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Earning Your PhD Online: How to Successfully Navigate Your Doctoral Degree Virtually

Online PhD students navigating a virtual learning environment need different tools to make it through the rigors of a doctoral program. These strategies will help you translate in-person research and study skills into a digital academic world.

Written By

Shannon Daigle

Last updated

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.

Goal: Apply Current Research to Practical Problems

Join professional associations and online communities on Facebook, Slack, or Discord where you can collaborate with experts and peers. Make it a habit to attend virtual workshops and conferences and participate in the discussion.

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.

Goal: Form Solutions to Problems in Your Chosen Field

Share information through online collaboration tools like Google Docs, Dropbox, and Trello. In these spaces, you can share thoughts and findings with others, even if you can’t meet face to face or schedule a real-time online meeting. 

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.

Goal: Use Original Research to Expand Your Field

Format your findings as a journal article, then submit it to scholarly publishing platforms or journals specific to your field. Research potential outlets for publication on sites like CORE or ScienceOpen.com.

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.

Doctoral Studies

  • 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

Dissertation

  • 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.

Aural

Aural learners process information by hearing directions and spoken answers. Because this learning style is hearing-oriented, these students often gravitate toward auditory or rhythmic presentation of information. Online lectures and coursework mean these students have consistent access to audio that will reinforce their learning. Aural learners can listen to on-demand lecture audio, use speech-to-text software to read books aloud, or simply read text in your own voice. If you prefer rhythmic-based auditory information, try making up songs or rhymes to help you review and remember the material you’re studying.

Logical

Logical learners prefer to use order, steps, and logical thinking to reason through problems and solutions, make connections, and recognize patterns. Once they’ve done the mental work to process information in this way, they’re more likely to integrate the information into their personal lexicon and retain facts and findings. These students can easily adapt their style to online learning. If you’re a logical learner, formulate a systematic and organized study pattern and discuss your thoughts with peers via online discussion boards.

Physical

A physical learning style is focused on retaining new material through movement. Whether these students use their hands, body motions, or other senses to study material, the common thread is that they learn via physical stimulation. Fortunately, the online learning environment means physical learners aren’t constrained by sitting behind a classroom desk. If you’re a physical learner, try walking around while you listen to online lectures, mirroring the body movements of lecturers, or reviewing material with physical items like flash cards.

Social

Social learners enjoy working together in groups. The experience of talking through ideas, being quizzed by another person, and participating in group study sessions is extremely beneficial to this style of learner. Being able to bounce concepts back and forth with another person helps the social learner grasp information quickly. However, gathering a group of people together for social learning can be challenging when you’re a part of an online doctoral program. Try arranging virtual study sessions, talking things through with a tutor, or explaining what you’re studying to a friend or family member.

Solitary

Solitary learners are at their best when they’re working alone and can study without disruptions. Long stretches of quiet, uninterrupted time are when the solitary learner can truly focus on the topic at hand and internalize information. Solitary learners are well-suited to online study since the majority of work is completed solo. However, it can be difficult to find a quiet space without a campus library to retreat to. Solitary online learners benefit from setting aside time to study in a quiet location and by setting healthy boundaries and expectations with family and roommates to minimize interruptions.

Verbal

Verbal learners prefer to absorb information by reading and listening to both written and spoken words. Reading a book, writing notes, or hearing someone else talk about a topic are all excellent ways for verbal learners to process and retain information. This style is particularly well-suited to online learning, where students listen to lectures and participate in both written and spoken conversations. Though many students don’t take written notes during online lectures, verbal learners may benefit from continuing to use note-taking skills.

Visual

Visual learners take in new information by watching other people perform tasks rather than reading about them or hearing them explained. Though retaining information from lecture audio may not be these students’ preferred method, they can benefit from seeking out supplementary videos or images that will reinforce the information. If you’re a visual learner enrolled in an online doctoral program, try following along with slides, finding images to accompany lecture material, or conducting research by watching video content.

How to Make the Online School/Life Balance Work

Doctoral Student Stress Strategies

Trying to balance the demands of everyday life, your career, and your doctoral studies can be a recipe for stress. Over time, the pressure of upholding all of these responsibilities can add up, taking a toll on your mental health, overall happiness, and motivation. To help alleviate the tension, practice stress-relief techniques such as taking frequent short breaks to go for a walk, grab a snack, or reward yourself with a quick scroll on social media. Even if it feels as though you don’t have time for a break, stepping away from your studies for a short time increases your productivity in the long run.

Online Time Management Tips

Going the virtual route to earn your PhD means that you’ll need to be self-driven and disciplined with your time. It can be tempting to put online studies on the back burner, especially when you have other obligations, and you don’t have a set class meeting time. If you’re feeling pressed for time, take an inventory of your days and figure out the pockets of time when you can study. Once you’ve decided on your study times, treat them as serious commitments. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the sheer volume of work in front of you, break obligations down into smaller tasks, then focus on completing the next actionable step.

Social and Professional Networking

When you’re regularly on campus, bonding with fellow students and meeting colleagues comes naturally. Staying connected to classmates can increase your chances of success and improve your mental well-being during your PhD program, so those bonds are worth pursuing even if you’re in an online doctoral degree program. Building relationships online takes a little more effort, but once you’ve learned some online networking tactics, it can be easier to interact with your peers regularly. Set up digital review sessions, show up consistently in the chat rooms or social groups set up by your school, and take advantage of virtual networking events.

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.