Earning a doctorate degree – whether online or on campus – is a major undertaking that can yield great rewards. Before you dive into a program, it’s important to do your research on the cost, duration, and requirements for an online PhD program. There are distinct advantages to online doctorate degrees, including flexibility, comparable quality to campus programs at a fraction of the price, and potential to earn a PhD at an accelerated rate. Read on to see the top 25 online PhD programs in the country, plus all the information you need to start your doctoral journey.
The Best Online PhD Programs
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America’s first research university, Johns Hopkins offers one of the country’s widest selections of online programs, including more than 75 bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees spanning nine academic divisions. Online students at Johns Hopkins may enroll full- or part-time and can take classes entirely online or in hybrid format. Johns Hopkins has held a reputation of excellence for more than 140 years, and its flexible online programs meet the same standard.
Johns Hopkins offers online Ph.D programs in applied health sciences informatics, education, computer science, history of medicine, and nursing practice, as well as civil, mechanical, electrical, and computer engineering. Though requirements vary, applicants without a master’s degree in a related field are generally required to have a bachelor’s degree with a minimum GRE or GMAT test score or field experience. Students work closely with an advisor to plan a self-directed curriculum that fulfils upper-level coursework requirements. Ph.D candidates complete a qualifying examination, a graduate board oral examination, and a final thesis defense. Most students require at least four years to complete their Ph.D.
3400 N Charles St
Baltimore, Maryland 21218-2688
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As a pioneer of distance education since 1972, USC incorporates immersive digital technologies in the online classroom. The university offers 88 online graduate and professional programs, which include various liberal arts majors and offerings from 19 professional schools.
USC offers three Ph.D programs online: a doctor of education with a global executive concentration, a doctor of education with an organizational change and leadership concentration, and a doctor of social work. Though the majority of coursework is completed online, two of the doctoral programs require some in-person attendance; the Ed.D in global executive includes 11 weeks of intensive class sessions in Los Angeles and Hong Kong, and the DSW requires six-day on-campus residencies during the third and sixth semesters. The organizational change and leadership doctorate can be completed entirely online in three years, while the Ed.D in global executive and the DSW offer accelerated formats, designed to be completed in 25 months and two years, respectively. Admission requirements include completion of a prior degree, adequate standardized test scores, and strong personal qualifications.
Los Angeles, California 90089
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UNC Chapel Hill has been a national leader in public health programs for more than 75 years. The school hosts worldwide initiatives to promote public health — including academic research efforts and the Gillings Global Gateway program — through partnerships with international centers and institutes. UNC Chapel Hill offers 16 programs in public health, from bachelor’s to doctoral degrees, entirely online and in a hybrid format.
The HPM executive doctoral program in health leadership is one such hybrid program, comprising a minimum of 45 credit hours of online study, plus campus visits. The degree is ideal for experienced professionals aspiring to become senior leaders in the field of global public health, whether in the U.S. or abroad. Ph.D candidates visit campus for three to four days each fall, spring, and summer semester for two years of the three-year program. Applicants should have a master’s or doctoral degree and advanced experience in public health or a related field. They may be required to fulfill field-specific prerequisites. Coursework includes comprehensive written and oral exams and a final doctoral dissertation.
103 South Bldg Cb 9100
Chapel Hill, North Carolina 27599
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GWU occupies multiple campuses in Washington, D.C., and Virginia, and its dedication to fully integrated online programs makes it one of the nation’s most innovative institutions of higher learning. GWU's eDesign Shop is headed by digital learning experts who help professors develop courses specifically for the online learning environment. The university offers more than 100 online degree programs and provides online students with the same comprehensive support available to on-campus students.
GWU offers 10 online Ph.D programs in engineering and nursing. Some programs include minimal campus visits, while others can be completed entirely online. Doctoral engineering programs schedule online classes and research meetings on Saturdays and are designed to meet the needs of working professionals. Available online nursing programs include a variety of post-BSN and post-MSN opportunities; doctorates leading to clinical practice typically require a practicum or clinical hours in addition to online coursework. Many online Ph.D programs require on-campus visits to complete an orientation course, labs, seminars, and/or final presentations.
