The Best Online PhD Programs 2021

Earning a Ph.D. online can open up new career opportunities or help expand a current career.

October 14, 2021

reviewed by ACO Rankings Team
The Best Online PhD Programs 2021

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Online Doctoral Degrees

A Ph.D. is the most advanced degree in most fields. Graduates with a Ph.D. can work as researchers, professors, or clinical psychologists. Online Ph.D. programs take several years to finish. Coursework depends heavily on discipline and field of study. Learners complete a large amount of independent research.

Applicants to the most competitive online Ph.D. programs need a master's degree and a strong academic record. Students interested in pursuing an online Ph.D. must submit writing samples, GRE scores, and recommendation letters.

Read on for an overview of online Ph.D. programs, benefits, and requirements.

Top 10 Online PhD Degrees
California State University-Fresno Fresno, CA
Clemson University Clemson, SC
Indiana University-Bloomington Bloomington, IN
Ohio State University-Main Campus Columbus, OH
Purdue University-Main Campus West Lafayette, IN
Texas A & M University-College Station College Station, TX
The University of Alabama Tuscaloosa, AL
The University of West Florida Pensacola, FL
University of Central Florida Orlando, FL
University of Florida Gainesville, FL
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Frequently Asked Questions About Ph.D. Programs

true Q. Can I complete a Ph.D. program online?

Some Ph.D. programs allow enrollees to complete coursework online. However, students may need to fulfill on-campus residency requirements.

true Q. Can I get a Ph.D. without a master's?

Some online Ph.D. programs only accept candidates with a master's degree from a regionally accredited school. However, many schools accept applications from high-performing bachelor's graduates.

true Q. How long is a Ph.D. program?

Ph.D. program length varies by discipline, school, and learners' prior graduate work. Master's degree-holders may finish in 3-5 years. Some candidates take longer.

Why Get a Ph.D. Degree?

An online Ph.D. meets or exceeds education requirements for many careers. Graduates with a Ph.D. can apply for jobs in education and scientific research. Earning an online Ph.D. can also improve professionals' earning potential. According to PayScale salary data from September 2021, Ph.D. graduates average $100,000 annually. Salary varies widely by discipline and career. Professors earn a median annual salary of $80,560.

Online Ph.D. programs provide greater flexibility and lower costs than on-campus programs. See below for more information about online Ph.D. tuition and expenses.

Earning a Ph.D. requires time, persistence, and money. However, earning a degree gives graduates many personal and professional benefits. For example, doctoral students can pursue their interests at a deep level. Doing so can bring intellectual satisfaction and confidence.

How to Choose a Doctoral Program

1. Discover Your Interests

Students considering a Ph.D. program should know what their intended field of study is and what career options are available after graduation. Once a student knows what field they are interested in, they can begin researching top programs in the area, or in the country if they are willing to relocate.

2. Research Program Options

There are a variety of program layouts available for doctoral students. Students should decide if they want an online, hybrid, or in-person program. Students interested in an online program should research asynchronous vs. synchronous course layouts to decide what works best for their schedule.

3. Consider Program Lengeth and Finacial Aid

Before applying to a doctoral program, students should understand the requirements and the average amount of time it takes to complete the degree. Students should also research financial aid options, including research grants and graduate assistantships.

4. Know Application Deadlines

Once a student has decided which doctoral programs to apply to, they should begin the application process immediately. Many doctoral programs only have one start date a year, so students should research when they can enroll and when applications are due.

5. Reach Out to the Falculty

Students should consider reaching out to faculty members at the school they're interested in either before or during the application process. Doing so can help students tailor their application and also have a better idea of what to expect during the program.

How Much Does a Ph.D. Cost?

Doctoral degrees can range in price, but on average they cost $114,300 according to EducationData. Another study, conducted by the National Center of Education Statistics, states that a student can expect to pay $18,947 per year on average. A student's cost can vary depending on in-state vs. out-of-state tuition and any scholarship or graduate assistantship funding. Costs can also vary by the type of degree, a Ph.D. can cost less than an M.D. or Ed.D., for example.

Stipends do not usually cover all living expenses. Even fully funded Ph.D. students sometimes borrow money. Student debt among Ph.D. graduates averages around $159,630. Online Ph.D. programs may cost less than on-campus programs. Some schools offer online learners in-state tuition rates. Many online students also save on transportation costs and campus fees.

