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Regardless of academic field or discipline, doctoral degrees are considered terminal; they demand the highest standards of rigorous academic study and research.

What is a Doctoral Degree?

A doctoral degree is the highest level of academic degree that can be awarded to college students. Research doctoral degrees are perhaps the most common type attained in North America, as well as abroad. Yale introduced the nation’s first research doctorate, a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), in 1861. Other popular doctoral degree progams in research including the Doctor of Education (EdD), Doctor of Engineering (DEng), and Doctor of Theology (ThD). Professional doctoral degrees, which provide advanced research and study in a particular discipline such as psychology, medicine, or law, are another common type of terminal degree, gaining in popularity since the introduction of the Medicinae Doctor (MD) at Columbia University in 1767. Other professional doctoral degrees include the Juris Doctor (JD), Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO), and Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP).


Regardless of academic field or discipline, doctoral degrees are considered terminal because they demand the highest standards of rigorous academic study and/or research beyond the master’s level. Many doctoral programs offered to distance students, such as online PhD programs, are designed as “practitioner’s programs”, tailored to the needs of aspiring professionals in their respective fields. Doctoral online degrees continue to grow in popularity among students seeking to maximize their career opportunities, with the percentage of people age 25 and over who have completed at least a doctoral degree increasing, though nominally, between 1995 and 2015. See the outline below, which lists out the number of people age 25 and over who completed at least a doctoral degree by year:

Source: NCES

Though it may seem moderate, this increase in enrollment has a major effect in the current job market, making now the perfect time to explore many of the PhD programs online today. Between academic years 2002–2003 and 2012–2013, the total number of postsecondary degrees awarded was increased at all degree levels, with doctoral degrees up by 44% (from 122,000 to 175,000). This influx of doctoral enrollment makes for greater competition among even the highest-qualified candidates in their field; while job-seekers with a terminal degree typically held an automatic advantage over lesser-qualified candidates, they now face mounting competition from a higher number of equally educated peers.

Earning a doctoral degree requires a years-long commitment to rigorous study, even after completing a bachelor’s or master’s degree. The average time it takes to complete a PhD is four to seven years, which means many students spend more than a decade immersed in college life before earning a terminal degree. Among their many benefits, accredited online PhD programs can save students time, especially in disciplines like business, public service, and engineering, which may take as little as 3-5 years to complete. While special accelerated PhD programs online are rare, the nature of online coursework, which allows students to study in their own time while still working and taking care of their families, can be a major advantage to online students who are looking to save on the tuition, housing, and commuting costs included in a traditional program. A little research and they can find the best online PhD programs to meet their unique needs and goals.

The debate over how important it really is to earn a doctoral degree has heated up in recent years. While some argue that it is impractical to expect many students to have the funds and resources it takes to spend years of their lives earning a terminal degree, others see the inherent benefits of pursuing a doctorate, citing an increase in available online PhD programs and generous graduate scholarships as attractive incentives. A universal concept in all corners of the workforce, candidates with a terminal degree have the greatest advantage when it comes to top jobs and high salaries. The BLS reported that in 2013, the median annual wage for full-time workers ages 25 and over whose highest level of education was a doctoral degree was $86,528, compared with $71,760 for those whose highest level was a bachelor’s degree — a $14,768 a year wage premium.

Still, some students wonder if a master’s degree is enough to earn a top job in their field of choice. Both the master’s and doctorate are graduate degrees, though the master’s generally takes far less time to complete and may be a more career-oriented program, aimed at preparing the student for gainful employment after graduation. By contrast, a doctorate is the universal standard in higher education to demonstrate a student’s complete mastery of a particular discipline or specialty, recognizing them as an authority in their field or in the subject of their research. Doctorates provide access to the most exclusive jobs and earn the highest lifetime salaries among all degree levels, with some programs requiring only a bachelor’s degree for admission, allowing applicants to skip the master’s degree altogether. Online PhD programs in education and business, for example, can be especially advantageous to a candidate looking to set themselves apart from others in these highly competitive fields.

Lifetime Earnings by Education – 2009 Dollars

Bachelor’s Degree Master’s Degree Doctoral Degree
25th Percentile $1,490,600 $1,864,400 $2,150,400
75th Percentile $3,388,700 $3,835,600 $6,472,800

Source: CEW Georgetown


What’s the Difference Between a PhD and a Professional Doctoral Degree?

