Online Doctorate Degrees Program Guide

Online doctorate degree programs offer a flexible, affordable option for today's students. Read on to learn how you can earn a degree while balancing work, family, and fun.

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Published on August 18, 2021 · Updated on January 20, 2022

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What is a Doctorate Degree?

Doctorate degrees are considered “terminal degrees” in most fields, reflecting the fact that they are the highest education level you can achieve. Students who decide to pursue these degrees are committed to developing advanced knowledge in a specific topic area, and to becoming skilled researchers. Research doctorate degree programs (i.e., Ph.D.) focus on academic research and subject matter expertise, while professional doctorate degree programs (e.g., D.N.P., Pharm.D., Ed.D.) are designed to prepare students for action-based research and work in an applied setting.

A relatively small percentage of people complete this advanced degree. Why are there so few doctoral graduates compared to other degrees? In part because there are fewer positions that require this level of education. Fewer opportunities lead to increased competition among job seekers when there are more applicants than positions available.

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However, there is an upward trend in students pursuing doctoral level education. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), “Between academic years 2000–01 and 2015–16, the total number of postsecondary degrees conferred increased at all degree levels: doctor's degrees by 49 percent (from 120,000 to 178,000.)” This increase may be due to the access now available through online doctoral programs.


The Doctor of Philosophy degree (Ph.D.) may be the most recognized doctoral degree, but there are others at this level (e.g., Ed.D., D.B.A., D.N.P., Pharm.D.). The Ph.D. is sometimes referred to as a “research degree” since one of the primary components of the curriculum includes designing and conducting original research through the dissertation process. The Ph.D. is also focused on preparing students for work in academia as professors, conducting research to add to the existing knowledge base in their field, and serving as consultants in a range of settings, such as think tanks and corporations.

Professional doctorate degrees are found in a variety of fields from Education (Ed.D.) and Business (D.B.A.) to Nursing (D.N.P.) and Pharmacy (Pharm.D.). These programs prepare students to apply what they've learned in their respective industries. Graduates typically take positions that allow them to practice these skills in the workplace, although they may also participate in research activities.

Professional doctorate degree programs require student research, similar to Ph.D. programs, but may also include the development of a portfolio or special project. There are no clear-cut divisions between the roles Ph.D. and professional doctorate graduates can hold, however. There are Ph.D. graduates working in the industry, and professional doctorates teaching at the college level.

Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) and Ph.D. programs provide a good comparison of the differences in program experiences. M.D. programs typically include two years of coursework followed by two years of advanced courses that include clinical components. Graduates then move into supervised residency positions to further their education and prepare them for independent practice as physicians in their chosen specialty area and professional licensure to practice medicine.

Ph.D. programs typically include 2-3 years of coursework followed by supervised research and teaching, culminating in the completion of an original research project or dissertation. The time required can vary depending on the research project and topic. Most Ph.D. programs expect students to graduate in 4-6 years. Graduates may choose to pursue a “postdoc” program to gain more advanced research experience and training before moving into academic positions.

You can find both online Ph.D. and professional doctoral degrees, including the M.D. These programs may be shorter in duration, particularly for students who have advanced relevant working experience and related graduate degrees at the master's level.

Students interested in online professional degrees or the M.D. should look closely at curriculum requirements, which may include on-site clinical experience and fieldwork. These programs are not always designed to prepare students for licensure or certification required to work in the field, so talk with admissions and academic advisors to find out more about what you can expect, how the program will help you meet your goals, and where alumni are employed.

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On-Campus Full Time Benefits

  • Immersion in research projects and faculty mentorship opportunities
  • Increased opportunities to study across departments
  • Increased opportunities to network with faculty, and participate in collaborative projects with other students


  • Loss of wages while not working
Evening/Weekend Classes Benefits

  • Easier scheduling for working students
  • Ability to connect with faculty in person


  • Less flexible than online options with any-time, any-place access
Hybrid/Blended Benefits

  • Offers students the opportunity to interact with each other, instructors, support services in both online and in-person formats
  • Provides combination of online convenience with face-to-face interaction and communication


  • Less flexible than online options with any-time, any-place access
Online Benefits

  • Most flexible access to coursework, can be completed while working full-time


  • More challenging to develop faculty mentorship relationships
  • More challenging to pursue academic professional development activities (e.g., scholarly writing and publication, conference presentations) with faculty members and classmates


Time to completion can be affected by your field of study, research focus, faculty and student services support, and your motivation and availability to complete the degree requirements. The general curriculum includes coursework, followed by comprehensive exams, and completion of an original research project. The time it takes to design, execute, and analyze the dissertation project, as well as work through the process of approval by a faculty committee, varies by project and student.

