A doctorate is the highest degree level that can be obtained in any discipline. A PhD provides graduates the credential they need to teach at the college level, conduct research to solve problems in their field, and even help shape public policy.
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Traditionally, earning a PhD was only possible for people able to devote themselves to half a decade of dedicated study in a traditional campus setting. Technology has made it possible for even more professionals to pursue their doctorate online, which translates into a more qualified workforce and allows more PhD candidates to contribute to the breadth of academic research in all fields. Professionals who have embraced online learning have been able to continue working and immediately apply the advanced research methodology and knowledge they’ve gained in an online program, rather than waiting until after graduation to begin contributing to groundbreaking research.
Some people try to write off the value of online graduate programs, believing that the convenience of an online education will really just mean an easy degree with little value. However, just like their offline corollaries, an accredited online doctorate requires students to devote themselves to three to seven years of intense study, conduct arduous original research and submit a book-length dissertation before earning their degree.
You can earn a PhD online in almost as many subjects as you can in traditional brick-and-mortar schools. The largely theoretical nature of many PhD programs makes the differences negligible. Although you won’t find online doctoral programs in lab-intensive fields, such as molecular biology, you can pursue online PhDs in a wide variety of disciplines, including business fields like accounting, business administration, management, and finance; science fields like computer science, IT, and engineering; educational fields like counseling and curriculum design; and healthcare fields like health education and nursing.
Pursuing a degree online does not mean you have to sacrifice meaningful interaction with professors and fellow students. Although some students prefer face-to-face interaction, written communication online demands unique use of critical thinking skills during peer interaction. Communicating online requires that you pause and formulate a well-organized argument before responding to your professor or other students. You will communicate with professors via e-mail, live chat, videoconference, or phone, all of which are modes of communication you will be expected to use to collaborate with researchers in your field after earning your degree. PhD students also collaborate via tools like Skype and Google Drive to share documents and meet virtually with advisors while composing their dissertations.
If some level of face-to-face interaction is a priority for you, you will find that many online doctoral programs require that students attend quarterly or annual residency sessions or colloquia on campus, where they meet with peers and advisors. This combination of online interaction and occasional on-campus residencies provides a realistic picture of what professional collaboration looks like after you earn a PhD.
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You also won’t find much difference at the curricular level between traditional and online PhD programs. Programs are demanding and usually take three to seven years to complete, depending on whether you study full or part time. To earn a doctoral degree online, you must complete 45 to 80 credit hours, and some programs allow you to transfer a certain number of graduate-level credits toward your degree. You can anticipate studying advanced research methods (qualitative and quantitative methodology), statistical analysis, and various electives, as well as one to two on-campus residencies and dissertation research. In addition to the hours spent watching lectures and reading texts, most successful students commit 15 or more hours a week to independent research and study for the duration of their program.
During the final two years of the program, students collaborate with a team of online faculty advisors to develop a research topic suitable for their dissertation. This process unfolds online just as it would offline—students establish timetables for completing certain portions of their dissertations, schedule oral defenses, and submit their final theses for university review. Just like traditional PhD candidates, online students must wait for university approval of their dissertation before receiving the title of “doctor.”