2021 Best Online Colleges for Doctoral Programs

By Jennifer King Logan | Updated 6/30/2021
2021 Best Doctoral Degrees Badge

A doctorate is the highest degree awarded by a graduate school. Today, many schools offer online doctoral degrees. Our ranking list of the best online doctoral programs represents the universities that have the highest research expenditures and the lowest student-faculty ratios. Twenty-four of the 25 schools devote at least $100 million to research each year and every school has a student-to-faculty ratio of 20 or less. To be eligible for these rankings, schools must offer at least three fully online doctoral programs that cover at least two subject areas. Read more about our methodology to learn how we calculated rankings.

On this page, we also provide an overview of online doctoral programs, in addition to information about accreditation, how much your program will cost, and whether this degree will be worth it for you.

2021 Best Doctoral Degrees Badge
Start Your Online College Search:
OnlineU has over 200 partner colleges that advertise on our site. Search results include only our partner colleges, which are marked with the word "Ad." Learn more about how we make money.
RankSchool Annual Tuition R&D Expenditure
# 1 #1 Johns Hopkins University $49,768 $3,016 million
# 2 #2 University of Pittsburgh-Pittsburgh Campus $33,660 $752 million
# 3 #3 University of Southern California $33,915 $447 million
# 4 #4 University of Wisconsin - Madison $13,800 $1,053 million
# 5 #5 Rush University $13,062 $162 million
# 6 #6 Colorado State University-Fort Collins $16,275 $254 million
# 7 #7 University of Florida $31,385 $743 million
# 8 #8 Drexel University $21,934 $132 million
# 9 #9 Medical University of South Carolina $14,250 $235 million
# 10 #10 The University of Tennessee - Knoxville $10,710 $294 million
# 11 #11 University of Kansas $4,884 $313 million
# 12 #12 The George Washington University $23,325 $206 million
# 13 #13 Texas A&M University-College Station $15,014 $763 million
# 14 #14 IUPUI $21,000 $221 million
# 15 #15 University of Illinois Urbana - Champaign $7,350 $537 million
# 16 #16 University of Colorado Denver $8,189 $338 million
# 17 #17 Northeastern University $15,249 $155 million
# 18 #18 University of Kentucky $16,632 $311 million
# 19 #19 Virginia Commonwealth University $10,500 $205 million
# 20 #20 University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center $22,673 $71 million
# 21 #21 Texas Tech University $13,518 $190 million
# 22 #22 Kansas State University $7,432 $211 million
# 23 #23 University of Arkansas $6,029 $163 million
# 24 #24 Mississippi State University $7,335 $175 million
# 25 #25 University of South Carolina-Columbia $29,760 $148 million
Start Your Online College Search:
OnlineU has over 200 partner colleges that advertise on our site. Search results include only our partner colleges, which are marked with the word "Ad." Learn more about how we make money.

Best Online Doctoral Program Highlights

#1 Johns Hopkins University

  • Annual Tuition: $49,768
  • Locations: Baltimore (MD)
  • Accreditation: MSCHE

Johns Hopkins University is well known for it's academic rigor, integrity and academic achievement. This is no less true for the Doctorate in Education program. ...The expectations and pace of work are very high but the actual instruction is, in my opinion, lacking...I am optimistic that the program will continue to improve as I acclimatize to the culture and expectations of this particular online program and its professors.

The program is online but is extremely organized and all objectives and expectations are clear.

Founded more than 145 years ago, Johns Hopkins University has always been dedicated to the twin goals of research and education. The university offers numerous programs and degrees, including 31 doctoral degrees that can be earned primarily, if not completely, online. These online doctoral programs include many options for nurse practitioners and other advanced nursing specialties, as well as business, education, and mechanical engineering. The requirements for completing an online doctoral program at Johns Hopkins vary. In general, however, they are designed to be completed in three to seven years, including a doctoral dissertation or capstone project.

Courses may be delivered asynchronously or synchronously, through the Blackboard learning management system and Zoom. In-person components, such as practicums, may also be required. Doctoral candidates may be eligible to receive three to four years’ worth of financial assistance (tuition and stipend), and they are also eligible for work-study programs. Many of the online doctoral programs provide opportunities for networking and professional collaborations, as well as the ability to work closely with renowned faculty members.

Applicants for Johns Hopkins University online doctoral programs do not necessarily need a master’s degree, although relevant credits earned will be counted toward completion of the doctoral degree. Prospective students should submit their applications through the school’s website. Distance learners have access to career coaching, academic advising, and digital resources.

School Overview
  • Graduate Online Enrollment: 16,594
  • School Type: Non-Profit
Program Overview
  • Program Count: 31
Admissions
  • Application Fee: $80
  • Requirements: Vary by program and may include transcripts, recommendations, test scores, prerequisites, resume, work experience, personal statement, minimum GPA of 3.0, and an executive sponsor

#2 University of Pittsburgh-Pittsburgh Campus

  • Annual Tuition: $33,660
  • Locations: Pittsburgh (PA)
  • Accreditation: MSCHE

Since the very beginning, the faculty has made the effort to get to know me and my story. They customize a plan of action for your education and meet with you frequently along the way.

The teaching faculty are surprisingly caring and generous with their time, considering how academically impressive they almost uniformly are. Very task-oriented, down-to-earth faculty, very few hyperinflated egos.

All of the 11 online Doctor of Nursing Practice programs offered by the University of Pittsburgh prepare students for advanced nursing roles, including nurse specialists, nurse practitioners, and healthcare system executives. To earn a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP), students will need to complete a minimum number of credit hours and a minimum number of clinical hours of practice. These numbers vary depending on the area of concentration. In most cases, any credits and clinical hours completed for a master’s degree in the same or similar discipline—most likely a requirement for admission into the program—will count toward the DNP. Doctoral candidates will also be required to devise and execute a DNP capstone project.

The curricula for the university’s online doctoral programs are specifically designed to prepare students for certification and licensure. In general, graduates are well prepared; the school’s certification pass rate in nearly every category is 100%. Some PhD candidates may be eligible for a five-year financial aid package that includes a stipend, tuition, and health insurance.

Students who wish to apply to any of the University of Pittsburgh’s online doctoral programs should submit an application online, along with transcripts from previous schools. Applicants will also need to write a personal essay describing their career goals and why they would like to earn a doctoral degree. Online students have access to a variety of resources, including academic advising, technical support, and library services.

School Overview
  • Graduate Online Enrollment: 335
  • School Type: Non-Profit
Program Overview
  • Cost per Credit: $1,122.00
  • Program Count: 11
Admissions
  • Application Fee: $50
  • Requirements: Vary by program and may include transcripts, prerequisites, a personal statement, resume, letters of recommendation, and entrance exam scores

#3 University of Southern California

  • Annual Tuition: $33,915
  • Locations: Los Angeles (CA)
  • Accreditation: WSCUC

The faculty and staff are well prepared to educate and support adult learners in various fields of study.

As I am pursuing a Doctoral degree, I have learned that USC focuses on ensuring that their students are set up for success.

Founded in 1880, the University of Southern California is one of the leading research universities in the country, with a distinguished faculty to match. Research also lies at the heart of the five online doctoral degree programs offered at USC—one being a Doctor of Social Work, known as DSW@USC, and the other four all Doctor of Education degrees. These programs are designed to be completed in approximately three years, including a dissertation in practice or a capstone portfolio project.

Students applying to USC’s EdD online degree programs may be eligible for scholarships from the USC Rossier School of Education. Although there is not a similar program for DSW@USC students, they can apply for general scholarships from the university.

DSW@USC applicants must hold a master’s degree in social work or a related field, and they must have a minimum of five years of work experience after earning their master’s degrees. USC has similar requirements for doctoral candidates in its EdD online degree programs. Applicants are required to have a substantial number of years of experience in a related field and may be required to have a master’s degree in education or a similar discipline. Prospective students must fill out an online application and submit official transcripts from previous university-level coursework. Candidates may also be required to submit letters of recommendation and GRE scores. Distance learners have access to library resources, academic advising, and career development services.

