Online PhD and Doctoral Programs in 2021

Earning a doctorate or PhD is no longer reserved for a select few. Learn how working professionals can find affordable and flexible online doctorate programs to meet their scheduling demands and learning goals.

Written by

PhDs.me Staff

Last updated

Dec 25, 2020

Getting a doctoral degree is considered the ultimate achievement in many disciplines and career fields. Obtaining a PhD or professional doctorate is an opportunity to gain advanced, targeted knowledge and be at the forefront of innovative breakthroughs in your field while pursuing career advancement opportunities.

While online PhD and professional doctorate programs differ in some key ways, they both give working professionals the opportunity to pursue a degree with convenience and flexibility, especially for those with a demanding personal schedule. This guide will discuss the differences between PhDs and practical doctorates, walk you through the requirements for doctoral programs, and show you the variety of choices you have to pursue your degree online. Gone are the days when getting a doctorate was considered out of reach for most people — you can get there, and we can show you how.

Online PhD Programs: Academic Research and Teaching for Students and Young Professionals

Pursuing a PhD requires you to conduct new research in your chosen discipline. In the pursuit of this research, you’ll become an expert in your field. Each component of the PhD program is designed to cultivate this expertise, with tremendous weight placed on the dissertation process. Much of the purpose and value gained by earning a PhD comes from completing a dissertation — the bulk of your time spent in a PhD program will be spent researching and writing it. By the time you have completed your coursework and dissertation over the course of three years or more, you’ll have a thorough depth and breadth of knowledge in your topic.

The PhD might be for you if you:

  • Want to teach your subject at the university level.
  • Have a tremendous thirst for knowledge on your subject that can’t be found elsewhere.
  • Desire to effect change in your field at the highest levels, whether in academia, the nonprofit sector, government, or private enterprise.

Online Practical Doctorates: Leadership & Career Advancement for Working Professionals

While PhD graduates are focused on completing original research, professional doctorate students learn how to apply accepted research to practical, real-world issues in their chosen field. Practical doctorate candidates are typically working professionals who have a thirst for knowledge in their subject and an eagerness to use the knowledge obtained in their programs to effect change, solve problems, and improve the lives of others. Practical doctorate candidates may be required to complete a dissertation in some instances, but in place of the dissertation, many programs require a capstone project, where students apply techniques and research to a real-world scenario. A residency may also help round out acquired expertise in the field.

The practical doctorate could be for you if you want to:

  1. Gain deep expertise in your subject that will enable you to work in a leadership role in your field.
  2. Use existing research to resolve complex issues and create and implement policy in your field.
  3. Make profound advancements in your field that will positively affect those you serve.

Types of Online PhD and Doctoral Programs

Depending on your career choice or research interests, your online program may be delivered completely online or in a hybrid format. Learn the differences between these types of programs and residency requirements for prospective students.

Fully Online Full-Time Programs

Programs that are conducted fully online conduct most, if not all, coursework completely online in a virtual setting. However, when it comes to program requirements such as special seminars, comprehensive examinations, or a dissertation defense, you may have to attend one of these events in person. If you are attending one of these programs as a full-time student, it can take anywhere between four to six years complete, depending on how many credits you are able to transfer.

Fully Online Part-Time Programs

Fully online, part-time programs allow students to complete all coursework online. Compared to a full-time course load of three classes per academic term, part-time students take between one to two courses per term which can be an attractive option if you are a working professional or have a demanding personal schedule. Despite being fully online, part-time programs can take approximately six years to complete and may require in-person residencies or dissertation presentations.

Hybrid Full-Time Programs

Compared to fully online programs, a hybrid program has a mix of academic components that may be completed in person or online. Times when you may be required to attend in person include seminars, workshops, or special class sessions or courses where physical presence is necessary for the course learning outcomes, such as a lab or a clinical course. Similar to programs fully-online, a hybrid full-time program should take between four to six years to complete, depending on transfer credits or waived academic requirements.

Hybrid Part-Time Programs

In a part-time hybrid program, there are components of the degree program you are required to complete online and in-person, but you have more time to complete those requirements. The in-person requirements usually vary and may include workshops, seminars, or special class sessions for a course that cannot be completed fully online. If you are a part-time student, it should take you approximately six to eight years to complete a doctoral program online.

