May 26, 2023
Earning a PhD is not only a testament to your academic achievement, but it’s also a valuable investment in your future. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that individuals with doctoral degrees enjoy the highest pay rates and job stability among all educational levels, with a median income of $1,909 per week—that’s compared with $1,334 for those with a bachelor’s degree and $809 for those with a high school diploma—and a 1.5% unemployment rate.
But, of course, pursuing a PhD can be a lengthy process, involving extensive research plus. In most cases, writing a dissertation. Since many PhD candidates are working professionals, finding sufficient time and resources to dedicate to your studies can be challenging. Fortunately, online doctoral degree programs offer a flexible and convenient alternative to traditional doctoral programs, allowing students to adapt their studies to their busy schedules.
While the convenience of online study is appealing, it also presents challenges. This guide provides advice on navigating the potential obstacles facing online PhD students, offers practical advice, and provides strategies for success.
Six Common Pitfalls for an Online PhD Student
Enrolling in an online doctoral degree program can be immensely rewarding. You’ll have the freedom to learn from where you want, when you want. However, that doesn’t mean it will be easy to stay motivated, effectively manage your time, or build a professional network. By understanding these potential hurdles and making plans to overcome them, you’ll increase your chances of academic success. Keep reading to discover the most common challenges online doctoral students encounter and ways to tackle them.
Thinking Online Programs are Easier Than In-Person
Since online programs come with fewer in-person obligations, many students assume that the academics will be easier. However, online doctoral programs are just as rigorous as their traditional alternatives, and online students follow the same curriculum as in-person students. Approach your online PhD program just as seriously as you would an in-person class by prioritizing class meetings, interaction with your professors and peers, and dedicated study times.
Lacking the Proper Technical Requirements to be Successful
Online higher education requires adopting an entirely new toolbox of online resources and technology. You’ll access lectures and assignments from your university’s learning management system, participate in online discussions with colleagues, and perform high-level research in online databases. Before you begin your online PhD program, familiarize yourself with the tools you’ll be using. If you need additional help, seek out video tutorials or ask for help from university-provided help desk resources.
Need for Dedicated Space and Time
When you’re an online student, you won’t have a predetermined location and timeframe set aside for your studies. However, the ability to study from anyplace, anytime, doesn’t mean that’s always the best plan of action. Many students find it easier to focus and accomplish goals when they establish a consistent routine for when and where they’ll study. Prioritize your coursework by treating it like a mandatory appointment. Block off dedicated study times and locations, whether it’s your home office, a local coffee shop, or the neighborhood library, and stick to your schedule.
You Are Not an Island
Though online doctoral programs offer convenience, the main trade-off is having fewer opportunities for in-person camaraderie and collaboration with professors and peers. On-campus learning lends itself to social interactions, networking, and hands-on experiences; when you decide to pursue your PhD online you might feel as if you’re on your own. Fortunately, many universities have stepped up to provide online students with options to have a collaborative learning experience through video chats, chatrooms, and online networking events.
Limited Mentorship Opportunities
With traditional doctoral programs, students often find mentor relationships through organic conversation and social interaction. When you’re part of an online program, it can seem daunting to form lasting relationships when you can’t take part in regular office hours or chat with professors at the end of class. While building relationships online requires a slightly different approach, you can still find worthwhile mentorships if you make the most of online communication. Become an active participant in online chats, email professors with questions, and contribute to the conversation in live virtual meetings.
Losing Motivation to Finish Your Doctoral Program
If you’ve chosen to pursue a PhD online, you’re probably already balancing personal and professional pursuits as you earn your doctorate. With so many commitments competing for your time and energy, it’s all too easy to get caught up in day to day concerns and push coursework to the side. Plus, most online PhD programs take four to eight years to complete, which is a long time to stay focused on your goal. Map out your educational journey and significant smaller goals along the way, build rapport with your online classmates, and ask friends and family to keep you accountable for research and assignments.
Online Strategies to Help Your Research and Analysis
There are two types of doctoral degrees: professional doctoral degrees and PhD programs. Both represent the highest level of expertise in a field and require students to perform intensive research and advanced academic reasoning. However, there are some key differences between a PhD and a professional doctoral program when it comes to research goals and career outcomes.
