Online PhD Programs and Online Doctorate Degrees

In short: The Ph.D., or Doctor of Philosophy, is arguably the most prestigious degree in existence. The average amount of time required to earn a Ph.D. is five years, but the degree's financial payoff is huge. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, professionals with doctorates earn approximately $37,265 more each year than workers with bachelor's degrees.


The doctoral degree is the highest academic credential it is possible to earn. Whether it's a research Ph.D. (DPhil to the Brits), a D.A. (Doctor of Arts), or some other variant, the doctorate degree typically requires four to six years of additional study beyond the master's level. To get a doctoral degree the graduate student must complete a course of study, do original research and write a publishable thesis or dissertation. Not surprisingly, only one in 100 Americans call themselves "doctor." Consequently, a doctorate commands respect.

The Ph.D. in a Nutshell

The doctoral student takes advanced courses in a chosen field, usually in small seminars or independent studies. The coursework typically takes three to four semesters of full-time study. Once the coursework is complete, the doctoral candidate must pass written and/or oral doctoral qualifying exams, proving that they have sufficient background to proceed with independent research.

The qualifying exam is given by the candidate's committee, usually three to five professors in the candidate's program who agree to guide the candidate's research. The Ph.D. candidate then pursues original research and writes a book-length thesis or dissertation. Once the dissertation is complete, the candidate must orally defend its conclusions before the committee. When the candidate successfully defends and deposits the finished dissertation with the university, the title "doctor" has been earned.


Because the doctorate is an elite degree, program accreditation is a serious concern. Even the U.S. government has been taken in by diploma mills posing as legitimate advanced degree-granting institutions. The prospective student should carefully assess the credentials of any university before committing to a lengthy and difficult program of doctoral study. Any school offering a quick and easy Ph.D. shouldn't be taken seriously, and it certainly shouldn't get any of the student's hard-earned money.

Only accredited programs of study can grant a meaningful doctorate, an advanced degree that is recognized by professional organizations, board of licensure, and potential employers. Both the degree-granting university and its accrediting agencies must be carefully checked with the U.S. Department of Education.


Mentoring is a crucial part of doctoral study, whether the student is pursuing the Ph.D. or another doctorate degree. Faculty who first teach and then form the candidate's committee also write the letters of recommendation that eventually get the candidate a job. In essence, the candidate borrows the prestige of the scholars who serve on the committee and write on his or her behalf. One of the lessons of doctoral study is: Work with the best people.

Professional Affiliation and Licensure Issues

While the Ph.D. may be sufficient as a credential, professional affiliation--membership in organizations of fellow experts in one's field--is necessary for career advancement. Before committing to a program of doctoral study, it's a good idea to see if the program has the stamp of approval of the professional organizations in that field.

Some doctor of philosophy degrees and other doctorates require additional licensure before their degree holders can actually practice the profession for which they've trained. A Ph.D. or PsyD in psychology, for example, isn't sufficient to qualify its holder to set up a counseling practice. Where licensing will eventually be necessary, the doctoral degree seeker should make sure that the degree program is recognized by the licensing agency before investing time and money in it.

Popular Fields for Doctoral Study

Even leaving aside the "first professional" doctoral degrees--the J.D. (juris doctor) in law and the M.D. in medicine--the doctorate still takes many forms and has many variations. Online doctoral degree programs, with few exceptions, require as much as a year of residency and/or field work or other clinical experience. Some fields require supervised practicums leading to licensure.

Here are a few of the most popular doctorates that are available online:

Psychology (Ph.D.; PsyD)

Both the Ph.D. in Psychology and the Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) can be pursued through online study. The former is sometimes considered a research and teaching degree while the latter is considered a counseling degree, there are no hard and fast rules as to which is which. Sub-specialties include clinical psychology, counseling psychology, educational psychology, or organizational psychology.

Education (Ph.D.; EdD)

As a general rule, the Ph.D. in Education prepares graduates for academic teaching or administrative careers whereas the Ed.D. prepares primary and secondary school administrators or teachers in academic departments of education.

Engineering (PhD; DCS)

Ph.D.s in many branches of engineering can be pursued through distance learning. Popular areas of study include computer science (sometimes called a Doctor of Computer Science or DCS), electrical engineering, civil engineering, and mechanical engineering. Some programs award a Doctor of Engineering degree (D.Eng).

Public Health(Ph.D.; DPH)

Doctoral degrees in public health prepare graduates for administrative or research careers in community health or related social health fields, including epidemiology. The Doctor of Public Health degree (DPH) usually emphasizes public health policy studies.

Business (Ph.D; DBA)

The Ph.D. in business or the Doctor of Business Administration degree prepares graduates for research and teaching positions in business.

Regardless of the chosen field of study, a doctoral program is challenging and deeply satisfying. Doctoral researchers take their places in the global intellectual community. The doctorate degree holder both creates new knowledge and shares that knowledge with professional peers at conferences and with the public through writing, media, and public presentations. Those with doctorates shape the world in which we all live and help us understand it.


  • "The brains business." Economist 376.8443 (Sept. 10, 2005).
  • "Going the Distance," by Sherry Reuter and Rosalind E. Schwartzberg. Applied Clinical Trials 13.10 (October 2004).
  • National Center for Education Statistics
  • "Online colleges come into their own," by Paul Tosto. Saint Paul Pioneer Press (MN)(July 18, 2005).
  • "Online degrees," by Holly Dolezalek Training 40.5 (May 1, 2003).
  • Online-Education Survey Finds Unexpectedly High Enrollment Growth," by Scott Carlson. Chronicle of Higher Education 51.14 (Nov. 26, 2004).
  • "Sink or Swim?" by Alana Klein. University Business 7.4 (April 2004).
  • "Taking the E-Train," by Doug Bartholomew. Industry Week/IW 254.6 (June 2005).
  • U.S. Department of Education

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