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.
Jul 28, 2023
A doctoral degree is the ultimate achievement for many disciplines and career fields. Obtaining a PhD or professional doctorate provides an unparalleled opportunity to gain advanced, targeted knowledge and be at the forefront of innovation in one’s field. Additionally, earning a doctoral degree often leads to increased opportunities for career advancement.
Obtaining a doctoral degree is now easier than ever before, as online PhD and professional doctorate programs provide the opportunity to pursue a degree with convenience and flexibility. This guide will discuss the differences between PhDs and practical doctorates, list the requirements for each program, showcase today’s best overall doctoral programs, and provide insight into the various online options available. With hard work and dedication it is possible to earn a doctorate regardless of one’s demanding personal schedule — and this guide can help you make it happen.
Explore Online PhD and Professional Doctorate Programs Near You
Are you looking for a doctoral program that combines quality academics, affordable tuition, and study flexibility — but don’t have a specific school in mind yet? Our 2023 ranking of colleges with the best online PhD and professional doctorate programs is a great place to start your search. Learn more about this year’s top-rated schools below, and see if one has the program and features that meet your needs.
Students looking to earn a doctorate online have several options to choose from at Ashland University. Each program offers several specialization tracks so students can tailor their degree for their specific needs. For example, the Doctor of Ministry offers concentrations in Transformational Leadership, Black Church Studies, Chaplaincy, Biblical Interpretation and Culture, or the Independent Design option to design your own focus. The Doctor of Education in Leadership Studies offers a traditional and executive pathway. And for those interested in nursing, the Doctor of Nursing Practice offers concentrations in Family Nurse Practitioner, Health Systems Leadership, and Advanced Practice Nurse. All of these programs offer most of the coursework online but also require students to complete in-person residencies on campus or at approved off-campus locations.
Alcorn State University's sole online doctoral program is its Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). Consisting of 36 credits and taking five semesters to complete, students must already have an MSN degree to apply. This program is designed for currently practicing family nurse practitioners; applicants must have at least one year of RN or APRN nursing experience within the last three years that involves direct patient contact. Once enrolled, the bulk of the coursework will be completed online, with each semester including no more than two face-to-face requirements. There are also clinical requirements that students must complete, amounting to 540 practicum hours. The goal of the DNP program is to provide advanced clinical skills to current nurses. Besides coursework and clinicals, the curriculum also involves completion of a DNP project that analyzes a current nursing practice and proposes improvements or changes.
When it comes to online graduate programs, Regent University offers one of the widest selections, with many online degrees offered at the doctoral level. Some of these are fully online, such as the Doctor of Ministry and Doctor of Education, while others have residency components such as Doctor of Strategic Communication. Some residencies are held virtually, and others are held on campus. Besides the great flexibility offered from online learning, students also get the option of choosing from many specializations. For example, the Doctor of Education program offers 10 specializations.
At Carolina University, students choose from six doctoral programs, all of which are offered online. These programs include one Doctor of Ministry (DMin) and five Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) programs -- Leadership, Healthcare Administration, Organizational Management, Innovation, and Educational Administration. In the DMin program, all coursework can be completed online, although in the PhD programs students are required to attend a one-week residency on campus near the start of their program. The goal of this residency is to prepare students for the dissertation process, provide networking opportunities with classmates, and give students a chance to get to know the professors. During this residency, students can choose accommodations either on or off campus. Another benefit to most of these programs occurs during the admissions process, as there are no GRE or GMAT testing requirements to apply.
Students interested in enrolling at Capitol Technology University can choose from approximately 40 doctoral programs. Most are in technology or engineering fields, such as Space Cybersecurity, Aeronautical Science, Systems Engineering, and Artificial Intelligence. However, the school offers doctorates in other subjects, such as Supply Chain Management, Sustainability, and Real Estate Management. Not only are these programs available through distance learning, but most of them are also fully online, with no campus visits or other in-person requirements. To add further flexibility to the doctoral programs, in many cases Capitol Technology University allows students to choose between dissertation and publication options. An example of this is with the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Artificial Intelligence. If a student in this program chooses the publication option, they will still need to complete a doctoral research project but it will also be published in three peer-reviewed journals.
