Be Prepared for Getting a PhD Online

Completing a Ph.D. Online

The completion of a Ph.D. indicates attainment of the highest level of education possible and denotes a significant accomplishment. The process is time-consuming, challenging, and ultimately rewarding. Yet only 1-3% of the United States population holds a doctorate and some estimates indicate that 50% of students who begin the doctoral journey fail to complete it. Before potential students start a Ph.D. program it is imperative to be familiar with the requirements so that the degree can be completed successfully. This post will offer an overview of the doctoral journey and provide tips for navigating through the process.  

Completing the Coursework

After choosing a program and being accepted by the school, the first step in the doctoral journey is completion of the courses. Students should work closely with an advisor to have their transcripts evaluated for the possibility of transferrable credits, along with the development of a degree completion plan that establishes a sequence for taking required and elective courses.

Throughout this phase of the program, when the courses are being completed, many online schools require face-to-face meetings, called residencies or colloquia. During these residencies, students will take school-specific courses (School of Education, School of Business, etc.), along with skillset developmental courses (writing, research, etc.) and have an opportunity to interact with faculty members and advisors.

The location of the residencies varies according to what the school has arranged and can be scheduled by students in advance. The following are residency examples from three online schools:
Capella University: Students are required to attend three, three-day residential colloquia.
University of Phoenix: The requirement is three to eight day residencies, depending upon the program of study.
Walden University: Four residencies (of varying length) are required and two may be completed virtually, depending upon the program and additional criteria. A virtual residency is described as learning activities that are completed “through virtual conferences and dynamic classroom platforms.”

Surviving the Comps

Once the courses and residencies (if required) are completed, students move onto the comprehensive exam phase. In general the Ph.D. comprehensive exams are designed “to determine whether a student should be permitted to ‘advance to candidacy’ —that is, to go on and write a thesis.” For online schools, this process involves providing students with a set of questions that must be answered within a specific time period. Argosy University explains that students taking their comps are also “expected to have a high level of scholarly writing ability consistent with graduate-level performance,” along with meeting other criteria such as “organization, comprehensiveness, relevancy, cogency and depth of the responses.”

One of the common misconceptions that Ph.D. students have at this point in their program is equating A’s in their course work with guaranteed success in the comprehensive exam process. Writing responses for the exam must be completed within a relatively short period of time, often less time than a traditional class term. It can be a very stressful process and students are not allowed to discuss their responses with anyone else. The exam questions are usually reviewed by faculty members of the school.  

Students receive detailed feedback, which can be challenging if the reviewers have different methods of evaluating the responses. For students that do not pass, they may be offered an opportunity to re-take the exam – depending upon the school’s policy. Once the comprehensive exam is successfully completed, students become Ph.D. candidates and move to the dissertation phase. Some schools refer to the candidate as ABD or “all but dissertation” to recognize this accomplishment.

The Dissertation Phase

Students start this phase of the doctoral journey with an assigned mentor. Some schools allow students to choose their mentor, which lets them to match their interests to a faculty member with a related background. According to the Ph.D. Completion Project research, “mentoring is often cited as among the most influential factors on degree completion.” My mentor served as a coach, source of support, and someone I could share my concerns and ideas with throughout the process. I had the same advisor throughout the program; however, at this phase the advisor had less input on the direction of my work as the school had specific steps to follow.

Students must also develop a dissertation committee who will review the dissertation proposal (usually the first three chapters of the dissertation) and the completed dissertation. Presenting the proposal and dissertation is referred to as the defense process, as the committee asks questions to make certain that the ideas are sound and the work is complete. There are other guidelines that students must follow, such as the Institutional Review Board  procedures for working with research participants. Once the dissertation has been completed and approved by the mentor and committee, it is sent to the school for final approval.  

Key Factors to Keep in Mind

Completing a Ph.D. online is not easier or less work than a doctoral degree obtained from a traditional institution. What makes the process somewhat challenging is the fact that students are working by themselves, without the direct contact and interactions of their peers. A support system can make a difference in maintaining motivation throughout this process. During my doctoral journey I relied upon the support of other students and colleagues.

Other important factors include personal characteristics and skillsets. For example, online students need strong self-discipline and an effective time management strategy because the overall completion time for a Ph.D. is estimated between 7.7 years to 13 years for students in the field of education.

Students also need well-developed writing skills, which includes adhering to guidelines such as APA formatting. Most schools offer writing resources, so take advantage of what’s available, which may include review services and tutoring. One service that is particularly helpful and available with many online schools is called Smarthinking, which provides real-time tutoring and writing feedback.

Are You Ready for this Journey?

This was a very brief overview of the complex process of obtaining a doctoral degree. It is not meant to provide a definitive guide of the processes and procedures that are in place for online schools; however, it is intended to offer potential students with a glimpse into the experience of one online Ph.D. student so that questions can be asked for clarification from the school and advisor about the program of interest. Completion of a Ph.D. requires dedication and commitment that needs to be considered prior to starting. If you are informed about the process ahead of time, the journey will likely be less stressful and more meaningful.   

Have you considered obtaining an online Ph.D.? Let’s discuss this further via Twitter @DrBruceJ.

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