There is more than one type of doctoral degree. The Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) is among the category of doctorates rooted in research, which also spans fields including education, engineering, theology, and more. Professional doctoral degrees encompass not only the well-known Medicinae Doctor (MD), but also focus on other specific disciplines of psychology, medicine, or law, including the Juris Doctor (JD), Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO), and Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP), just to name a few. Online PhD programs exist today alongside online professional doctoral programs at a growing number of tech-savvy colleges and universities. While similar, PhDs and professional doctorates tend to serve a different aim for different demographics.

Generally, PhDs are well-suited to younger adults who aspire to teach or conduct research within academia at the university level, and require full-time study, while professional doctorates are geared toward working adults with professional experience who seek to combine advanced academic and real-world skills in a part-time program. The differences between earning a PhD and MD (a professional doctorate), for example, are striking: before a PhD candidate has completed an average of seven years of intensive research completing their thesis for review, an MD candidate will have likely finished the two years of doctoral coursework and two years of clinical rotations necessary to earn their degree.

Though often shorter in length, professional doctoral programs are designed to combine job skills with essential curriculum in a concentrated format that prepares students for a broader variety of advanced employment in their field. Professional and PhD programs online are increasingly popular among students who can’t afford to spend years of study on campus.

How Long Does it Take to Get an Online Doctoral Degree?

The length of time it takes to complete an online doctoral program varies according to several different factors, including the field of study, whether the student is part time or full time, and how the online content is delivered. On average, completion times for doctorates hover around eight years, though doctoral education programs tend to have the longest average (13 years), whereas physics and psychology, for example, average only five to seven. Disciplines within the hard sciences generally take less time to complete than education and humanities programs. To help personalize the learning experience (and possibly speed things along), many online PhD programs offer either self-paced or cohort learning, which assembles a group of online students to complete each module collectively. Students following an independent research course through one of the many available PhD programs online may be more suited to a self-paced option, whereas another student earning a professional doctorate may benefit from the collaborative efforts of an online learning group, though this is dependent on individual preference.

How Much Does an Online Doctoral Degree Cost?

As doctoral candidates are likely well aware at this point in their academic careers, cost is a factor that should always be considered when choosing an online degree program. Aside from the major expenditure of tuition itself, other costs like interest rates, living expenses, and textbooks may be overlooked at first, but are of equal importance when it comes to the bottom line. Doctoral degrees are unique in that, unlike undergraduate degrees, online programs at this level are not typically offered in an accelerated format, which means students may not be able to cut costs as dramatically and save time versus earning a traditional degree. However, completing a PhD program online can help to eliminate commuting costs, housing fees on campus, and even some materials fees that can be downloaded, instead. Also, remember that the type of school and program you choose will greatly affect the cost of the degree, as shown below:

Average Cost for Graduate Degrees

Type of School Average Published Tuition and Fees
Public Institutions $10,354
Private Non-Profit Institutions $40,519

Source: College Board

Is It Cheaper to Get a Doctoral Degree Online?

Generally, online degrees are cheaper than traditional on-campus programs. Accredited online PhD programs and other doctoral programs can offer extensive savings of both time and money for distance learners. Online PhD programs tend to have lower tuition costs, made possible by offering all content online, and do not incur fees for using campus resources that are included in most traditional degrees. Distance students can also save the gas money they’d need for commuting costs, not to mention the time they can save by studying online. Additionally, parents and working adults may be able to save on childcare costs and lost wages by completing their degree in the comfort of their own home.

Average federal financial aid per full-time enrolled student for the 2015-2016 school year

Type of Aid Average Amount Per Student
Grants/Scholarships $8,390
Federal Loans $4,720
Education Tax Credits/Deductions $1,290
Federal Work-Study $60
Total per year $14,460

Source: CollegeBoard

While graduate degree programs take longer to complete and are relatively more expensive than their undergraduate counterparts, there are a number of financial aid options for graduate students enrolled in a doctoral program. Federal aid tends to be offered to graduate students earning a secondary degree in lower amounts than undergraduate students entering college for the first time, which means that grants and scholarships are a major source of funding for doctoral students. Overall, about three-quarters of students who earned professional practice doctoral degrees in law, medicine, or other health sciences in 2011-2012 borrowed $60,000 or more for their graduate education.

Careers that Require a Doctoral Degree

Earning a doctoral degree might not be for everyone, but it can lead the way to a prestigious career in a number of top-earning fields for the upwardly mobile student. Many occupations in education, medicine, and research require a doctoral degree, which provides students with the academic knowledge and professional skills needed to to aide to them in their careers. The following are just some of the careers that require a doctoral degree:

Professor, Postsecondary / Higher Education

Postsecondary professors represent the highest level of instructors in academia. Advanced administrative and curriculum planning skills top the list of the most desirable job skills for top professionals in this field. Postsecondary professors earn an average salary of $85,000 per year.