School Overview
  • Graduate Online Enrollment: 6,691
  • School Type: Non-Profit
Program Overview
  • Program Count: 5
Admissions
  • Application Fee: $90
  • Requirements: Vary by program and may include transcripts, prerequisites, resume, work experience, entrance exam scores, minimum GPA of 3.0, essays, and letters of recommendation

#4 University of Wisconsin - Madison

  • Annual Tuition: $13,800
  • Locations: Madison (WI)
  • Accreditation: HLC

Students have access to numerous resources and have the opportunity to assist in research studies with professors.

Recognizing the unique needs of busy, working adults who want to further their education, the University of Wisconsin—Madison offers several online doctoral degree programs. The Doctor of Occupational Therapy degree is a primarily online doctoral program that prepares students to become advanced OT practitioners, managers, policy advisors, or faculty. The degree program requires 34 credits plus a capstone project, designed to be completed over three years. UW—Madison’s Doctor of Nursing Practice degrees are hybrid programs that combine online coursework with in-person classes to prepare students for advanced certification. Graduation requirements for credits, clinical hours, and scholarly projects for the DNP programs vary.

In addition to federal financial aid, some doctoral students may be eligible for aid directly from the university through assistantships, fellowships, traineeships, on-campus jobs, and research grants. Some of these programs offer the added benefit of developing career skills, such as communication and teamwork.

To be eligible for the Doctor of Occupational Therapy online degree program, applicants must have a current state OT license and hold a related master’s degree. Admission requirements for a DNP program include a bachelor’s or master’s degree in nursing with a minimum GPA of 3.0, an RN license, and some nursing experience. All applicants should submit transcripts, a statement of purpose, a resume, and recommendation letters along with their online applications. Distance learners have access to library resources, academic coaches, career services, and technical support.

School Overview
  • Graduate Online Enrollment: 595
  • School Type: Non-Profit
Program Overview
  • Cost per Credit: $1,150.00
  • Program Count: 6
Admissions
  • Application Fee: $60
  • Requirements: Vary by program and may include transcripts, resume, statement of interest, letters of recommendation, and prerequisites

#5 Rush University

  • Annual Tuition: $13,062
  • Locations: Chicago (IL)
  • Accreditation: HLC

Faculty are well informed in subject matters and seem personally invested in the achievements of their students. Questions and intellectual debate are encouraged while maintaining a mutual level of respect between all involved.

Rush University offers 17 online PhD programs, all of which are in the field of health. Thirteen of Rush’s online doctoral programs are Doctor of Nursing Practice degrees with unique specialties. Rush also offers four Doctor of Philosophy degrees: one in Health Sciences and three in Nursing Science, including a BSN to PhD and an MSN to PhD track. The average program length for Rush’s online doctoral degrees ranges from three to five years.

Rush’s online programs require occasional visits to campus at the start of the program and then each summer. Coursework can be pursued on a part-time or full-time basis and includes core courses in research, theory, and role development. Courses must be taken in a prescribed sequence, and educational and research practica are also included in the program. Full-tuition scholarships are available to eligible students. Graduates of these programs may be prepared for assuming industry-advancing research positions as well as launching externally funded research programs. Additionally, the nursing programs meet the educational requirements for professional licensure in most states.

Applicants must have a bachelor’s or master’s degree and can apply online through NursingCAS. There are no work requirements for the Nursing Science PhD program. Transcripts are required. Students have access to library resources, career services, and wellness services.

School Overview
  • Graduate Online Enrollment: 553
  • School Type: Non-Profit
Program Overview
  • Cost per Credit: $933.00
  • Program Count: 17
Admissions
  • Application Fee: $50
  • Requirements: Vary by program and may include transcripts, prerequisites, work experience, minimum GPA of 3.0, entrance exam scores, personal essay, letters of recommendation, resume, and an interview

#6 Colorado State University-Fort Collins

  • Annual Tuition: $16,275
  • Locations: Fort Collins (CO)
  • Accreditation: HLC

The HEL program at CSU is intentionally crafted for working professionals and provides tremendous support along with course rigor. I find myself consistently using what I have learned in the program within my professional position. Highly recommend.

The students are very collaborative and supportive, as it is a non-competitive program. The coursework is interesting, relevant and challenging.

Students can enter three online PhD programs at Colorado State University-Fort Collins: two in systems engineering and one in education and human resource studies. The specific degrees offered are a Doctor of Engineering in Systems Engineering, a Doctor of Philosophy in Education and Human Resource Studies – Higher Education Leadership, and a Doctor of Philosophy in Systems Engineering. The engineering degrees contain 72 credits (42 with an applicable master’s degree), and the Higher Education Leadership doctoral program includes 60 credits. The latter can be completed in 5 years.

Many courses are offered in webinar-style formats and can be taken synchronously or asynchronously. In addition to available scholarships and expected employer assistance, CSU offers military personnel a 15% tuition discount. All programs include a student success coach and feature renowned faculty with proven real-world industry experience.

Applications for fall semester are due March 1, and those for spring semester are due November 1. All applications are processed online through the Colorado State website. Programs contain degree, GPA, and specific prerequisite course requirements. The engineering online doctoral programs also require five to eight years of professional industry experience and a sponsor within the applicant’s current employer or practicum site. Distance learners have access to career services, academic advising, library resources, and more. 

School Overview
  • Graduate Online Enrollment: 2,209
  • School Type: Non-Profit
Program Overview
  • Cost per Credit: $1,085.00
  • Program Count: 3
Admissions
  • Application Fee: $60
  • Requirements: Vary by program and may include transcripts, prerequisites, work experience, executive sponsor, and a letter of recommendation

#7 University of Florida

  • Annual Tuition: $31,385
  • Locations: Gainesville (FL)
  • Accreditation: SACS COC

An amazing program with impressive professors and students. This program is innovative and challenging which is why you will be the best pharmacist in the workforce once graduating. The professors and faculty are caring and motivating and they are there for you to succeed.

The highly trained faculty prepare you to be a fully trained clinician upon graduation. They provide an excellent learning environment with state of the art equipment and facilities available for the students. ... This is one of the best teaching hospitals in the world where students are exposed to anything they would like in the health field.

The University of Florida offers 12 online doctoral degrees spread across three online PhD programs. Over half of the offerings are Doctor of Nurse Practice degrees in the school of health. Three are education degrees, two EdDs in Curriculum and Instruction, and one in Higher Education Administration. Rounding out the offerings are two liberal arts PhDs, Classical Civilization and Latin and Roman Studies. The MSN to DNP program contains 35 credits and can be finished in five semesters, while the BSN to DNP program includes at least 75 credits and takes considerably longer.

Online doctoral programs at the University of Florida require a few in-person sessions, but all coursework can be completed online. Learning is designed with working professionals in mind and is therefore often asynchronous in nature. Doctoral students are eligible for many scholarships and fellowships.

Admission criteria vary by program, but DNP programs require either a bachelor’s degree in nursing or an MSN, at least a 3.0 GPA in upper-division nursing major courses, GRE requirements, licensure or eligibility as a Registered Nurse in Florida, and demonstrated clinical excellence and leadership. Applications are online at the UFL website using NursingCAS. Fall semester applicants must apply by April 1, with priority given to those who apply by March 1. A variety of resources are available to online learners, including technical support, academic advising, research support, and library services.

School Overview
  • Graduate Online Enrollment: 3,585
  • School Type: Non-Profit
Program Overview
  • Program Count: 12
Admissions
  • Application Fee: $30
  • Requirements: Vary by program and may include prerequisites, work experience, minimum GPA of 3.0, entrance exam scores, letters of recommendation, and a statement of purpose

#8 Drexel University

  • Annual Tuition: $21,934
  • Locations: Philadelphia (PA)
  • Accreditation: MSCHE

The faculty is supportive and genuinely interested in the student's academic success.

Overall, the program has great teachers who go above and beyond to help and be available for students. The curriculum is set up well and has high quality information.

