteric the topic, may only be interesting to themselves and people who know that area of the field. Long hours spent in the library and in front of the computer reading and writing papers do not go harmoniously with an active social life.

Ph.D. degree candidates usually write a dissertation to complete their degree. As the culmination of one's studies throughout graduate school and arguably one of the most stressful hurdles in the process, the dissertation may not end up being an important document for Ph.D. candidates beyond meeting a departmental requirement. Some expert consultants for those seeking academic positions argue that the dissertation is often too strong of a focus for new Ph.D.s and can hinder their progress early in their careers.

By the time students enter Ph.D. programs they are usually in their mid-twenties, if not older. For those who are not pursuing advanced degrees and entered the workforce after high school or college, this is a time in life during which people built the foundation of their careers, save money and make financial investments. For Ph.D. students, these elements of life are simply not feasible. For Ph.D. students who are fortunate enough to have funding with a stipend, this money is only enough to cover modest living expenses.

Skills You Need for a Ph.D. Degree

Time Management

One of the Ph.D. student's greatest assets is time management and skillful planning. The amount of time Ph.D. students spend preparing for class, writing papers, reading, and managing other types of part-time work is staggering. Plain and simple: successful Ph.D. students are self-starters. Many Ph.D. students feel an ever-present feeling of their work being unresolved or incomplete, especially when writing papers. Despite this common theme, students must take comfort in the fact that they gave their best effort, given the time resdivaints and other obstacles of Ph.D. life.

Concise Writing

The best academic writers are those who get their points across in the clearest, most direct way. Complex ideas and arguments do not require convoluted writing. Ph.D. students save time and energy, and will ultimately be better understood, by writing concisely.


Ph.D. students must learn how to harness their creative, inventive, and exploratory sides and use them productively under a deadline. Ph.D. students must understand the relevant scholarship that precedes their own work. They must also, however, do something original to advance that scholarship.

Presentation Skills – Visual & Verbal

Graduate school courses and academic conferences provide excellent scenarios in which to develop and hone one's presentation skills. Ph.D.'s need to be skillful presenters, including the way information is displayed and vocalized. Current presentation software can help students clearly deliver information while holding an audience's attention. An excellent presentation, both in terms of the content and your delivery, can mean the difference between a grade, receiving grant money or landing a job.

Online Ph.D. Degrees

Online Ph.D. programs are fitting for certain personalities and lifestyles. In many cases, degree seekers with busy schedules, demanding familial or work obligations, or a lack of nearby resources take advantage of distance learning. Earning an online doctorate can be cost effective and allow students to work at their own pace, whether enrolled part-time or full-time.

How it Works

Online Ph.D. programs can offer both hybrid or entirely-online formats. The hybrid format is a combination of on-campus courses mixed with online-only courses. For those who wish to work remotely or do not have easy access to a campus location, online-only options can be an excellent fit.

Planning is essential to completing the online doctorate in the most time-efficient way. Distance learners typically work with an academic advisor or professor at their school to determine a personalized route through the degree program to graduation. Online Ph.D. students choose required courses and electives based on when those courses are offered. This determines how many credits a student can or should take each semester in order to stay on their desired timeline.

Schools deliver online courses through their chosen webinar program such as the Blackboard program. Some online doctorates use asynchronous course format. This style requires students to log in and attend class meetings at predetermined meeting time. Other schools use an asynchronous, or on-demand, format. In these cases, students download lectures or view them online when it is convenient for them.

5 Tips for Getting the Most out of an Online Ph.D. Program

  1. 1. Find a Study Area

    Designate an area in your home or a consistent public location to be your study spot. This is a helpful way to tell yourself that a particular space is for working hard and staying focused. Create boundaries between working space and living space inside the home.

  2. 2. Participate and Ask Questions Throughout the Course

    Actively communicate with instructors and classmates. Be curious and ask questions. Open communication with your instructor is key to getting the most out of a course, having your questions answered, and distinguishing yourself as an eager participant.

  3. 3. Check-in Daily

    Plan on logging into your school's online course system on a daily basis. As with traditional on-campus courses, due dates, the syllabus, and assignment instructions can change without much notice. Checking each day will ensure that you stay current with updates and changes in each one.