2121 I Street, NW
Washington, District of Columbia 20052
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One of the country’s foremost research universities, UF has offered comprehensive distance learning programs for nearly 100 years. Beginning with a highly successful correspondence study in 1920, the university’s General Extension Division has transitioned into a high-tech distance learning department. With more than 100 undergraduate, graduate, and professional programs from 16 academic schools and colleges, UF is among the nation's leaders in awarding online degrees.
UF offers nine accredited online Ph.D programs, including a doctor of audiology, a doctor of philosophy in classical civilization, a doctor of philosophy in Latin and Roman studies, a doctor of nursing practice, a pharmacy doctorate, and several online Ph.D programs in education. Curricula vary by program, but most Ph.D programs require participation in numerous seminars, written and oral exams, and a final dissertation. Though minimal, some doctoral programs require in-person attendance in addition to online coursework.
Gainesville, Florida 32611
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One of the country’s most prominent research universities and a champion of experiential learning, UIUC provides innovative programs designed for students inside and outside of the traditional classroom. The university offers more than 150 online bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees, as well as certificates and continuing education courses. Online programs and courses may be synchronous or asynchronous, depending on the instructor’s preferences and requirements, and online students receive the same learning support as on-campus students.
UIUC offers numerous online Ph.D programs in education, with various concentrations and areas of interest. The doctor of education in education policy, organization, and leadership offers four concentrations: diversity and equity in education, global studies in education, human resource development, and learning design and leadership. Other online doctoral programs include bilingual and English as a second language, foundations of eLearning in higher education, new learning, and technology specialist. Most curricula comprise major coursework, independent studies, and interdisciplinary and dissertation courses. Some programs, such as the bilingual and English as a second language program, accept applications year-round.
601 E John Street
Champaign, Illinois 61820-5711
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With its flagship campus in West Palm Beach, Florida, Keiser has provided career-focused education for more than 40 years. In addition to offering more than 100 programs at campus locations across the state, Keiser offers 35 online associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees, as well as certificates.
Keiser offers an online Ph.D program in business administration and doctoral degrees in educational leadership and instructional design and technology. Students in the online DBA program may specialize in marketing, global management, or global business. Each online Ph.D program requires 60 credit hours in core, research, specialization, and dissertation courses. Students must complete at least 54 of the required credit hours at Keiser. Each course, including dissertation courses, lasts eight weeks; most programs offer one to two courses per semester. Applicants should have a master’s degree in a related field and professional experience.
1500 NW 49th St.
Fort Lauderdale, Florida 33309
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Established in the Christian evangelical tradition, IWU offers programs in ministry, theology, and worship arts in addition to liberal arts subjects. IWU offers dozens of online associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees, as well as certificate programs. The university offers one of the country's only online doctorate in ministry programs.
IWU's online doctoral programs also include a doctor of nursing practice, a Ph.D in organizational leadership, and an occupational therapy doctorate. Some programs are available in an accelerated format, allowing doctoral candidates to graduate in as few as 40 months. Many Ph.D programs are offered in a hybrid format and require on-campus courses in addition to online coursework. In-person requirements include three Saturday sessions at the Indianapolis campus and eight-day summer residencies at the Marion campus throughout the degree. Most programs require 60 credits of core, program, and dissertation courses, are delivered in 11-week terms, and follow a cohort format.
4201 South Washington Street
Marion, Indiana 46953-4974
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With one of the country’s most ethnically diverse campuses and a high percentage of international students, Andrews provides comprehensive online programs to local and global students. Andrews offers dozens of online undergraduate and graduate programs in more than nine areas of study.
Andrews offers 11 accredited online Ph.D programs in education and health professions. Students may earn a doctor of education or a doctor of philosophy in various education concentrations, including curriculum and instruction, educational leadership, higher education administration, and leadership. Online health professions options include a doctor of nursing practice, a doctor of physical therapy with a concentration in orthopedic manual therapy, and a transitional doctor of physical therapy. Health professions doctorates may require a practicum or clinical experience. The interactive online degree programs require campus visits during the first summer term. Students may attend commencement upon completing their degree online.