Online PhD Programs: Academic Research and Teaching for Students and Young Professionals
Earning a PhD requires extensive research to be conducted in one’s chosen discipline, making the student an expert in their field. The dissertation process is often critical to the purpose and value of a PhD, as much of the time spent pursuing a doctoral degree is devoted to researching and writing it. Typically, three or more years of coursework lead up to this final project — by the end, the student has developed an impressive depth and breadth of knowledge within their 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
Professional doctorate candidates take a unique approach when studying, as they are focused on applying accepted research to real-world issues in their chosen field. Working professionals pursue this path to gain knowledge in their subject, and use it to make a difference in the lives of others. In lieu of a dissertation, many programs require that a capstone project is completed — this is used to apply techniques and research to an actual scenario. Additionally, residencies may be required for some students in order to gain complete expertise in their chosen subject area.
The practical doctorate could be for you if you want to:
Gain deep expertise in your subject that will enable you to work in a leadership role in your field.
Use existing research to resolve complex issues and create and implement policy in your field.
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 conducted in a virtual setting typically complete all coursework online. However, special seminars, comprehensive examinations, and dissertation defenses may still require occasional physical visits. Those pursuing a doctoral program full-time should expect it to take four to six years to complete, given the number of credits transferred.
Fully Online Part-Time Programs
Fully online, part-time PhD and doctoral 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
Part-time hybrid programs are a great option for those seeking to balance other commitments with their degree program. These involve components of the program that must be completed both online and in person, such as workshops, seminars and special class sessions. This program should generally take six to eight years of part-time study to complete.
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:
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, or electives, provide an opportunity to hone in on a topic of interest. Examples include business ethics, multicultural counseling, and electronic media. Taking these classes may be required alongside core classes or once general education requirements are close to completion. By focusing on specialization courses, students may even be able to earn certificates or concentrations that will appear on their academic transcripts.
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.
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.
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.
A capstone project is a type of assessment which marks the end of either a significant milestone or academic coursework in a program. It may be required in certain combined masters and doctoral sequences (such as BSN/DNP programs) or substitute a dissertation requirement for students who are pursuing a doctorate instead of a PhD. Capstone projects offer an opportunity to show off your expertise and knowledge that you have gained during your studies.
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.
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.
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 cover the archiving, review, and preparation of your dissertation draft to be submitted to your program committee, degree program, and university. These costs may include technical formatting, copyediting, binding your dissertation into a book, or registering copyright. Like other tuition and fees associated with college courses, these expenses are typically paid for by the student and charged to their student account.
Doctoral Fee: $175
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.
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 cost of pursuing a doctorate online can seem overwhelming, but there are various financial options available to help pay for these expenses. Scholarships may be available through the school or an academic department, while teaching fellowships and research assistantships provide doctoral students with the chance to gain valuable experience while covering some of their essential expenses. In addition, loans and grants are available across many disciplines to assist students in meeting their financial needs. For more information about financing your degree, consulting a financial aid advisor at your institution of choice is highly recommended.
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 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
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.
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.
Speak with faculty and program alumni.
Faculty members who have created the curriculum of your program and alumni who are familiar with the same experience can be a great resource when you’re making difficult academic decisions. To get the most comprehensive information about the program, reach out to your program director or advisor to set up a meeting or email correspondence. This way, you can ask important questions that will help guide your decision-making process.
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.
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.
Consult a program advisor for transfer credit opportunities.
Transfer credits often go overlooked in the decision-making process, but they can be extremely beneficial in helping you to complete your program faster. When determining which school to attend, ask an advisor about potential transfer credit opportunities that might allow you to waive certain program requirements and accelerate your degree completion timeline.
Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate This project is a consortium that includes over 100 schools and colleges that come together to discuss and examine critical issues in the field of education. The consortium also hosts conferences and informal gatherings throughout the year for students, researchers, teachers, and scholars to come together and network.
CENGAGE Learning This education technology company offers a list of professional organizations, common terms, and program lists for bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate students pursuing a communications degree.
Connected Academics This network and resource website offers guidance and career advice for PhD students in the humanities and modern languages. The website includes resource guides and planning worksheets to help you brainstorm different career options in your field.
Education Resources Information Center (ERIC) Managed by the Institute of Education Sciences, this website holds a comprehensive library of research reports, conference proceedings, and instructional materials that may be useful to you to learn more about the work produced in a doctoral program in your field.
Fulbright Scholar Program This prestigious fellowship program is for graduate and postgraduate students interested in pursuing their degree while studying abroad in an international exchange program.
Pathway to Science This organization provides funding opportunities and professional development resources for graduate students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.