Total number of courses, core and elective, and other learning requirements, such as internships, apprenticeships, clinical experiences, and teaching, also vary by discipline and whether or not you pursue a research or professional doctorate degree. You'll find a range of credits from 36 to 90 or more, plus credits earned as part of the dissertation process. Having completed a related master's degree before enrolling in the doctorate may reduce the total number of course credits required.

Among traditional campus-based doctoral programs, the average time to completion is 5.8 years. Online doctoral programs feature similar degree requirements - coursework, exams, dissertation research. But many advertise slightly shorter completion times, ranging from 3 to 5 years.

Accelerated tracks rely on transferring graduate-level credits related to the doctoral program of study, prior related work experience for professional programs, and ideas about a research agenda. Some online doctorate programs use a cohort learning approach in which small groups of students who enter the program at the same time progress through their courses and other degree requirements together as a group, often graduating as a group. Other programs allow each student to enroll and proceed with his or her online program requirements at an individual pace.

How Much Does An Online Doctoral Degree Cost?

Cost is a factor that should always be considered when choosing any online degree program. Doctoral programs are usually more expensive than master's programs since they require completion of more credit hours. Students who rely on college loans to pay for school should be careful to calculate payback amounts that include interest rates. Consider living expenses and school expenses in your budget as you plan your financial future as an online student.

In addition to tuition, students should anticipate additional costs and fees related to academic work, such as textbooks, software, hardware, and Internet access required for participating in online classes. Doctoral programs can also include costs related to residency requirements (i.e., fees plus travel and lodging) and prior learning assessment. When researching options, compare cost-per-credit, which varies by school and can also vary by program and type of course.

Annual tuition rates are reported below. Keep in mind that the average time to complete a doctorate degree is approximately 5 years, and that tuition rates can increase every year.

Average Cost for Graduate Degrees

Type of School Yearly Tuition Cost + Fees
Public Institutions $12,171
Private Non-Profit Institutions $27,776
Private For-Profit Institutions $14,208

Source: NCES


The differences between online program and on-campus program costs are becoming more narrow as more traditional schools offer online programs at the same tuition rates as their campus-based equivalents. Being an online student can still be an advantage financially, however, since costs for commuting to campus and parking are reduced. Similar costs include textbooks, hardware, and software. Online learners also need reliable Internet service and may have costs related to attending in-person residencies or seminars at a campus or other regional location determined by the institution.

Paying for a doctoral program often means relying on multiple sources. On-campus students at this level can apply for research, teaching, and graduate assistantships, which provide a stipend plus tuition waivers in return for work related to the field of study as directed by faculty and the academic department.

These opportunities are also available in some online programs but are not as widespread. Institutional grants in the form of fellowships or scholarships may also be an option, and vary by school and program. Students who work for companies that encourage graduate-level degrees may also find financial incentives available through their employers for attending specific programs that are relevant to their employment.

Total graduate student (master's and doctoral)
aid by source and type for the 2015-2016 school year

Type of Aid Percentage of Total Aid Received
Federal Loans 64%
Institutional Grants 22%
Private and Employer Grants 8%
Federal Grants 2%
State Grants Less than 1%
Federal Work Study Less than 1%

Source: College Board

Almost all graduate students rely on some type of financial assistance to reach their educational goals. A combination of resources are available, including federal financial aid as well as federal and private loans. If you are interested in federal funding, submitting the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the first step. Other financial aid resources include grants and scholarships offered through your state, school, and private lenders. Our guide to a debt-free degree includes savings strategies and budgeting tips to consider before you enroll and while you are a student.

Who Should Consider an Online Doctoral Degree?

Students who pursue a doctoral degree are interested in developing advanced knowledge in a specific area of study, as well as learning how to conduct academic research. This level of academic work goes beyond what you'll find in a master's degree program, to include the opportunity to develop expertise in the area of interest and contribute original research to other professionals in your field.