What Happens in Online Doctorate and PhD Programs?

In any online doctorate or PhD program, there are several academic components you must complete in order to receive your degree, including the following:

Core Classes

A core class is a course that covers the general education requirements within a department or a college and provides basic knowledge on a core subject in the field. Core subjects across disciplines may include introduction to programming for a computer science program, history of education for an EdD program, or quantitative methods in research for a PhD program. Generally speaking, these courses take place in the first two to three years of a program and must be completed before you can begin any elective course options or other program requirements.

Specialization Courses

Specialization courses, also known as electives, give you the opportunity to build on core knowledge and specialize in a topic area of your interest which may include courses on business ethics, multicultural counseling, or electronic media, for example. Students generally begin taking these courses either in addition to core classes or once they are close to completing general education requirements. In some cases, you may be able to turn your specialization courses into a graduate certificate or concentration that will be listed on your academic transcripts.

Comprehensive Examinations

Comprehensive examinations are a program assessment of the courses and field-based topics you learned while completing academic coursework. Examinations can come in the form of a multiple-choice exam, written essay, oral exam, or a combination of methods, with questions provided by the faculty of your program. These examinations usually happen after you complete all your coursework and before you begin the dissertation process. You must typically pass these exams to move forward in your doctoral journey.

Teaching

For some online doctoral programs, you may be required to teach a course if you receive program funding. This program is generally referred to as a teaching assistantship or fellowship, especially if you are in a department that has larger courses and benefits from graduate assistance.

Depending on the funding structure of your financial aid package, you would begin teaching either once you complete academic coursework or shortly after passing comprehensive examinations. Beyond financial aid, teaching can also be a chance to apply the skills you’ve learned during the program to teach fellow students the necessary skills in your field.

Dissertation

A dissertation is considered to be the culminating research experience in a doctoral program. While it is a typical requirement for students receiving a doctorate or PhD in the U.S., some non-dissertation programs are available.

Depending on the topic you choose for your dissertation, the process can take anywhere from one to four years to complete. During that time, you choose a committee comprised of faculty members to monitor your progress and evaluate your dissertation once finished and conduct research by performing a literature review and collecting and analyzing data on your topic. Once data analysis is complete, you’ll write a lengthy thesis on your research and present the findings to your committee. For most doctoral programs and nearly all PhD programs, a dissertation is the final step you must complete before receiving a degree and beginning the next phase of your career.

Capstone Project

A capstone project is similar to a comprehensive examination and marks the end of a significant milestone in your program, whether it is the completion of academic coursework or a thesis. You may complete a capstone project in a program that offers a combined masters and doctoral sequence (BSN/DNP programs, for example) or it may substitute a dissertation requirement, particularly if you are pursuing a doctorate instead of a PhD.

PhD and Doctorate Online Program Costs

Below are some examples of common fees and expenses you can expect to pay while pursuing an online doctoral program. For actual costs, contact your schools of interest.

Tuition

Depending on the school, doctoral program tuition may be paid by the credit hour or by the semester. Tuition is generally charged to students prior to the beginning of the academic term. The average cost of tuition can vary between programs. For instance, while graduates can expect to pay $897 per credit hour for a course in the Michigan State College of Education, students in the Research College of Nursing pay up to $1293 for one credit hour. Duke University PhD students pay $27,840 per semester for the first three years, with tuition being reduced tremendously for years four and five. Tuition rates are typically raised on a regular basis, and rates can vary depending on your school, location, and program of choice.

There are different costs per credit hour or semester depending on whether you reside in the same state as the school or come from out-of-state. However, some online programs do not charge extra to out-of-state students.

Administration Fees

Administrative fees are a broad category of fees paid by students that go towards the cost of different student services. Fees are charged and paid at the start of each academic term in addition to tuition. Here are the approximate costs of some administrative fees you may find on your student bill:

  • Transit Pass Fee: $100
  • Academic Records Fee: $125
  • Recreation Fee: $50

Depending on your school’s policies, doctoral students may not have to pay for certain administrative fees.

Dissertation Fees

The fees for a dissertation go towards the archiving, review, and preparation of your final dissertation draft that is submitted to your committee, degree program, and the university. Typical costs may include technical formatting, copyediting, binding your dissertation into a book, or registration of copyright. Similar to other tuition and fees, these costs are paid for by you and charged to your student account.

