How Employers View Online Ph.D.s vs Traditional Ph.D.s

When it comes to online degrees, every employer has a different opinion. There are those that see a degree as a degree whereas others view online programs with hesitation. As distance education continues to attract the attention of students looking for a more flexible learning schedule, employers will have an increased chance of encountering job applicants with such degrees. For instance, according to a 2010 Sloan Consortium survey, online enrollment rose by almost 1 million students from a year earlier, with 5.6 million students enrolled in at least one online course in fall 2009. This movement has forced some employers to become more familiar with online education. Even as employers learn more about distance learning, there are those that remain unconvinced and continue to disregard job candidates with online degrees.

“In my line of work, there is a high value placed on physical interaction and communication,” said William Maloney, executive vice president of development and production in North America for Statoil. Consequently, he said, he prefers that his team members hold traditional degrees because he believes these graduates have had more experience with face-to-face interaction than distance learners.

What employers should realize is that even though a job candidate may have earned his or her Ph.D. online, that does not mean minimal collaboration with peers and professors. From forum postings to group projects, online students constantly find themselves communicating with one another. Furthermore, most students who are studying at the Ph.D. level already have sufficient people skills because they have worked in a professional environment before. These are not typical “college students,” but rather working professionals who possess significant field experience. Fortunately, statistics show that employers are beginning to become more aware of these truths. In a survey by online institution Excelsior College and Zogby International, 61 percent of CEOs and business owners across the nation reported that they were familiar with online programs. Furthermore, 83 percent declared an online degree to be as credible as one earned through a campus-based program.

Nevertheless, some employers continue to view on-site degrees as superior. “While the first things I look at are their personality and their portfolio of work, I still believe that traditional degrees give someone a more well-rounded overall package,” said graphic designer Alex Biggs. “Extracurricular life at a traditional college is unavailable to students studying online, and that experience can make a big difference.”

In 2006, a select number of hiring executives in the U.S. agreed to participate in a study in which they were asked to choose between hypothetical job candidates with similar backgrounds except for how and where they earned their bachelor's degrees. Of the 269 completed surveys, 96 percent of those who were hiring for an entry-level position said they would select the candidate who had a traditional degree. These executives expressed skepticism over the potential lack of rigor and face-to-face interaction in an online program.

If a school, particularly an online one, is not accredited it will have little chance of ever appearing credible to employers. The quality and reputation of their graduates also contribute to colleges' reputations. “School ranking weighs the most,” said Steve Schollaert, senior executive vice president of intermodal strategy for global container transportation company APL. “This just gets you in the door, and even though this may not be fair, rankings mean a lot.” Schollaert believes online MBAs and Ph.D.s are credible if they were awarded by a top school. A full-time or part-time MBA earned from a brick-and-mortar school carries more weight with him than an online one because traditional schools tend to rank higher in well-known publications than distance institutions.

This belief that online learning is second tier is tenacious but it is showing signs of easing. As more online graduates become established in the workplace, the stigma will lessen. By demonstrating the self-motivation that online education demands, graduates can change employers' perceptions.