However, online learners incur extra expenses. Read below to learn about these fees.

Is a Ph.D. a Good Investment?

An online Ph.D. meets or exceeds education requirements for many careers. Graduates with a Ph.D. can apply for jobs in education and scientific research. Earning an online Ph.D. can also improve professionals' earning potential. According to PayScale salary data from September 2021, Ph.D. graduates average $100,000 annually. Salary varies widely by discipline and career. Professors earn a median annual salary of $80,560.

Additional Online Student Fees

Online students need reliable computers, high-speed internet, and technical support. These come with additional expenses.

Students enrolled in online Ph.D. programs also need money for books, supplies, and graduation fees. Some careers require professional licenses or certifications. These credentials can carry hefty application fees. Online Ph.D. programs often require enrollees to meet with advisors on campus. Learners should budget for travel and housing expenses.

Available Online Ph.D. Degrees

Coursework in online Ph.D. programs varies by discipline. Many Ph.D. programs begin with 2-3 years of advanced coursework. Core coursework covers research methods and includes dissertation preparation courses. Learners also study their field's history and major theoretical frameworks.

Ph.D. programs cultivate advanced specialization through elective courses and independent study. Students culminate their program with a comprehensive exam. Learners also complete independent research for their dissertation.

See below for three common Ph.D. programs. Keep in mind that not every school offers these programs.

The Best Online Ph.D. Programs 2021

California State University-Fresno View School Profile Fresno, CA $6771

Fresno State offers two online doctoral degrees: a doctor of nursing practice and a doctor of education in educational leadership. Students complete nearly all coursework online and participate in internships and practicums at approved locations near them.

Students in the doctor of education program take 60 credits, including conceptual education perspectives for educational leadership, educational reform, and organizational theory in complex organizations. The program trains future leaders and administrators. Students in the doctor of nursing program take courses such as translating evidence into reflective practice, foundations of evidence-based practice, and application of evidence-based teaching in nursing. Students in both programs take part in internships and practicums to demonstrate skills mastery.

Doctor of nursing applicants must possess current registered nurse licensure and a master's degree with a minimum GPA of 3.0 to qualify for admission. Doctor of education (Ed.D) applicants must hold a bachelor's or master's degree with a minimum GPA of 3.0 to qualify for admission. Ed.D. students must also submit GRE scores (waived through 2021).

Fresno State is regionally accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior Colleges and University Commission.

Clemson University View School Profile Clemson, SC $19508

Located in Clemson, South Carolina, Clemson offers three different online doctoral programs. Students complete coursework mostly online with the full support of on-campus faculty.

The school offers a Ph.D. in rhetoric, communication, and information design. Students can also pursue a Ph.D. in parks, recreation, and tourism management. Students explore outdoor management along with the traditional campus cohort. The school also offers an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in healthcare genetics that draws on genetics, psychology, and political science — supporting research into this cutting-edge field. Students should prepare for any required residency to defend thesis work or complete examinations.

Applicants must follow the individual admissions requirements for each program. All programs require students to possess a minimum GPA of 3.0 in undergraduate and graduate work for eligibility.

Clemson is regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

Indiana University-Bloomington View School Profile Bloomington, IN $11931

Based in Bloomington, Indiana, IU offers online doctoral programs in three fields: education, public health, and health and health sciences. Students complete coursework online with little to no residency requirements.

Students in the education department can choose from five different doctor of education programs: curriculum instruction in either art or science; educational leadership; instructional systems technology; and literacy, culture, and education. Health and science students can choose a doctor of nursing practice or a Ph.D. in nursing science. Finally, the school offers a doctor of public health in public health and global health leadership. Participants must prepare ahead of time for any required residency visits, which vary from department to department.

Applicants must follow their chosen department's admission criteria. Most programs require a minimum of a master's degree with a 3.0 GPA. Students must also prepare to take standardized exams, such as the GRE, if necessary.

IU is regionally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.

Ohio State University-Main Campus View School Profile Columbus, OH $18694

Located in Columbus, Ohio State offers an online doctor of nursing practice. The program offers two tracks: a BSN-to-DPN and a post-master's doctor of nursing. Students can pursue coursework online with one on-campus orientation required.

