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2023 Best Online Colleges for PhD Programs

By OnlineU Staff Writers | Updated 10/13/2023
2023 Best Online Doctoral Degrees in  Badge

The highest level of education college students can achieve is a doctoral degree, also known as a terminal degree. Prospective students can expect the same rigorous, high-quality education and career opportunities from an online PhD program as they would from an in-person experience. Some doctoral degrees, especially PhDs, require students to engage in high-level research within a specific discipline, while other types of doctorates teach students to use research to solve real-world problems. 

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b Online Schools Programs Alumni Salary
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#1 A.T. Still University of Health Sciences

  • Salary Score: 76
  • Median Starting Salary: $77,978
  • Locations: Kirksville (MO)
  • Accreditation: HLC

A.T. Still University of Health Sciences (ATSU) is a private, nonprofit institution. The medical school is a learning-centered university home to the world’s first osteopathic medical school. ATSU offers ten online doctoral programs prospective students can pursue, such as a (1) Doctor of Athletic Training, (2) Doctor of Health Administration, and (3) Doctor of Nursing.

At ATSU, online students complete coursework in asynchronous and synchronous formats on Canvas. The university has several student organizations and leadership opportunities across its Missouri and Arizona campuses. Online students at ATSU have access to many resources, like counseling, learning and disability resources, and tutoring.

#2 University of Southern California

  • Salary Score: 71
  • Median Starting Salary: $90,437
  • Locations: Los Angeles (CA)
  • Accreditation: WSCUC

The University of Southern California (USC) is a private, nonprofit institution offering several online doctoral programs for students to choose from. The university is one of the leading private research institutions in the world. USC has six online doctoral programs, like (1) Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership, (2) Doctor of Physical Therapy, and (3) Doctor of Regulatory Science.

USC facilitates asynchronous and synchronous online learning on the learning management system Blackboard. Regarding USC student life, the university offers in-person opportunities for students to get involved, like student organizations, a volunteer center, and student government. At ATSU, online student resources include a writing center, peer tutoring, academic advising, disability support, and career services, to name a few options.

#3 The George Washington University

  • Salary Score: 65
  • Median Starting Salary: $75,819
  • Locations: Washington D.C.
  • Accreditation: MSCHE

At George Washington University (GWU) — a private, nonprofit institution — students can pursue a range of online doctoral degrees. The university, located in the nation’s capital, boasts a compassionate teaching faculty, Division I athletics, exclusive internships, and service learning opportunities. GWU offers 12 online doctoral programs, from Executive Leadership to Health Policy.

At GWU, online students complete coursework asynchronously and synchronously on Blackboard. Student life at GWU includes many student organizations, well-being initiatives, and leadership opportunities. Online students at GWU have access to resources like an online library, student success coaching, military and veteran services, counseling and psychological services, and IT support.

#4 Johns Hopkins University

  • Salary Score: 61
  • Median Starting Salary: $73,910
  • Locations: Baltimore (MD)
  • Accreditation: MSCHE

Johns Hopkins University (JHU) is a private, nonprofit institution, where prospective students can choose from several online doctoral programs. Among JHU's 13 doctoral programs are Phds like a Pediatric Dual Primary/Acute Care Nurse Practitioner, DNP Advanced Practice Track, Education, and Doctor of Public Health.

JHU’s online students complete courses asynchronously and synchronously through the software Canvas. JHU is America’s first research university, and it has provided high quality higher education since 1876. At JHU, there are hundreds of student-led organizations, student-run festivals, and varsity sports teams. JHU’s online student resources include disability services, counseling, an online library, career services, and academic advising.

#5 Loma Linda University

  • Salary Score: 60
  • Median Starting Salary: $82,447
  • Locations: Loma Linda (CA)
  • Accreditation: WSCUC

Loma Linda University (LLU) is a private, Christian, nonprofit institution offering several online doctorate degrees. LLU delivers its programs with a Christ-centered Seventh-day Adventist approach. Prospective students can pursue various specialties within LLU’s 15 online doctorate programs, like Nurse Leadership, Preventive Care, and Social Work.

At LLU, online students may complete coursework in both asynchronous and synchronous formats via Canvas. LLU’s Seventh-day Adventist approach to teaching offers a learning environment that's integrated with health, science, and faith topics. Student life at LLU includes mission-focused learning opportunities, weekly university worship, and other student activities. Online student resources at LLU include counseling, an online bookstore, and an online library.