Most students who complete an online Ph.D. or research doctorate degree are interested in finding positions at colleges and universities or research centers. Students who pursue professional doctorate programs (e.g., D.B.A., Ed.D., D.N.P., Pharm.D.) are usually interested in working in senior-level clinical or practical application positions after graduation, often in business and industry settings.

Completing a doctorate degree can help further your career if you are on a path that requires this level of preparation. Earning a doctoral degree can also increase your salary. However, there are fewer positions of this type available and increasing competition among applicants, particularly those with Ph.Ds. According to the BLS, in 2019, the median weekly earnings for full-time workers ages 25 and over whose highest level of education was a doctoral degree was $1,883, compared with $1,246 for those whose highest level was a bachelor's degree.


The primary reason to pursue a doctoral degree is because it is a requirement to get hired in your career of interest, and at the level of work you want to perform. In addition to becoming an expert in a specific field, doctoral students develop advanced skills in the following areas: problem-solving and critical thinking; project management; data collection, analysis, and reporting; research design; and oral and written communication.

How to Choose an Online Doctoral Degree

Doctoral programs require a significant investment from students in terms of time, commitment, and money. If you are sure an online doctorate program is right for you, take some time to compare multiple options in your field of interest. Each program is unique in terms of its curriculum, faculty, and specialization options. Finding the right match is essential to helping you reach your career and education goals at this advanced level. In addition to cost and subject area, here are a few considerations to explore:

How flexible are class schedules?

Each course has a beginning and end date and is often organized in weekly modules, but there are other considerations. Find out more about how course work is conducted (asynchronous vs. synchronous), how long each academic term is, and how many classes you can take during each term.

Will the program fulfill licensure or certification requirements?

If your career field or employment plans after graduation require you to get a license or certification, find out how the program's curriculum is designed to help you meet these requirements, such as taking national exams.

Are there in-person attendance requirements?

Many online doctoral programs require students to attend campus for scheduled “residencies” or capstone events, as well as for advising or testing. Attending a university near you may also provide access to student resources ranging from libraries to fitness centers.

What are faculty members' specialties?

Look for faculty member bios that reference not only their qualifications but also past experience and current research interests. Finding a faculty advisor whose interests are similar to yours is beneficial in terms of guiding your doctoral research and helping you build a relevant network in the field.

How is the program organized?

In some programs learners enroll in courses, in the proper sequence, at their own pace, which can provide some scheduling flexibility. Other programs use a cohort model in which small groups of students work through courses at the same time, which can enhance community building and collaboration among students. There are advantages to each approach, depending on what works best for you.


What are your professional goals? What kind of work do you want to pursue? These are just a few of the questions that can help you determine which type of doctoral degree you want to pursue. Students who are primarily interested in an academic career, as a professor or senior administrator, typically choose a Ph.D. program. Ph.D. programs are designed to help students become experts in a specific area of study and develop advanced research skills.

Students who are more interested in applied careers related to business and industry can choose from a range of professional doctorate degrees, such as the Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) and Doctor of Business Administration (D.B.A.). Some professional doctorates are highly specialized for a particular industry (e.g., Doctor of Pharmacy - Pharm.D., Doctor of Nursing Practice - D.N.P., Doctor of Medicine - M.D., Doctor of Social Work - D.S.W.). These programs offer a combination of research training and preparation for professional practice.

These popular doctoral degree programs can lead to a wide variety of career options. Each school may also provide students with a choice of concentration or specialization.

Doctor of Education (Ed.D.): Ed.D. students complete coursework, research, and practical experience requirements focused on meeting current challenges in education. Graduates pursue administrative careers in higher education and K-12 settings, as well as in related organizations and companies. Popular concentrations include: Educational Administration, Organizational Leadership, Special Education, Educational Technology, Curriculum and Instruction, and Community College Leadership.

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D): The Ph.D. curriculum focuses on research theory and design, as well as a specific academic discipline (e.g. Biology, Psychology, Engineering, Computer Science, Math, Sociology, History). Students can further specialize their programs with concentrations related to their primary area of study. Many Ph.D. students are pursuing careers in academia and research, although graduates also work in business and industry.

Doctor of Theology (Th.D.): The Th.D. is similar to the Ph.D., focused on research, but within theological topics, such as denominational history, hermeneutics, theological practices, mission studies, liturgy, and ethical values. Some programs offer students additional academic concentrations (e.g., pastoral counseling, world religions, peace studies, Old Testament). Graduates may pursue academic teaching and research jobs, as well as positions in ministry and nonprofit leadership.

