Guide to Online Ph.D. Programs

And since attaining a doctoral degree is the highest educational honor one can achieve in academia, it’s an endeavor that requires the utmost of sacrifice with its requirement of intense study and laser-like focus from the doctoral candidate. Thus explaining why only one percent of Americans attain doctoral degrees, according to the US Census Bureau. But, with online Ph.D. programs becoming more and more accepted by the mainstream as a viable alternative to the traditional route, many Ph.D. candidate hopefuls are seeing different avenues opening up to them in achieving their dream. So with success in mind, some strategic time management, and the ever essential component of effort, all within the right program, an online Ph.D. can lead to discoveries that can change perspectives and employment opportunities previously believed to be impossible — two end results definitely worth pursuing.

What is an Online PhD?

Online PhD programs differ from their traditional counterparts only in the way lessons and assignments are delivered. Instead of meeting in regular classrooms or face-to-face meetings, students and teachers exchange information via the web, emailing in presentations and reports, taking tests online, and either viewing lectures and reading materials online, or doing independent research to meet their program goals.

The online PhD experience can take anywhere from four to six years to complete, as the process entails at least a year and a half of intense studies, directed by a panel of three to five professors who then administer oral or written exams. These tests will determine the student’s readiness for the next level, which is the oft-heard-of dissertation. The dissertation, or thesis, is a book-length investigation into a very specific aspect of the student’s chosen field. The dissertation can take semesters or years to finish, and then must be defended before the student’s professor-panel. Once the thesis has been defended successfully, it must be filed with the university before the title of "doctor" can be awarded.

Students in traditional doctoral programs usually meet on campus for seminars, labs, or other hands-on applications of their knowledge and skills. Candidates for PhD programs online typically meet this requirement by working in the field; in fact, employment, licensure, or even professional memberships related to the chosen field often serve as prerequisites for enrollment. Defense of the dissertation can take place on campus or be conducted online.

Choosing the School that is Right for Me

As with picking any school, the focus should be on quality. Key concerns to research include:

  • Accreditation. Accredited schools are those that the US Department of Education (DOE) and its licensed agencies have found to utilize sound teaching methods, sensible organizational policies, and top-notch faculty to move students toward success. Only consider schools that have been accredited by a DOE-approved agency as these are the only ones able to issue accredited online PhD degrees. Check the DOE website to make sure your school’s accrediting agency is legitimate.
  • Fraudulent claims. Too many institutions that claim to offer online PhDs are, unfortunately, scams. These fraudulent universities and colleges claim to grant students PhDs in weeks or months, and often take life or work experience for credit. No legitimate school does this. Scam schools, or diploma mills, also usually demand full payment for the total cost of the program up front, sent to a P.O. Box instead of a physical address, while legitimate institutions always allow students to pay as they go, on a per-credit basis, and have offices where real people can be met. If you discover any of these warning signs while investigating an online college, immediately cease contact with them, send no payments, and contact the Better Business Bureau (BBB).
  • Faculty. Because your PhD experience will largely be guided and influenced by the three- to five-person committee of professors you work with, choosing a school with renowned professors–as well as professors whose work you admire, or with whom you have a rapport–is paramount. When looking at schools, check over the roster of teachers to determine who, if anyone, on the faculty you would like to guide you.
  • Connections. In some fields, such as nursing, counseling, or medicine, you need licensure or memberships in professional organizations to qualify for a job. This same standard applies to the school granting your online doctorate, in many cases. Check to make sure your school has the stamp of approval of any licensing agencies or professional groups associated with your industry.
  • Locations. Even though a part of the beauty of online doctoral programs is seldom needing to go on campus, convenient access to professors and staff–the people who will write your recommendations, and ultimately decide whether your thesis has been completed satisfactorily–can do nothing but help you in your quest for doctoral degree. Consider a nearby campus a bonus.

The Right Degree

Programs are available in business, engineering, criminal justice and law, counseling, education, religion, psychology, and computer science/IT, to name a few. Online PhD candidates study topics of their choosing in accounting, healthcare administration, ministry, medicine, and public health before going on to work in those fields.

However, a crucial distinction to make when choosing your degree path is whether you are actually going for a PhD–short for Doctorate of Philosophy–or for another type of doctoral degree in your subject. Typically, PhDs prepare students for work in academia, researching and/or teaching the philosophy or ideas of their topic in a university, clinical, or government setting. Other types of doctoral degrees, including the Doctor of Psychology (PsyD), Doctor of Education (Ed.D), and Doctor of Public Health (DPH), lean more toward administration or managerial jobs involving hands-on application of researched techniques and methods.

Either way, though, getting a PhD online can help you attain your dream job. Whether teaching English, practicing law, researching vaccines, or managing a school district as superintendent, your online degree will have helped you move into an elite group of professionals, striving to make a difference in the world.