Online Doctoral Degrees

Advances in technology have made it both possible for hundreds of universities throughout the country to expand their postgraduate degree programs via online learning. While bigger gains in online education have been at the master's level, data from the Council on Graduate Schools shows an expansion is also taking place at the doctoral level as well. As of Fall 2013, 493 universities in the US offered doctoral and professional degree programs via online education. For prospective students considering enrolling in an online doctorate program, it is important to understand not all academic subjects can be completed entirely online and -- in most cases -- require on-campus participation. However, as a form of education, online learning at the doctoral level can still be considered in its infancy, but is growing in popularity.

The doctorate is the highest academic degree awarded, and typically requires between three and eight years of graduate study to complete. There are two major types of doctoral degrees: Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) and professional degrees.

  • PhD: PhD programs are research-based, with curriculum traditionally divided between coursework in the field of study, followed by comprehensive examinations (oral and written), and culminating with an original research project in the form of a written dissertation. PhD programs are available in a variety of academic concentrations, ranging from history to neuroscience, education to chemistry.
  • Professional Doctorate: Professional doctoral degrees are research-oriented, but focus on research in regards to a professional area of study. For example, common professional doctorates include the Doctor of Social Work (DSW), Doctor of Education (EdD), and Doctor of Public Administration (DPA).

It is important to note a third category -- first professional degrees. Unlike the PhD, these programs do not include independent research or dissertation. Examples of these degrees include the following:

  • Juris Doctor (JD)
  • Doctor of Medicine (MD)
  • Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD)
  • Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM)

A wide range of majors and specializations are available at the doctoral level. For more information on specific programs, check out the links below, or contact an admissions advisor from your school of interest.

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Doctoral degree programs are offered by four-year universities (both public and private) and the number of online options continues to increase each year. Online education is typically delivered via two environments -- fully online and hybrid. Hybrid programs, also known as blended learning, requires students to participate in face-to-face instruction as well as online classes. Because of the comprehensive and specialized nature of instruction at the PhD level, students typically participate in blended learning programs. The on-campus portion of an online PhD can take several forms, such as weekend intensive learning sessions, multiple week-long practicums, a residency, and more.

The particulars of the distance education environment depends on the institution, the department, and the specific program. At the program level, classes may be offered either via synchronous or asynchronous formats. Asynchronous -- or self-paced learning -- means students control their learning process, completing assignments and research on their own timeline and pace. Synchronous learning means students participate in real-time instruction, collaborating with other students and attending classes via online technologies such as video conferencing, online chat, or message boards.

Again, because of the research concentrations and advanced instruction in PhD programs, students are typically required to complete on-campus requirements in addition to finishing online classes. Prospective students should have a firm understanding of their program's learning environment before applying.

Overall, the number of students completing doctoral degrees has steadily increased over the past decade. According to the National Science Foundation, between 2003 and 2013, the number of conferred doctoral degrees rose by 29 percent. Again, online students accounted for a very small percentage of those graduates. Online PhD programs can be considered an emerging educational trend, one that is projected to continue to grow. Based on total program availability, the most popular areas of study for online PhD programs include the following:

Popular Programs of Study
Job Openings (2016-26)
Total Employment
Law School41900642750
Healthcare Technology15200389180
Pharmacy Technology15300309550
Physical Therapy Assisting16800228600
Health Education and Teaching25800199480
Higher Education and Teaching20700183750
Medical Practice Management6000114130
Dental Technology6100113000
Clinical Psychology12100110490
Source: 2017 Occupational Employment Statistics and 2016-26 Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS.gov; 2016-26 State Occupational Projections, Projections Central, projectionscentral.com

Data from the Council of Graduate Schools shows the fields with the largest number of graduates in 2012-2013 included health sciences (15.9 percent), engineering (14 percent), education (13.7 percent), and social and behavioral sciences (13.3 percent). STEM fields such as engineering, mathematics, physical and earth sciences, and computer sciences accounted for 40.2 percent of doctoral degrees awarded that year.

Below is a current list of the fastest growing career fields for PhD holders, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

Fastest Growing Occupations
Average Salary (2016)
Job Growth (2012-22)
Health Specialties Teachers, Postsecondary$122,32026%
Physical Therapists$88,88025%
Computer and Information Research Scientists$123,85019%
Business Teachers, Postsecondary$103,33018%
Obstetricians and Gynecologists$238,32018%
Pediatricians, General$183,24018%
Dentists, General$175,84018%
Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons$242,37017%
Internists, General$196,49017%
Source: 2017 Occupational Employment Statistics and 2016-26 Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS.gov; 2016-26 State Occupational Projections, Projections Central, projectionscentral.com

Bureau of Labor Statistics, Educational Attainment 2014, http://www.bls.gov/emp/ep_chart_001.htm
Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Projections, http://www.bls.gov/emp/
Center for Education and the Workforce, Help Wanted: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements Through 2018, https://cew.georgetown.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/fullreport.pdf
Center for Education and the Workforce, Recovery: Job Growth and Education Requirements Through 2020, https://cew.georgetown.edu/report/recovery-job-growth-and-education-requirements-through-2020/
Council on Graduate Schools, Graduate Enrollment and Degrees: 2003 - 2013, http://cgsnet.org/ckfinder/userfiles/files/GED_report_2013.pdf
Learning House, 2014 Online College Students, http://www.learninghouse.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/2014-Online-College-Students-Final.pdf
National Center for Education Statistics, IPEDS, http://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/datacenter/CDS.aspx
National Science Foundation, Doctoral Degree Data, http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/sed/2013/data-tables.cfm

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Today's employers view most online degrees the same way they view degrees earned the traditional way, in that the school that issued the degree tends to matter more than whether or not it was earned in a brick-and-mortar classroom.

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