Drexel University offers 13 online PhD programs in two academic disciplines. The education-focused university offers 10 EdDs in Educational Leadership and a Doctor of Health Science, a Doctor of Health Science – Education, and a Doctor of Nursing Practice. The EdD programs can be completed on a part-time basis in three to five years using a system with four 10-week quarters each year, and they range from 60 to 61.5 credits.

Drexel’s online doctoral programs in Educational Leadership are 100% online, with zero residency requirements. Students join a cohort, which produces networking and educational opportunities that extend beyond the degree program. Students in the Health Science doctoral program are paired with faculty members that have expertise in their chosen field, allowing for optimal mentorship. Drexel offers reduced tuition rates to alumni, students affiliated with the military, and partner organizations.

Admissions requirements for the EdD program include a master’s degree in education or a related field from a regionally accredited institution and a master’s GPA of 3.5 or higher, plus three years of relevant work experience. The Nursing Education concentration requires a current and unrestricted US RN license. The health-related online PhD programs require a master’s or clinical doctoral professional degree in a health profession and a 3.0 GPA, plus a current, active medical license or credential in the US or Canada. Resources available to online students include 24/7 tech support and online access to the university’s library, writing center, and career center.

School Overview
  • Graduate Online Enrollment: 878
  • School Type: Non-Profit
Program Overview
  • Cost per Credit: $997.00
  • Program Count: 13
Admissions
  • Application Fee: $0
  • Requirements: Vary by program and may include transcripts, prerequisites, minimum GPA of 3.5, letters of recommendation, personal statement, resume, and work experience

#9 Medical University of South Carolina

  • Annual Tuition: $14,250
  • Locations: Charleston (SC)
  • Accreditation: SACS COC

I am able to speak with my advisor about and receive advice about my academic pursuits as well as consider future and potential job and scholarship opportunities.

The online doctoral programs offered by the Medical University of South Carolina are all in the field of medicine. There are 18 doctoral programs available, including a PhD in Nursing Science, a Doctor of Health Administration, a Doctor of Nurse Anesthesia Practice, a Doctor of Nursing Practice, and a Doctor of Occupational Therapy. Each of these programs offers two or more subspecialties. The BSN to DNP online doctoral degree requires 75 semester hours and is achievable in four years on a part-time basis, while the MSN to DNP requires 36 hours and two years of full-time study.

Coursework is available online, while health assessment and clinical courses require one visit to campus per semester for intensive sessions in the MUSC Healthcare Simulation Center and elsewhere. MUSC offers CCNE accreditation and prepares students to sit for their specific licensure and national certifications, which are often the key to higher salaries and career advancement. Numerous scholarships are available as well.

Requirements vary by degree program, with the DNP program requiring either a bachelor’s or master’s in nursing, a 3.0 BSN GPA, undergraduate statistics coursework, RN license in the state where practicums will be conducted, and more. GRE scores are not required. Applications are received through the MUSC website and NursingCAS. Distance learners have access to academic resources, counseling services, and online library resources.

School Overview
  • Graduate Online Enrollment: 415
  • School Type: Non-Profit
Program Overview
  • Program Count: 22
Admissions
  • Application Fee: $100
  • Requirements: Vary by program and may include transcripts, work experience, professional references, career goal essay, and a resume

#10 The University of Tennessee - Knoxville

  • Annual Tuition: $10,710
  • Locations: Knoxville (TN)
  • Accreditation: SACS COC

A rigorous program with an emphasis on public health nutrition. The faculty are very knowledgeable, approachable, and truly care for your success. ... The flexibility in the later years of the program allow students to explore more specific coursework in other departments.

It provides valuable relationships with the faculty to work on research together. ... financial stipends are low and the workload is overwhelming.

At the University of Tennessee – Knoxville, qualified professionals can enter one of 15 online doctoral programs in four broad disciplines: nursing, industrial & systems engineering, education, and social work. The greatest number of programs are in the school of nursing, where candidates can choose from seven specialties in the Doctor of Nursing Practice or choose one of the online PhD programs to move from BSN, MSN, or DNP up to a Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing. Total credit hours vary, with DNP programs ranging from at least 60 to 67 hours.

UT Knoxville takes a hybrid approach, with two on-site, in-person sessions each term. The rest of the doctoral degree coursework is live (synchronous) online group and collaborative work, structured but asynchronous work (in groups, individually, and self-directed), plus guidance, mentoring, and advising. DNP degrees prepare students for higher levels of clinical service and careers in education or research. Distance learners pay reduced fees and are eligible for financial aid.

Applications for the summer/fall term open the previous August. Applications are handled through the UT Graduate Admissions website. Requirements include possessing or nearing completion of at least a BSN from a regionally accredited (NAC or CCNE) nursing program plus a 2.7 GPA or 3.0 during senior year. PhD applicants must have a cumulative 3.3 GPA for all previous studies. Online students have access to a graduate program advisor, the student success center, and library resources.

School Overview
  • Graduate Online Enrollment: 819
  • School Type: Non-Profit
Program Overview
  • Cost per Credit: $714.00
  • Program Count: 15
Admissions
  • Application Fee: $60
  • Requirements: Vary by program and may include transcripts, prerequisites, minimum GPA of 3.0, work experience, entrance exam scores, resume, statement of purpose essay, and letters of reference

#11 University of Kansas

  • Annual Tuition: $4,884
  • Locations: Lawrence (KS)
  • Accreditation: HLC

Faculty encourages conducting research early in our graduate career to help us become strong researcher and also to prepare us for the competitive climate of academic careers in the market. The faculty encourages fulfilling our research interests and collaborating not only with other students and faculty within the program but also encourage inter-disciplinary work.

A good student to mentor ratio allows for that personal attention when questions arise during experiments. Access to professors that actually care and are competent is an essential component to success.

The University of Kansas offers ten online doctoral degrees, including eight Doctor of Nursing Practice programs, a Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing, and a Post Professional Doctor of Occupational Therapy. Candidates already possessing a master’s in nursing will complete at least 32 credits, while those with a bachelor’s should expect to complete a five-year course with around 75 to 79 credits to earn their doctoral degree.

KU offers a flexible online learning environment, with courses delivered through the Blackboard learning management system. Online classes are identical to those provided on campus and are taught by the same faculty. Some required courses are held on campus in the summer. Financial aid resources are available to online students.

Application deadlines for programs that start in summer are the December prior. Transcripts, a written statement of goals and practice interests, references, an application vitae, and evidence of licensure are all required. Applications are handled through ApplyWeb. Distance learners have access to library services, academic resources, technical support, and an online learning tutorial.

School Overview
  • Graduate Online Enrollment: 1,461
  • School Type: Non-Profit
Program Overview
  • Cost per Credit: $542.70
  • Program Count: 10
Admissions
  • Application Fee: $75
  • Requirements: Vary by program and may include transcripts, written statement of career goals, resume, letters of recommendation, and an interview

#12 The George Washington University

  • Annual Tuition: $23,325
  • Locations: Washington D.C.
  • Accreditation: MSCHE

GWU is a very relaxed environment. Everyone wants you to succeed and is willing to work with you, if you are struggling. There are individuals that help set you up with laboratory rotations and attempt to recommend an environment that you will thrive it.

There is a rich environment of helping and caring within the professors and the students. We do anything we can to help each other succeed.

The George Washington University offers 12 online doctoral programs, including two online PhD programs. More than half of the school’s offerings are various Doctor of Nursing Practice specializations. Additionally, the institution offers a Clinical Doctorate in Occupational Therapy, a DEng in Engineering Management, PhDs in Nursing and Systems Engineering, and an Education Specialist in Educational Leadership and Administration. Post-bachelor’s DNP online doctoral programs require around 72 credits depending on specialty, while the DEng program requires 30 credit hours of coursework and at least 15 of research.

Within the DNP program, a doctoral degree pathway involves a hybrid class format with online courses and some on-campus, in-person elements (namely, training and testing). Other programs are taught entirely online synchronously or asynchronously, depending on the nature of the discipline. The university’s partnership with GW Hospital offers numerous experiential and financial benefits, including a job placement program. Additionally, GW Nursing awarded over $1 million in strategic partner-funded scholarships during the previous academic year.

