Online Doctoral Degree Programs

Doctoral degrees are terminal degrees in a single academic area and the crowning achievement after years of academic or clinical study in one subject. Two types of doctoral degrees are available online — academic degrees and professional degrees. The former tends to be focused more on scholarship and research for those who plan to teach at the college level, continue scholarly writing, or move into consulting, and the latter is focused on actual practice within a field. The research doctorate, or Ph.D, is more widely available online, while professional doctorates are more widely available on campuses. However, some practice doctorates, such as the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP), are available online.

How Long Does It Take to Complete an Online Doctoral Degree?

To complete an online doctoral degree, students generally must complete at least three years of work beyond a master's degree. However, it's not uncommon for doctoral programs to last four to five years because of the challenges of research and/or the slower pace of attending doctoral programs part time. For example, Dr. Scott Grant Eckert, who completed his online Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) from Argosy University in August 2011, said his program lasted about four and half years. In addition, remember that the number of credit hours required to earn a doctoral degree differs from program to program, depending on how many credit hours a single course is worth and whether a student's specialization requires the completion of more credits. David Stoneback, who will complete his online organization and management doctoral degree from Capella University in December 2011, said his program consists of 120 credits, taking him three years to complete. Students can also look into transferring some outside credits from other schools to meet some doctoral program requirements.

What Is Required of Online Doctoral Students?

While online doctoral programs are set up differently depending on the school offering the program, in many cases, a graduate student is considered for doctoral candidacy only after satisfactorily completing his or her doctoral-level courses and passing a written comprehensive exam. Stoneback described the comprehensive written exam as "made up of three essay questions related to the student's area of study and their preferred research technique. Each response is roughly 15 pages in length." Eckert also recalled the difficulty of the comprehensive exam. "After the classes, the comprehensive exam was intense, and it was difficult to do anything else at the same period of time," Eckert said.

There's a perception that online classes are easier than going to class. That's not true — they were among the most difficult and time-consuming of the classes that I took.

Dr. Dennis WhiteAlumnus of Argosy University

Even though the doctoral programs are online, most programs have residency requirements where students must go to a physical campus to receive coaching or work one on one with their faculty mentors for several days at a time. These residencies are typically arranged reasonably close to the student. For instance, Stoneback, who lives in Philadelphia, said his first residency was in Washington, DC. "Learners must complete three residencies, which are four-day programs that are held on-site with learners at various stages of the program, which allows learners to meet with one another and with the professors to get a deeper understanding of the program material," Stoneback said. Eckert, on the other hand, was only required to complete two residencies that were focused on course requirements and "how to make it through the dissertation process."

After working with a dissertation committee on a research proposal, students begin work on their dissertations, which are book-length documents detailing the students' substantial, original research. Many students deem their dissertation research and completion to be the most challenging and rewarding part of pursuing their doctoral degree. Eckert, whose DBA concentration was in marketing, chose to study consumers' perception of organic and conventional tomatoes for his dissertation research. "I liked learning further into my subject from various sources and enjoyed the completion of surveys from the consumer's interviews," Eckert said. "It was interesting to see what they had to say beyond the survey … I liked going to organic and conventional farms to learn the farmer's opinions and the different processes. Additionally, I enjoyed the accomplishment of completing the dissertation, which included the proposal defense and my dissertation defense."

The courses a student takes in an online doctoral degree program will differ greatly depending on the type of doctorate a student is pursuing. Very often, courses in qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods research design are included to aid students in the research they will be conducting for their dissertation or other research projects. Many doctoral courses revolve around the reading of case studies. By looking at real-world problems in case studies, doctoral students learn how theory can be applied hands-on in the field.

Dr. Dennis White took two online courses while earning his campus-based Doctor of Education program from Argosy University. One of his courses, Higher Education Law, revolved almost entirely around case studies, writing briefs about legal cases, readings, and online discussions. Another online class White took — Leading Change in Organizations — was much more involved, requiring constant online dialogue between his professor, himself, and fellow students, as well as the completion of a 25-30 page final project requiring White to evaluate the change efforts that had taken place in his organization, based on what he had learned in class.

White said his two online doctoral courses were not any easier than his courses taken in residence, and his online classes required strong writing skills. "There's a perception that online classes are easier than going to class," White said. "That's not true — they were among the most difficult and time-consuming of the classes that I took. They were not easier than going to class. There's nowhere to hide. In a classroom of 30 people, you can hide out in the back, not respond too much, and let your professor drone on. In the online course, you have to deliver all through the course, and as you say, put it in writing."

What Is the Online Environment Like?

Students log in to their doctoral courses through an online portal by entering a username and password. Once they have accessed a course, students can see syllabi, lecture notes, video lectures, assignments, and other materials posted by their professor. Students communicate with their professors primarily via email, and occasionally via live chat or phone. They also communicate with their professor and fellow doctoral students in online discussion boards. White, who had taken no online courses before his first doctoral course, said there was a big "learning curve" for him getting accustomed to the online learning environment. However, White said he did have a regular textbook to study from, numerous resources available online, and a structured environment. In the online portal, "you have suggested websites and a section where you have links to related material. It might be YouTube, TED talks, discussions that are videoed — a whole bunch of links of related material you can go to. Each week is structured," he said.

How Does Earning a Doctoral Degree Online Impact Your Career Prospects?

Doctoral-prepared professors are highly sought-after by various institutions of higher learning. Stoneback, who currently works in the insurance industry as an organizational leader for various business functions, said he hopes to pursue teaching at the undergraduate and graduate levels when he completes his doctorate, starting out part time and eventually teaching full time. He has already begun teaching as an adjunct at an online university to gain experience. But his doctoral study has also been valuable to helping him thrive in his current position. "The Ph.D. degree allows me to get underneath the issues and focus on theory with an academic viewpoint that is unique in my organization," Stoneback said. "Like any diverse perspective, I expect this added view will help ensure success within the team."

Eckert's goal with his DBA is to become a scholar-practitioner. "The doctoral degree was used to help me transition into teaching or use teaching as an alternative route in the future," Eckert said. "Beyond a career, the dissertation has shown me to look at problems or issues in a holistic approach."

The average annual salary for postsecondary teachers, including those at two-year colleges and graduate teaching assistants, was $58,830 as of May 2008, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). However, the BLS also points to a 2008-2009 survey by the American Association of University Professors, which put the salaries of full-time faculty at $79,439 on average. A college professor's salary is often contingent on his or her rank, with full professors earning $108,749 on average, associate professors earning $76,147 on average, and assistant professors earning $63,827 on average, the BLS notes. Many individuals who hold doctoral degrees work in a career field and teach or do consulting work on the side, giving them greater earning power since they have several sources of income.

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