BSN-to-DNP students can specialize in one of three specialties: family nurse practitioner, neonatal nurse practitioner, or psychiatric mental health practitioner. The post-master's doctor of nursing prepares master's-level nurses hoping to pursue a career in clinical nursing or transformative leadership. Both programs include foundation courses and require internships at the student's location.

BSN-to-DNP students must hold an active registered nurse license and possess a minimum GPA of 3.0. Post-master's students must hold a completed master's degree and an active registered nurse license and also possess a minimum GPA of 3.0.

Ohio State is regionally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.

Purdue University-Main Campus View School Profile West Lafayette, IN $11898

A research university located in West Lafayette, Indiana, Purdue offers online doctoral degrees in four different discipline areas: education, law and legal studies, nursing, and technology and computer science. Most programs offer all coursework online with minimal on-campus requirements.

Education students can participate in a hybrid doctor of education in either education leadership and policy or higher education. The legal department offers both a traditional and an executive track juris doctor online. Nursing students can complete a doctor of nursing practice. Students can also pursue a doctor of technology, which allows computer science students to explore the highest levels of education.

Applicants must follow the individual requirements for their chosen program, including any standardized test, licensing, and prerequisite requirements. Students must possess a master's degree to qualify for most doctoral programs.

Purdue is regionally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.

Texas A & M University-College Station View School Profile College Station, TX $19118

Located in College Station, Texas A&M offers several online doctoral degrees. Students can choose from fields such as education, agriculture, and engineering and complete the highest level of education with minimal to no residency requirements.

Notable degree choices include a Ph.D. in plant breeding, a doctor of education in curriculum and instruction, and a Ph.D. in interdisciplinary engineering. Students can also choose an Ed.D. in agricultural education or a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences.

Applicants must follow the individual application requirements for their chosen department. Most programs require students to submit GMAT or GRE scores.

Texas A&M is regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

The University of Alabama View School Profile Tuscaloosa, AL $20465

Based in Tuscaloosa, UA offers several online doctoral degrees with minimal to no residency requirements. Students can explore programs in a variety of fields, including education, engineering, and nursing.

Education students can choose from a doctor of education in higher education administration or education leadership. Engineering students can choose from an entirely online doctoral degree in mechanical engineering or a mostly online aerospace engineering and mechanics degree. Nursing students can earn a doctoral degree in instructional leadership in nursing education or nursing practice in healthcare nutrition. The school also offers an online doctor of social work.

Students must follow the individual department requirements of their chosen discipline. Most programs require at least a bachelor's or a master's degree with a competitive GPA.

UA is regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

The University of West Florida View School Profile Pensacola, FL $9091

Located in Pensacola, UWF offerstwo online doctoral programs: a doctor of education in instructional design and technology and a doctor of education in curriculum and instruction, with a curriculum and assessment specialization.

Curriculum and instruction students in the curriculum and assessment specialization take courses solely online, completing 27 credits of professional core and 18 credits in concentration requirements. Students complete a dissertation or research project to complete the program. Instructional design and technology students take 36 credits of required courses plus 18 credits in dissertation work. Students complete coursework online with some residency requirements.

Students must possess a master's degree from an accredited institution to qualify for admission. The school also requires students to submit GMAT or GRE scores. Additional admissions requirements vary by program.

FAU is regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

University of Central Florida View School Profile Orlando, FL $13016

Based in Orlando, UCF offers three online doctoral programs in nursing. Students complete most coursework online with some residency requirements.

The 42-credit doctor of nursing advanced track provides a traditional pathway for current MSN students to learn leadership and administration skills to lead a healthcare facility. The executive track offers flexible scheduling options for students with mid-career experience. A 75-credit nursing Ph.D. option offers two tracks: a BSN-to-Ph.D. and an MSN-to-Ph.D. designed to teach students the research and development skills needed within the field of nursing.

Students must speak with an admission success coach to learn more about each department's requirements. All applicants must possess current Florida (or reciprocal state) licensure and must prepare to take the GMAT or GRE in most cases.

UCF is regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

University of Florida View School Profile Gainesville, FL $11313

A public research university located in Gainesville, UF offers seven online doctoral programs. Students can complete most coursework online, but several of the programs include hands-on practicum requirements.