4150 Administration Drive, Room 136
Berrien Springs, Michigan 49104
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As America’s oldest institution affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, Union has offered Christ-centered programs to Tennessee students since 1823. Today, Union's offerings include hundreds of academic programs, available through its Jackson, Memphis, and Nashville campuses and online. Union students choose from 26 areas of study, including liberal arts and professional programs.
Among Union's online doctoral programs is a fully online doctor of education in a leadership in school reform track. The doctor of education in higher learning administration and the doctor of nursing practice blend in-person and online courses. Both the fully online and blended Ed.D offer concentrations: licensure and non-licensure tracks in P–12 administration and higher learning administration. DNP students may specialize in RN-to-DNP executive leadership, post-master's executive leadership, nurse practitioner, or nurse anesthesia. Programs with a blended format alternate between online and on-campus sessions each week. Even fully online programs require three yearly on-campus sessions lasting three to four days. DNP candidates complete clinical fellowships in addition to online study.
1050 Union University Dr
Jackson, Tennessee 38305-3697
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As the only nationally recognized Christian university in Oregon, George Fox offers dozens of academic programs at its multiple campuses and online. Graduate students pursue degrees from seven academic schools. Both on-campus and online students enjoy small class sizes typically capped 14 students.
The university offers several Ph.D programs online in business administration, education, and ministry studies. Online doctoral programs include a doctor of business administration, a doctor of education, a doctor of ministry in leadership and spiritual formation, a doctor of ministry in semiotics and future studies, and a doctor of ministry in leadership and global perspectives. Each program is delivered in a hybrid format and requires online and on-campus coursework. The Ed.D offers concentrations in administration, higher education, and instructional design and development. Most programs are cohort-based and can be completed in three to four years. The online Ed.D and DBA require minimal on-campus visits, and the doctoral ministry programs require at least one retreat or residency in Oregon, Washington, or internationally.
414 N Meridian St
Newberg, Oregon 97132
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As the first medical institution in the southern U.S. and the only comprehensive academic health-science center in the state, MUSC provides career-centered programs that integrate education, research, and patient care. The university offers dozens of degrees and certificates across six colleges, including dental medicine, nursing, and pharmacy studies. MUSC has awarded graduate degrees in diverse fields, such as biomedical science and informatics, since 1951.
Today, MUSC offers three doctoral programs online: a doctor of health administration, a doctor of nursing practice, and a Ph.D in nursing. Each doctoral program requires three years of full-time study; part-time formats are available. The DHA curriculum comprises 54 semester hours in leadership, applied research, health policy, and strategic management. The program requires one long weekend of on-campus classes each semester, in addition to online asynchronous coursework. Experienced nurses may pursue an online DNP or Ph.D in nursing, which prepare students to work in clinical practice or nursing education and research, respectively. DNP students complete a practicum and attend several on-campus courses and residencies, in addition to completing synchronous and asynchronous coursework online. Nursing Ph.D candidates must complete a dissertation.
179 Ashley Ave
Charleston, South Carolina 29425
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A nationally recognized land-grant university, UNL enrolls more than 25,000 students at its southeast Nebraska campus. In recent years, the university has expanded its offerings to include more than 180 distance programs. The school of education offers one of the largest selections of online graduate programs, with more than 45 specialized master’s and doctoral degrees.
UNL offers three online Ph.D programs in education: an Ed.D in P–12 educational administration and an Ed.D and Ph.D in educational studies, with specializations in educational leadership and higher education. The Ed.D programs require 96 credits, and the Ph.D program requires 108 credits. While the Ed.D in educational leadership and higher education program can be completed entirely online, the Ed.D in P–12 educational administration and the Ph.D in educational leadership and higher education are delivered in a blended format. The Ed.D hybrid program requires on-campus sessions during the first three summer terms. Ph.D candidates must complete at least six hours of study at the Lincoln campus.