Senior Research Scientist

Senior research scientists typically work in an academic, industrial, or commercial lab, conducting experiments and research that may help to develop new products or further global efforts in the field. While material science is a large part of the doctoral curriculum required for this career, other desirable job skills include product development and project management abilities. The average annual salary is $100,000 for this profession.


Psychiatrists are responsible for evaluating and treating patients for mental disorders through direct patient care. Earning a doctoral degree and obtaining licensure enables psychiatrists, unlike psychologists, to prescribe medications in their state. Psychiatrists earn an annual average of $197,000.

Physical Therapist

Physical therapists are responsible for treating patients for a variety of physical ailments, from simple injuries to extreme disabilities, by helping them to recover and regain basic daily activities. Doctoral degrees in this discipline provide students with the acute care, rehabilitation, and physical therapy techniques needed for the job. Physical therapists earn an average of $73,000 each year.

Hospital Pharmacy Director

Hospital pharmacy directors are responsible for upholding hospital policies and procedures and overseeing pharmacy programs within said hospitals. Doctoral programs provide these professionals with the unique combination of pharmacotherapy and budget and operations management skills that are required of the field. Hospital pharmacy directors make an annual average salary of $140,000.


Veterinarians are responsible for providing a wide range of animal health services, usually via a private veterinary practice. Veterinarians are trained extensively in emergency medicine through a doctoral program, along with obtaining surgical skills and knowledge of internal and preventative medicine for animals, wildlife, and pets. Veterinarians earn an average of $77,000 each year.

How to Choose an Online Doctoral Degree

Once you’ve decided to earn your doctorate online, choosing the right program is of the utmost importance. Though online programs generally share many of the same benefits, they are not all created equal. First, make sure the program you choose is tailored to your career needs, and will prepare you for any certification or licensing exams that may be required in your particular area of study. Some programs require campus visits in combination with online study, which means your proximity to campus may be a consideration if this is the case. Also, you may actually prefer to take advantage of certain campus perks, like gym access and/or tutoring centers, if you are required to complete some coursework there. Though all online programs offer flexibility, consider your learning style and what you need from the learning environment. If you are looking to study at your own pace, you may want to seek out a program that offers asynchronous classes that allow students to complete courses in their own time. The price of earning your doctorate online, a concern at the forefront of the minds of most students, may vary depending on whether your program if offered by a nonprofit or for-profit, or private or public school.

Types of Doctoral Degrees

With a steady increase of doctoral degrees available online, students aspiring to any number of high-level professions can pursue a terminal degree in their specialty. Though the influx of online education options has made earning a doctorate more accessible to the masses, many of the same disciplines have retained their popularity throughout the years. It is no surprise that doctoral degrees in the health professions, required for common positions including MDs, were the most popular in the 2013-2014 academic year, followed by doctorates in legal professions, education, engineering, and more.

Popular Doctorate Degrees – 2013-2014

Source: NCES

The following represent some of the most common doctoral degrees within the above categories:

Doctor of Education (EdD)

Earning an EdD is a popular choice for aspiring education administrators and curriculum designers, among other educators interested in developing practical solutions for modern education concerns. Common concentrations may include higher education leadership, early childhood education, or elementary STEM education.

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

The PhD is, by nature, a broad degree that can be tailored to a student’s individual interests and career goals. Though different than the EdD degree, PhD concentrations often include a variety of education options, as well as specializations in business, marketing, and public health, among other research fields.

Doctor of Theology (ThD)

Rooted in the advanced study of divinity, the Doctor of Theology offers a research degree that is comparable to the PhD. Optional concentrations often include history of Christianity, world church and world religions, and liturgical studies.

Medicinae Doctorate (MD)

As the basic standard we expect of medical doctors and primary physicians, an MD is required to practice general medicine in the U.S. Common concentrations include women’s reproductive health, integrative medicine, and medical education.

Is it Better to Attend and Online Doctoral Degree Program in My State?

Though your location of residence may seem irrelevant to an online program, it actually plays a role in determining the cost of earning your online degree. Many schools charge different amount for in- and out-of-state tuition, for both online and on-campus programs. Even if your online program does not require any campus visits, you may be asked to submit proof of residence as part of the application process in order to qualify to pay cheaper in-state rates. Students should not only thoroughly check their own school’s residency policies but also look for State Authorization or a school’s State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (SARA), which implements interstate, regional standards of postsecondary courses and programs. Students may prefer to enroll in an online program within their home state to take advantage of name recognition, or to pursue career counseling or other on-campus services.

