Is an online PhD program right for you?

At first glance, it might seem as though doctoral degree programs would be among the most suitable for online or other forms of distance education. After all, classwork constitutes just a small percentage of student activity within most doctoral programs, with classes usually taking place during just the first 1-2 years of a 3-5+ year program. And given that the bulk of the work a PhD student is asked to perform involves independent research and writing, a key criticism of online education (student isolation) might not seem a problem for an educational experience that already involves so much solitary activity.

Upon further examination, however, the PhD experience seems less individualized. For example, the classes PhD candidates are often required to take tend to be small symposia where students interact deeply with a professor and fellow doctoral students, with such intimate educational experiences the least amenable to online re-engineering. In addition, graduate students often have teaching responsibilities, which requires proximity to campus (unless the classes they are asked to teach are themselves online).

Even "isolated" research may require access to laboratories with specialized equipment or archives containing rare (and often un-digitized) materials, which tend to be concentrated at universities featuring graduate programs in areas that need access to such resources. And, for many graduate students, interaction with colleagues working in the same field is an important source of inspiration and support.

Perhaps this explains why the bulk of online doctorate programs focus on professional majors such as management and education vs. laboratory fields or advanced studies in the humanities. In addition to limiting the need for specialized facilities (like scientific labs), such programs are more likely to work for candidates re-entering academia after time in the workforce, who might be balancing their educational activities with part-time or full-time jobs.

Boston University, for example, offers an online doctoral program in music education that requires taking 11 advanced courses over two years, followed by a dissertation project. On average, students take seven years to complete the program, reflecting that many enrollees may be in-service teachers or people working in a different field while preparing for a new career. The school also offers the chance to let students become a Post-Professional Doctor of Occupational Therapy (OTD) through a 16-month course of study that does not require independent research (although both BU programs have brief on-campus requirements).

Doctorate-level programs at state colleges like the University of Florida and Northcentral University in Arizona also tend to focus in areas like education, healthcare and business administration, with some programs requiring just advanced coursework while others adding independent research/dissertation requirements. Technology, education and business administration are also the areas where many for-profit schools offer doctoral programs.

If the subjects where online PhD programs are available sound familiar, that might be because these are the same fields that support popular online degrees at the bachelor's and master's level. But achieving the highest degree offered in academia requires a commitment level that surpasses all other degree programs, which is why students contemplating such a pathway need to be ready to commit long hours and many years of study and -- for those programs requiring a dissertation -- original research.

Keep in mind that distance learning is already built into many PhD experiences, both online and residential, especially when a student's research can be conducted far from campus. In such cases, interaction with a thesis advisor is primarily online or over the phone, although certain points in the process, such as thesis defense, will likely involve a visit to campus (even for programs that do not require campus residency).

As with any online education program at any level, students should be on the lookout for sham degrees offered by diploma mills. Checking a school's accreditation and reviewing industry or government resources for fraudulent programs are important steps for anyone considering any sort of online degree. But, in the case of PhD programs, anyone offering a degree that does not involve significant amounts of work (both in-class and independent) is likely selling snake oil.

As the percentage of students enrolled in undergraduate programs dramatically increased over the last 20-30 years, advanced degrees have become the means to stand out from a crowd of BA-credentialed competitors. But if, as some point out, "the master's is the new BA," the PhD still packs a punch in today's employment marketplace.

If one is interested in continuing from a BA or master's to a PhD in a traditional academic field such as science or history, many residential PhD programs offer the opportunity to blend on-campus activity with research and writing at a distance. But if you are considering an advanced degree in fields where online education has already proven successful, such as business, healthcare and education, an online PhD program might be for you.