Admission requirements vary by program. The DNP is open only to nursing professionals with either bachelor’s or master’s degrees, and certain disciplines are only available to one category or the other. Faculty are accessible to online students, and applications are all handled through the school’s website. Distance learners have access to tutoring, the GW libraries, career services, and more.

School Overview
  • Graduate Online Enrollment: 9,314
  • School Type: Non-Profit
Program Overview
  • Cost per Credit: $1,555.00
  • Program Count: 12
Admissions
  • Application Fee: $80
  • Requirements: Vary by program and may include transcripts, prerequisites, minimum GPA of 3.5, work experience, resume, and a statement of purpose

#13 Texas A&M University-College Station

  • Annual Tuition: $15,014
  • Locations: College Station (TX)
  • Accreditation: SACS COC

The professors are excellent, and are well-educated across different subject areas.

Texas A&M at College Station offers a select group of online PhD programs, including a Doctor of Education in Curriculum & Instruction, a Doctor of Philosophy in Interdisciplinary Engineering, a Doctor of Philosophy in Interdisciplinary Engineering - Supply Chain Management, and a Doctor of Philosophy in Plant Breeding. The doctoral degree in plant breeding requires 64 semester credit hours, while the PhD in Interdisciplinary Engineering requires 96 (64 for those already holding a master’s degree).

The online PhD in Plant Breeding can be accomplished from the student’s location as long as a qualified supervisor can direct local research. Similarly, the Interdisciplinary Engineering degree can be earned remotely by candidates in roles already requiring relevant research. Engineering students must visit campus once per year. The Office of Graduate and Professional Studies works to foster graduate programs and research efforts. The Career Center and career advisors are available to help students and alumni.

Admission requirements vary by program, though most online doctoral programs require the GRE or the passing of a discipline-specific entrance exam. Candidates may apply through the university’s website. Texas A&M offers distance learners 24/7 technical assistance, academic advising, and testing services. 

School Overview
  • Graduate Online Enrollment: 927
  • School Type: Non-Profit
Program Overview
  • Program Count: 4
Admissions
  • Application Fee: $65
  • Requirements: Vary by program and may include transcripts, letters of recommendation, entrance exam scores, minimum GPA of 3.0, personal statement, and a resume

#14 IUPUI

  • Annual Tuition: $21,000
  • Locations: Indianapolis (IN)
  • Accreditation: HLC

The networking and job opportunities are of top quality. The staff provides unheard of support to students and maintains a warm culture.

The professors are knowledgeable and very personal.

Those looking for online PhD programs in health and education will find some options to consider at IUPUI. The institution offers two Doctor of Education degrees: Instructional Systems Technology and Literacy, Culture, and Language Education. There’s also a PhD in Nursing Science (both BSN and MSN to PhD), a Doctor of Public Health in Global Health Leadership, a Doctor of Occupational Therapy, and four Doctor of Nursing Practice degrees on offer. Credit hours and program lengths vary from discipline to discipline. The doctoral degree in Occupational Therapy requires 106 credit hours, while the DNP may take as few as 37.

IUPUI’s term for its distance programs is “distance accessible,” meaning limited on-campus requirements exist. The bulk of coursework is asynchronous and delivered over the Canvas learning management platform. Synchronous components may include video conferencing. Financial assistance and scholarships are available for all of IUPUI’s online doctoral programs and vary by discipline. For example, the Doctor of Occupational Therapy program offers nine distinct fellowships and scholarships.

The application is handled through IUPUI’s website and is divided by school. Each program has its own application link. There are degree and sometimes work prerequisites, which vary by program. Prospective students can search for their desired program for details. DNP online students receive direct support from program staff, who provide student services support and direction to other relevant resources. A 24/7 contact center is also available.

School Overview
  • Graduate Online Enrollment: 1,074
  • School Type: Non-Profit
Program Overview
  • Cost per Credit: $700.00
  • Program Count: 10
Admissions
  • Application Fee: $65
  • Requirements: Vary by program and may include transcripts, personal statement, letters of recommendation, entrance exam scores, prerequisites, work experience, and a minimum GPA of 3.0

#15 University of Illinois Urbana - Champaign

  • Annual Tuition: $7,350
  • Locations: Champaign (IL)
  • Accreditation: HLC

The University of Illinois Urbana - Champaign offers nine online doctoral programs, all through their school of education. Online EdD programs include Doctors of Education in Diversity & Equity in Education, Global Studies in Education, Human Resource Development, International Education Administration and Leadership, and Learning Design & Leadership. The last entry has a general track and three specialized tracks. All programs require a minimum 64 credit hours, two written qualifying exams, and a doctoral dissertation.

Courses are synchronous but offered mostly in the evenings to support the professional educator. The same faculty teach online programs as the on-campus versions. Children of veterans may benefit from a tuition waiver, and standard financial aid options are available. Doctoral degrees in education generally cater to mid-career professionals and may lead to increased pay, status, or both in an individual’s current role or career path. An EdD may also help individuals move from their current tier in the workplace to a higher one.

Students interested in pursuing a doctoral degree in education from UI Urbana Champaign will need an accredited master’s degree and a minimum 3.0 GPA. Online EdD degree programs have an application deadline of April 15 for fall. Online students receive virtual access to the library, a web store with free or deeply discounted software, and free premium LinkedIn Learning access.

School Overview
  • Graduate Online Enrollment: 4,348
  • School Type: Non-Profit
Program Overview
  • Cost per Credit: $490.00
  • Program Count: 8
Admissions
  • Application Fee: $70
  • Requirements: Vary by program and may include transcripts, entrance exam scores, resume, personal statement, and letters of recommendation

#16 University of Colorado Denver

  • Annual Tuition: $8,189
  • Locations: Denver (CO)
  • Accreditation: HLC

The program is rigorous enough to challenge us, yet the professors are excellent with guiding students along their individual dissertation work.

Professors do a lot to help you network and with career advice.

The University of Colorado Denver offers online doctoral programs in education, nursing, and pharmacy. The Doctor of Education in Leadership for Educational Equity - Higher Education is available entirely online and requires 54 credits. The Doctor of Pharmacy in North American Trained PharmD requires a total of 65 hours, including 35 hours of coursework and 30 hours of experiential training. The online Doctor of Nursing Practice is available with several tracks, and also as a dual Master of Public Health/Doctor of Nursing Practice. Some of UC Denver’s DNP doctoral degree programs can be completed in as little as two years.

Most classes in these programs are delivered online through Canvas, although many programs do require on-campus intensives. For example, the DNP program requires no more than three intensives per academic year, and each spans 1-2 days. Earning a DNP on many of the tracks makes students eligible for the national certification exam, which can increase salary and hiring potential. Students who live in one of the 15 states participating in WICHE may qualify for in-state funding, significantly reducing program costs.

Applications close on July 1 for the DNP program, December 1 for the EdD, and December 31 for the PhD. Admission requirements vary by program but are generally extensive and may include either a BSN or MSN, 3.0 nursing GPA, and RN license. Distance learners have access to technical support, a 24/7 librarian, and an online writing center.

School Overview
  • Graduate Online Enrollment: 1,453
  • School Type: Non-Profit
Program Overview
  • Cost per Credit: $454.96
  • Program Count: 8
Admissions
  • Application Fee: $60
  • Requirements: Vary by program and may include transcripts, statement of purpose, resume, letters of recommendation, and a professional portfolio

#17 Northeastern University

  • Annual Tuition: $15,249
  • Locations: Burlington (MA)
  • Accreditation: NECHE

The faculty are very supportive. The online courses are rigorous but convenient.

We have a very strong relationship with the industry which not only helps with obtaining jobs upon graduation but also helps keep the research areas relevant.

