Best Online PhD Programs

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For those looking to complete the highest level of education and climb to the top of the corporate ladder, online doctoral programs & degrees may be the answer!

Online PhD Programs

With the experience and skills gained by completing an online doctoral program, you can land leadership roles or negotiate a significant promotion or pay raise. By successfully completing a rigorous program like this, you will set yourself apart from others as an expert in the field.

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But make no mistake. Earning a doctorate degree is a huge commitment – in terms of time and money. We have compiled all the important information you will need to help you make the right decision for you and your future!

What Is an Online Doctorate Degree?

Coworkers looking at Online PhD Programs options

An online doctorate degree is the same as a traditional doctorate degree, but with some or all of the coursework having been completed online.

A doctorate degree is the highest level of education in most fields. You can earn a doctorate in nearly any area. The most common types of doctorates are the MD and the PhD, but other areas that require state licensing – such as engineering or teaching – sometimes require a doctorate for top positions.

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Most doctorate level students are adults who have already put extensive time into building a career within their industry. For those who want to continue working while pursuing their doctorate level degree, an online degree program may be the right fit.

There are several advantages to pursuing a doctorate degree online, including:

  • Ability to specialize within your degree program
  • Potential for lower tuition costs and expenses
  • Highly flexible class scheduling
  • Opportunities for flexible in-person required training
  • Technological resources to maximize your study program
  • Accelerated programs to help you complete the program faster

Today more than ever, accredited universities across the country are offering high-quality doctorate degrees through online learning. For motivated self-starters that need flexibility in their school schedule, this type of degree program could be the ticket to completing a doctorate level degree in a timeframe that works with their busy lives.

Are There Different Types of Online Doctorate Degrees?

There are online doctorate degrees available in nearly every field! You could pursue a Doctor of Education (Ed.D.), Doctor of Business Administration (DBA), Doctor of Fine Arts (DFA), Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP), Doctor of Social Work (DSW) and so on.

Arguably the most common doctorate degrees are the Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) and the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), so let’s take a closer look at these two options.

Online Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) Degree

Woman getting Online Doctor of Psychology Degree

For students who have studied psychology and social services in their prior degree programs, a Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) degree may be the logical next step. This degree program prepares students to become licensed as clinical psychologists – giving them the opportunity to provide counseling services directly to clients on a professional level.

While a PhD program focuses more on research and scholarly publication, a PsyD education provides clinically focused curriculum and is considered an applied degree. Typical topics covered over the course of this program include:

  • Psychopharmacology
  • Advanced psychology and ethics courses
  • Cultural diversity
  • Psychological assessment
  • Cognitive behavioral psychotherapy

In order to complete your PsyD degree program, traditionally you must pass comprehensive examinations and present a doctoral project or dissertation. In some cases, you may also need to complete in-person educational components, so be sure to check with your school about their requirements when enrolling in an online PsyD program.

Online Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) Degree

Man taking Online Doctor of Philosophy Degree

Regardless of your field of study, a PhD program is a research-based educational path that cumulates with a doctoral dissertation. This thesis is designed to present an original contribution to knowledge within your field, and it is the end result of several years of professional academic research and development.

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In many industries, such as education, earning a PhD is the only way to reach the top of the career ladder. While this not considered an “applied degree” like a PsyD, a PhD gives you valuable skills and knowledge to help you contribute to your field and pursue a higher level career opportunity.

The typical PhD program involves several step, such as:

  • Surveying and reviewing scholarly research within your field
  • Conducting and interpreting original research
  • Developing a thesis that supports your original research
  • Submitting a dissertation to your school’s doctoral committee
  • Defending your dissertation in an oral examination

When considering a PhD degree, it is important to have a clear understanding of your future career goals. Many professionals can benefit from having a PhD label after their name, but being able to translate this skillset to the workforce is a critical step to gaining the most value from your doctorate level program.

Are Online Doctorate Degrees Credible?

