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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People choose to go to graduate school for many reasons. An advanced degree provides access to some of the best training and career opportunities available in many fields. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), more than 190,000 doctoral degrees were conferred in 2019-20 — a number that has increased steadily for over four decades.

While these programs have become more accessible, with many top online schools awarding online doctorates, they still appeal to a specific type of student. Most doctoral programs require applicants to hold master's degrees in a related discipline for entry. Additionally, the average annual tuition for graduate programs was $19,792 during the 2019-20 school year (NCES), which is a prohibitive cost for some students.

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Here, we explore these degrees in more detail, highlighting the types, costs, and purposes of these programs. We also examine some of the most common degree disciplines and career outcomes.

Types of Doctorate Degrees

Ph.D.

In this type of program, students produce original research to add to the field's discourse and body of knowledge. Learners look to fill in gaps in research, critique or apply theories in new ways, and communicate new ideas based on their findings.

Common Ph.D. degrees:

Professional Doctorate Degree

In this program type, students seek out new practices and professional applications for their research and studies. They look for solutions to professional challenges and limitations, develop leadership and management skills, and produce research and theories that expand on professional knowledge and capabilities.

Common doctorate degrees:

Online Doctorate Programs That Might Interest You

Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

Do I Need a Doctorate Degree?

Many education, health, and legal professions require doctoral degrees, such as postsecondary teachers, doctors, and lawyers. In addition to providing access to specialized careers, earning a doctoral degree can make it easier for professionals to negotiate a higher salary.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), doctoral degree-holders earned median weekly earnings of roughly $1,890 in 2020 — almost $350 more per week than master's degree-holders. Doctoral and professional degree-holders also experienced low unemployment rates of 2.5-3.1%, with the next lowest group of professionals (master's degree-holders) at 4.1%.

When deciding whether to pursue a doctorate, prospective students should consider their career and salary goals. There may be grad school alternatives that produce similar career outcomes, which can save people time and money.

What Can I Do With a Doctorate Degree?

The most common sectors for doctorate-holders are those heavily regulated by the government, such as healthcare and legal professions. According to the BLS, the median annual earnings for professionals with a doctorate or professional degree exceeds $98,000.

The highest-earning doctorate-holders, such as physicians and surgeons, bring in over $208,000 annually. Below are some of the most common fields that require doctoral degrees and their respective salaries and career outlooks.

Career Median Salary (2021) Job Outlook (2020-30)
Postsecondary Teacher $79,640 12%
Physicians and Surgeons $208,000 3%
Lawyers $127,990 9%
Psychologist $81,040 8%
Biochemist and Biophysicist $102,270 5%

Source: BLS

How Much Does A Doctorate Degree Cost?

With the average graduate tuition approaching $20,000 annually and college costs steadily rising, prospective students should do what they can to try and get the best value available. They can start by comparing online and on-campus costs, private vs. public college prices, and in-state vs. out-of-state tuition rates.

Students who enroll in online programs can often save on travel costs. Distance programs might also make it easier for students to maintain full-time employment during their studies or provide access to in-state rates for out-of-state students.

Students can also reduce the out-of-pocket cost of a doctoral degree by finding scholarships and grants.

Online vs. On-Campus Doctorate Degrees

On-campus and online doctoral programs cover the same content and provide the same career opportunities, but the program formats may differ in what they offer. For example, online doctoral programs are usually more flexible, often featuring asynchronous delivery methods or nontraditional study schedules. Students can attend online programs at schools across the country without needing to relocate, which increases their study options.

On-campus programs, conversely, provide more opportunities for campus and classroom interaction. Students can access the school's facilities, attend events on campus, and participate in organized activities with greater ease. As a result, these programs tend to provide more intimate experiences, which some students and employers value.

