Online PhD in Social Science

The term “social science” refers to a broad spectrum of academic disciplines, including anthropology, education, political science, economics and sociology. While online doctoral programs in social science provide students with opportunities for interdisciplinary study across many of these fields, doctoral studies are usually narrowed down to the student's chosen specialization, which might include: urban planning and development, international relations, national security studies, conflict resolution and peace studies, economic and social development, Chicano/Latino studies, social movements and many more.

Most online PhD programs in social studies take a minimum of four years to complete, but could take up to seven years depending on the complexity of the research topic in their dissertation. Online students access their courses from their home computers, but must report to a college campus from time to time to meet residency requirements. Courses emphasize research-based theory in one or more areas of social science, advanced research methods, data analysis and statistics. Students have their choice of elective courses.

After students working toward an online PhD in social science have completed their course requirements, they must pass a comprehensive examination, work with faculty to develop a dissertation research question and submit a dissertation proposal. A PhD student's crowning achievement is the completion and oral defense of a book-length dissertation documenting their original research.

About Online PhD Programs in Social Science

Online social science PhD programs are different from traditional, campus-based programs in that they require the student's presence on campus much less. Instead of reporting to class on a weekly basis, students log in to their university's structured course management system from home and watch their professors' lectures online, completing any homework, research and exams fully online. Students communicate with their professors and cohorts via e-mail, live chat or phone. Group projects require students to be able to collaborate with one another online, using video conferencing tools and programs that allow students at different locations to work on a single document. Hearty class discussions are held in online message boards.

While the majority of coursework is done online, students do have to report to campus for one or more mandatory residencies, in which a student conducts collaborative research with faculty and peers. Residencies are generally reserved for researching, writing and refining one's dissertation. Any on-campus work required by online doctorate programs in social science is clearly outlined for students ahead of time in the course syllabus so that students can make prior arrangements with their workplace to take time off. The only other part of an online PhD social studies program that is not Web-based is any required practicum for teaching or application of theory in an real-world, organizational setting.

To give you a better idea of the course sequence you may experience while earning an online doctorate in social science, we will use the PhD in Conflict Analysis & Resolution offered online by Nova Southeastern University as an example for the following course sequences:

Year One:

  • Foundations and Development of Conflict Resolution and Peace Studies. This course gives students an in-depth overview of the history and major themes within conflict resolution, peacemaking and problem-solving, according to a Nova Southeastern University course description.
  • Mediation Theory and Practice. In this course, students examine the many techniques involved with mediation and will learn to demonstrate them.
  • Quantitative Research: Analysis and Statistics. This course teaches students how to gather and present hard research data, including bivariate and multivariate analysis.

Year Two:

  • Communication Dynamics in Dispute Resolution: The Human Factor. This course introduces students to methods of communication involved in resolving conflicts, including how to understand, analyze and manage conflict, according to an NSU course description.
  • Qualitative Research Methods. This course gives students an overview of traditional qualitative research methods, including the ethical dilemmas and limitations of such research; students learn about in-depth interviews and participant observation.
  • Culture and Conflict: Cross-Cultural Perspectives. In this course, students look at a variety of diverse cultures and study the various factors that influence their approach to conflict.

Year Three:

  • Negotiation Theory and Practice. This course exposes students to methods of intervening in a conflict as a negotiator and bargainer and allows students to practice these skills, according to an NSU course description.
  • Facilitation Theory and Practice . This course strengthens a student's skills in conflict management as it relates to working with groups; role-playing helps students hone these skills.
  • Public Policy. This course exposes students to the most relevant policy issues related to conflict management.

Year Four:

  • Teaching and Training. This course is tailored for students who wish to go on to teach at the college level; students learn techniques for teaching the adult learner, according to an NSU course description.
  • Teaching and Training Practicum. Often taken in conjunction with Teaching and Training, this course gives students the opportunity to teach college-level students in areas which might include graduate students, undergraduate students, continuing education students or online students.
  • Dissertation. This course allows students to focus entirely on developing, researching, writing and defending their dissertation.