M.D. (Medical Doctorate): M.D. students typically pursue careers as practicing physicians. After completing medical school, they serve as residents to continue their clinical training and specialize in a wide range of medical fields from anesthesiology to vascular surgery. Many schools provide joint degree options (e.g., M.D./M.B.A., M.D./Ph.D., MD/J.D., MD/M.Div.) for students who also want advanced skills to work in a broader setting.


Your state of residency is part of your application process, and you may be unsure about in-state and out-of-state tuition rates in an online program. In recent years, college tuition and fees vary by school - some schools charged more for online courses, while others charged less. This is changing, however, and now you'll find that many schools charge the same per-credit tuition rate for online and on-campus courses. This is not the case at every school, and tuition can even vary by program within an institution, so it is critical to understand specific costs and compare these among the schools you are considering before you enroll.

It's also important to understand that not all online programs enroll students from any state without prior approval, due to complex federal and state regulations. In response to work by the National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement, many schools offering online programs work with their states to participate in the agreement. This process was designed with students and schools in mind, to streamline processes, ensure quality, and minimize costs. Check with each school you are interested in applying to for more information about how they enroll students from the state where you live. In addition to tuition and fee charges, there are other considerations when deciding to attend an online program in- or out-of-state.

Several recent research reports found that online students are increasingly choosing institutions in their local area. Why do students choose to go to schools within their home state? These schools already have name recognition in their communities and with local employers. Being near a physical campus also means that online students can take full advantage of services ranging from libraries and career counseling to advisors and fitness centers.

This is particularly beneficial for doctoral students who want to interact more directly with faculty mentors, participate in research center activities, access specialized libraries, and serve as teaching or research assistants on campus. Students who are also working toward state licensure should check with their state licensing office for more information about enrolling in an out-of-state and online program.


You'll find similar doctoral programs offered online through public and private universities. The primary difference lies in the fact that public institutions rely on state and federal funding, while private non-profit institutions rely on tuition, fees, and private donations.

Private for-profit institutions are more focused on a business model concerned with financial return for stockholders. Public institutions can typically offer lower tuition rates than private schools, but this isn't always the case - public schools may have separate in-state and out-of-state rates to compare. Public schools also usually have larger student enrollments, and many offer a wider range of degree programs.

At the doctorate level, each school will offer a unique set of advantages and disadvantages. Depending on your area of study, there may be a small number of programs that are considered more prestigious, whether they are public or private. In addition to comparing tuition and fees, research other resources that may impact your learning experience, such as the ability to be a teaching or graduate assistant (with a stipend and tuition waiver). Non-financial considerations are also important: faculty qualifications, student research opportunities, and graduation rates.


The differences between “online” and “on campus” are primarily related to the format of delivery. Is one format better than the other? A better question is which format is best for you. Students at undergraduate and graduate levels are reporting a high-level of satisfaction with online learning, and institutions are seeing an increasing demand for more online learning options. Prospective doctoral students should weigh the flexibility and convenience of online access and class participation with the opportunities for faculty mentorship and access to resources and support for research in their area of interest when comparing online and on-campus options.

As more traditional, campus-based institutions offer online access to their programs, including online Ph.D. programs, the more accepted they become across higher education. As the academic quality and student services related to online education improve, graduates are more prepared for their lives after graduation and employers gain respect for online learning through the experience of hiring qualified alumni.

Why Accreditation is Key

Accreditation is the basic process higher education relies on to ensure academic quality. It involves an external review of curriculum, faculty, facilities, finances, student support services, learning objectives, student satisfaction, and a range of administrative practices (e.g., admissions, recruiting) by a private organization. Once accreditation has been achieved, periodic reviews keep it up to date. Online and on-campus programs go through the same accreditation process, although there are some agencies that specialize in online education.

At the graduate level, look for both institutional accreditation and program accreditation. All schools you consider should have current accreditation status from either a regional or national accrediting agency. While the review process is essentially the same, regional accreditation is still considered by some to be more prestigious. Some subject areas also have specialized accreditation. Accredited online doctoral programs in psychology, for example, may be accredited by the American Psychological Association. If your doctoral program helps you prepare for licensure, be sure to check with your state office for guidance on accreditation.