14th and R St
Lincoln, Nebraska 68588
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A pioneer among online-only higher education institutions, Liberty has been perfecting distance learning programs since 1985. Today, Liberty offers hundreds of online degrees and certificates to more than 100,000 students, making Liberty the largest private, nonprofit university in the country and the largest Christian university in the world.
Liberty offers 12 online Ph.D programs spanning six academic areas: behavioral science, business, divinity, education, music, and nursing. Though requirements vary, curricula emphasize career skills necessary for senior roles, combining research, application, and examination methods and techniques. Liberty’s online doctorates in behavioral science, business, divinity, and education offer numerous concentrations and specializations, allowing students to customize their studies. Though the majority of coursework is online, students are required to attend an intensive course at Liberty’s campus in Lynchburg, Virginia. The university offers a variety of financial aid options and military discounts for online students.
1971 University Blvd
Lynchburg, Virginia 24515
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With a reputation as one of Colorado’s leading land-grant universities, CSU's unique programs emphasize sustainability and natural resources renewal. The university offers dozens of online graduate programs in fields such as agricultural sciences, education, health and human sciences, and natural resources and environment. Online and on-campus courses are taught by the same faculty, and online students are eligible for the same financial aid opportunities as on-campus students.
CSU offers two Ph.D online programs in higher education leadership and systems engineering. Both programs are delivered in a hybrid format and consist of primarily online study with a classroom component. The online higher education leadership Ph.D is cohort-based and comprises four years of study culminating in a dissertation. Students attend a summer-term orientation and at least one on-campus course per semester. The Ph.D in systems engineering involves both synchronous and asynchronous coursework totaling 42 or 72 credits, depending whether the student holds a master’s degree. Systems engineering students may choose to take some on-campus courses, and in-person attendance is required to present the dissertation.
102 Administration Building
Fort Collins, Colorado 80523-0100
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LLU is one of Southern California’s largest Seventh-day Adventist universities, serving more than 4,400 students. The university offers 25 online and hybrid degrees and certificates in health professions, dentistry, nursing, public health, and religion. In a show of commitment to its growing online division, LLU implemented a task force to innovate digital learning efforts within the university.
LLU offers two Ph.D programs online, a doctor of nursing practice and a doctor of public health in health education. The programs are delivered in a hybrid format, combining online study with on-campus and off-site requirements. The online DNP is designed as an MSN-to-DNP program, though LLU also offers BS/MS to DNP/Ph.D options. The DNP curriculum comprises 68 total credits and culminates in a DNP proposal and final project, both of which require a minimum number of clinical hours. The doctor of public health includes synchronous online coursework, optional on-campus summer courses, and mandatory campus visits for the dissertation. Applicants must have a master’s degree in public health or a related field.
11139 Anderson Street
Loma Linda, California 92350
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As a member of the national Quality Matters program, U of A offers online programs that meet the same rigorous standards as its on-campus offerings. Each online degree and certificate program began on campus, developed alongside traditional programs by the same world-renowned faculty and instructors. U of A serves nearly 1,700 online students and offers 60 online undergraduate and graduate degrees, certificates, and licensure programs.
U of A 's online doctoral degrees include offerings in adult and lifelong learning, educational leadership, human resource and workforce development education, and nursing practice. The online DNP offers family nurse practitioner and adult-geriatric acute care nurse practitioner concentrations. Coursework is completed primarily online, but minimal campus visits, an in-person program orientation on-campus, and local clinical practicum hours are required. Full-time MSN-to-DNP candidates graduate in as few as two years. Education doctoral programs in adult and lifelong learning and educational leadership are cohort-based and require some campus visits; the online Ed.D in human resource and workforce development education is a fully online degree. Applicants to any of the online Ph.D programs in education must submit GRE scores.
