Weary woman working on dissertation

The Truth About Online Doctoral Degree Programs and Dissertations

By Dani Babb, PhD

There are many false beliefs about online doctoral programs and the universities that run them (i.e., universities that offer doctoral degrees). Here’s my list of the Top 5 Misconceptions from over 20 years experience teaching in them:

1. They want to keep you enrolled as long as possible in order to earn as much tuition money from you as possible.

Admittedly, there used to be some truth to this. As with any profit-making venture, it makes good business sense to retain existing customers (in this case, paying students). It used to be quite common for students to feel that they are running in circles and are unlikely to ever step foot on the graduation stage. However, regulators seriously cracked down on this practice by ensuring that strict time-to-graduation metrics are upheld. Nowadays, most universities genuinely celebrate the graduation of their students. Of course, there are also business reasons behind showcasing this success to current and prospective students.  This is one reason your own committee may be in favor of you working with a coach or suggest an editor!

2. Most professors are working for the university full-time.

The ideal for any university is to have the majority of their professors be employed full-time so that they can properly engage with various aspects, such as curriculum development and alumni relations. However, the reality is that it is not economically feasible for online doctoral universities to maintain a high ratio of full-time faculty. Therefore, these universities tend to mostly employ part-time or adjunct faculty in order to allow the flexibility to accommodate periods of low and of high enrollment. Perhaps a crude way to characterize these faculty is as seasonal workers, and this is not far from the truth. As to be expected, these contracted workers tend to not be fully engaged with a university because they have the need to generate income from other sources (in most cases, they work for multiple universities). Prior to selecting a university to attend, a wise prospective student should determine the university’s ratio of full-time to part-time faculty (this data should be freely made accessible upon inquiry). 

3. A doctoral degree from an online program does not have as much value as a doctoral degree from a traditional university.

As with all universities, there are those that are considered “prestigious”, and others that vary in terms of how they are perceived by the general public and, more importantly, by employers. While you will not find a purely online doctoral university among the top echelon of all universities, there are many that produce graduates who are just as capable and respected by their counterparts. While it can certainly be argued that the stigma related to the online variety of university still exists to a degree, this is dissipating with time as the online modality is gaining more acceptance (this was actually a positive byproduct of the COVID-19 pandemic). In fact, you would be hard-pressed to find a university today that does not offer at least some online courses. In short, if a university appears to offer you everything you’re looking for, don’t disregard it because it happens to be purely online.

4. They are owned and run by academics.

In most cases, these universities are owned and managed by businesspeople…entrepreneurs and large education conglomerates. In other words, they are businesses that happen to be providing education as a service. Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. Keep in mind that all universities must receive accreditation from one of the major accrediting bodies in order to be able to disperse federal education loans (which is the way most students use to pay for their tuition). These accreditors try to ensure that universities are upholding standards that relate to aspects such as academic rigor, sound processes, equity, and accessibility. In other words, a university will not succeed if it is run strictly as a profit-making entity. However, any student or faculty member of an online university will clearly sense, at least from time to time, the business realities with which their institution is dealing. 

5. Online universities are a relatively new undertaking.

The reality is that distance-based education (although not the “online” variety) has existed for many decades and I taught in the first one in the 1990s. Step back further in time to “correspondence” learning, where during high school I took college classes. Even further back - Imagine a time when most people did not live in or around large cities, but rather in villages that were often located quite a distance from the cities that housed university buildings. 

While it was possible for some young people to leave home to move closer to these universities, it was not an option for everyone. For those who could not, they sometimes had the option of pursuing their education by corresponding with university faculty and administrators from their homes. Specifically, students would be shipped learning materials and requirements using a courier. These students would proceed to study and complete the required schoolwork, and then ship the materials back to the university for evaluation. This certainly resembles today’s online learning environment, minus the technology and timeliness!

In short, while online doctoral degree programs and universities, do not hold the prestige of Harvard, there are many outstanding, solid universities tou can attend today to earn your doctoral degree. 

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