Northeastern University’s online PhD programs are limited to two schools: education and health. There are five Doctor of Education degrees available in an online format, as well as a hybrid Doctor of Nursing Practice program and a Transitional Doctor of Physical Therapy. Each education doctoral degree can be completed online in three to four years, with either a full- or part-time commitment. The DPT is typically completed within 1-2 years.

All coursework related to Northeastern’s PhD programs can be completed online, but the programs also involve two-day residencies. Crucial for networking and career progress, these annual residencies can be completed at one of three campuses. Many online programs also include virtual experiential learning opportunities at leading companies. Program costs can be offset with scholarships and assistantships, both available at the doctoral level. Northeastern students have access to more than 30 federally funded research centers and a strong alumni network.

Applications can be submitted through the university’s website. Requirements include transcripts, an admission statement, three years working in a related field, faculty and professional recommendations, and a professional resumé. Northeastern has a late admission deadline in August for a September start. Online learners can access academic resources, library services, and the writing center. 

School Overview
  • Graduate Online Enrollment: 152
  • School Type: Non-Profit
Program Overview
  • Cost per Credit: $897.00
  • Program Count: 7
Admissions
  • Application Fee: $75
  • Requirements: Vary by program and may include transcripts, personal statement, resume, letters of recommendation, and entrance exam scores

#18 University of Kentucky

  • Annual Tuition: $16,632
  • Locations: Lexington (KY)
  • Accreditation: SACS COC

University of Kentucky is a fantastic research University with renowned professors.

There are a wide range of online PhD and doctoral programs on offer at the University of Kentucky. Programs are available in education, the arts, nursing, and social work. They include a PhD in Arts Administration and a PhD in Education Sciences – Educational Leadership; both require a minimum of 46 credits. A Doctor of Nursing Practice is also available. It requires at least 34 credits and features clinical mentors and renowned faculty members who work in the field.

Online classes for all of these programs are delivered through the Canvas learning management system. However, at least some (including the Doctor of Nursing Practice) include required in-person immersion blocks in Lexington. Online doctoral programs offer varying forms of financial assistance, including teaching and research assistantships and fellowships. Online students pay the same tuition rate regardless of residency. UK invests heavily in research and development, and many of the doctoral programs provide unique learning and research opportunities.

Application requirements for UK’s online doctoral programs vary but commonly include transcripts, a resume, a minimum GPA, and letters of recommendation. Other requirements may include GRE scores, a writing sample, and work experience. Online students are supported through a host of services that include counseling, academic resources, and the Handshake career management platform that offers a job board, professional development tools, and more. 

School Overview
  • Graduate Online Enrollment: 1,313
  • School Type: Non-Profit
Program Overview
  • Cost per Credit: $693.00
  • Program Count: 16
Admissions
  • Application Fee: $50
  • Requirements: Vary by program and may include transcripts, prerequisites, minimum GPA of 3.3, entrance exam scores, resume, personal statement, academic writing sample, and letters of recommendation

#19 Virginia Commonwealth University

  • Annual Tuition: $10,500
  • Locations: Richmond (VA)
  • Accreditation: SACS COC

The professors at VCU have not only the experience and know-how to teach students, but the patience, approachability, and friendly characteristics which enables me as a student and future industry employee to strive for greatness and never settle for less. ... With the guidance from all professors within the Pharmaceutics department at VCU, I have been and am continually given the knowledge to succeed in the future.

The classes are very insightful and help prepare you for your career. The University provides a very stress free and friendly atmosphere. ... They strive on making you the best possible pharmacist you can be.

Virginia Commonwealth University has a total of six online doctoral programs, including two online PhD programs. Most are health and nursing related, but an EdD in Leadership is offered as well. The health-related degree offerings are a Doctor of Nurse Anesthesia Practice, a Doctor of Nursing Practice, a PhD in Health Related Sciences, a PhD in Nursing, and a Post-Professional doctorate in Occupational Therapy. The EdD in Leadership is a 48-hour program that takes three years to complete on a part-time basis, while the DNP requires at least 39 credit hours.

Some of VCU’s online doctoral degree offerings are available entirely online. These include the EdD in Leadership and the PhD in Nursing. Others, including the DNAP and the DNP, are delivered online and in-class and feature a mix of synchronous and asynchronous coursework. DNP students must travel to campus three times per year. Financial aid is available, and career services provides advising and services to help graduates in their job search.

Application requirements vary by program, but most require transcripts, references, a personal statement, and test scores. The DNP's program requirements include a master’s degree in nursing, RN license, and certification in one of several advanced practice specialties. Application deadlines also vary by program and can be found on the school's website. Counseling services, academic resources, and career services are available to distance learners. 

School Overview
  • Graduate Online Enrollment: 478
  • School Type: Non-Profit
Program Overview
  • Cost per Credit: $700.00
  • Program Count: 6
Admissions
  • Application Fee: $70
  • Requirements: Vary by program and may include transcripts, minimum GPA of 3.0, entrance exam scores, letters of recommendation, and a statement of intent

#20 University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center

  • Annual Tuition: $22,673
  • Locations: Oklahoma City (OK)
  • Accreditation: HLC

They have incredible faculty and an environment developed for learning. While it is competitive, each and every student is there to support and help one another.

The University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center offers three online doctoral programs in the nursing field. In addition to a BSN to Doctor of Nursing Practice, a BSN to DNP with an Executive Leadership focus, and a PhD in Nursing are available. The BSN to DNP requires between 67 and 72 credit hours and can be completed in two years of full-time study or three years of part-time study. The PhD in Nursing requires between 58 and 72 credit hours and can be completed on a full-time or part-time basis. 

Online courses are delivered through the Desire2Learn learning management system. Financial assistance is available through loans, scholarships, and grants. The Reynolds Scholarship, worth up to $150,000, is open to students pursuing the PhD in Nursing. Faculty mentors work closely with students on their dissertations and also help to set up research partnerships.

The application process varies by degree, but common requirements include transcripts, references, and a resume. The process requires two applications, one through the NursingCAS portal and another through the university. Applications for the online PhD program are due April 1 for the following fall term. Applications for the DNP program are due January 15. Notably, nursing experience is not required for admission to the BSN to DNP program. Students have access to technical support, online library resources, and online tutorials. 

School Overview
  • Graduate Online Enrollment: 140
  • School Type: Non-Profit
Program Overview
  • Cost per Credit: $932.85
  • Program Count: 3
Admissions
  • Application Fee: $50
  • Requirements: Vary by program and may include transcripts, minimum GPA of 3.0, references, resume, essay, and an interview

#21 Texas Tech University

  • Annual Tuition: $13,518
  • Locations: Lubbock (TX)
  • Accreditation: SACS COC

Texas Tech has a lot to offer to the students and will help you to strive both academically and professionally.

Texas Tech University offers 16 online doctoral programs, all but three of which are online PhD programs. All of the degrees are in education or communication and rhetoric. They include an EdD in Higher Ed Administration, and PhDs in Curriculum and Instruction, Educational Leadership Policy, Family and Consumer Science Education, Special Education, and Technical Communication and Rhetoric. Many of these programs offer further specializations. The EdD offerings require 60 credit hours over three years, while the PhD degrees require 60-90 hours. While coursework is all online, EdD students must attend an on-campus orientation and three summer professional development sessions.

Students in this program are already scholar-practitioners and are generally seeking to prepare for leadership in higher education. Students may transfer a maximum of 30 credit hours of previous coursework. They can also benefit from Texas Tech’s extensive alumni network. Students in the Technical Communication program enjoy a mix of online-only and hybrid video-link classes and have access to a range of graduate scholarships. Financial aid is available, and out-of-state students receive a tuition rate that is comparable to in-state students. Texas Tech's Graduate Center provides a host of resources dedicated to graduate students. Among these resources are free professional headshots, research assistance, and counseling services. 

All education doctoral degree programs start in the fall, with applications accepted beginning the previous fall. Applicant requirements include transcripts and test scores. Additional program requirements vary but may include a statement of purpose, recommendations, and a writing sample. Those applying to an EdD program should have relevant higher-education work experience.

