How to Earn an Online Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership

Professionals with a background in organizational leadership can be effective managers in a variety of settings, and individuals with a Ph.D. in the field can even teach their skills to the next generation of leaders. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that employment for postsecondary teachers specializing in business-related disciplines will grow by 18% through 2026, more than double the rate of growth for all other occupations. In addition to exceptional job prospects, business professors command high salaries. According to the BLS, they earned a median salary of $80,300 in 2017.

To qualify for these positions, you need a doctorate in your area of expertise, such as an online Ph.D. in organizational leadership. This page provides an overview of those programs, including admission requirements, curricula, and possible career paths after graduation. It also offers advice on how to finance your education through scholarships and grants.

Student Profile: Who Earns an Online Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership?

Some students pursue their online Ph.D. in organizational leadership directly after graduating from a master's program. Typically, these students hope to take on roles in academia, such as research associate or assistant professor.

Others may consider a doctoral program after working for several years in either the public or private sector. These students often pursue a Ph.D. in order to qualify for leadership roles at a new organization or negotiate a promotion and salary increase at their current place of employment.

Why Get a Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership?

Pursuing Specialization

Earning a Ph.D. in organizational leadership online can prepare you for more specialized roles in industry or academia. For example, you may want to work as an organizational design consultant, advising multiple companies about how to structure their hierarchy so that individuals and groups can work more effectively and efficiently. Or, you may instead want to pursue tenure as a professor of organizational leadership at a college or university.

Career Advancement Opportunities

While not specifically required, a doctorate may help you stand above other candidates when competing for leadership roles. The degree signals deep understanding of areas such as organizational behavior and business analytics, and it can qualify you for positions such as chief operating officer, chief learning officer, and chief executive officer. Even if you don't immediately seek out a promotion, the new skills you develop in a Ph.D. program may allow you to negotiate a higher salary in your current job.

Online Learning Technology

Many companies that hire full time or consulting organizational leadership specialists operate across multiple cities, states, or even countries. To understand the organizational needs of a multinational corporation and to effectively work with your colleagues, you need a background in communications and distance collaboration technologies. Earning a Ph.D. in organizational leadership online can introduce you to these tools and help you develop professional competencies in this area.

Prerequisites for Online Organizational Leadership Programs

The admission requirements for online doctoral programs in organizational leadership can vary considerably, but you can read more about general prerequisites for these programs below.

  • Work Experience: Given that many of these doctoral programs cater to students who want to pursue careers in academia, most do not explicitly require a certain number of years of work experience. More practice-oriented programs may prefer candidates with experience in a leadership position, however, and these kind of roles can often improve your odds of admission no matter your future plans.
  • Exams and Test Scores: Generally speaking, students applying to these programs do not need to submit test scores, as many already did so when applying to their master's program. However, some programs may ask that students share results from the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT), an exam commonly used by business schools to test content knowledge and critical reasoning skills.
  • Coursework: In a master's program in organizational leadership, expect to take courses covering subjects such as strategic human resource management, human behavior, and leading change. You may need to maintain at least a 3.0 GPA in your master's studies in order to earn admission into a Ph.D. program.
  • Recommendations: Your program may ask that you submit up to three letters of recommendation from former professors, employers, and community leaders. Try to avoid asking family members or friends, and give your recommenders at least two months to write and submit your letter.
  • Essays: Schools often request that students write an essay detailing their academic and professional qualifications, as well as how they plan to use their degree after graduation. Some programs may allow you to submit a master's thesis or research paper on a topic in organizational leadership instead.
  • Interviews: While some online programs no longer rely on interviews to make admission decisions, you should prepare for them regardless. Along with the chance to highlight your accomplishments, interviews allow you to provide additional context to potential weaknesses in your application, such as low test scores or a gap in your resume. Consider arranging a mock interview with a friend or colleague.
  • International Students: International students must meet the same admissions requirements as students who earned their advanced degree in the United States. You may also need to verify the accreditation of your graduate institution and submit results from the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL).

How Much Can I Make with a Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership?

According to the BLS, the median postsecondary business teacher earned slightly more than $80,00 in 2017. Top executives, a category that includes leadership positions like chief human resources officer, executive director, and president, earned a median salary of close to $105,000 in that same year.

Generally speaking, graduates who work at a for-profit company make more than those who work at a postsecondary institution, though elite colleges and universities may offer highly competitive salaries as well.

Traditional Careers for Organizational Leadership Doctoral Degree Graduates

Career Stats Description

Elementary, Middle, or High School Principal

Median Pay: $94,390

Job Growth: 8%

Principals manage all of their school's operations, including hiring teachers and administrative staff, creating budgets, and ensuring a safe learning environment for students. They also play a role in shaping the school's curriculum, assessing teacher performance, and overseeing disciplinary cases. If you hope to become a school principal, you may consider pursuing an online Ed.D. in organizational development rather than a Ph.D.