Administration Bldg 425
Fayetteville, Arkansas 72701
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Though its main campus is situated between South Beach Miami and the Everglades, NSU has numerous regional locations and a comprehensive distance education department. The university offers nearly 50 degrees and certificates online, with dozens more online courses available through the school’s participation in the Southern Regional Education Board's Electronic Campus program. Online programs at NSU include real-time interactive coursework and access to the electronic library database.
NSU offers eight Ph.D programs online in IT and healthcare-related fields. Students aspiring to senior-level clinical practitioner positions pursue a doctorate in health science or occupational therapy, while IT professionals choose from Ph.D programs in computer information systems, computer science, computing technology in education, and information science. NSU also offers an interdisciplinary Ph.D in conflict analysis and resolution online. The majority of doctoral coursework is completed online, but all programs require a minimum number of on-campus visits. The doctor of health science and the degrees in occupational therapy require a practicum or research residency. All online Ph.D programs culminate in a capstone project or dissertation.
3301 College Ave
Fort Lauderdale, Florida 33314-7796
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The flagship campus of the Indiana University system, IU has provided diverse research and liberal arts programs since 1820. Today, the university offers more than 550 programs to nearly 50,000 students. While many of its on-campus students are from outside the U.S., IU also brings accessible learning to international students through more than 100 online programs.
IU offers two of the country’s best online Ph.D programs in education; the Ed.D is available in instructional systems technology or literacy, culture, and language education. Online doctoral programs consist of primarily asynchronous coursework and incorporate web chats and audio-video conferencing tools. Online doctoral programs follow the same guidelines and schedule as on-campus programs. The Ed.D requires 60 credit hours, assuming the student already holds a master’s degree. The curriculum includes inquiry core, major, and minor coursework and culminates in a dissertation. Ed.D candidates complete the majority of coursework online and meet minimal on-campus residency requirements.
107 South Indiana Ave.
Bloomington, Indiana 47405-7000
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Established in 1892 as a teachers college, CMU provides innovative education programs on campus and online. CMU is among the largest public universities in the U.S. and the school established the College of Medicine to address a shortage of physicians in the Michigan area. More than 7,000 students are enrolled in online programs at CMU, which include specializations in business, technology, education, and healthcare professions.
CMU offers three Ph.D programs online: a doctor of education in educational leadership, a doctor of educational technology, and a doctor of health administration. Online doctoral programs are offered in a cohort format; students complete online courses as a group while adhering to a set schedule. The Ed.D in educational leadership requires 63 credits of synchronous coursework and four mandatory on-campus summer sessions. The Ed.D in educational technology comprises 54 credits and can be completed entirely online; during the first two years, students take two courses per semester in the fall, spring, and summer terms. The 63-credit DHA combines online coursework with six in-person seminars and a culminating essay exam.
106 Warriner Hall
Mount Pleasant, Michigan 48859
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Among the nation’s premier Lutheran universities, Concordia-Chicago is one of the most comprehensive and affordable private Christian colleges in the Midwest. Concordia-Chicago offers more than 100 undergraduate and graduate degree programs, each with a liberal arts foundation. The university's distance programs include dozens of accelerated undergraduate and graduate programs in unique specializations in business, healthcare, religion, management, and education.
Concordia-Chicago offers 13 doctoral programs online in business administration, gerontology, and education and leadership disciplines. Though requirements vary, doctoral candidates typically complete 60 to 68 credits of online coursework, which culminates in a comprehensive exam and dissertation or capstone project. The majority of education specializations — including educational technology, curriculum and instruction, and leadership — allow students to pursue an Ed.D or a Ph.D Concordia-Chicago’s online programs comprise asynchronous, eight-week courses; students take one online course at a time.
River Forest, Illinois 60305-1499
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With a flagship campus in Seattle and more than 20 locations worldwide, CityU caters to both on-campus students and a diverse distance learning population; nearly all of the university’s on-campus programs are also offered online. CityU provides dozens of online career-centered degrees and certificates in management, education, arts and sciences, applied leadership, technology, and languages.
