Online Ph.D. Programs: Is There a Stigma Among Professors?

poll of members of the Society for Human Resource Management conducted by in 2010 showed that less than half of human resource managers surveyed believed that an online degree held the same credibility as a traditional one. This article will take a look at this perception.

Part of the stigma against online Ph.D. degrees comes from a lack of understanding of how the programs work. Both instructors and graduates of online Ph.D. programs can attest to the fact that this kind of education can be more rigorous and demanding than programs offered on campuses.

“In the traditional class, the student shows up for the three hours while online courses usually require more of a time commitment during the week,” said Gail Derrick, an online instructor at Regent University who teaches Doctor of Education programs. Self-direction is crucial to success in an online doctoral course, she said. The student who would usually sit in the back of a classroom without saying a word will have a hard time taking an online course, as regular participation in discussion forums is mandatory for all Internet courses at the doctoral level.

Usually, online Ph.D. programs will have residency requirements that stipulate on-campus visits or attendance at seminars, and both doctoral candidates and professors agree that the dissertation process is straightforward despite happening from a distance. Dissertations are compiled “through technology systems that allow for submission and committee member review at every step of the process,” said Becky Takeda-Tinker, an online instructor at Northcentral University. In most online programs, students can expect to have their dissertations reviewed via email, phone calls and teleconferencing. One could argue that the online Ph.D. learning process is even more interactive than some face-to-face, traditional doctoral programs.

If online Ph.D. programs give students a learning experience that's equivalent to campus ones, why is there still a hesitance among some members of academia? Much of the criticism is aimed at programs' credentials, not delivery methods. Dr. Katie J. Thiry, a doctoral instructor who works for a number of online schools including Ashford University and Colorado Technical University, said a program's merits cannot be judged solely on its format. “The level of difficulty or intensity should be measured by master course objectives, accreditation standards, course requirements and the content within the program,” she said. She advises that instead of focusing on whether a Ph.D. program is offered on or off campus, students should consider the institution's academic reputation, accreditation, faculty credentials and instructor-to-student ratio.

At many business schools looking to hire graduates from Ph.D. programs, the delivery method may suggest that the program lacks merit. According to a 2010 dissertation by Katherine Karl at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga and Joy Peluchette at the University of Southern Indiana, online Ph.D. programs in management are held in very low regard at business schools at traditional universities. Seventy percent of the respondents said they would not hire a candidate with an online degree for a tenure track faculty position.

An institution of higher learning may pass on a candidate with an online degree from a program that is regionally accredited but is not professionally accredited. Currently, the only online doctoral business programs accredited by the AACSB International (Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business) are programs offered through traditional schools. Without this esteemed accreditation that employers and universities look for, graduates from online for-profit institutions risk being overlooked by employers and universities.

An article published by The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2003, when online degree programs were beginning to gain prevalence through institutions such as for-profit universities, suggested that the stigma among faculty members stems from elitism. “The dirty little secret is most professors went to graduate school for eight to 10 years, and now all their friends have nice houses and cars, and they have debt and a not very good paying job,” Gene Fant Jr., a department head at a traditional brick-and-mortar university, said in the article. “If they were willing to sacrifice to get a Ph.D., then you ought to be willing to do whatever it takes to get one. I think, to many professors, it comes down to paying your dues.” Some professors likely believe that online schools try to make it easy for students to get a Ph.D., and therefore the programs must not be sound, whether that is actually true or not.

The concern that online Ph.D. programs are less arduous than on-campus ones is understandable, but is ultimately rebuffed by those who have earned Ph.D.s online and now teach such programs. The only thing easier about online programs, Thiry said, is their scheduling flexibility, which permit students to earn their degrees during nontraditional hours and outside of classrooms.

As more and more professionals turn to online learning as the best option for furthering their education while maintaining their busy lives, the disregard for such programs will ease. “In my experience,” Thiry said, “corporations, government and those that work in academia and research are aware of the credibility and integrity of the regionally accredited programs within online education.”