Typically, PhD students have a primary goal of adding original research to a field, with graduates moving on to careers in academia or at research institutions. On the other hand, professional doctoral students’ research seeks out new applications of data leading to new solutions, producing graduates who are prepared for leadership roles in their respective fields. The type of doctoral degree you choose determines your research process for your dissertation or doctoral study. In the following sections, we’ve outlined productive research strategies and goals for each type of online student.
How to Reach Your Professional Doctorate Goals
Professional doctoral program students often dive deep into case studies, best practices, or industry reports to form a basis for their doctoral study. Below, we’ve identified some of the primary methods for supporting the research and analysis portion of your professional doctoral studies.
Collaborate with Industry Partners on Online Platforms
Eventually, you’ll need to create an official proposal that describes the problem your study will tackle, the purpose of your study, and the research methods you’ll use to propose a solution. Online professional doctoral students can use online platforms such as professional networks, industry forums, and social media groups to engage with practitioners and peers in their field, exchange ideas, and gain a better understanding of the current challenges and opportunities.
Review Online Preprint Archives
Preprint archives are where researchers share early versions of their findings before they’ve undergone the peer review process. While preprint publications are not yet fully vetted, these archives are an ideal opportunity to examine someone else’s methodology, results, and conclusions to learn more about the current and emerging theories in your field. This process can also inform your own research and reveal opportunities to contribute relevant solutions through your doctoral study.
Goal: Evaluate Current and Emerging Theories and Practices
Stay up to date with the latest research in the field by reading the leading preprint archives in your field. Not only will you gain early exposure to what’s on the horizon, but you may be able to provide feedback or improve upon someone else’s research.
Use Online Collaboration Tools
With an online professional doctoral program, you’ll rely on digital alternatives to facilitate the collaboration process. By using online collaboration tools, you can brainstorm with your colleagues and network to build relationships with others in your field.
Conducting Surveys and Interviews Virtually
Studying for your doctoral degree online means that you’ll be more limited when it comes to conducting in-person research and focus group interviews. However, with online tools you can collect data from a larger pool of participants who have diverse demographics and quickly analyze your findings.
Goal: Design Research that Enhances the Professional Body of Knowledge
Google Forms can help you gather data in a simple anonymous form, while Zoom is ideal for conducting face-to-face interviews or leading group conversation online. If you need enhanced survey options and data analysis features, SurveyMonkey provides both.
How to Reach Your PhD Goals
If you choose a PhD program for your doctoral degree, you’ll concentrate on intensive studies of academic journals, conference keynotes, and scholarly resources that are contributing original research to your field. In the following section, we provide suggestions for improving your research and analysis as part of an online PhD program.
Take Online Courses and Workshops
Online courses and workshops are invaluable for honing your research methods and sharpening analysis skills. Through virtual seminars and summits, you’ll have access to expert instructors, diverse perspectives, and abundant resources on how to formulate and execute your own original research.
Goal: Analyze Theories and Concepts
Many universities offer online resources or host virtual workshops on how to conduct research and analysis, so be sure to check what’s available at your school. Outside resources like TED Talks, Udemy, and Coursera provide a wealth of expert knowledge on methodologies and procedures for performing original research.
Keep Up with Peer-Reviewed Journals
When you’re aware of what’s going on in academia, you’ll be better prepared to identify potential problems, information gaps, and solutions for your own dissertation. Other academics regularly publish the latest research and findings in peer-reviewed journals. By reading them, you can be informed of the latest theories in your field.
Goal: Evaluate the Relevance of Current and Emerging Theories
Well-regarded journals and primary sources are available online through academic databases and digital libraries. Use the resources provided by your university’s library system, or find open access journals through Oxford University Press, Directory of Open Access Journals, and the Education Resources Information Center.
Conduct a Literature Review
Once you’ve narrowed potential topics or questions for your research, conduct a literature review to analyze and identify common themes, trends, and gaps in existing bodies of research. As you orient yourself with the available literature on your topic, you’ll be better able to develop original research questions and problems and potential studies that might address them.
Goal: Identify Knowledge Gaps in Research Literature
Research relevant studies and data on sites like Google Scholar, JSTOR, or Scopus. As you study existing literature, look for areas of established consensus in the field, inconsistencies, and gaps in knowledge such as unanswered research questions, incomplete data, or underrepresented populations.