How can you ensure that you are considering accredited online doctoral programs? There are two groups currently monitoring accrediting agencies and the schools they have accredited. The goal of these efforts is to inform students and employers about the status of schools and programs. Accreditation can also affect the ability of a school to receive federal financial aid. The U.S. Department of Education, a government agency, maintains lists of recognized accreditors and a database of currently accredited schools. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) is an association of colleges and universities that serves as an advocate for students and academic quality. CHEA maintains a directory of recognized accreditors and a database of schools and programs.

Applying to a Doctoral Degree Program

Each school and program has different requirements for admission and a separate application process. Check with each school you are interested in attending to make sure you have current information about what to prepare and submit. Review our checklist of items to consider as you compare online doctoral programs and prepare to submit your applications.

Things to Consider


Students can continue to work full-time while studying online. Some programs are designed for this, while others recommend students attend school full-time for at least part of the curriculum. Many doctoral programs also have residency requirements, which can take place over long weekends or be several months in duration. Students should expect to be involved in courses daily, and for an entire doctoral program to last approximately 5 years.

Transfer Credit Opportunities

Students who have earned graduate-level academic credits may be able to transfer if those courses are not already part of a previous degree and are relevant to your doctoral program. Prior learning assessment of prior work or military experience for academic credit, may also be available. Each program is different and transfer credit requests are typically reviewed on a case-by-case basis.

Admissions Deadline

Application deadlines typically occur at least three times per year - Spring, Summer, and Fall. However, many online programs with accelerated academic terms offer more options on a “rolling admissions” schedule. During rolling admissions, you can apply at any time throughout the year with an accelerated acceptance decision and start date. Check the deadlines for the program you are interested in attending, not just for the school.

Technology Requirements

Each school will provide a list of technical specifications that includes hardware and software required to attend online. You may encounter additional technology needs (e.g., app downloads, software subscriptions, headset) in specific courses. Access to a broadband Internet connection is also advised to ensure uninterrupted access to course materials, digital textbooks, streaming audio and video, as well as live events and meetings. While many undergraduate programs provide laptops to students, educational discounts are typical at all degree levels.

What You Need to Apply:


For students who have earned a master's degree in the same field as the doctorate, have significant and relevant professional experience, or who meet minimum GPA guidelines in previous degrees, additional testing may not be required. However, every program is different and may require the GRE or GMAT. Law students should plan to take the LSAT, and medical students the MCAT, as part of the application process. International and ESL applicants may be required to submit scores from the TOEFL or IEFLTS. Check your program of interest for any minimum score expectations.

Letters of Recommendation

Check with each program for guidelines on how many references you should request and how they should be submitted (letter vs. online form). Ask people who know your relevant work experience and/or academic achievements well. Share some details about your educational and career goals, as well as about the programs you are interested in attending. Give them ample time to complete your reference request before the school's deadline.


Graduate-level applications typically include some documentation of your past accomplishments and examples of your work. Expect to submit a current resume at a minimum, and prepare to share a current writing sample. Programs in practical fields of study may also request to review a portfolio of your work.


Not all online doctorate programs require you to attend an interview (in person, online, or via phone), but this step helps you share your readiness for doctoral studies. It also helps the department determine your match for the program. The interview could be a casual conversation or a more formal meeting, or series of meetings, with faculty members and current students. Prepare to share details about your prior work and academic background, as well as your goals for entering the program and plans after graduation.

Personal Statement/Essay

Submitting a personal statement gives you the opportunity to share why you think you are a good fit for the program. If this is a required part of your application, check for instructions specific to your program. You may be asked to provide a general statement or respond to more specific questions that address your background and goals, preparation for the program, current knowledge in the field of study, and more.

Official Transcripts

Some online applications allow you to upload scanned versions of your “unofficial” transcripts for review, but “official” transcripts are usually required before a final admission decision can be made. Official transcripts are sent directly from the school you attended to the school you are applying to attend. You may also forward printed copies of official transcripts that were sealed by the universities you attended. Check with each program for the preferred process. Be prepared to submit all transcripts, including completed undergraduate and graduate programs, as well as for any courses you want to transfer.

Prerequisite Courses

If the program you are applying to has course prerequisites for admission (e.g., “at least a C in a statistics or research methods course”), make sure that information is reflected in your transcript submission. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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