CityU offers online Ph.D programs in business administration and leadership. The DBA requires 91 credits in business administration core, research core, and applied learning courses, including three residencies, a capstone, and a dissertation. Coursework is highly interactive and requires one hour of live chat and virtual lectures per week. The online doctor of education in leadership is available in three concentrations: organizational leadership, higher educational leadership, and specialized study. Students may develop their own concentration in global leadership, entrepreneurship, adult education and online learning, or a customized focus area. Doctoral students must participate in an orientation, which may be completed online or in person. Hybrid study plans are available.
521 Wall Street, Suite 100
Seattle, Washington 98121
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With a main campus in Miami Shores and more than 30 additional learning centers throughout Florida and the Virgin Islands, Barry is one of the largest Catholic universities in the Southeast U.S. The university offers more than 100 degree programs in specialized fields such as marine biology, theology, social work, and nursing.
Barry offers four online Ph.D programs in occupational therapy and nursing practice. The post-master's DNP offers an optional specialization in anesthesiology. Part-time students complete the OTD in about two years. Coursework is delivered both synchronously and asynchronously through Adobe Connect and Canvas. In addition to online coursework, candidates complete a 16-week residency during their second year and conclude the program with a capstone or final project. The online DNP comprises 35 to 38 semester hours of online coursework, residency requirements, and a three-part DNP scholarly project. Though the DNP requires 1,000 clinical hours, the program is designed as a post-master's degree, which means most applicants will have already completed many of the clinical hours. Barry offers tuition discounts to qualifying DNP candidates.
11300 NE 2nd Ave
Miami, Florida 33161-6695
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A pioneer in distance education since 1967, Amridge is one of the country’s leading providers of online education. At Amridge, distance learning is the primary format for academic programs. In 1993, Amridge was one of only 15 schools chosen to test a national pilot distance learning program. The university now offers more than 35 online degrees and qualifies over 90% of online students for financial aid.
Amridge offers numerous online Ph.D programs in business, human services, and theology. Amridge offers both practice- and research-based programs and provides doctoral candidates with comprehensive career-centered coursework, which is completed entirely online in an accelerated format. While requirements vary, curricula typically comprise core and emphasis courses, a comprehensive exam, and a dissertation presentation. The university offers a variety of online doctorate programs in ministry, including a DM in in family therapy, a Ph.D in marriage and family therapy, a Ph.D in professional counseling, a Ph.D in biblical studies in either the Old Testament or the New tament, and a customizable Ph.D in interdisciplinary studies.
1200 Taylor Rd
Montgomery, Alabama 36117-3553
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Texas A&M University features more than 100 academic programs, including an online doctor of education in educational administration. Prospective students considering a career in K-12 administration have the opportunity to advance professionally while completing their degree in an inclusive online learning environment that fosters creativity and critical thinking.
The 60-credit curriculum includes a residency that requires students to enroll in six or more credits for three consecutive semesters. Comprised of research and professional development components, students fulfill additional residency requirements through the completion of a research project and by attending at least three conferences.
This program follows a cohort model and admits students twice a year. Eligible applicants have a master’s degree in a relevant area with a minimum GPA of 3.4.
2600 South Neal
Commerce, Texas 75429-3011
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 programs 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:
- 2015: 1.7%
- 2010: 1.4%
- 2005: 1.2%
- 2000: 1.2%
- 1995: 1%
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|
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.
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
- Health Professions – 38%
- Legal Professions – 24.8%
- Education – 6.1%
- Engineering – 5.7%
- Biological and Biomedical Sciences – 4.6%
- Psychology – 3.7%
- Social Sciences and History – 2.6%
- Business – 1.7%
- Other – 12.8%
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 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.
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
|Type of Aid||Average Amount Per Student|
|Education Tax Credits/Deductions||$1,290|
|Total per year||$14,460|
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.
How Much Does an Online PhD Program 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|
|Private Non-Profit Institutions||$40,519|
Source: College Board
How Long Does it Take to Get a Doctorate Degree Online?
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 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.
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.”
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.
Careers that Require a Doctorate 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 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.
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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