On this page

Back to top

Earning a PhD Your Way: How to Choose the Right Online Learning Format

Synchronous vs. asynchronous learning? Full-time vs. part-time? For PhD students, choosing the right learning modes can determine their level of success. Selecting the right online learning format can help you stay engaged and motivated while also giving you access to the resources you need. Let’s pinpoint the correct options for you.

Written By

Ellery Weil

Last updated

Jul 05, 2023

Have you decided to pursue your PhD online? Congratulations! You’ve taken the first step toward earning your doctorate. According to the latest figures from the U.S. Census, only 13.1% of Americans hold an advanced degree, so you’ll be in exclusive company.

However, before you start sending out applications, you’ll want to consider which type of learning format will work best for you. While synchronous learning allows you to collaborate with classmates, it keeps you tied to a schedule. Meanwhile, an asynchronous program is more flexible but also more isolating. Or you can choose a hybrid approach, which combines the convenience of online learning with the resources of a classroom — but will require you to live within commuting distance from campus.

Sound like a lot? It’s a big decision, so let’s break down the pros and cons of each to determine which program best suits your needs. Read on to learn more about choosing the right learning format for your online PhD.

Step 1: Select Your Delivery Mode

What is a delivery mode? Also called a learning mode, this refers to how students engage with the educational materials in their program, particularly classwork. For online and/or hybrid PhDs, you’ll have a few different options to consider.

Within online PhD programs, students can often choose between synchronous, asynchronous, and self-directed modes. Keep in mind that the delivery type largely refers to classwork and short assignments. One major component of a PhD — original research — typically takes the form of a dissertation or thesis and often requires you to travel to campus to complete it.

Let’s explore the different delivery modes below. 


Synchronous learning — where students learn together — is one of the most popular delivery modes for online education, including at the PhD level.

Many highly regarded online PhD programs use synchronous online coursework, like the online Doctor of Education (EdD) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The University of Southern Mississippi also offers synchronous delivery modes for several of its online degree programs, creating this handy side-by-side comparison to help you choose your optimal learning environment.

Advantages and Disadvantages

There are several advantages to a synchronous learning program for your online PhD. Synchronous learning allows you to ask questions and get answers in real-time, giving you the opportunity to build community with your fellow students, form study groups, and build friendships within your program.

However, synchronous learning operates on a strict time schedule, meaning that students will need to be available at specific times each day for classes, with little flexibility.

Who is Best Suited for This Option?

Extroverted students who thrive on collaborative work with others are well-suited to a synchronous PhD program. Students who like structure and do well when they know the expectations of their program will also thrive under the well-defined terms of a synchronous system.

Finally, if you want to interact with your professors and build a community with fellow students — but prefer online learning — an online synchronous program is more likely to meet your needs.

Best Practices for Synchronous PhD Students

If you’re a PhD student in an online synchronous program, maintain a calendar (you can use a convenient phone app) so you don’t miss a class or study session. Also, feel free to reach out to your classmates with any questions about the material, to talk about potential thesis projects, or to form a study group before exams.


Asynchronous online PhD programs — where individuals learn at different times and spaces — are popular at schools where the student body is likely to be employed throughout their graduate studies. The University of North Dakota’s online Teaching PhD offers asynchronous classes to help students balance their studies with work or family responsibilities. Similarly, the University of Idaho provides asynchronous classes for most of its online master’s and doctoral programs.

Advantages and Disadvantages

Asynchronous classes are flexible, meaning that you can study when you’re at your sharpest, whether you’re an early bird or a night owl. An asynchronous format also allows you to adapt your course schedule in light of any changes in your personal circumstances.

However, asynchronous classes can be isolating. Because the lectures are pre-recorded, students can’t ask questions in real-time, and you’ll have less contact with your professors. Students in an asynchronous program may also have a harder time connecting with each other as they aren’t in class simultaneously.

Who is Best Suited for This Option?

Asynchronous PhD programs are ideal for highly motivated students with busy lives. The asynchronous format means that students don’t have to keep to their professors’ class schedules and can complete lectures and coursework independently. This is especially useful for students who have full-time job or other responsibilities that may affect their daily schedules. 

Students who find it distracting to have a busy lecture full of interruptions may also enjoy the pre-recorded nature of asynchronous classes.

Best Practices for Asynchronous PhD Students

If you’re starting an asynchronous PhD program, make sure you have a support system of friends and/or fellow students in place to prevent loneliness. You should also be aware of your personal time preferences and study habits; that way, you can take advantage of your own peaks in energy/attention when deciding to watch lectures and do your coursework.