School Overview
  • Graduate Online Enrollment: 1,533
  • School Type: Non-Profit
Program Overview
  • Program Count: 16
Admissions
  • Application Fee: $65
  • Requirements: Vary by program and may include transcripts, resume, letters of recommendation, personal statement, and entrance exam scores

#22 Kansas State University

  • Annual Tuition: $7,432
  • Locations: Manhattan (KS)
  • Accreditation: HLC

The teachers are extremely helpful and will work overtime to make sure we understand the material.

There are five online doctoral programs at Kansas State University, three of which are online PhD programs. Four of these degrees are offered in education, including EdDs in Adult Learning and Leadership, and Curriculum and Instruction, and PhDs in Adult Learning and Leadership, and Counseling and Student Development – Leadership in Academic Advising. One doctoral degree, the PhD in Personal Financial Planning, combines education and finance. Degrees vary in terms of length, with the Personal Financial Planning program containing 90 credits and taking three years to complete. The Curriculum and Instruction Doctorate requires 94 credit hours.

The PhD in Personal Financial Planning is a hybrid model, with online coursework and 10-day summer intensives for three consecutive summers. The final summer session culminates in a travel abroad experience. Other degree programs, including the EdD in Curriculum and Instruction, are delivered 100% online. Kansas State boasts success in its online educational offerings, with a 97% job placement rate across all degree programs. Online students are charged at the same rate regardless of residency. Financial aid, including scholarships, is also available to online students. 

Program requirements include a minimum 3.0 GPA and a GRE/GMAT score earned within the past five years. Application deadlines vary by program. In general, applications should be submitted two to three months before the semester starts. Distance learners have access to support resources, including career services, academic resources, and technology services. 

School Overview
  • Graduate Online Enrollment: 1,272
  • School Type: Non-Profit
Program Overview
  • Cost per Credit: $495.50
  • Program Count: 5
Admissions
  • Application Fee: $65
  • Requirements: Vary by program and may include transcripts, minimum GPA of 3.0, resume, goal statement, writing sample, references/letters of recommendation, and a writing sample

#23 University of Arkansas

  • Annual Tuition: $6,029
  • Locations: Fayetteville (AR)
  • Accreditation: HLC

The professors are some of the top in their field and the staff work hard to make sure students have an enjoyable college experience. ... The University has a strong alumni network

It is an extremely great value for the level of education that I am receiving. All of my classmates are competitive and the faculty and staff members are brilliant and helpful. ... The workload is tough, but it will be worth it.

Online PhD programs at the University of Arkansas are in the education and healthcare fields. There are two EdDs (Educational Leadership, and Human Resource and Workforce Development Education) and four configurations of the Doctor of Nursing Practice available. The Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership requires three years and 42 credits (plus an MEd and EdS in Educational Leadership), while the BSN to DNP program takes about four years to complete.

Coursework for online doctoral programs from the University of Arkansas is 100% online, with minimal required campus visits (for orientation, intensives, or on-campus seminars). The DNP program allows for student-arranged clinical practicum hours in the student’s local area with qualified preceptors. Students have access to Arkansas’s extensive alumni network upon graduation. Arkansas teachers can benefit from the Arkansas Teacher Opportunity Program to fund their terminal degree. Financial aid, including online student scholarships, is also available. 

Admission to the Educational Leadership and DNP programs is only offered in the summer; application deadlines are February 1 and February 15, respectively. The Human Resource and Workforce Development program offers start dates in the fall, spring, and summer. Application deadlines are March 15 for fall and summer terms, and October 15 for the spring term. The GRE is required for all programs, as are relevant prerequisite degrees and appropriate GPAs. Distance learners have access to resources through the Online Student Liaison Office, library services, technical support, and more. 

School Overview
  • Graduate Online Enrollment: 1,441
  • School Type: Non-Profit
Program Overview
  • Cost per Credit: $430.69
  • Program Count: 6
Admissions
  • Application Fee: $60
  • Requirements: Vary by program and may include transcripts, entrance exam scores, writing sample, letters of recommendation, and an interview

#24 Mississippi State University

  • Annual Tuition: $7,335
  • Locations: Mississippi State (MS)
  • Accreditation: SACS COC

I really feel like I learned a lot in my program, however there [were] no career services help to find a job before or after graduation.

Mississippi State University offers 19 online PhD programs, almost all in the field of engineering. There is one doctoral degree in the education discipline as well, a PhD in Community College Leadership. Online doctoral programs in engineering include nine programs in Civil and Environmental Engineering, two in Computational Engineering, two in Electrical and Computer Engineering, one in Industrial and Systems Engineering, and four others. These research-heavy PhD programs require a minimum of 18 hours of committee-approved coursework and at least 20 hours of research for candidates with a relevant BS and MS.

Candidates lacking an MS will have more coursework requirements. These engineering programs are individualized, and therefore details vary according to an applicant’s situation and end goals. Many courses are delivered online through the Canvas learning management system. As a Top 100 Research Institution, MSU offers online students unique opportunities for learning and conducting research. Graduate research assistantships may be available, and online students pay the same tuition rate regardless of residency.

Fall start dates have a March 15 application deadline, while spring start dates have a September 15 deadline. Relevant prerequisite degrees are required, as is a minimum GPA of 3.0. Students lacking certain course prerequisites may be admitted on a contingent status. MSU's online students have access to resources through the Distance Education Information Portal, online tutoring, and technical support.

School Overview
  • Graduate Online Enrollment: 973
  • School Type: Non-Profit
Program Overview
  • Cost per Credit: $489.00
  • Program Count: 19
Admissions
  • Application Fee: $60
  • Requirements: Vary by program and may include transcripts, resume, entrance exam scores, statement of purpose, letters of recommendation, and a minimum GPA of 3.0

#25 University of South Carolina-Columbia

  • Annual Tuition: $29,760
  • Locations: Columbia (SC)
  • Accreditation: SACS COC

The faculty is personable and reasonable, working with you to ensure your success. In addition, tuition and cost of living are less expensive than many other institutions I looked at.

The University of South Carolina-Columbia (UofSC) is recognized by the Carnegie Foundation for top tier research activity and community engagement. UofSC offers 16 online doctoral degrees, including a Doctor of Education, Doctor of Nursing Practice, or Doctor of Philosophy. Students can pursue advanced study in educational practice and innovation, nurse executive leadership, computer science, and civil, nuclear, and mechanical engineering. These online doctoral programs require 48-60 credits to graduate. 

UofSC online programs may have some face-to-face requirements that can include an orientation, internship, practicum, or clinical hours. Instruction can be asynchronous or synchronous, and students are expected to interact with classmates via discussion boards, live chat, blogs, and wikis. In addition to coursework, students are required to complete 12 hours of dissertation credit. To help offset the cost of education, the university offers several merit-based awards and fellowships, travel grants to study abroad, and an emergency loan program. Additionally, UofSC provides various professional development opportunities to doctoral-seeking students, including career guidance, grant and proposal writing assistance, individual development plans, publishing tips, webinars, and institutional memberships. 

Applicants to the online doctorate programs are advised to check the specific admission requirements for their chosen program of study. Prospective students must fill out an online application and submit official transcripts from previous university-level coursework. Candidates may also be required to submit letters of recommendation and GRE scores. 

School Overview
  • Graduate Online Enrollment: 1,469
  • School Type: Non-Profit
Program Overview
  • Program Count: 16
Admissions
  • Application Fee: $50
  • Requirements: Vary by program and may include transcripts, letters of recommendation, personal statement, resume, and a writing sample

Understanding Our Online Doctoral Program Rankings

Our 2021 rankings for the best online programs for doctoral degrees were ranked using methodology that focused on five factors: number of full-time faculty members, student-faculty ratio, total research expenditure, percentage of total expenditure dedicated to research, and research expenditure per full-time student.

