Can you get a doctorate online, and should you?

A Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) is the highest level degree awarded in a specific academic field. Beyond the title, a PhD can be exciting for many reasons. It’s a way — not the only way — to collaborate with passionate people on important problems, to contribute new knowledge to the world, and to open doors to careers at the highest levels. In many fields, a PhD is a requirement to be hired as a researcher, a scientist, or a university professor.

However, a PhD is time consuming. If you are not living close to a university and if you already have other obligations that prevent you from joining an in-person PhD program, you may be considering an online PhD. The short answer to whether you can get a doctorate online is: yes, it is possible. The longer answer is that it comes with many caveats, limitations, and risks that need to be navigated carefully. But, with the right approach and some good amount of preparation, some fields of research can be great candidates for an online PhD.

The pros and cons of an online PhD

Similar to all distance learning programs, the main advantage of an online PhD is the flexibility. You can work from anywhere and in your own time. This flexibility may be attractive if you already have other obligations, such as being a stay-at-home parent, being a caregiver for a family member, not being able to move cities to get closer to a university, or having a job that you cannot quit.

The main disadvantage of an online PhD — provided that it is provided by a reputable university — is the isolation, which is especially problematic in academic research, where a lot of the ideas are generated through serendipitous conversations with colleagues. When getting a doctorate online, you will be working on your own most of the time, which can feel lonely and demotivating.

However, this challenge can be mitigated by participating in academic conferences, whether online or in person, where you can meet with fellow colleagues, exchange ideas, and grow your network. With social media, it has also become easier to share your work with the world and to foster conversations outside of your immediate academic group, which can be particularly helpful if you are pursuing an online doctorate.

Another disadvantage is that you will be limited in terms of areas of research, as many academic fields rely on the use of specific equipment that can be costly, or even impossible, to acquire on your own. There is little you can do about this limitation, except choosing an area of research that doesn’t require such equipment.

Finally, it is a common misconception that getting a PhD online costs less than in-person ones. Most universities charge the exact same price for online doctorates as they do for the ones delivered on campus, though some of them include the price of plane tickets and accommodation for when you absolutely need to be on-site, namely for the final oral examination where you present your thesis. In addition, it is very rare — practically unheard of — to obtain institutional funding for an online PhD, so you will need to cover the costs of your tuition and your research, which can be a considerable amount of money.

Avoiding online PhD scams

The pros and cons outlined above only concern legitimate online PhD programs. Unfortunately, bad actors are capitalizing on the fact that many people would like to pursue a doctorate without having the ability to do so in-person.

Diploma mills are organizations that claim to be a higher education institution, and that deliver diplomas in exchange for a fee. Those diplomas are either fake or practically useless. Diploma mills exist at all levels of study, but they are particularly problematic at the doctorate level where you will find yourself working for three to six years, which is a significant investment of time and money.

It can be hard to tell these organizations apart from legitimate institutions, as they often have beautiful websites, a brochure, and a call center where you can ask questions. To make matters worse, diploma mills are often supported by accreditation mills, set up for the purpose of providing an appearance of legitimacy.

There are several red flags you should pay attention to if you are considering an online PhD. 

  • Accreditation. Is the organization accredited by a nationally recognized accrediting agency? Beware of buzz words such as “licensed”, “authenticated”, or “notarized”, which are not relevant to academic credentials. It is always worth looking up the accreditation agency to ensure it is legitimate itself.
  • Admissions. What are the criteria to join the PhD program? Do you have to submit transcripts, go through an interview process, submit an implication that includes referral letters? If not, it is a good indication that the organization is a diploma mill that is only interested in your credit card.
  • Studies. Will you need to conduct actual research, work under a supervisor, submit a thesis, and defend it at the end of your PhD, or do you only need to maybe watch a few pre-recorded videos, or submit some work that will not be evaluated?
  • Duration. How long will you need to study for the PhD? Depending on the country, a PhD can take anywhere between three and six years, sometimes longer. If the organization promises a fast turnaround for the obtention of your doctorate, this is a massive red flag.
  • Faculty. Who are the members of the academic team? All reputable universities have very transparent registries of their staff, so you can have a look at their publications, and even email them to discuss your PhD project. Diploma mills will have fake team members with stock photos, and of course no academic publications to their names.

