Online PhD Programs & Doctoral Degrees

Online doctorate degrees were once a rarity in the distance learning space. Today, however, more and more institutions offer online PhD programs to help students meet a range of advanced professional goals. In a 2014 study, Learning House reported that 600,000 students who studied fully online were graduate level learners. The following page gives prospective advanced students a detailed look at the types of professional degrees available online and the subjects that attract this level of online education. See options, top programs and typical paths from selecting a program to earning a credential.

Online PhDs by Subject

Many areas of higher education have a wealth of online degree options at the bachelor’s and master’s levels. Only some of them, however, offer online learning options at the PhD level, allowing students to reach the apex of their educational journey via the virtual classroom. To see which disciplines have distance-learning opportunities at the doctoral level, select a subject below.

Growth of Online Doctorates

While the online PhD program is not yet as common the online master’s, there had been much growth in the area over the past several years. Advances in technology, increased student need and the convenience of the online environment have all lead to greater program availability.

Often, those in pursuit of advanced degrees are already actively working in their chosen fields, holding down both full-time jobs and juggling busy personal lives. Either encouraged by their employers to pursue their PhD, or to follow their own dreams of earning their doctorate, many students find online programs an easier way to fit heavy course load and studying into their lives.

Technological advancements have also propelled the growth of the virtual classroom in recent years. Students looking to earn their PhDs online will often find that their professors are also teaching on-campus classes, and will typically have special on-call hours in which they are available specifically to their distance-learning students. Classes may be delivered synchronously, with all students “attending” lecture via video simultaneously, or asynchronously, allowing students to access course work and complete assignments on their own time.

Understanding Online PhD Programs

Like their campus-based counterparts, online doctorate degrees are the highest level of education and require a substantial amount of work and commitment. The most common type of doctorate degree in the doctor of philosophy, or PhD. Not long ago, PhD programs were only available via on-campus learning, but now many universities offer distance-learning options. Typically, online PhD programs are available in two different tracks: research or professional.

Research-focused PhDs

The research route is the common choice for those pursuing a position in academia. These degree holders typically go on to teaching positions at colleges and universities or use their expertise for research roles in business and industry, government and nonprofit organizations. It can be earned in a variety of disciplines, from hard sciences such as engineering, mathematics and computer science to more qualitative fields such as sociology, history and education.

Students who choose this path need to complete and defend a dissertation, which is extensive, independent research, usually under the guidance and close supervision of an advisor. Curriculum usually incorporates research methodology courses, in addition to core topics, to help students prepare for their independent project. While a dissertation partly serves to help advance or contribute to the student’s chosen field, it also ensures he or she is capable of conducting professional or scholarly, long-term research. According to the National Science Foundation, the median completion time for a research doctorate degree is seven years. Some online programs, however, may offer accelerated options to help shave off some time.

Professional PhDs

On the other end of the doctoral spectrum is the professional or practice-focused PhD, which focuses more on administration, management and expertise in a particular field. Individuals who wish to pursue this type of PhD are typically seeking leadership, consulting or executive management positions. With this goal in mind, the degree emphasizes application of existing knowledge to a problem or workplace setting. Students on this path will still likely do some research, but the primary focus will be on refining their skills to read and apply existing research literature to various settings and problems.

Instead of a dissertation, students complete advanced coursework as well as an internship, practicum or rotation. Examples of fields in which a professional PhD is most ideal are business, law, health care, and psychology or counseling. Time completion can vary from three to seven years, depending on the chosen field

Spotlight:Online PhD in Engineering Management at GW Online

George Washington University

Technical managers who are looking to enhance their knowledge can take advantage of the online PhD in engineering management at George Washington University.

Offered through the Department of Engineering Management and Systems Engineering, this distance doctoral degree is designed to teach students how to conduct substantive research. Online learners take a series of core courses, and have the option to pursue one of five focus areas. The program is divided into two stages. The first focuses on eight graduate-level courses, which result in the student’s acceptance into an Engineering Professional Society Conference. The second stage is all about the student’s independent research, culminating in the dissertation and defense.

Spotlight: Online Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) at Liberty University

Liberty University

This online doctorate degree consists of 60 credit-hours and is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

While a majority of the program can be completely entirely online, there are three week-long, on-campus intensives required for completion. Students must also conduct an applied doctoral research project in place of a traditional dissertation. Courses have a biblical slant and the program is designed to combine research and application. Students learn the advanced skills necessary to take on the some of the highest leadership roles in business.

Interview with an Online PhD Graduate

Students enter into online PhD programs from many different walks of life and for many different reasons. We spoke with Nancy, who received her PhD in Philosophy: Communications through an online program.

Why did you choose to earn your PhD online?

I have a family and a full-time job, so dropping everything to attend classes just wasn’t going to fit into my life, as nice as it would have been! I chose to get my degree online after a lot of research into the types of programs available and finding one that fit into my life perfectly.

When choosing an online program, what were some of the most important things you considered?

First, I needed to be able to study on my own time, without the constraints of a set schedule. This was important to me as I still had loads of other responsibilities to juggle while in school. Second, the program needed to be as rigorous as if I were taking an on-campus course – I wanted to ensure I was getting the best education possible. And finally, I looked at professor involvement; even though I would be doing a lot of the coursework on my own, it was important to me that the professors were available to chat if I needed to. And I definitely ended up taking advantage of that during my studies!

Do you think your degree was worth the time and money you invested in it?

Absolutely! While I enjoyed what I was doing before (working in broadcast communications), I was ready for a change and wanted to work toward a career in communications development for philanthropies. It’s been very rewarding to me personally.

What advice would you give to those who are considering pursuing an online PhD program?

Do your research! There are a lot of programs out there, but you’ll want to make sure you find one that not only fits your needs, but is accredited. Also, don’t be afraid to take the leap and go for it. It can mean a great deal of work, but the rewards are tremendous.

The Online PhD Payoff

More education means more money, at least that’s what the numbers say. Of course, a PhD in philosophy may not yield the same career and financial opportunities as an MBA, but on average, a doctoral degree leads to increased salary. Let’s see how PhDs and related professional credentials stack up economically against their counterparts.

Degree Level Average Salary Unemployment Rate
Some College Credit $37,804 7.0%
Associate Degree $40,404 5.4%
Bachelor’s Degree $57,616 4.0%
Master’s Degree $69,108 3.4%
Doctoral Degree $84,396 2.2%
Professional Degree $89,128 2.3%

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2013

The benefits of earning your PhD don’t stop at your bank account, either. Those who have a doctorate level degree can expect greater job security, report lower unemployment rates and a higher earned income over their lifetimes versus those who have not achieved that degree level.

People who hold PhDs also have a much greater likelihood of landing positions of seniority in their chosen fields, as holding a doctorate sets a solid foundation for an upward career trajectory. Finally, a doctorate degree can act as a key, opening doors that may have otherwise remained shut, and is especially helpful to those looking to pursue a career in advanced academic settings.