On-Campus Pros

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    Access to on-campus resources and support services
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    In-person social interaction and networking
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    Hands-on learning
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    Classroom learning environment with fewer distractions
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    Extracurricular clubs and activities

On-Campus Cons

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    May be more expensive than online programs
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    Set class times with less flexibility
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    Time/money commuting

Online Pros

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    Flexibility to learn on your schedule
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    Learn from anywhere
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    Network with people around the world
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    Save time/money on commuting
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    May be more affordable than on-campus programs
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    Access to online tutoring and career services

Online Cons

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    Requires more self-discipline
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    Not all programs are available online
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    More technical requirements
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    Potential social isolation and loneliness

How to Choose the Right Online Doctorate Degree Program

When deciding on the right online doctoral degree program, you must first settle on a discipline. To do this, you should think about your interests and strengths. Consider your dream career and look into the various avenues that could get you there.

Then you can start evaluating schools, including their reputation, graduation and job placement rates, faculty, and alumni. Ensure that a school prepares students for success once they graduate.

You also need to evaluate the program, such as its cost, curriculum, and delivery method. Other considerations may include a school's facilities, research spaces, and student services.

Program Format

A program's format determines how and when students take classes, what lecture delivery method is used, and how and when learners engage with their peers. Prospective students should consider their home and work schedules and think about how they can best accommodate a study schedule. They should also compare the pros and cons of part-time vs. full-time study.

Below, we examine the difference between synchronous and asynchronous formats, as well as hybrid delivery, which combines the two.

Synchronous: This format features live classes that follow a set schedule, bringing students together in a virtual classroom environment. Synchronous learning may appeal to students who prefer a structured schedule and live classroom discussions.

Asynchronous: Students can complete their studies whenever they need in this format, often watching recorded lectures and participating in forum discussions. Asynchronous learning is a good fit for students who need extra flexibility in their schedules and the freedom to study at their convenience.

Hybrid: Learners enrolled in a hybrid program complete asynchronous and synchronous study, accessing both real-time and recorded lectures. This format may work well for students who want a flexible yet interactive college experience.

Accreditation

On-campus and online college accreditation should be one of the first things prospective students look for in a school. Institutional accreditation can influence federal financial aid and employment opportunities. Programmatic accreditation may be required for professional licensure and postgraduate certification, depending on a student's target field.

Prospective learners should investigate their state's and industry's requirements for their specific profession before committing to a school or program.

For-Profit vs. Nonprofit Options

Students may encounter nonprofit and for-profit schools while looking for educational options, and they should understand the differences between these institutions. All public and many private colleges and universities are nonprofit. These schools reinvest money made from tuition and other revenue streams into their programs and facilities. In contrast, for-profit institutions often distribute their profits among the institution's owners, investors, and shareholders.

For-profit schools typically provide career-focused programs but have limited or no graduate-level offerings. These schools are not likely to be in consideration for prospective students at this level.

Explore Subject-Specific Doctorate Degrees

Doctoral degrees are available in many subjects. The most popular disciplines in 2019-20 — by a considerable margin — were health and legal professions (NCES). Other popular choices were education, engineering, psychology, physical sciences, and biological and biomedical sciences.

How to Apply to an Online Ph.D. Program

When preparing for graduate school, you should research the graduate admissions process to help your chances of getting accepted. Identify the requirements for your target schools and programs and consider applying to about 3-5 of them. This will give you options without taking on too much and sacrificing application quality.

Start collecting all necessary application materials well ahead of any deadlines — typically in the early fall before spring application due dates. Materials may include transcripts, reference letters, and resumes. Look into any statement or essay requirements and begin writing drafts and practicing with various prompts and approaches.

1. Choose your program and check application requirements

Most schools post application requirements on program pages or department websites. Prospective students can also contact the admissions or graduate offices for more information. Equipped with the requirements and deadlines, applicants can create a priority list and calendar to help them stay on top of tasks.

2. Take required standardized tests

Many schools and programs have introduced test-optional policies to make the admissions process less restrictive. When required, however, doctoral programs often accept GRE and GMAT scores, depending on the type of program. Medical and legal programs have specific standardized tests, i.e., the MCAT and the LSAT, respectively. Prospective students can take online GRE and GMAT prep courses to boost their scores and admission chances.