Self-directed online PhD programs, also referred to as self-paced study, are common in several fields. You’ll mostly find these programs in social science or technology degree options, where the study is not dependent on conducting experiments in a lab or field setting. 

In the world of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects, one technology-based PhD option is Bowling Green State University’s PhD in Technology Management. This is a self-directed online program geared toward employed students.

Advantages and Disadvantages

Self-directed PhDs are as flexible as they come, both in terms of time management and the freedom the program gives you to explore your subject. Not only will you be setting your own schedule, but you’ll also have the chance to explore and research whatever facets of your field you find most engaging.

However, self-directed programs can feel unstructured and daunting, especially for students who are used to a highly structured learning environment. A self-directed program can also feel lonely since you will only have little contact with professors and classmates during your studies.

Who is Best Suited for This Option

For self-motivated, highly disciplined students with a lot of self-knowledge about their own learning styles, self-directed doctoral programs can be a great fit. Students with a lot of prior experience in their field of study, such as those returning for a PhD after working in the field for several years, may also appreciate a self-directed program and how it allows you to follow your own research interests early on in your studies.

Best Practices for Self-directed PhD Students

If you’re looking to start a self-directed online PhD soon, be sure to plan ahead. Since you’ll be structuring your program yourself, be sure to have an outline of what you want your doctoral journey to look like before your first term starts.

Step 2: Choose In-person, Online, or Hybrid

One of the most materially important aspects of choosing a PhD program is whether you’ll be studying in person, online, or in a hybrid program. In addition to considering your personal learning style, you’ll need to take into account practical concerns, including location, finances, and any personal commitments outside of your studies. Below are some of the pros and cons of each learning environment.


Online PhD programs are convenient ways to earn a doctorate from the institution of your choice without having to relocate. In a fully online PhD program, you’ll take your classes over Zoom or a similar video chat service and submit assignments (and eventually your thesis) online.

Many prestigious universities offer online PhD programs in a variety of disciplines. The University of Florida, for instance, offers fully online PhD programs in fields ranging from Educational Leadership (EdD) and Classical Civilization (PhD) to Nursing Practice (DNP).

Advantages and Disadvantages in Your Doctoral Studies

One of the biggest advantages of an online PhD program is convenience. You’ll be able to take your classes from any physical location you like, which makes it easier to balance your studies around work and family responsibilities.

On the other hand, you might find that your professors and fellow students are less accessible in an online program. Depending on the course of study and the specifics of your thesis project or dissertation, it may also be a challenge to complete your program without access to labs, research groups, academic libraries and archives, and other resources a campus setting provides.


Hybrid PhD programs aim to provide the convenience and flexibility of an online program with the resources and sense of community of an in-person degree. Hybrid PhD programs are also useful for programs that can be largely completed through distance learning but have some practical requirements, like Nova Southeastern University’s Doctorate in Physical Therapy (DPT) program or George Washington University’s Doctorate in Nursing Practice (DNP).

Advantages and Disadvantages in Your Doctoral Studies

Hybrid PhD programs are ideal for combining the practical advantages of pursuing an online degree with the resources a physical campus can provide. If you enroll in a hybrid PhD program, you’ll have access to campus, any practical courses your PhD requires, and in-person interaction with professors and fellow students while still being able to take most of your courses from the comfort of your own home.

However, many disadvantages of an in-person degree are also relevant in a hybrid program. In particular, depending on the location of your campus, you will need to be within a reasonable distance from the university, which may require an expensive and disruptive move.


We do need to mention the availability of in-person degree programs for those who find that online or hybrid options aren’t for them. In-person PhD programs are the oldest and most traditional way to earn a doctorate. These programs are centered around taking classes on campus and conducting your original research through campus resources, including libraries, archives, and labs.

Most campus-based universities offer in-person PhD programs, and these are particularly valuable for subjects with fieldwork or laboratory requirements, like Yale University’s PhD program in Chemistry. Programs that require the library and archival access, like the PhD in History at the University of Pennsylvania, may also benefit from being held in person.

Advantages and Disadvantages in Your Doctoral Studies

In-person PhD programs offer all the traditional advantages of studying on campus and being part of an academic community. Studying on campus will provide you with access to all of your university’s physical resources — from libraries, archives, and labs to social events and other opportunities to connect with classmates and professors.