Once students completing online doctoral degrees in social science have completed all of their coursework, they must take a comprehensive exam specially put together by an examination committee. This exam covers a student's knowledge of social science theory, knowledge of advanced research methods and data analysis, and knowledge specific to a student's declared concentration of study, whether it be conflict resolution, global education, multicultural studies or something else entirely. After the comprehensive exam, a PhD student works almost exclusively on his or her dissertation. Students can choose from a broad array of dissertation topics, as long as they can address a very specific problem within a social science discipline. Past dissertation ideas have addressed the potential for conflict resolution in the Middle East and preserving green space in urban settings.

Value and Criticisms of a PhD in Social Science

Students who have a difficult time pinning down exactly what it is they wish to study will benefit greatly from pursuing a social science PhD online. After all, many PhD programs in the social sciences are highly interdisciplinary, exposing students to a variety of topics. Students who favor a particular discipline among the social sciences savor the opportunity to forge their own unique degree path under the advisement of faculty members. Online doctorate degrees in social science are valuable for those who wish to become educators at the college level or who wish to contribute to the body of knowledge available in social science as a researcher.

However, online learning isn't for everyone. Many students report that they have great difficulty staying focused on their doctoral studies when they do not have the accountability that comes from attending classes on a campus. Also, many students benefit greatly from consistent, face-to-face interaction with faculty and peers. Logistics may preclude online students from participating in as many hands-on, real-world learning opportunities as they would in campus-based program. If you are certain you want to earn an online PhD in social science, you should carefully select a top program that requires as much campus-based work as possible while providing the flexibility of online coursework.

Application & Admission Requirements

To qualify for the best social science PhD programs online, applicants must have a minimum of a master's degree from an accredited college or university. Online doctoral programs in social science prefer applicants whose pre-doctoral study was in one of the social sciences, such as education, history, international studies, political science or a combination of these fields. Graduate applicants must submit a completed application and official transcripts showing the highest degree conferred, along with any post-master's coursework. Your GPA from your master's program should be 3.0 or higher, as only the best students are selected for PhD programs. Applicants must also submit a resume, as several years of relevant work experience in a field of social science is preferred and often required. Finally, applicants must submit a statement of purpose explaining why they desire to enroll in the program as well as letters of recommendation that attest to the applicant's work ethic and aptitude for research.

Career Options & Job Market

The most common careers for those who complete online PhD degrees in social science include: college professors, researchers, social scientists, consultants, policy analysts and scholarly authors. Those who don't teach at the college level work in a wide variety of industries, including government, nonprofit organizations and the private sector. Job growth for post secondary teachers is projected to be faster than average through 2018, but competition is expected for tenure-track positions at universities, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Part-time or non-tenure-track positions will be easier to come by, the Bureau notes. Employment of social scientists is also projected to grow much faster than average between 2008 and 2018, the Bureau asserts. Employment of anthropologists and archaeologists in particular is projected to grow by a whopping 28 percent through 2018, due to growth in the management, scientific and technical consulting industry, the Bureau notes. Job prospects are not as rosy for social scientists who wish to pursue careers as historians, where there is keen competition for jobs, the Bureau notes.

Where to Find Information

How to Get Funding

Social science doctoral degrees online can be very expensive. The good news is students have a number of options for paying for an online social science PhD. Scholarships, grants, fellowships, teaching assistantships and loans are among the most common means of paying for one's PhD. Here we will explore a few fellowships you can explore as a PhD student.

  • Jacob K. Javits Fellowships Program. These fellowships are awarded to doctoral students who demonstrate superior academic ability and financial need and who are studying in an area of arts, humanities and social science.
  • Dissertation Proposal Development Fellowship. This fellowship is designed to fund graduate research that contributes to interdisciplinary fields in the humanities and social sciences. Fields are selected through annual competitions.
  • Melon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowships. This fellowship supports a year of research and writing for graduate students who are in their last year of work on their dissertation in the humanities or related social sciences.

Essential Advice

  • When researching online PhD programs in social science, the first thing you should check is whether or not the school that offers the program is accredited. This is the first step to ensuring you are earning a degree from a legitimate institution and not a degree mill.
  • Make sure that the career path you're choosing actually requires a research doctorate before embarking on this arduous journey. You may not need an online doctorate in social science to land the job you're after—a master's degree is perfectly adequate for many top-level positions.
  • Talk to current social science graduate students to get an idea of what to expect from online PhD social science programs.
  • Seriously consider whether or not you are cut out for online learning. Online students must be highly-motivated and self-disciplined to stay on track when learning from home.