Student-to-Faculty Ratio

A college or university's student-to-faculty ratio reflects the average number of students for every instructor. This measurement is usually expressed as a numeric ratio, such as 18:1 or 12:1. The lower the first number, the fewer the number of students per teacher. Although this ratio is important at every level, it becomes a crucial factor at the doctoral level because Ph.D. candidates need a great deal of personalized attention and support from professors and other faculty members. A low ratio also indicates better opportunities for doctoral students to get to know their professors well. These relationships can prove to be essential to future networking and job placement.

The Importance of Research Expenditure

Of the more than 4,000 colleges, universities, and other higher education institutions in the U.S., about 250 are designated as research universities. Many of them are familiar names, such as Harvard and Stanford, while others are smaller schools specializing in a limited number of subjects. What makes these institutions research universities is the funding they receive from the government and private sector in order to conduct research. University-led research projects have been the source of many discoveries and innovations in technology, medicine, and beyond.

With this additional monetary support, research universities can offer more research opportunities for doctoral students, so they generally have more extensive Ph.D. programs. In general, the schools that qualify as R1 and R2 research universities under the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education typically confer at least 20 research doctoral degrees per year and report $5 million or more in annual research expenditures.

Full-Time Faculty Members

The faculty of every college or university will be a mix of full-time professors and part-time, or adjunct, professors. Full-time faculty work at least 40 hours per week. In addition to the time they spend teaching, they are required to offer in-person or online office hours for students, attend meetings, participate in developing the school's curriculum and programs, conduct research, write scholarly articles and papers, and represent the school at on-campus and off-campus events.

By contrast, adjunct faculty are hired to teach one or two classes per term and provide assistance to their students who need help. There are strong arguments for and against the use of adjunct professors, but they often bring a wealth of current, real-world experience to their classes.

Doctoral programs that involve a significant amount of scientific research are more likely to be taught by full-time professors. However, there will probably be a combination of full-time and part-time faculty in other programs, which offers doctoral candidates the benefits of scholarly rigor and practical experience.

Overview of Online Doctoral Degrees

Colleges capitalized on the internet boom of the 1990s to begin offering distance education online. Today, students can earn everything from certificates to doctoral degrees online. Doctoral students can choose from 2,437 different degrees across 585 schools. Many programs feature exclusively online courses with no in-person class requirements, while others are hybrid programs with a mix of online and on-campus coursework.

Doctoral students can choose from 2,437 different degrees across 585 schools.

Notably, some doctorates with no campus components still require that students complete an internship, clinical or lab hours, or another field experience at a designated location. This is more common with professional doctorates that prepare students to practice a vocation, such as the Doctor of Nursing Practice (D.N.P.) or Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.). Academic doctorates usually require a dissertation as the culminating experience, and they may or may not have an in-person field component. Most of these programs confer a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degree on graduates.

Doctoral Degree Types
  • Professional Doctorates: Prepare students to practice a vocation. Examples include the D.N.P. and Psy.D.
  • Academic Doctorates: Usually require a dissertation as the culminating experience, and typically confer a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degree.

Choosing a Program

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

  1. How much time and effort can I commit to this degree? A doctorate typically takes 3-8 years to complete. Professional doctorates tend to take less time to complete than research-focused academic doctorates, because students take courses and complete a field experience on a set schedule. By contrast, most Ph.D. students take several years to complete a dissertation once they finish coursework. Among Ph.D. programs, STEM students often take less time to complete their degree than humanities students.
  2. What are my career goals? You may already know that you want to pursue one of the most in-demand careers for doctoral graduates, such as data scientist or nurse practitioner. But depending on your chosen field, it may make sense to start working with a bachelor's or master's degree before deciding on a doctorate. Review the educational requirements for your field to find out whether a doctorate is necessary or even desirable.
  3. How challenging do I want a program to be? The most selective programs are generally the most academically challenging, because faculty at selective schools expect more from high-level graduate students. Review the acceptance rates for particular doctoral programs on a school's website, as well as graduation rates. Keep in mind that 50% of all doctoral students never finish their degree for various reasons, and it's difficult to determine exact causes for a program's graduation rate. A high dropout rate may indicate a program's difficulty or a lack of faculty attention and helpful student services, but this isn't necessarily the case.

Applying to an Online Doctoral Program

Most doctoral programs admit only a handful of new students each year, so competition can be fierce. These programs have largely similar admissions requirements, which are typically the same whether you enroll in an online or in-person program. Although some schools will accept less competitive prospective students, they tend to favor candidates who meet all of the following requirements:

A completed bachelor's degree, or a master's in some cases. Some programs require doctoral students to have completed master's degrees in the same or a related field. Others welcome students who have completed bachelor's degrees or unrelated master's degrees and intend to complete their master's and doctoral coursework concurrently.

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. It's sometimes possible for admissions officers to be flexible on GPA if an applicant is passionate and strong in other areas.

Competitive entrance exam scores, with thresholds that vary by school. A program may require the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT), or another exam.

Positive letters of recommendation from professors, managers, and other authority figures. These letters should speak to the student's academic and personal merit and likelihood of their success in the particular program.

An insightful personal essay. Admissions officers are typically looking to understand why an applicant wants to earn the degree and how they intend to contribute to their chosen field.

In addition to these standard requirements, some disciplines require professional work experience or language proficiency. For example, students pursuing online doctoral degrees in nursing may need a minimum number of clinical hours or years of full-time employment in the field, and applicants to Ph.D. programs in classics must be able to read Latin or ancient Greek.

How Long Will It Take To Earn My Degree?

Most online doctoral degree programs are designed to be completed in three to eight years. It is important to note that some schools place a time limit on the number of years students have to complete their doctoral coursework and present and defend their dissertations or capstone projects.

The number of years needed to complete a degree varies between programs. The main determining factor are:

  • The number of required credit hours,
  • the number of transfer credits a student may apply towards their program,
  • whether the Ph.D. candidate is attending school full- or part-time,
  • and how long it takes to complete their dissertation or capstone project.

How Demanding Is a Ph.D.?

Without a doubt, completing a doctoral degree is challenging. Although statistics vary among individual schools and programs, in general, less than half of Ph.D. students complete their degrees within ten years of enrolling.

A 2019 survey of 6,300 recent Ph.D. graduates conducted worldwide by the research journal Nature identified some critical issues. For instance, 36% of respondents said they sought help for anxiety or depression because of their Ph.D. studies. When asked to specify the sources of this anxiety, the two most common factors were uncertainty about future job prospects after graduation and work-life balance. Long hours, a perceived lack of support from advisors, and conflict with colleagues all contributed to a sense of dissatisfaction for some, especially in the latter stages of the programs.

We've put together a mental health guide for students that includes information about the signs and symptoms of mental illnesses and disorders in addition to hotlines and resources. The following may also be helpful for students:

  • Make sure you have a support network: Ph.D. programs can be quite competitive. Especially in the latter stages of a program, there may be years when a doctoral candidate is working primarily alone. It's essential to establish a circle of family members, friends, and other colleagues to turn to for support along the way.
  • Remind yourself of your worth: Many Ph.D. candidates report feelings of self-doubt, otherwise known as "imposter syndrome". This is the time for a Ph.D. student to remember that they were selected from hundreds of other candidates because others believed in their ability to succeed.
  • Set realistic expectations: Ph.D. candidates describe a wide range of challenges—including feeling alone and frustrated by difficulties in communicating with team members. Prospective students should go into the process knowing that there may be problems that arise.
  • Keep your eyes on the prize: Ph.D. candidates often describe the process of obtaining their degree as a marathon, not a sprint. Thus, it’s important for those enrolled in online doctoral programs to continuously remind themselves of the benefits they hope to gain and the specific ways a doctorate will help them realize their career goals.

Accreditation

Accreditation is an assertion from a recognized agency that a college has passed an independent quality review. Prospective doctoral students should first research schools that are regionally accredited — regional accreditation is more rigorous and prestigious than the national accreditation that trade and technical schools tend to pursue.

Regional and national accreditation ensure that doctoral students can apply for federal financial aid through their school. Regional accreditation also helps the credit-transferring process for students who decide to change schools, because regionally accredited institutions usually accept credits only from institutions that have undergone the same review.To find whether a school is regionally accredited, review its website or check one of the organizations recognized by the Council on Higher Education (CHEA). You might also consider accreditation through the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC), which reviews colleges that offer more than half of their programs online.