  4. 4. Have a Good Attitude

    Online classes are not easier or less demanding than on-campus classes. Approach them with the same enthusiasm you would like any other class. Online Ph.D. courses cover a significant amount of content and there is not the time to give anything less than your best effort.

  5. 5. Practice Self-Care

    Take breaks, set time limits, and get enough sleep. It can be hard to step away from studying online when you live and study in the same place, but it’s important to do just that. Be kind to yourself and carve out time for some physical and mental breaks.

Ph.D. Programs That Work Well for Online Study

Online doctoral programs in social work prepare students for research and teaching positions in addition to hands-on advanced clinical work in healthcare centers and agencies. Concentrations include families and children, clinical social work, community planning and policy management.

Two types of online Ph.D. programs are available for nursing students: the Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy) and the DNP (Doctor of Nursing Practice). The Ph.D. is often designed for students interested in pursuing a research-based career. The DNP is practicing nurses and those who would like to become nurse practitioners (NPs).

Online Nursing Ph.D. Guide
Learn More

The online doctorate in business helps professionals boost their earning potential and develop expertise in a specialized area of the field, with an emphasis on management, leadership and expertise. Concentrations include economics, organizational leadership and project management.

Online Business Ph.D. Guide
Learn More
The 50 Best Online Ph.D. Programs
Learn More

Breaking it Down

  • Depending on the program, Ph.D. students without departmental funding may need to incur some student loan debt to pay for tuition and living expenses.

  • Due to the busy nature of Ph.D. students' schedules, degree seekers may miss out on social functions, family vacations, and even some holiday plans in order to complete their work.

  • Earning a Ph.D. increases your earning potential and creates more job opportunities for you in a competitive market.

  • Completing a Ph.D. is a monumental task and offers a strong sense of satisfaction.

  • By earning a Ph.D., you are part of the 1.8% of the U.S. population to have a doctoral level degree.

  • In an online Ph.D. program, students learn how to perform and be creative under tight deadlines.

  • Conducting original research and thinking through ideas is a difficult process but one that all Ph.D.s must learn how to do, especially in times of stress and uncertainty.

  • Doctoral students learn how to synthesize large amounts of information and present that data in an informative and engaging way.

  • Ph.D.s learn how to be self-sufficient researchers but also ways to be valuable collaborators in many industries, not only ones that involve their specialty areas.

What Jobs Require Doctorate Degrees?

College Professor or Lecturer

Most schools require at least a master's degree to teach at the college level. While there are certainly exceptions to this, academic job postings often state, "M.A. required, Ph.D. preferred." Duties include teaching, serving on advisory committees, and mentoring students. Salary varies per field. Teachers in the humanities can expect an annual median wage of about $60,000 with about a 0-5% growth rate over the next 10 years. Teachers in the sciences or business can expect a higher median wage of about $80,000 and faster than the average growth rate of about 15%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statisics (BLS).

Computer Information Research Scientists

These scientists work with common operating systems, data management software, and types of analytic programs. These professionals work as consultants for individual users or companies, evaluate proposals and project plans, and apply theoretical expertise to create or apply new technology. A master's degree or a Ph.D. are usually required, depending on the employer. This field is expected to grow by 15% over the next 10 years. The median wage is $55.06 hourly and $114,520 annual, according to the BLS.

Online Computer Science Ph.D. Guide
Marriage and Family Therapists

MFTs diagnose and treat mental or emotional disorders. This is a specialized career where the therapist is trained to work with individuals, couples and families. These professionals receive extensive training in counseling and must acquire licensure to work with patients. They tend to be service-oriented individuals with a higher level of social perceptiveness. They must also develop and follow through on treatment plans for their patients. Therapists usually need a master's degree or Ph.D., depending on the job requirements, facility, and type of treatment. The BLS states that this field is expected to grow by 15% over the next 10 years. Median wages are $23.45 hourly and $48,790 annually.

