Online Ph.D. Degree Guide

by Genevieve Carlton
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Online Ph.D. programs prepare graduates for career advancements and the highest academic, research, and leadership positions in their field.

The flexible learning format of an online program makes a Ph.D. more accessible than ever before. Online doctoral students pursue focused training in their field that leads to opportunities as college professors, research scientists, superintendents, advanced practice nurses, or CEOs.

This page introduces the top 10 universities with online Ph.D. programs. It also provides resources on choosing a program, gaining admission, and paying for a Ph.D.

Types of Doctoral Degrees

Doctoral degrees differ depending on discipline. Some disciplines offer a research-based Ph.D., while others offer an applied doctorate.


Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

A doctor of philosophy provides research-based training in a discipline. Many liberal arts programs offer a Ph.D. to prepare graduates for academic positions as tenure-track professors. During a Ph.D., graduate students complete coursework, pass comprehensive examinations, and research an original dissertation topic. They must defend their dissertation before a faculty committee to earn their degree.

The length of a Ph.D. program varies depending on the discipline. A doctor of education degree may take three years, while a liberal arts Ph.D. often takes five or more years. The following list includes common Ph.D. programs.


Applied Doctorate

An applied doctorate trains graduates for careers in their field. For example, a doctor of business administration degree prepares business professionals for leadership positions, and a doctor of psychology degree meets the requirements for a professional license.

The curriculum in an applied doctorate focuses on real-world skills and abilities. Many applied doctoral programs incorporate an internship or practicum for hands-on experience. Applied doctorates often take slightly less time than a research Ph.D. For instance, a doctorate in nursing practice typically takes three years. These are common applied doctoral programs:

What Is the Difference Between a Ph.D. and a MD?

Both a Ph.D. and an MD offer terminal degrees in their respective fields. However, while doctoral students earn Ph.D.s in diverse subjects like the liberal arts and engineering, an MD offers focused medical training. After completing a four-year MD degree, graduates complete a residency and apply for a medical license.

What's the Difference between an Online Doctoral Degree and a Traditional Degree

Online and in-person doctoral programs offer advanced education in a focused specialty. During a doctoral degree, graduate students complete coursework, meet internship or practicum requirements, and conduct research in their field.

Online doctoral degrees use flexible enrollment options that appeal to working professionals and busy students. Accredited online programs meet the same standards as in-person programs and often use the same curriculum and graduation requirements. At many universities, online doctoral students receive the same diplomas as in-person students.

Can You Get a Doctoral Degree All Online?

In 2018, 1.2 million graduate students enrolled in online classes. A fully online doctoral program offers graduate-level training in a distance learning format. While many doctoral programs offer a completely online option, others include on-campus residency periods or hybrid classes. In some programs, learners complete an internship or practicum in their local area to meet graduation requirements.

Depending on the program, learners may enroll in synchronous or asynchronous classes. In a synchronous program, students meet for live lectures at set times, while an asynchronous program does not use live meetings. Distance learners often benefit from student services like access to the university library and the ability to walk during commencement.

How Long Does It Take To Get an Online Doctoral Degree?

The length of an online doctorate varies by discipline. A professional doctorate in education or business typically takes three years, while a Ph.D. in psychology can require more than five years. Many liberal arts doctoral programs require at least five years.

Program length also depends on the school and its specific internship, practicum, or research-based dissertation project requirements. Some universities offer accelerated courses or different course formats that may also influence the time to degree.

Featured Online Ph.D. Programs

How to Choose an Online Doctorate Program

Prospective doctoral applicants must consider and research several factors when choosing their Ph.D. program, such as cost, program length, and specialization options. Some online programs use a hybrid format, where students take some on-campus classes; others use a fully online format. Online programs may also offer asynchronous or synchronous courses, depending on the program.

At the doctoral level, applicants should also consider faculty mentorship opportunities, professional networking opportunities, and the program's placement record. By considering these factors, applicants can find the best fit for their unique circumstances and needs.

Popular Online Ph.D. Programs

Graduate students can earn online doctorates in education, business, psychology, technology, social work, and public health. This section introduces popular online Ph.D. programs including information on the discipline and program options. Learn more about each option by checking out the following resources.

Accreditation for Doctoral Programs

Applicants should always choose an accredited university for their online doctoral degree. Accredited schools meet the highest standards for educating students and granting degrees.

In addition to university accreditation, many doctoral programs hold specialized accreditation. Choosing an unaccredited program can result in a lower-quality education, a lack of financial aid opportunities, and exclusion from professional licenses.

How Much Does an Online Doctoral Degree Cost?

The cost of an online doctoral degree depends on the school, discipline, and program length. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, graduate programs charged an average tuition rate of over $19,000 per year in 2018-2019. Public universities cost around $12,000 per year, and private universities charge nearly $26,000.

College costs also vary by field. For instance, many business schools charge above-average tuition rates. In addition to tuition, doctoral applicants should budget for fees, textbooks, and living expenses.