According to this graphic by the NCES, “Of the 726,000 [graduate] students who exclusively took distance education courses, 298,000 were enrolled at institutions located in the same state in which they resided, and 383,000 were enrolled at institutions in a different state.”

Is an Online Doctorate Degree as Good as an On-Campus Degree?

While opinions about online education were largely divided in the early years of its inception, attitudes have increasingly warmed to the positive results of distance education. Initial studies in previous decades seemed to indicate a hesitation among both higher learning institutions and students to recognize online degree programs as being worthy of their traditional campus counterparts. In fact, recent studies show that schools make no delineation between on-campus and online graduates, proving that “a degree is a degree” through whatever means it is earned, from the institutions’ perspective and thus to employers. Contemporary surveys report a rise in both demand for online courses as well as student satisfaction. More than 90% of students with experience in both on-campus and online coursework rated the online experience as being at least on par with, if not better than, their in-person classes.


Why Accreditation is Key

In any college program, accreditation is paramount to the process of selecting a top online degree. A reputable school offering online degree programs may offer regional or national accreditation, although regional accreditation is most common. While all legitimate higher learning institutions must be regionally accredited, national accreditation is an optional process a school can volunteer to pursue only if they choose. Nationally accredited institutions can pose a unique problem for potential transfer students; though nationally accredited institutions may honor credits from a school with either a national or regional accreditation designation, a regionally accredited school typically does not recognize credits earned from a nationally accredited institution.

With a long history of granting accreditation only through a rigorous process of meeting the highest standards in postsecondary education, several key organizations have a hand in the accreditation process. The Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation not only set the standards for all higher education institutions to be measured against as part of the accreditation process, but also oversee each of the regional boards that provide state and interstate accreditation to schools across the U.S. These agencies ensure that, for a school to earn accreditation, they must meet quality standards through a lengthy process that includes site visits and thorough institutional assessments. Check the accreditation status of your school on the DOE or CHEA websites.

Applying to a Doctoral Degree Program

Though many offer similar doctoral programs, every school has their own set of application requirements. Always check with your specific school for detailed requirements and review them carefully to prepare your materials for submission.

Below are some things to consider when compiling your checklist:


This is an important consideration especially if you are looking for a program that will, for example, allow you to continue to work full-time while earning your degree. Do not assume that completing a degree online is “easier” or takes less time than a traditional degree, rather look for a program that provides the flexibility you need to fit with the other obligations in your life. Be sure to also factor in some time to adjust to the online learning environment.

Transfer Credit Opportunities

If you have prior course credits or career and military experience, check your school’s transfer policy to make sure you understand the terms. A school should be transparent about what kinds of transfer credits they will accept and how many, sometimes as comparable credit or in lieu of standardized tests.

Admissions Deadline

Of course, you’ll want to make note of your school’s admissions deadline, and pay special attention to any email or postmark variations. Some schools offer “rolling admissions,” allowing students to submit an application at any time and, if accepted, enroll at one of multiple start dates offered throughout the academic year.

Technology Requirements

While a laptop or computer is crucial for completing an online degree, your school may require additional equipment or software. Check your school’s “technology requirements” section for online learning to determine the specs of your distance learning program.

What you need to apply:


Many schools require standardized test scores as part of a complete application. While requirements vary from program to program, some tests are meant to assess general graduate-level competencies, such as the GRE, while others are designed to score performance in a particular discipline, like the GMAT for business and the LSAT for law. If you are an international student applying for an English-language program in the U.S., you may be asked to submit additional ESL test scores such as the TOEFL or JELTS. Consult your school for specific testing requirements.

Letters of Recommendation

Letters of recommendation should be submitted by a professor, mentor, or trusted associate that can speak to your potential in the highest levels of academia. It is a good idea to allow a minimum of two weeks for each author to write your letter of recommendation.


Make sure your resume and/or portfolio are completely up to date and incorporate recent work.


Check your school’s individual application policy to find out if, and how, they conduct entrance interviews.

Personal Statement/Essay

Every school is different in this regard; while some schools do not require a personal essay at all, others rely heavily on this part of the application. Consult your school for potential essay themes and other requirements.

Official Transcripts

When applying for a doctoral program, a school that asks for transcripts is likely interested in seeing all college transcripts, including not only undergraduate and master’s programs but any other institution that the student has attended. “Official” transcripts are copies of your permanent academic records sent directly from the issuing institution. Students are commonly asked to coordinate direct delivery of official transcripts between their former and prospective schools, without intercepting the records themselves, in combination with submitting their own application materials.

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