Publishing Your Research
Publishing your original research in academic journals establishes your academic credentials, distinguishes you as an expert in your field, and draws attention to your research and conclusions. Plus, when you share your work with others in your field for review, you’ll gain valuable feedback and insights from your peers.
Networking with Academia and the General Public
When the majority of your PhD program is online, you don’t have as many opportunities to build in-person relationships with people who have overlapping interests and research areas. Networking with other academics helps you connect with researchers from different institutions and countries, despite the distance.
Goal: Communicate with Academia and the General Public
Social media sites, like Twitter and LinkedIn, as well as personal websites and blogs, allow you to showcase your research and findings and connect with a wider audience. You can also find people interested in your research topic by participating in academic conferences as a presenter or in small group discussions via online workshops.
Online Tips for Your Dissertation or Doctoral Studies Project
Your multiyear academic journey through a doctoral degree program comes to a close when you demonstrate mastery of your field through original research and conclusions. Whether you’re a PhD candidate preparing for a dissertation defense or a professional doctoral student presenting a doctoral study, the following tips will help you manage the process from start to finish.
- Keep on Track with Project Management Tools: Create a timeline of the work leading up to your final presentation. Online project management tools such as Trello, Asana, and Microsoft Project provide a framework for breaking down large goals into microtasks with achievable deadlines.
- Use Document Collaboration Tools: Connect with your adviser and fellow researchers from a distance with document sharing tools such as Google Docs or Microsoft Word. These services allow you to easily share drafts via private links and collect timely feedback.
- Rehearse Until It’s Natural: You’ll be presenting your research online, which requires additional practice and technical consideration. Rehearse your presentation on video recording tools such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or OBS Studio to get a feel for online presentation and perfect your performance.
- Make It Visually Interesting: Create an engaging presentation deck with tools like Microsoft PowerPoint, Google Slides, or Prezi. For graphics creation, try an online design tool such as Canva.
- Online Writing Tools Can Help Improve Writing: Polish your dissertation with online writing tools such as Grammarly and Turnitin, which help you clarify meaning, correct grammar snafus, and ensure your work is plagiarism-free.
- Online Writing Communities: For feedback, support, and accountability as you craft your dissertation, join an online writing community such as Academic Writing Community.
- University-Provided Resources: Many universities offer online writing workshops and bootcamps specifically for online-based PhD candidates to get writing tips and support. Check with your school to see if they host similar webinars or workshops.
- Corralling Those References: Keep a well-documented inventory of your research and references with Endnote, Mendeley, or Zotero to stay organized while writing your dissertation.
Translating Your Learning Style to Online
Being aware of your unique learning styles can help you approach your doctoral degree studies and online learning with confidence. We’ve outlined the major learning styles below and how you can adapt them to support online learning. However, keep in mind that you can have more than one learning style and that your learning style may differ from subject to subject.
How to Make the Online School/Life Balance Work
Online Resources for PhD Students
- APA Style: APA Style is commonly used by writers in scholarly and academic settings. The official APA website gives step-by-step instructions and examples of how to format papers, including in-text citations.
- Connected Papers: This site helps students find connections between published papers when performing a literature review. Once you’ve entered a paper into the system, you’ll see a graph of similar papers.
- Internet Archive: This nonprofit online library contains millions of free books, print material, and other assorted media, including a digital history of internet sites and cultural artifacts, all available for research purposes.
- Journal Rater: Wondering which journal you should send your research paper to? This tool can help you locate quality journals for submission.
- Learning Styles Questionnaire: If you’re unsure of your learning style, this online quiz can help you identify the way you learn best. Answer the multiple-choice questions to see your result.
- Notion: If you’re tired of trying to keep track of all of your research and online applications across different digital spaces, Notion can serve as a one-stop workspace.
- Preparing to Defend Your Thesis from Home: The American Psychological Association created this resource to guide students defending their thesis virtually and includes practical tips to strategize a smooth presentation process.
- Scholarpedia: This site serves as an open-source, peer-reviewed version of an online encyclopedia. Articles are written by academics who are experts in their field.
- Seven Ways to Handle Stress as an Online Student: This article offers practical resources for ways to address your stress, alleviate tension, and build habits that equip you to be an effective online student.
- UNC Writing Center Dissertation Tips : The University of North Carolina’s Writing Center published this comprehensive resource on navigating the dissertation process, from how to build writing skills to advice on obtaining help.