Ideal for: Former teachers who want to take on a leadership role at their school.

Postsecondary Education Administrators

Median Pay: $92,360

Job Growth: 10%

Postsecondary education administrators perform a variety of services for colleges and universities. Depending on their area of specialization, they may direct a school's admissions office, oversee student affairs staff, manage the institution's financial operations, or provide instructional planning support to professors. Here again, an Ed.D. may better suit those with a desire to work in organizational leadership in an educational setting.

Ideal for: Analytical problem-solvers with a passion for education.

Top Executive

Median Pay: $104,700

Job Growth: 8%

Top executives set organizational strategy and oversee its implementation. In the private sector, top executives may serve in roles such as chief operating officer or general manager. In the public sector, top executives may hold titles such as mayor, school district superintendent, or executive director of a nonprofit organization.

Ideal for: Professionals with strong interpersonal skills and the power to motivate others.

Human Resources Director

Median Pay: $86,178

Job Growth: 9%

Human resources directors lead an organization's personnel management activities. They help hire new employees, create onboarding and professional development programs, establish and enforce policies, and oversee payroll and benefits. At larger organizations, a human resources director often supervises the work of team members specializing in different areas.

Ideal for: Individuals who enjoy recruiting, negotiating, and supporting the ongoing learning of their colleagues.

Nontraditional Careers for Organizational Leadership Doctoral Degree Graduates

Career Stats Description

Director of Youth and College Ministries

Median Pay: $41,327

Job Growth: 7%

Religious directors work in a variety of settings, including churches, community organizations, and schools. They may develop and lead educational programs for young people, organize social events, or provide individual and group counseling to youth in need of guidance. Directors of ministry at larger organizations, such as a network of churches, often oversee the work of worship leaders, teachers, and counselors.

Ideal for: Individuals who enjoy supporting the spiritual and emotional development of young people.


Median Pay: N/A

Job Growth: N/A

The term "entrepreneur" encompasses a wide variety of professionals. Entrepreneurs may work on their own, offering consulting services to a small group of clients. They may also start a brick-and-mortar business, employing a team to help them sell goods and services. Or they may launch a nonprofit organization to help improve their community. All entrepreneurs, however, can benefit from an improved understanding of how organizations function.

Ideal for: Self-driven and exacting professionals who can weather uncertainty in their work.

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, PayScale, 2017-2018

Paying for an Online Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership

The cost of earning your doctorate in organizational leadership online varies greatly depending on the program you choose. For example, some schools offer accelerated tracks, allowing you to graduate sooner and pay less overall in tuition. Part-time students, conversely, may pay more in tuition over time.

Many doctoral programs also provide funding to attract top-tier students, usually in the form of fellowships or assistantships. You can also research private scholarships specifically for students pursuing their Ph.D. in a business-related field.

Subject-Specific Financial Aid, Grants & Scholarships

Along with fellowships and work-study opportunities offered by individual schools, you can also apply for national scholarships to help finance your education. Five scholarships for Ph.D. students are detailed below.

What to Expect from an Online D.BA Program

Most students complete the coursework for their organizational leadership doctorate in about three years. If you plan to pursue a practice-based doctorate, such as a DBA, you will also need to complete a capstone project. This project requires you to apply your learning in a real-world organizational leadership setting.

Students pursuing a research-oriented doctorate, like a Ph.D., need to complete a dissertation. The process of collecting research, writing, and defending your dissertation before a faculty committee may take anywhere from one to five additional years.

Major Milestones

  1. Enrollment - After your acceptance into a program

    After receiving your admissions notice, reach out to your school's financial aid office to discuss fellowship and work-study opportunities. You can also connect with your faculty adviser to design a course of study.

  2. Completing Foundational Coursework - In the first year of your doctoral studies

    Expect to take foundational classes covering subjects like quantitative research methods and organizational theory. Students with a master's degree in organizational leadership or a closely related field may test out of these introductory courses.

  3. Completing Elective Coursework - In the second and third year of your doctoral studies

    You can customize your course of study through elective classes in areas like group behavior and organizational culture. Your electives should help inform your dissertation or help you develop skills for your desired career path.

  4. Completing Capstone/Beginning Dissertation Research - Directly prior to graduation for capstone students/roughly three years prior to graduation for dissertation students

    After finishing their coursework, DBA students complete a capstone project in preparation for graduation. Ph.D. students typically begin researching their dissertation, which may require several additional years of work.

  5. Writing Dissertation - One to two years prior to graduation

    After conducting your original research or collecting research from multiple sources, you can begin writing your dissertation. Students work closely with a faculty adviser to shape their dissertation, often submitting multiple drafts and making extensive revisions over the course of a year or more.

  6. Defending Dissertation - Directly prior to graduation

    In most Ph.D. programs, you must defend your finished dissertation before a faculty committee. This committee determines whether your work meets the requirements for earning a doctoral degree and signs off on your graduation from the program.