Two professionals discussing Online Doctorate Degrees

An online doctorate degree earned from an accredited university is just as credible, legit and highly respected as a degree earned on campus. In fact, unless you attended an online-only university or you specify it in your resume, employers won’t even know you earned your degree online!

What makes a degree creditable, be it online or traditional, is accreditation. To be accredited, schools must meet very strict standards established by a board or agency.

In the U.S. there are two types of accreditation:

  • Regional – the most widely respected; more than 85% of all colleges in the US are regionally accredited
  • National – usually for-profit schools, vocational or technical programs

To find out if a school or program you are considering is accredited, try searching the U.S. Department of Education’s database.

How Long Does It Take to Earn an Online Doctorate Degree?

It takes most students 4-9 years to earn a doctorate. That’s a pretty big window, but there are a lot of variables to consider.

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How quickly you are able to finish will depend on your area of study, school or program, and whether you are full or part time. If you are able to study full-time, and/or already hold a master’s in the field, you may be able to finish sooner.

How Much Does It Cost to Earn an Online Doctorate Degree?

Woman estimating expenses for her Online PhD Degree

How much your online doctorate degree costs depends on the school, location (in or out of state), type of school (public or private) and type of program.

According to a 2017-2018 report from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the average published yearly tuition and fees for graduate programs was $19,314 for public institutions, and $25,929 for private institutions.

Most schools charge the same tuition rate to online and on-campus students, but occasionally the online programs are cheaper. Here’s why:

  • Often schools don’t charge out-of-state tuition fees to online students. You pay the same rate whether you live across the street or across the country.
  • Online students don’t have additional expenses like campus fees, commuting costs and parking fees, and often do not have to purchase expensive textbooks and course materials.

So you can expect your online degree to cost the same or less than it would cost to earn the same degree on a college campus. However, there are unique financial aid opportunities available to students at the doctorate level.

Is Financial Aid Available For an Online Doctorate Degree?

Yes! Online doctoral students should plan to fill out the FAFSA and seek private grants and scholarships, but typically the bulk of the financial aid at this level comes from fellowships.

A fellowship is a merit-based grant awarded to a doctoral student to support his or her further research into a specific subject. The grant may come from the government, the university, an organization or a private company, and can cover tuition as well as living expenses.

How Much Money Can I Make With an Online Doctorate Degree?

Online doctoral programs are an investment of time, effort and money, but there is usually a significant pay off. According to 2020 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), workers with a doctorate earned $386 per week more than those with a master’s degree – that’s a difference of $20,072 over a year!

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The change in earning potential varies by occupation, of course. Advanced degrees in science (medicine), technology, engineering and math often result in the highest paid positions. In the table below, we’ve highlighted a variety of top-paying positions often held by those with doctorate degrees.

Occupation Median Annual Wage, 2019
Anesthesiologists $261,730
Orthodontists $208,000 or more
Psychiatrists $220,430
Family and General Practitioners $213,270
Dentists, General $155,600
Judges, Magistrate Judges, and Magistrates $136,910
Pharmacists $125,910
Physicists $122,850
Lawyers $123,620
Engineering, Postsecondary $101,010

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)

According to the BLS, the median salary is the wage at which half of the workers earn more than that and half earn less. As you can see, each of these careers has a median salary in the six-figures.

Do You Need a Master’s To Get a PhD?

Man taking Online PhD Degree

Not necessarily! In the US, most PhD programs do not require a master’s. You can apply right after completing your undergraduate degree.

Here are a few advantages to skipping your masters and going right for the PhD:

  • It will take less time.
  • There are more funding opportunities (grants and fellowships) for PhD programs than there are for master’s programs.
  • You will usually be awarded a master’s degree along the way, as you complete that level of coursework on the path to earning the doctorate.

What Colleges Offer Online Doctorate Degrees?

Many of the top schools in the country offer online doctoral programs! Look for accredited, reputable schools such as those listed below.

What Is the Application Process Like For an Online Doctoral Program & Degree?