However, in-person PhDs can require a major upheaval in students’ lives. Depending on your university’s location, you may need to move to cities or even states, which can be inconvenient and expensive. Further, you will need to follow the external schedule and structure of the program, which can conflict with other responsibilities in your life.

Step 3: How Much Time Do You Want to Invest in Your PhD?

Now that you’ve been able to think about your educational style and program location, it’s time to talk about pacing. As terminal degrees, PhDs are notoriously lengthy — some can take the better part of a decade. You’ll need to consider how much time you can commit to your studies each year and the length of your degree. Fortunately, you’ll have a few options available, which are outlined below.


Full-time PhD programs, including online and hybrid programs, are designed to be intensive and finish relatively quickly. For example, George Washington University’s full-time online PhD in Systems Engineering is designed to be completed in only three years from start to thesis defense.

Advantages and Disadvantages in Your Doctoral Studies

Full-time PhD studies allow you to devote as much of your energy as possible to your degree. They are also typically quicker to earn than a part-time degree, making them ideal for students who want to earn their doctoral qualification as fast as possible. However, for students with a job or other commitments, full-time study can be extremely difficult to balance with personal or professional responsibilities.


Part-time PhD programs are meant to require fewer classes and study time per week and are completed over a longer time period. Johns Hopkins University offers a part-time, online program to earn a PhD in Public Health, where students have up to nine years to complete their studies and have space to work full-time while studying. The program also features intensive, week-long on-site courses in June and January.

Advantages and Disadvantages in Your Doctoral Studies

Part-time PhD programs are great for busy students, such as those with full-time employment or family responsibilities. The low time commitment per week makes your studies easier to fit into your schedule. However, it will take you longer to graduate, and some students may find it harder to focus and devote sufficient energy to part-time studies.

Considering an Online PhD? Ask These Questions

Still unsure whether an online, hybrid, or in-person PhD program would be the best fit for you? While looking at the programs and modes of delivery can be very helpful, you’ll also need to think about your own personal, educational, and financial needs and circumstances. Below are a few questions to consider as you’re making your decision.

How can understanding your best learning style help you while you get your PhD online?

Your learning style can affect how you focus on your online classes and what kind of delivery mode is best suited for you. For instance, students who have a particular time of day when they focus best, like evenings or early mornings, may benefit from the flexibility of an asynchronous program. On the other hand, highly extroverted students who learn best in collaborative formats may prefer synchronous online classes where they can interact with professors and classmates.

What is the level of interaction with faculty and other students in the online PhD program?

Online PhD programs can vary widely in how much interaction with your professors and fellow students they offer. Hybrid programs, including many in nursing and other sciences, will offer opportunities to meet with classmates and professors in person, while synchronous online classes will have opportunities to connect virtually. On the other hand, fully online asynchronous or self-directed programs may offer very little contact with faculty and other students.

What would be the expected time commitment for the online PhD program, and how will it fit with your other commitments, such as work or family?

Your time commitment and how your online PhD will fit into your pre-existing schedule will depend heavily on the program you choose. Some programs, depending on delivery mode, offer more flexibility than others. Further, while full-time studies require a significant time commitment each week over a shorter period, a part-time PhD only requires a few hours of work each week over a longer overall period.

Will you miss an essential part of your studies if you go online over another mode of learning?

Accredited online PhD programs are recognized as legitimate for a reason — because they fulfill all the requirements of earning a PhD and have met standards set forth by accrediting bodies. However, depending on your learning style, you may want to consider what you’ll get from an online PhD program. For instance, students who value building community with fellow students and academics may struggle more with fully online programs, while students who value the freedom to learn at their own pace may find an online program ideal.

How can you balance flexibility and self-directed learning with structured coursework and accountability?

If you are choosing a highly flexible program, such as an asynchronous or self-directed PhD, you should plan ahead to stay accountable and on top of your studies. You can use a calendar, self-impose deadlines for program milestones, and ask fellow students or loved ones to serve as accountability partners to make sure you don’t fall behind in your studies.

How can online learning affect your financial planning?

Financially, online learning can be a pro and con compared to on-campus study. On the one hand, you’ll be saving a lot of money by not having to relocate for your studies, and you can continue to work while you complete your doctorate. However, you should research the financial aid opportunities available for the online programs you’re considering and how they compare to funding opportunities for in-person PhD programs. Since some in-person programs offer more stipends or work opportunities, you may find more financial aid offered for some in-person PhD programs.