#6 University of Missouri - Kansas City

  • Salary Score: 57
  • Median Starting Salary: $83,978
  • Locations: Kansas City (MO)
  • Accreditation: HLC

The University of Missouri - Kansas City (UMKC) is a public institution offering many online doctoral programs within the nursing specialty. UMKC offers six online doctoral nursing programs, like a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) in Adult-Gerontology - Nurse Practitioner, DNP in Pediatric Nurse Practitioner, and DNP in Nursing.

UMKC facilitates asynchronous and synchronous distance learning on the learning management system Canvas. With over 16,000 students enrolled, UMKC fosters a diverse student body representing over 85 countries. Regarding student life, online students living near UMKC’s campus have access to over 300 student-led organizations and study-abroad programs. Online students at UMKC can access resources like tutoring, career services, and IT support.

#7 Indiana University - Bloomington

  • Salary Score: 56
  • Median Starting Salary: $70,919
  • Locations: Bloomington (IN)
  • Accreditation: HLC

At Indiana University - Bloomington (IU), a public institution, prospective students can pursue several online doctoral programs. IU offers online doctoral programs in the following areas: (1) education, (2) health and health sciences, and (3) public health. A few examples of online doctoral degrees at IU are a Doctor of Education in Instructional Systems Technology and a Doctor of Public Health in Global Health Leadership.

IU’s online students complete coursework in asynchronous and synchronous formats on Canvas. IU is one of the top public research universities globally. IU’s student life includes over 300 student-led organizations and more than 380 study abroad in over 70 countries. At IU, online students can access tutoring, academic coaching, counseling, and disability services.

#8 Drexel University

  • Salary Score: 56
  • Median Starting Salary: $64,461
  • Locations: Philadelphia (PA)
  • Accreditation: MSCHE

Drexel University is a private, nonprofit institution that offers several online doctoral degrees. Drexel offers online doctoral programs in the fields of education, nursing, and healthcare. Some examples of online doctoral programs offered at Drexel include a Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership and Management, a Doctor of Couple and Family Therapy, and a Doctor of Nursing Practice.

At Drexel, online students complete coursework in asynchronous and synchronous formats on the platform Blackboard. Drexel is a top-ranking institution that aims to help students develop the skills necessary for career success. Online student resources at Drexel are a writing center, academic advising, tech support, and a career center. Drexel has more than 300 student clubs and organizations and academic-enhancing opportunities.

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Overview of Online PhDs

One of the oldest academic degrees in existence, a doctorate degree is a postsecondary credential that is awarded to students who have achieved the highest level of education or training in a given area of study. Doctoral programs train students to create, apply, and research original knowledge. They take multiple years of graduate study to earn, with students completing a varying mix of coursework, exams, and practicums. 

The challenging nature of these requirements is perhaps the reason why a large number of doctoral students — roughly 50% — drop out. However, those who achieve their degree are equipped with expert-level knowledge in a given subject area as well as transferable research, writing, and communication skills. These qualifications typically prepare doctoral degree holders for advanced positions in academia, government, or vocational settings where professionals require specific expertise.

While they are primarily offered on-campus, many colleges and universities include the option to pursue a doctoral degree online. Prospective doctoral students can choose from programs offering exclusively online courses as well as hybrid models with a mix of distanced and on-campus learning.

Types of Doctorates

Not all types of doctoral degrees serve the same purpose. Many prospective students may be thinking of a PhD — also known as a Doctor of Philosophy — when referring to a doctorate. While correct, a PhD is a research doctorate in which the primary goal is to advance new knowledge. For instance, individuals who pursue a PhD degree in physics conduct original research, typically with the goal of working in academia.

By contrast, professional doctorate programs prepare students to practice a vocation. Examples include the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP), Doctor of Psychology (PhD), Doctor of Medicine (MD), Doctor of Business Administration (DBA), Doctor of Education (EdD), or Juris Doctor (JD). These degree holders are trained to apply field-specific knowledge in settings such as hospitals or courtrooms.

How Long Does It Take to Earn An Online Doctoral Degree?