  • Doctoral Fee: $175

Travel

Traveling is a pretty common cost for most graduate students, whether you are traveling to a conference, to and from campus, or seeing a loved one during a university holiday. Colleges consider these a standard expense and will include it as a cost of attendance for students. Travel can range from a few hundred dollars into the thousands of dollars if you must travel by air and get a hotel. While it is not a mandatory expense that students must pay, you may be eligible to receive financial aid to cover the associated costs.

Insurance

Depending on your program, you may be required to purchase health insurance to ensure you are covered in case of a health emergency. This is another fee that is charged and paid for by students before classes begin. However, if you already have coverage under a parent or employer, you may be able to waive this requirement and avoid purchasing health insurance. The cost of health insurance typically covers the ability of a student to see a doctor for an illness or receive required immunizations, for example.

  • Student Health Insurance per Year: $3,605

Doctorate Online Program Financial Aid

The number of fees and costs to pursue your doctorate online may seem daunting, but there are a variety of financial options available to help you pay for these expenses. Many programs offer scholarships through the school or an academic department. There are also teaching fellowships and research assistantships that allow doctoral students to gain valuable experience while paying for essential needs. Plus, there are loans and grants available across many disciplines to help meet your financial need. Consulting with a financial aid advisor at your school of interest is a great place to start to unlock the many resources available to you as you pursue your degree.

PhD and Doctorate Online Program Accreditation

Beyond the benefits and features an online PhD or doctorate program may provide, accreditation is also an important factor to consider in your decision. Accreditation assures that an institution or program meets the standards and rigor necessary for students to receive and good education and perform well in their chosen career.

Institutional

Institutional accreditation helps a college or university improve their quality of education over time, based on the feedback and assessment of peer institutions and a national organization that oversees the accreditation process. Institutional accreditation can be national or regional, with regional being the more common type. Any school you choose to attend to work towards your doctorate degree should have institutional accreditation. A few accrediting bodies for institutions in the United States include:

  • Higher Learning Commission
  • Distance Education Accrediting Commission
  • Southern Association for Colleges and Schools

Programmatic

In addition to institutions, some programs also seek out accreditation from organizations that maintain the governing laws and procedures within a profession. While its crucial for some program to receive and maintain accreditation, it is not for others and depends on your career field. The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business and the American Psychological Association, for example, are accrediting bodies that certify and approve academic programs in business and psychology, respectively.

Finding the Best Online PhD and Doctorate Programs

Because there are so many options and choices available for online PhD and doctorate programs today, choosing the best takes some organization and reflection. Here are some steps to keep in mind as you choose a program that fits your learning and career goals.

Step
1

Be realistic and detailed with your expectations and non-negotiables.

Pursuing your doctorate or PhD online is a huge commitment, but one that you have a lot of control over. Be clear about your expectations and limitations. If you’ve got a family that depends on you, a job that demands at least 40 hours of your time, or other important responsibilities, be realistic about your ability to attend full-time and consider looking at only programs that allow students to attend part time.

Step
2

Speak with faculty and program alumni.

Faculty members who’ve created program curriculum and alumni who have walked in your shoes often have the most comprehensive knowledge to share regarding your program of interest. Reach out to the program director or advisor to see if they can help you set up a phone meeting or email correspondence so you can ask the questions that matter most to you.

Step
3

Check with your current employer.

Having a conversation with your employer can reveal what knowledge, skills, and resources you will need to receive a promotion in your company or standard requirements for higher level positions in your field. Depending on the employer, you may also be eligible to receive tuition reimbursement for classes you take.

Step
4

Conduct an interview with a person in the career of your choice.

In addition to faculty and alumni, meeting with a mentor or notable figure in your career field can give you an idea of the various tasks and goals you will need to complete as you pursue your degree. This can also give you a leg up in networking when you graduate and apply for advanced positions in your field.

Step
5

Consult a program advisor for transfer credit opportunities.

Transfer credits are often a detail that students forget when deciding on a program that can make a huge difference. Being able to apply credits from your bachelor or master’s program can allow you to waive certain program requirements and potentially complete your degree faster than you originally thought. As you decide on a program, ask an advisor about transfer credit opportunities to see which ones you may be eligible to receive.

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