Woman filling up application for Online Doctoral Program

Class sizes for doctoral degree programs are typically small, and entrance into the program can be competitive.

Typically, the first step of enrollment is to submit an application form and the required fee to your prospective university. In addition to the application, several other documents may be required for review by the school, including:

  • Statement of Purpose – Written statement that demonstrates why you are interested in enrolling in a doctorate degree program.
  • Resume – As most doctorate level students are professionals within their field, this can help the committee to see your dedication and experience.
  • Letters of Recommendation – Typically, schools like to see at least three letters of recommendation written by your previous academic instructors or an employer.
  • Official Transcripts – You will be required to submit all college and university transcripts to your prospective college with your application.

The next steps will be to look into financial aid and work with an academic advisor if you have any existing credits you hope to transfer.

Can I Transfer Credits I Already Have To Use Toward an Online Doctoral Degree?

Woman reviewing credits that can transfer toward Online PhD Degree

If you have taken graduate level courses at an accredited institution – recently or years ago – you will of course want to transfer those credits to give you a head start on your new program. But ultimately, which credits (if any) are accepted and how they apply toward your degree are at the discretion of the receiving school.

Every college sets their own policies for transferring of credits, and some have very specific rules and limitations. There are some universities that do not allow credit transfers at the graduate level. If they do allow transfer credits, there are typically several requirements that must be met.

You will need to have passed your courses, likely with a “C” or better. Additionally, the course description for your completed credits will need to match up to the existing courses in your new program. There are generally certain classes that cannot be transferred between schools, and these often include practicums, internships, or orientation-type classes.

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If you have credits you wish to transfer, it is very important that you review the school’s policy and work closely with an academic advisor to ensure you get the most out of your completed work.

What Is The Difference Between an Online Doctorate Degree and a Traditional Degree?

Class discussion in a Traditional Doctorate Degree

The primary difference between online learning and traditional, in-the-classroom learning is the format – how the material is delivered to the student. Which learning format is best for you is really a personal preference. But there are other important differences to consider as well.

Online Doctorate Degrees:

  • Allow you the flexibility to study anywhere, anytime – whether you’re laid up in a hospital bed, sight-seeing around the world or just commuting to your 9-5 job
  • Allow you to work at your own pace, so you can fly through your degree program or scale back when life gets hectic
  • Make it possible to enroll at schools anywhere without having to move
  • May cost less than traditional programs
  • Don’t subject you to long commutes or parking hassles
  • Connect you with students around the world through classroom forums, etc.

But remember, those online doctorate courses will require self-motivation and discipline. You will have to stay on top of things and keep yourself organized so you don’t fall behind!

On the other hand, Traditional Master’s Degree programs:

  • Provide a structured schedule
  • Allow you to interact face-to-face with professors and classmates
  • Have more safeguards such as reminders for assignments, exams, etc.

These factors are important for some students. However, traditional, in-the-classroom learning lacks flexibility! You are limited to schools in your proximity, and must deal with obstacles such as childcare, work schedules, commute, illness, and so on making it difficult to attend classes.

As you can see, there are pros and cons to both. You will have to figure out which format works best for you, fits within your lifestyle, and will help you achieve your goals.

How Do I Know If an Online Doctorate Degree Is Right for Me?

Man deciding on taking Online Doctorate Degree

Committing to an online doctorate program is major decision. Doctorate level study is rigorous and requires a great deal of commitment and dedication, and online doctoral programs are no exception. To be successful in this type of program, you must be tremendously self-motivated, organized and independent.

This is a major academic accomplishment that only a small percentage of college students achieve. For those that succeed in earning their online doctorate degree, the sky is the limit and they can expect to go far in their careers!

Ready to start your journey?
Elizabeth Abner
WRITTEN BY Elizabeth Abner

Elizabeth is pursuing a Doctor of Philosophy in Foreign Policy and earned her master's degree in business administration. For her undergraduate studies, she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Business Administration with a concentration in international business. Elizabeth's research is focused on universities offering online degree programs.