Don't Settle: Find the Right Online Ph.D. Program for You

Deciding where to go to graduate school is one of the most significant decisions in an academic career. Although all accredited institutions should offer an acceptable level of academic quality, not all doctoral programs are alike, and it is just as important to consider the nature of a program as it is its reputation or tuition. According to the college consortium Committee on Institutional Cooperation, “The first step in deciding whether or not to attend graduate school is learning about yourself and defining your personal goals: What do you find exciting? Where do your passions lie?”

Professors and graduates attest to the importance of evaluating whether a program will be well suited for your lifestyle and career goals. “It has to be the right program for them,” said Dr. Victoria Lynn Walker, who did substantive research before deciding on Regent University for her online Ph.D. She currently works as director of continuing education and instructional and Web technologies at the university. Dr. Erol Ozan, who teaches online courses in information and computer technology at East Carolina University, said that students should make sure their choice of school matches their desired studies. “I think prospective Ph.D. students must have a concrete idea about their research idea. Therefore, they should look at the institution's strength in that specific field,” he said. He recommends looking into the interests and output of faculty members.

Once students know what they would like to pursue, the best thing to do is research exhaustively. According to Dr. Harwood McClerking, a graduate of the University of Michigan, investigation should not be a simple task. “Don't just pick a name or a department,” he said. “Get to know the faculty before you apply. Look at their publications, read their works.”

Students should also consider whether pursuing an online doctorate would be feasible with their other commitments. “I started off as an Ed.D., but I wanted a degree that would be online,” said Walker. “I have a family. We have two kids and both my husband and I work full time. So I had to find a program that was going to meet my schedule.” Walker had previously looked at several online programs, but many were hybrid (a mix of on-campus and online) or required years of residency, even though they were online. “That's the thing with distance education programs: Even if they say they're online, you really have to read the fine print,” she said. “Regent was pretty upfront with everything. It was an all online program with three required residencies during the summer.” She came across many great programs during her research, but there was always something that made them difficult to fit into her life.

Students should weigh whether the type of research they wish to do can be accomplished via the Internet. “Certain fields still require students to be present in a physical laboratory, a studio or a clinic environment in order for them to acquire the necessary knowledge and experience or conduct research,” Ozan said. “Not all educational and research settings are remotely accessible.”

The Committee on Institutional Cooperation recommends talking with current professors and graduate students. Asking them to describe a typical day helps to paint a clear picture as to what a program will be like. “I think you can do a lot of research online” about various schools, said Dorothy Carole Yaw, an online doctoral instructor at Indiana State University. “You can also talk with the directors of the various Ph.D. programs, and that is going to give you a good idea.” According to Yaw, the following are smart questions to ask:

    • How long have the programs been available?
    • How many students have they graduated?
    • How many students are in the program?

Walker liked the Regent program because it felt like a small community. “Even though it was online, there was a lot of interaction. The professors allowed you to call them,” she said. Her husband is currently getting an online master's degree at another institution, and she noted the difference between his experience and her own. “I can see good things about it, but I also see things that are very difficult,” Walker said. “They don't have any interaction at all. They have a mentor that calls once a week to, basically, make sure that he's still alive. Everything is completely automated. He starts each course and goes through modules and standard exams. They are very rigorous programs, but I can see how that might not work for some students.”

Ozan said that when it comes to doctoral programs, “a traditional classroom setting does not guarantee a quality education.” He added that “similarly, an online course should not necessarily be of worse quality just because it is delivered online. I think the quality is mainly driven by instructors and the institution.”

Students must also consider whether they have the self-motivation necessary to succeed in an online Ph.D. program. “I've had one or two [students] throughout the years who did not do well because they could not keep their nose to the grindstone,” said Yaw. “They needed someone to tell them ‘this needs to be done.' They put it off and put it off and you cannot do that,” she said.

The online experience, Walker said, “is meant for the right kind of student. But that's for every education experience. They need to be motivated, and they need to really want it. And it has to be the right program for them.”