A lot of universities, even the smaller ones, will have a Wikipedia page where you can read about their history, departments, and alumni. This is not in of itself a guarantee that you are looking at a legitimate institution, but you should be extra careful when the only material you can find about an organization is the one they have published themselves.

Now that you are sure that you are looking at a legitimate institution, let’s figure out what research areas would be good candidates for pursuing an online doctorate.

Research areas compatible with an online doctorate

While in the vast majority of cases, it is more productive to be working on-site with your team, including your supervisors, there are three main factors that make an online PhD a reasonable option.

  1. All the research can be conducted online. This is obviously the most important factor. Psychology, philosophy, history, mathematics, sociology, theoretical physics, and marketing are some examples of fields where you may be able to conduct all of your research online, without impacting the quality of your output. Focus groups, interviews, content analysis, questionnaires and ethnography are all methods that can be used online. The research could also be done by accessing online librairies, conducting web-based experiments, or analyzing existing datasets. 
  2. The research benefits from being conducted off-campus. In some cases, you may actually need to be away from campus to conduct your research! Many scientists who work in anthropology, botany, or animal studies need to study their subjects in their environments. They spend their time in the field, whether they collect data, and rarely spend time on campus.
  3. The research does not require in-person resources. Will you need access to a laboratory or expensive equipment that you cannot acquire on your own? If you want to conduct brain scanning experiments, an MRI machine costs between $300,000 and $1 million, and even if you somehow had access to that kind of money, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to fit one in your living room. In contrast, if you are doing computer neuroscience, you may be able to build computational models of the brain from your laptop, without needing access to a laboratory.

Again, a PhD is an intense endeavor, and most PhD candidates will benefit from having in-person interactions with their team, but an online PhD is feasible if some of these criteria are met.

How to apply to an online doctorate

The process should be fairly similar to applying to an in-person PhD program. First, you need to identify an area of research that is compatible with being conducted fully online and does not require in-person resources. Bonus points if the research actually benefits from being conducted off-campus.Once you have an area of research in mind, you need to find a relevant PhD program.

In some cases, you will need to first find a supervisor that is willing to work with you. Go through the university’s directory and email potential supervisors, explaining what your research interests are, sharing your previous experience and why you think they would be a good match as a supervisor. Once you have a supervisor onboard, they will walk you through the application process.

In other cases, you will be assigned a supervisor once accepted onto the PhD program. Then, it’s just a matter of following the instructions on the university’s website, which will often require you to upload your transcripts from previous studies as well as one or several letters of referral.

You will often have to go through some interviews with faculty members, who will assess whether you would be a good fit for the program and for academic research in general. These are very similar to job interviews.

Only once you are done with the application process and have been extended an offer will you be asked to pay for your fees — and it is very common for the payment to only be required after a few months of studies, rather than before you start. Again, pay attention to red flags when applying for an online PhD, as there are many scams out there that only care about getting you to pay the fees.

List of online PhD degrees from reputable universities

Finding an online doctorate is not hard. A quick search will bring up hundreds of results. Finding an online doctorate from a reputable university where you will conduct original research and connect with a network of academics in your field is much harder. However, many universities are now offering the option to get a doctorate online, provided that your research project is compatible.

In addition, the Open University offers many PhD degrees by distance learning in areas as varied as psychology, philosophy, design, economics, engineering, history, law, sociology, geography, music, and mathematics.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, and all of these universities are based in the United States or the United Kingdom. It is just a way to demonstrate that you can obtain an online doctorate without being scammed by a diploma mill.

Not all of these universities have the same reputation. Some are non-profit organizations, others are for-profit and may have more lenient admission criteria, but all of them are accredited which means that you will obtain a legitimate online doctorate. They also all have a Wikipedia page where you can read about their research and their alumni.

Now, as it is very unlikely that you will obtain funding for an online doctorate, you still need to ask yourself whether the considerable amount of time, energy, and money you will need to invest is worth it to achieve your goals. There are many other ways to conduct research and contribute new knowledge to the world, such as working as a researcher for a private company or as an independent researcher.

Pursuing a doctorate, whether online or in person, is a massive commitment. Whatever decision you make, take your time to evaluate the pros and cons, and to consider alternative paths that may be less costly, and still a lot of fun!

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