Depending on individual program requirements and the type of degree, most doctoral degree programs can be completed in 3-8 years, though it may take over 10 years in some circumstances. The average time to completion is 7.5 years, and accelerated or online programs are designed to be completed in 3-5 years. It is important to note that schools may place a time limit on the number of years students have to complete their doctoral coursework and defend their dissertations or capstone projects.

What Will You Learn in an Online PhD Program?

Like their on-campus peers, students enrolled in an online doctoral program typically spend the first several years completing advanced coursework. Doctoral-level courses involve research, writing, and data analysis that allow students to extend or apply existing knowledge in their chosen discipline. 

Without question, such advanced study is challenging. However, pursuing a terminal degree can be an intrinsically valuable endeavor that leads to self-development.

Popular Subjects

Many of the most popular online doctoral programs involve health-related fields, including clinical psychology and counseling. Additional examples include the following: 

Doctor of Nursing Practice

Nurses who hold a bachelor's or master's degree may want to pursue a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) to advance their career. A DNP enables a nurse to become an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN), possibly with an area of specialization. An APRN's scope of practice varies by state, but they can often diagnose illnesses, prescribe medications, and develop patient care plans. 

Doctor of Physical Therapy

To become a licensed physical therapist, you must first earn a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT). The advanced coursework teaches you how to assess a patient's condition, develop a plan for improving their mobility and managing pain with exercise, and educating patients about ways to restore their health.

Doctor of Occupational Therapy

Occupational therapists who want to conduct research in the field or to educate aspiring occupational therapists may be interested in earning a Doctor of Occupational Therapy (DOT). Although you only need a master's degree to become an occupational therapist, a doctorate may open up additional career opportunities.. 

PhDs in STEM subjects, such as computer engineering, physics, and statistics, are also common. It is also possible to earn an online doctorate in educational leadership, law, history, or business.

Choosing an Online Phd Program

Prospective online doctoral students should practice their due diligence when choosing the best online PhD program. Beyond exploring program specifics and student services, students will want to select a school that has earned institutional accreditation. This means that the school has been reviewed by an independent agency and proven to meet nationally accepted standards. To determine whether the institution you're considering is accredited, visit the Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs.

Earning a doctorate takes years of intensive study in graduate school, so it's important for potential applicants to choose the right subject, school, and format. When researching options, it may be helpful to ask these key questions:

What are my career goals?

First, determine whether a doctorate is necessary or desirable in a given field. For example, aspiring professors, lawyers, veterinarians, psychologists, or doctors must earn a doctorate. However, those who aim to work in areas such as business or tech typically don't require this level of education. In these cases, it may be best to earn a bachelor's or master's degree.

Do I want a professional or academic doctorate?

Different doctoral degrees serve different purposes. Students primarily interested in conducting research, advancing original knowledge, or working in academia should opt for an academic doctorate. By contrast, a professional doctorate is better suited to those who hope to practice professions such as law or medicine in real-world settings.

Applying to a Doctoral Program

Doctoral programs typically admit only a handful of new students each year, so competition for spots can be fierce. While admission requirements vary by school, most have similar requirements and these remain constant across online and in-person degree options. Prospective students typically need to meet the following requirements to get accepted into a doctoral program:

  • A completed college degree. Some graduate programs require doctoral students to have completed a master's in the same or a related field, while others accept students with a bachelor's or an unrelated master's degree.

  • A GPA of 3.0 or higher in all previous degrees. Schools want to train scholars who are serious about advancing their field of study, so the academic standards are usually higher than for other degrees.

  • Competitive entrance exam scores, with thresholds that vary by school, in the Graduate Record Examination or Graduate Management Admissions Test.

  • Letters of recommendation from professors, coaches, or mentors that speak to the student's academic and personal merit and likelihood of success in the particular program.

  • A personal essay that expresses the student's reasons, motivation, and desire to complete a high-level degree in their chosen field.

In addition to these standard requirements, some disciplines require professional work experience or language proficiency. For example, students pursuing online doctoral studies in nursing may need a minimum number of clinical hours or years of full-time employment. By contrast, applicants to PhD programs in classics may need to demonstrate some familiarity with Latin or Ancient Greek.