The courses you take while pursuing an online Ph.D. in organizational leadership depend on the program you select, as well as your academic interests and professional goals. Below are five foundational courses commonly offered in these programs.

Organizational Theory and Design

This course provides an introduction to many of the concepts students encounter in their doctoral studies, including internal and external environments, organizational life cycles, and various theories related to organizational structure and hierarchy.

Group Behavior

As a leader, you must understand how to support and direct the work of groups made up of diverse members. This class examines human exchanges within communities, with a particular emphasis placed on the behavior of teams.

Organizational Culture and Climate

Leaders play a key role in fostering organizational climates, whether good or bad. This course equips students with the knowledge and skills necessary to create working environments and value systems that promote efficiency, effectiveness, and high morale.

Organizational Communication

Communicating across an organization requires a different set of skills than communicating on an individual level. In this course, students examine theories behind organizational communication and gain practical experience in using systems designed to promote collaboration and knowledge-sharing.

Advanced Research Methods

Students planning to complete a dissertation typically take a series of courses related to collecting and analyzing data. Advanced research classes often cover subjects like descriptive statistics, parametric analyses of relationships, and factor analysis.

Requirements to Practice

Generally speaking, you do not need a license to serve in any organizational leadership role in either the public or private sector. You also do not need a license to teach at the postsecondary level, though you may need to pursue educator certification if you plan to teach at a high school instead.

And while a Ph.D. serves as a powerful signal of your knowledge and skills, some organizational leadership professionals may seek out additional certifications to further demonstrate their expertise in particular areas of practice. You can read more about four such certifications below.

  • Strategic Organizational Leadership Certified: This certification provides further evidence that a professional has mastered skills like engaging their employees, establishing a vision, and achieving organizational goals. To receive this credential, you must pass an online exam costing $300.
  • Certified Nonprofit Professional: For those hoping to work at a charitable organization or public service agency, this credential can help signal your expertise in nonprofit management and leadership. Earning certification requires the completion of an online training program covering subjects like volunteer management and resource development.
  • SHRM Senior Certified Professional: Senior-level human resources professionals may seek out this certification. Applicants must possess an advanced degree and at least three years of professional experience. The exam consists of 160 questions, assessing both HR knowledge and situational judgement. It costs $400.
  • Certified Global Business Professional: Administered by the National Association of Small Business International Trade Educators, this certification program may help give you an edge over other candidates when competing for jobs with multinational organizations. The exam costs $395 and covers topics like global business management and intercultural awareness.

Professional Organizations & Resources

After earning your online Ph.D. in organizational leadership, you should consider joining a professional organization. Through resources like webinars and scholarly journals, these groups can help you keep up with the latest trends and research. Many also host regional and national events, giving you the opportunity to network and share best practices with other organizational leadership professionals. Finally, these groups often maintain job boards and career centers to assist their members in identifying new opportunities.

  • Organizational Development Network: Founded in 1968, the OD Network aims to create a global community for professionals working to develop effective and healthy organizations. Members can access online training resources, attend an international conference, or share career opportunities through the network's job exchange.
  • American Leadership Development Association: ALDA promotes the study and practice of leadership development. The association's global leadership award recognizes exemplary service to the field, and The Leaders Magazine helps keep members up to date on new methodologies and research.
  • American Management Association: AMA provides a wealth of professional development opportunities for managers from all disciplines. Members can listen to podcasts, participate in webinars, attend in-person workshops, and read white papers and journal articles.
  • Organizational Behavior Management Network: The OBM Network supports the growth of the organizational behavior management field through education, research, and collaboration. The group's message board helps members discuss career opportunities and consult with others on problems of practice.
  • Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology: SIOP serves professionals who apply the scientific principles of psychology to workplace issues. In addition to scholarships, publications, and continuing education resources, the society offers information on licensing for those who practice under the title of "psychologist."
  • U.S. Department of Education - Student Aid: Financing your education begins with completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA determines your eligibility for federal grants, work-study positions, and low-interest student loans.
  • The Ph.D. Project: The Ph.D. Project provides doctoral students with information on applying to a program, securing financial aid, and writing a dissertation. It also offers resources on finding a job in academia after graduation.
  • Harvard Business School Working Knowledge: The HBS Working Knowledge portal collects research from some of the leading minds in the world of business. You can read briefs and longer policy papers on topics like organizational design, change, and culture.
  • RAND Corporation - Organizational Leadership: The RAND Corporation also curates research in organizational leadership. The site's blogs and journal articles explore this topic in settings such as government agencies, the military, and healthcare organizations.
  • Purdue Online Writing Lab: Completing your dissertation requires strong writing skills. The Purdue OWL offers guidance on all aspects of writing, including properly citing sources, following a style guide, and structuring an argument.