The school offers four doctor of education degrees designed to cover leadership, technology, and administration. Students can earn a doctor of education in educational leadership; educational technology; higher education administration; and teachers, schools, and society. Students can also pursue two Ph.D. programs online: classical civilization and Latin and Roman studies. For nursing students, the school offers a doctor of nursing practice with a BSN-to-DNP track and an MSN-to-DNP track.

Doctoral admissions requirements vary based on the program. Most programs require students to submit standardized test scores, such as the GRE, and possess a bachelor's or master's degree.

UF is regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign View School Profile Champaign, IL $15829

Based in Champaign, Illinois, U of I offers several online doctoral programs designed to provide students with flexibility and convenience in their education. Students can complete most coursework online but may need to pursue practicums at an approved location near them.

Students can choose from several doctor of education options, including diversity and equity in education, foundations of e-learning in higher education, and learning design and leadership. The school also offers a doctor of education or a doctor of philosophy in human resource development online.

For most programs, applicants must possess at least a bachelor's degree, but preferably a master's degree. The school also requires students to submit standardized test scores to qualify for admission to most programs. Applicants must check the individual requirements and prerequisites of their chosen department before beginning the admissions process.

U of I is regionally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.

University of Louisiana at Monroe View School Profile Monroe, LA $9455

Based in Monroe, ULM offers two online doctoral programs: a Ph.D. in marriage and family therapy and an Ed.D. in curriculum and instruction. Students complete coursework online with minimal to no in-person requirements.

Students can complete the doctor of education program in as few as 24 months, taking courses such as communication and collaboration in problem-solving, curriculum theory and design, decision-making for school improvement, and instructional design and technology integration. The Ph.D. in marriage and family therapy does not lead to licensure but does provide students with a path to research and explore current topics in the field. Students must complete two years of coursework followed by a dissertation project.

Ph.D. students must submit GRE scores and must hold a master's degree in a related field to qualify for admission. Ed.D. applicants must hold a master's degree in any discipline with a minimum GPA of 3.25 and a minimum GRE score of 292 (MAT 397).

ULM is regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill View School Profile Chapel Hill, NC $11649

Located in Chapel Hill, UNC-Chapel Hill offers two online doctoral degrees. Students can complete coursework through the UNC online consortium.

An executive doctoral program in health leadership offers mid-career professionals the opportunity to take their knowledge to the next level. The three-year program includes two years of coursework followed by a comprehensive exam and thesis in the final year. The school also offers an online doctor of physical therapy program, with most coursework offered online. The 21-month program includes practicums for hands-on experience.

The school requires students to possess prior work experience to qualify for both programs. Applicants must also possess at least a bachelor's degree to begin the admissions process.

UNC-Chapel Hill is regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

University of North Florida View School Profile Jacksonville, FL $10809

Based in Jacksonville, UNF offers several online doctoral degrees. Students complete most of the coursework solely online with a few required residencies. Students can choose to pursue their programs through either full-time or part-time study.

Students can complete a doctor of nursing practice in psychiatric-mental health, a post-MSN doctor of nursing practice, or a doctor of clinical nutrition. Students in each department can complete most coursework through UNF's unique online classroom, but each track requires periodic residencies. For example, the clinical nutrition path requires a handful of two-day workshops for the first three years of the program.

Students must check with each department for individual admissions criteria. In general, nursing students need an undergraduate degree or master's in nursing degree with current registered nurse licensure to apply.

UNF is regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

University of Virginia-Main Campus View School Profile Charlottesville, VA $17845

Located in Charlottesville, UVA offers an online doctorate in education in curriculum and instruction. Students map out an individualized course of study and can take advantage of part-time scheduling.

Students choose 18 credits of required education courses followed by research methods courses. Students in the curriculum and instruction track take courses such as differentiated instruction, ESL assessment and curriculum design, creativity and problem-solving, and curriculum for the gifted and talented. A field study requires 200 hours of internship experience at an approved location to provide students with mentoring and hands-on instruction. Students must also take a comprehensive exam to complete the program.

The school allows students to submit up to 24 transfer credits from the student's master's degree. Applicants typically need to submit GRE or GMAT scores to apply (waived for 2021).

UVA is regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

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