Careers and Job Outlook

An online doctorate can lead to career opportunities that may otherwise be unavailable to bachelor's and even master's degree holders. For instance, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), a JD is typically required to become a practicing attorney, and doctorates are needed to become a physician, dentist, or psychologist

A PhD is essential for those who want to conduct research in almost any field, either in an academic setting or an advanced research facility.

Aside from expanding job opportunities in specific areas, an online doctorate also offers general career advantages. Students who successfully earn this degree typically gain considerable experience with relevant skills for government organizations, nonprofits, and startups. In particular, their ability to interpret different kinds of data, translate complex problems for wide audiences, identify unique funding opportunities, and evaluate multiple sources of information can make graduates valuable assets for employers in these industries.

Overall, the BLS projects that a doctoral degree comes with better pay and a favorable job outlook through 2030, particularly in the education, healthcare, and law sectors. 

Benefits of Earning a PhD

It's clear that doctoral degrees may open doors to higher-paying career opportunities. Nevertheless, earning a doctorate is an expensive, demanding, and time-consuming process. Before enrolling in an online PhD program, it's worth examining the pros and cons. Below are some of the benefits: 

  • Doctoral students may gain a set of practical and life skills — such as effective financial management, future career planning, and self-motivation — in addition to in-depth professional knowledge.
  • Given that doctoral degree holders are rare, they are typically recognized as experts or leaders in their field of study. 
  • Those who value constant learning, personal growth, and career advancement may find advanced study to be personally enriching.

So, Is an Online Doctorate Worth It?

Like any educational investment, the worth of an online doctorate depends, in part, on personal circumstances, career goals, familial responsibilities, finances, and learning style. However, as a highly specialized and advanced degree, a doctorate comes with distinctive benefits and challenges of its own.

There are a limited number of professions that require a doctorate. However, those that do, such as doctors or lawyers, tend to be well compensated, so pursuing a doctoral program in these fields may yield a high return on investment. By contrast, the outlook for academic doctoral candidates is less promising with both salaries and the number of full-time positions decreasing for individuals who want to work in academia. But a PhD may still be worth it for those who love conducting academic research, writing, and teaching. 

Additionally, students who enroll in an online doctorate may benefit from accelerated learning models and complete their degree in as little as three years — considerably sooner than traditional programs. However, online learning may not always offer adequate support. Furthermore, by studying online, students may forgo important sources of financial aid such as research and teaching assistantships.

FAQs on PhD and Doctoral Programs

What Is the Difference Between PhDs and Professional Doctorates?

Both PhDs and professional doctorates are terminal degrees: they are both types of doctoral degree programs. 

Although there are variations within advanced degrees, a PhD is generally considered a research degree program that trains students to produce original research, advance knowledge in their field, and prepare for careers in academia or scientific research. By contrast, in a professional doctorate program, students learn to apply their knowledge to real-world situations while studying advanced concepts in disciplines such as medicine, business, or law. 

Can You Earn a Doctorate Online?

Yes, you can earn a doctorate online. Over the last couple of decades, many universities have begun to offer PhD programs online, and there are now hundreds of PhD and professional doctorate online programs for you to choose from. Many accredited online PhD programs are fully remote, allowing students to take online courses and meet other degree requirements at their own pace. Other programs — particularly in the STEM fields — may require occasional campus visits to complete labs or meet faculty. 

How Demanding Is a PhD?

It can be extremely challenging to complete a PhD program. Many doctoral students find the advanced coursework to be mentally demanding, and they often face financial and emotional stressors, resulting in anxiety or depression. A strong support network, realistic expectations, and clear goals may help doctoral candidates retain a positive outlook during their higher education journey. 

For more information on coping with mental and emotional challenges while earning a degree, see our mental health guide for college students.

Which Doctorate Is the Highest In Demand?

In recent years, some world economy experts have predicted that graduates with PhDs may experience job shortages and career insecurity in academia. However, the BLS expects several doctoral degrees to remain in high demand through the end of this decade. One example is a PhD in any high-growth STEM field, where a doctorate may increase job opportunities. Additionally, demand for JD graduates and nurses with a doctoral education also remains strong.

Can I Earn My Doctorate Without a Master's?

Yes, depending on the type of degree and subject, you can earn a doctorate without first earning a master's degree. In fact, many PhD programs incorporate all of the master's-level and doctoral-level coursework into one program, allowing bachelor's degree holders to enter directly into a doctoral program.

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