Paying for Graduate Study

Doctoral students pay for online college by choosing affordable programs, drawing on their savings, and/or using financial aid. For example, researching programs with in-state tuition discounts can significantly lower the cost of a doctorate.

At the doctoral level, students qualify for research assistantships, teaching assistantships, and dissertation fellowships. Many online learners also work while pursuing a degree. Online Ph.D. programs appeal to working students balancing school with their career. Doctoral students also qualify for several forms of financial aid to pay for their degree.

Financial Aid for Online Graduate School

Online doctoral students qualify for several forms of financial aid, including federal student aid, institutional aid, and financial support from private foundations and professional associations.

Doctoral students should plan to submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), every year during their program. The FAFSA calculates a student's expected financial contribution and financial need to award student loans, grants, and work-study support. Graduate students automatically qualify as financially independent regardless of their age, which means they do not need to provide parental financial information.

In addition to federal aid, many doctoral students receive support from their university. Graduate assistantships and fellowships often provide a tuition remission and stipend. In these roles, doctoral students may provide research support to faculty members, grade papers or tests, or participate in research groups.

Professional associations and private foundations also offer scholarships and grants for doctoral students.

When Should You Apply to Graduate Programs?

Most graduate programs admit new doctoral students in the fall or spring terms, though some schools offer multiple start dates or rolling admission throughout the year. When researching doctoral programs, pay attention to application deadlines and requirements.

Begin your graduate application at least one month before the deadline. Budget time for preparing application materials, getting letters of recommendation, and revising your personal statement. Programs that require graduate admission tests will require even more time.

Applying to Online Graduate Programs

Each graduate program sets its own application requirements and process. The following checklist walks through how to complete online doctoral applications.

  1. Visit college websites and request more information: Most graduate programs provide information online about their admission requirements, doctoral coursework, and distance learning options. If the university website lacks any information, reach out to the program directly. An admissions advisor can provide advice on completing the application process.
  2. Understand and meet entrance requirements: Online doctoral programs set different entrance requirements depending on the field and university. For example, some Ph.D. programs require a master's degree for admission; others do not. Many programs also require graduate exams such as the GRE or the GMAT. Applicants should ensure they meet the entrance requirements before submitting an application.
  3. Request and receive letters of recommendation: Most doctoral applicants submit letters of recommendation as part of their application. These letters should speak to the applicant's ability to succeed at the graduate level. Former professors or professional supervisors often write the strongest recommendation letters. Make sure to ask your letter writers at least three weeks before the deadline.
  4. Draft and revise personal statements: Doctoral programs often require personal statements on the applicant's preparation for graduate study and career plans after earning a doctorate. Applicants should set aside time to draft and revise their personal statement. Ask a friend or family member for feedback or to proofread and eliminate any grammatical errors, typos, or unclear phrasing.

Applying to Graduate Programs During COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has altered the delivery options and application requirements for many online doctoral programs. Formerly in-person programs shifted to online formats during the pandemic, and many universities waived their graduate admission test requirements.

When applying to graduate programs, applicants should research any changes due to the pandemic or new requirements. For example, some universities require COVID-19 vaccination for students returning to campus, even in a hybrid format.

What Can You Do With an Online Doctoral Degree?

An online doctoral degree prepares graduates for careers in research, academia, and practice. For example, a doctorate in business or education often leads to leadership positions such as chief executive officer or district superintendent. In psychology, a doctorate meets the requirements for professional licensure and practice. Fields like nursing also offer strong career paths for doctoral graduates.

Online doctoral programs at accredited universities provide the same career preparation as in-person programs. As the terminal degree in many fields, a doctorate offers the most advanced educational training possible. After completing doctoral exams and a dissertation or doctoral project, graduates enter the workforce as experts in their specialty area. A Ph.D. meets the qualifications for research roles in laboratories and in academic settings. For instance, most tenure-track professors hold a doctorate in their field.

Popular Questions About Doctoral Degrees

true Can You Do a Ph.D. Program Online?

Yes, many universities offer online Ph.D. programs in business, technology, education, nursing, or psychology. Distance learners at accredited institutions receive the same diploma as in-person students.

true How Much Does It Cost To Get a Ph.D. Online?

The cost of an online doctorate varies depending on the program and school. Doctoral students qualify for several forms of financial aid, including grants, scholarships, fellowships, assistantships, and loans.

true Can I Get a Ph.D. Without a Master's Degree?

Yes, some programs admit doctoral students without a master's degree. However, admission policies vary widely, so prospective applicants should research the requirements of each program.

Genevieve Carlton holds a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University. After earning her doctorate in early modern European history, Carlton worked as an assistant professor of history at the University of Louisville, where she developed new courses on the history of science, Renaissance Italy, and the witch trials. Carlton has published five peer-reviewed articles in top presses and a monograph with the University of Chicago Press. She also earned tenure with a unanimous vote before relocating to Seattle. Learn more about Carlton's work at genevievecarlton.com.

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