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How to Choose the Best Online PhD Program

I’ve always enjoyed learning. If there’s something new worth knowing I enjoy the challenge of picking up that new knowledge. That’s why, as I graduated with my online Master of Science in Information Systems last year through a distance learning program from Dakota State University, my first thought was: “What can I learn next?”

The best online PhD programs will not be empty
After I finished my masters in information systems degree online I was planning on another masters degree, probably an online MBA. However, because that plan originated when I’d just begun online learning in 2006, several new online graduate degree options now existed for me to consider.

Could I go further than a masters degree? Could an online PhD be an option for me? Amazingly enough… it seemed like it actually could!

In the last several years distance education offerings across the United States have exploded. As of 2011, there are literally over one hundred online PhD programs; degrees ranging from an online Doctoral of Public Administration at Valdosta State University to an online PhD in Financial Planning from Kansas State University.

I honestly wish I had the time — not to mention the money! — to experience them all. But since my chances of winning the lottery this year are once again miniscule, I narrowed my choices using the same seven factors I used when searching for an online masters degree in order to find the best online doctorate for me:

  • Degree Focus (Major or Emphasis)
  • Accreditation
  • Admission Requirements
  • Campus Residency or Internship Requirements
  • Program Length and Schedule
  • Ability to transfer credits from my masters degree
  • Cost: Credit hours/course and tuition

Whether I’m applying for an online doctorate, masters, bachelors, associates, or a certificate degree, I’ve found it helpful to consider these factors. After all, education requires a huge investment of time, money, and energy, so the act of choosing the best online PhD program shouldn’t be taken lightly.  


Best Online PhD Program: 7 Factors to Consider

1. Online Doctorate Focus

This may sound like a no-brainer, but the first factor to consider in choosing an online PhD degree is to look for a focus or major area that’s within your area of interest. If you’re getting the online degree just because it might look good on the resume, then you’re much more likely to get burned out- or even not finish. Therefore, it’s best to pinpoint your interest and invest time into learning what you like.
This is an even bigger consideration when choosing a PhD, especially an online PhD. Many distance learners are part-time students while working full-time. In the doctorate degree world, the courses are often tougher, the standards higher, and many programs take at least three, but as much as seven, years to complete. The prospect of studying one topic for seven years can be daunting for anyone, particularly if it is a subject they find bland.

2. Accreditation

The topic of accreditation comes up frequently in conversation. How do you know which accreditation is best? What level of accreditation is good enough?   Some better questions to ask: Should accreditation matter to you? And, how does it actually affect you?   If you’re interested in teaching with your online PhD, or if your employer has a tuition assistance program that will only reimburse degrees that carry a certain type or level of certification, then accreditation can be a crucial factor.   For example, Intel will only reimburse employees taking business classes from AACSB-accredited business school programs, or engineering courses from ABET-approved engineering colleges. Also, faculty positions across the country generally require doctorates that hold regional accreditation as opposed to national accreditation.

3. Admission Requirements

So now you’ve found an online doctorate that you like, but the question remains, do you meet the minimum requirements to get admitted?The standards for admittance vary program to program, but most of them take into account the following criteria:

  • Undergraduate GPA
  • Graduate GPA
  • GRE/GMAT/MAT scores
  • Work-related experience

If you don’t quite meet all of the requirements posted by the university, be sure to contact the school before giving up on that online PhD program. For instance, you may be interested in the PhD in Technical Management at Indiana State University, but your undergraduate GPA may be below their stated minimum. If you’ve had an excellent graduate GPA, GMAT score, and/or had some really outstanding work experiences, you could gain provisional acceptance into the program. Then, if you do well on your first 2- 4 courses, you could be admitted as a degree-seeking student.


4. Residency and Internship Requirements

Online doctoral programs, whether taken online or traditionally, usually require some kind of residency or internship. Whichever online doctoral you’re interested in, make sure you’re willing and able to put in the travel time to visit the campus.Residency requirements could mean anything from traveling to the campus for a long weekend or staying for a few weeks, like the following programs: The best online PHD options meet 7 criteria


5. Program Length and Schedule

How many credit hours does your chosen online doctorate require? And how many credit hours count towards each course? Two similar online PhD programs could both require 90 credit hours, while one counts only three credits per course and the other counts four to eight credits per course. This could seriously affect the scheduling of your online courses.Also consider how flexible your course scheduling can be, and how much time you’re willing to spend on your online doctorate. Some people may want to accelerate and finish as quickly as possible, while others may only be able to schedule one course at a time.  Consider the Baker College online PhD program. It’s a 90-credit hour degree and is structured to require students to take two courses at a time to complete the degree in three years, but allows for a part-time option where students can extend their program length to seven years instead.

6. Ability to Transfer Credits from Other Programs

Pending the approval of the faculty, credit hours from prior masters or doctoral programs can sometimes be transferred, reducing the number of credits the student needs to earn the new online doctorate degree.Every institution’s policy differs but, as a general rule, the lower the number of credit hours required by the new online doctoral program, the less likely there will be a chance for credit or course transfer. For example:

7. Cost

Of course, the cost of the degree is always a significant factor. The cost per credit hour for an online doctorate can range from $255 to over $1,000, so make sure you are aware of the total cost of your PhD degree as well as your payment schedule.

Also, keep in mind the number of credits per course and how many classes you are required to take at a time- taking fewer courses at once may make your payments easier to budget.   Don’t forget to add the costs of campus residencies, if any. Expenses related to flights, food, and a room may, once tacked on to tuition and fees, cost as much or more than a single class.  


Keeping these seven tips in mind, I found several interesting online PhD programs in my own online doctoral search, however, the one that fit the best was the Online Doctor of Science in Information Systems from Dakota State University. DSU is a regionally accredited state institution where I can continue to build upon my master’s and bachelor’s work in Information Systems and Computer Engineering.

Dakota State University Online has no residency requirements, and while the online PhD requires 88 credit hours (63 hours of coursework, 25 of dissertation), up to 27 credits of masters-level credits can be transferred. This was a deciding factor for me since I recently earned my masters degree online from Dakota State.  

The online PhD programs cost is $368 per credit hour for classes that are three credits each, one of the lowest tuition rates that I found.

However, my undergraduate GPA was a bit lower than what they preferred, so I’ve been encouraged to apply with copies of any published work I have and the highest GRE scores I can manage. So, for me, if I want to get serious about stepping up to an online doctoral program as my next education milestone, I may have a lot of work ahead of me.

Overall, the most important advice for anyone who is looking to begin a new online degree, especially an online PhD, is to weigh as many of these seven factors as you can before choosing the best degree for you. Factors like program accreditation, cost, and class schedule should be taken into account before enrolling in an online graduate degree program.

Earning an online doctorate is tough enough without having to worry about surprise costs and logistical hiccups once you’re already in the degree program. Evaluate these seven online PhD factors first, and you will save yourself time, worry, and maybe even a little bit of your sanity.

Editor’s Note: Get Educated profiles more than 100 online PhD degrees. You can sort all of them into a custom list of the best online doctorate degrees for your needs according to accreditation type, major, and cost by using our search filters and sort buttons.

For more information on online PhD degrees check out the GetEducated video Online Doctorate Programs


About the Author: In addition to pursuing and writing about higher education, David Handlos works as a Lead Software Performance Engineer at Fiserv. He has also worked for Kansas State University as the webmaster, managing both the College of Engineering and Engineering Extension web sites. Handlos holds a Bachelors of Science in Computer Engineering from Kansas State University and a Masters in Information Systems which he earned online from Dakota State University.  


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