Accreditation is an assertion from a recognized agency that a college has passed an independent quality review.

Finally, some professional organizations accredit individual programs in their subject area, such as the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) for nursing. Program accreditation doesn't affect financial aid or credit transfer, but it gives a program an extra stamp of approval from professionals in the field and may be required or recommended for professional licensure in some fields. For example, applicants for a psychologist license in Washington need to provide extra assurances to the Department of Health if their doctoral program isn't certified by the American Psychological Association (APA). (And the APA does not accredit any online psychology programs.) Prospective graduate students should research the licensure requirements in their field to ensure that a particular program will help them meet their professional goals.

Legitimacy of Online Programs

Online degrees are legitimate if they're granted by an accredited institution of higher education. Employers and other schools usually weigh a college's accreditation more heavily than how it delivers courses. In fact, much of the work associated with doctoral programs happens outside of the classroom. Students pursuing academic doctorates write and conduct research in various settings, and field work for professional doctorates can happen off campus.

Still, online learning isn't completely free of the stigma attached to it from its early days. Evidence suggests that this perception is changing among employers and HR specialists, but individuals may still associate online learning with low-quality diploma mills. To weed out illegitimate programs, review each school's web site for accreditation claims and cross-check its accreditation status with an accrediting body recognized by CHEA or the Department of Education (DOE).

How Much Will My Online Doctorate Cost?

You might be wondering what you can expect to pay for your program, and whether you can save by pursuing your degree online. According to our manually researched data, the median annual tuition for an online doctoral degree is $14,925, which is slightly higher than the cost of an online master's degree. Individual doctorates ranged from $3,770 to $61,346 a year among our sample of 378 colleges.

According to our manually researched data, the median annual tuition for an online doctoral degree is $14,925.

Although tuition is the most significant portion of a degree's cost, it's not the only expense. Students also need to consider additional fees, housing and meals, and transportation. These factors typically differ for online and in-person students. For example, online students commonly pay a technology fee each term, but they can subtract housing and transportation from their calculations. They will also need a computer and reliable high-speed internet access, books and other materials, and sometimes specific software.

To help fund all of these costs, many traditional doctoral students earn a tuition waiver and living stipend in exchange for service as teaching or research assistants. However, such arrangements are rare for online doctoral students, who must find other forms of financial aid to help fund their education.

Financial Aid

Most doctoral students receive at least one form of financial aid to help fund their degree. The most common types of funding are:

  • Fellowships that award a tuition waiver and stipend to students who work as teaching or research assistants, and
  • Grants and scholarships based on need, merit, gender and ethnicity, or research focus. Students who complete the degree don't need to pay back any of this money.

Among the 49,500 U.S. doctorate recipients in 2019, two-thirds received a fellowship or scholarship and about 18% received a grant to fund their dissertation research. Notably, more than two-thirds received either a teaching or research assistantship, a type of funding that's generally unavailable to distance-learning students. For this reason, online students should apply to all possible grants and scholarships to help reduce their future debt. We've listed a few of these here, but note that different scholarships and grants are available depending on the student's school and field of doctoral study.

American Educational Research Association Dissertation Grants: Grantees receive up to $25,000 for expenses relating to research in education.

National GEM Consortium Ph.D. Fellowship: Doctoral students from underrepresented groups in science and engineering can earn $16,000 a year for the first four years of a Ph.D. program.

WW Dissertation Fellowship in Women's Studies: Students in their final year of writing their dissertation can receive up to $5,000 for expenses.

Careers

Doctoral alumni earn some of the highest wages in the U.S. and face the lowest levels of unemployment. However, relatively few careers actually require a doctorate for entry; candidates should carefully research their field to determine the prospects for doctoral graduates. Below are a few jobs where a doctorate is required or can help someone reach the highest level of their profession, including median salaries and career prospects from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Doctoral alumni earn some of the highest wages in the U.S. and face the lowest levels of unemployment.

  • Professor: As experts in their chosen subject, professors instruct students and conduct original research to advance their field. Their median annual salary is $81,000 a year. The 9% projected job growth through 2029 looks promising, but this percentage includes part-time adjunct positions without benefits. The market for tenure-track positions that offer job security has been contracting for years, although this can vary by field of study.
  • Nurse Practitioner: Nurse practitioners serve as primary-care providers, diagnose illness, and prescribe medication, helping to fill gaps left by the declining population of doctors. They earn a median $112,000 per year, and the number of open positions is expected to grow a staggering 45% by 2030.
  • Psychologist: Psychology features several career paths. Clinical psychologists diagnose and treat patients for mental and behavior problems, industrial-organizational psychologists create efficient and organized workplaces for their clients, and forensic psychologists consult with law enforcement and legal agencies on criminal cases. As a group, psychologists earn a median $82,000 a year, and the BLS expects 3% job growth through 2029.
  • Healthcare Managers: Healthcare is a complex field that needs administrative managers to process patient records, manage payment accounts, and direct business strategy. These jobs are growing very fast, with 32% more positions projected through 2029. Health services managers earn median wages of $104,000 annually.

Is a Master's Enough, or Should I Continue on for a Ph.D.?

Some professions simply demand a doctoral degree. For example, to become a licensed lawyer, veterinarian, psychologist, or doctor, a person must earn a doctorate or an equivalent professional degree. Whether it's primarily as a lecturer or as a researcher, a long-term career in academia generally requires a Ph.D. as well.

However, there are other careers in which professionals can be equally successful with a master's degree, including executive-level business management, education administration, environmental science, and several healthcare specialties. Prospective students can consult professional organizations or online resources, such as the Occupational Outlook Handbook, to determine what degree level is appropriate for the occupations they have in mind.

Is an Online Doctorate Worth It?

Whether an online doctorate will be worth the cost depends, in part, on your personal circumstances, including your career goals, family and job responsibilities, finances, and learning style. If you love to research, write, and teach, then a doctorate may be worth the effort because it might lead to a job where you're paid to do these things. However, the return on investment is likely lower for graduates who want to be professors than for those who want to work outside academia.

Employment

Many occupations that feature online professional doctorates have strong job prospects, including nurse practitioners and health services managers. However, not all of these fields require a doctorate for entry. For example, nurse practitioners currently need a master's degree alongside licensure and work experience, and healthcare managers can land most positions with a bachelor's or master's degree. The increasing professionalization of these and other careers often leads to credential inflation, so earning a terminal doctorate is one way to stay marketable — in fact, a D.N.P. may soon be required for new nurse practitioners.

The outlook for academic doctoral candidates is less promising. In most subjects, the number of Ph.D.s graduating each year outpaces the available tenure-track jobs, so many graduates take adjunct positions without benefits or job security. It's generally easier for STEM Ph.D.s to find private-sector or government jobs than it is for humanities graduates, whose subject matter knowledge may not translate to business or government as fluidly. However, humanities and social studies Ph.D graduates still have strong research skills that can help them secure jobs in consulting, think tanks or nonprofits, or government.

In most subjects, the number of Ph.D.s graduating each year outpaces the available tenure-track jobs.

Downsides of Online Learning

There are some potential downsides to studying online. Some research indicates that graduation rates are lower for online than on-campus students. The reason for this isn't obvious, but it's possible that distance learners have a harder time accessing support services than campus students.

Another downside is specific to doctoral programs: by studying online, students usually forgo the fellowships and assistantships that are important sources of financial aid for most doctoral candidates. Online students may be able to make up the difference with other sources of aid, but it's possible that they'll accrue more debt than in-person students in the same program.

Finally, prospective psychology students might first consider on-campus doctoral programs that are accredited by the APA. The association currently accredits only in-person degrees, and this accreditation may prove crucial to future licensure as a psychologist.

This website offers school details to prospective students as an informational resource. The appearance of a school listing on this website should not be interpreted as an endorsement of the school by this site.