3. Ask for letters of recommendation

Prospective students should start the process of asking for letters of recommendation as early as they are comfortable discussing the topic. These letters should come from relevant professionals, such as teachers in the student's target field. Aspiring applicants might discuss their plans with their professors early in the school year and then clearly demonstrate their commitment and dedication to their studies in the classroom.

4. Request official transcripts

The processes for handling transcripts vary by institution, but students may need to submit an official request for their transcripts well in advance. This may include providing their school with their graduate school and program of interest, among other details. Students may receive transfer credit if they have any relevant graduate credits on their transcripts. In some cases, they may also receive life and work experience credit.

5. Write your application essay

It is never too early to start thinking about grad school essays. At the doctoral level, application essays may come with a subject-related prompt or ask applicants to explain why they want to attend the school. Prospective students may also be asked to describe their research interests or career goals.

6. Prepare your resume

A college application resume serves various functions, depending on the school, program, and candidate. It may be used as a complementary document, highlighting any relevant experiences or community involvement that can add to the application. In some cases, however, relevant professional experience may be required for admission.

7. Fill out your application

The information on a college application can vary slightly, but most ask for personal details, such as your name, details about your parents, and information about your current school. You may also be asked to provide academic and extracurricular information, which will be verified later on.

8. Submit your application

Grad school applications are typically due between November and the middle of December for fall start dates. Most applicants can expect to hear back in the spring, between March and April.

Frequently Asked Questions About Doctorate Degrees

What is the difference between a doctorate and a Ph.D.?

There are two main types of doctorates available: a Ph.D. and a professional doctoral degree. While these two degree types can lead to the same careers in some cases, they typically differ in that the former is more research-focused.

A Ph.D. program tends to include a heavy research emphasis and a dissertation requirement, whereas a professional doctoral program provides more clinical or practical exposure. There may also be differences in the program lengths, with some professional programs exceeding the typical 4-6 years of a Ph.D.

What is the easiest Ph.D. to get?

The easiest Ph.D. to get depends on the student. Science and math disciplines, such as medical and engineering degrees, are considered some of the hardest by many learners. However, students who excel in these topics and are interested in their research may complete their doctoral degrees with relative ease.

While practical professional doctorates, such as occupational therapy or nursing, rely on a candidate's experience and practical precision, Ph.D. options usually require extensive research. Candidates who enjoy the research and analytical process may find Ph.D. pathways less difficult.

Are online Ph.D.s respected?

Yes. Online Ph.D.s are respected. They feature the same curricula and content as on-campus programs. However, since online degrees cannot always provide the same type of instruction and interaction as on-campus programs, some fields do not provide online options.

That being said, every employer is different, and preferences may be given for certain types of study.

How long does it take to get a doctorate degree online?

The typical online doctoral degree takes students between 4-6 years to complete. Depending on their course load and schedule, however, the program may extend beyond that. Students may take longer to complete their research and dissertation, or extenuating circumstances could require them to pause their studies.

Professional doctorates tend to feature a larger range of graduation timelines, with some students being able to graduate in less than four years. In contrast, programs with extensive internship and residency requirements may take students more than six years to complete.

Can I get a Ph.D. in one year?

While very rare, in extenuating circumstances, it may be possible to complete a Ph.D. in one year. For this to happen, students would need to enroll in an accelerated program with minimal research and practical requirements. A course-based program might allow learners to condense their training in such a way as to finish around the 12-month mark. Students with transfer credits may also be able to shorten their completion timeline.

Typically, however, accelerated Ph.D. programs take students about 2-4 years to complete. The speed at which a student completes their program depends on the rigor of their research and their ability to handle a heavier-than-normal course load.

Which Ph.D. is most in demand?

According to the BLS, the most in-demand occupations that require a Ph.D. or professional doctorate are all related to healthcare. Physical therapists boast a projected growth rate of 21% from 2020-2030. The BLS also projects 17% growth for medical scientists, 17% for veterinarians, and 16% for audiologists over that time span.

While the BLS projects 12% growth for postsecondary teachers between 2020 and 2030, those specializing in medical teaching may see higher demand. For example, the BLS projects 24% growth for health specialties teachers and 22% growth for nursing instructors from 2020-2030.

BestColleges.com 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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