Online Counseling Degrees & Programs

FAQ From the Expert

Timon Kaple is a writer and ethnographer specializing in the study of music, language, and American culture. His recent work explores how people understand their daily experiences and how those beliefs influence their actions, engagement with social media, language, work, and art. He conducts ethnographic fieldwork and teaches students of all ages about music and culture. Timon also holds the Ph.D. from Indiana University-Bloomington.

Can you get a Ph.D. without a master’s?

In some cases, students who are accepted to a Ph.D. program without already having a master's degree will earn one as they’re earning the Ph.D. On the other hand, there are also colleges require that all applicants already possess a master's degree before applying. Coursework for the masters can parlay over into Ph.D. coursework, allowing for a seamless transition between degrees. In scenarios where students take more than a couple years to complete their master's requirements, their department will often let them take courses that count toward the Ph.D. degree before master's requirements are met.

Do Ph.D. students get paid?

If you receive some kind of financial assistance through your home department, this usually is coupled with a graduate assistantship or part-time position of some kind. Graduate assistants get paid in the form of a stipend. These positions are essentially a "full scholarship" but usually require some work, about 15-30 hours a week, from the student.

What are the demands of a Ph.D. Program?

A Ph.D. program is not a continuation of your undergraduate program. For full-time students, graduate school requires nothing short of a 60-hour work week. In order to keep up with the tremendous amount of reading and writing, in addition to attending and teaching classes, grading papers, or helping your department in some way, you will be spending early mornings before class and late evenings after your job completing your assignments and responsibilities. This kind schedule often puts personal and social agendas on hold for several years.

Is it worth it to get a Ph.D.?

As far as a career goes, the degree certainly separates you from the pack and increases your earning potential in the long run. The degree is helpful in this regard, both inside and outside of academia. There is evidence that Ph.D.'s are quite valuable in the private sector, especially in research and development fields.

Is it hard to get a Ph.D.?

If you are accepted to a reputable university that is regionally accredited, chances are you have what it takes to complete the degree. For many of us, school is all-consuming and leaves little time for much else. That's one of the hardest parts of completing the Ph.D. Making it through coursework and getting your dissertation proposal approved is one thing, but sticking with your dissertation research and writing is one of the hardest components of the process. The Ph.D. Completion Project found that only about 49-64% of students, depending on the field, actually advance beyond ABD status and complete the degree.

How long does it take to get a Ph.D.?

I was in combined master's degree/doctoral program in the humanities. All told, including coursework, research, and the writing of both a master's thesis and a dissertation, it took me eight years to finish. The lines are blurred as to when my master's work ended and the Ph.D. work started. And this is the case with other schools where the MA is built into the Ph.D. process. The Ph.D. Completion Project considers a general seven-year timeline, beginning with the third year of the student's program (when coursework is wrapping up and the student continues on their own in research/dissertation mode). They show that some students finish shortly after coursework. There's another spike a couple years after that. The timeline depends on your field, stamina, and availability.

How much does it cost to get a doctorate degree?

The average in-state tuition in for the 2012-2013 academic year was $16,425. The cost of graduate tuition increased by $200-400 each year since 2000, so we can predict that the average cost will be around $17,435-18,435 during the 2018-2019 year. An under-estimated factor in the overall cost of attending school is the cost of living.

What types of funding, if any, can I expect from a Ph.D. program?

Depending on the nature of the program, graduate students often take on teaching positions or assistantships. For newer graduate students, teaching positions usually entail co-teaching an undergraduate course with a professor. Advanced Ph.D. students may have classes of their own. Assistantships can range from working in your home department’s office on-campus to working in a library or archive. These are the worker bees of the graduate school. You will find them doing any number of tasks as needed from year to year.

How would you describe your assistantship and/or teaching experience as a Ph.D. student?

I was fortunate to have both an assistantship during my MA and teaching positions throughout my Ph.D. With both jobs, I encountered a giant learning curve but they were excellent opportunities to learn the ropes and obtain some real hands-on work experience in academia. If you are offered a position, do not turn it down.

How is the quality of life for Ph.D. students?

It is very easy to bury yourself in your work, and that can be emotionally and physically draining. It is important to make time for yourself and to see your friends and family. While in graduate school, I met some of my dearest friends who changed my life. It would not have been possible to develop those relationships if I did not make the time to do so.


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