Doctorates, or doctoral degrees, are “terminal degrees” in that they are the highest level of education one can achieve. Students who decide to earn a doctoral degree are committed to becoming skilled researchers and to developing advanced knowledge in a specific area of interest. Professional doctorates such as the Doctor of Education (Ed.D.), Doctor of Pharmacy (Pharm.D.), and Doctor of Nursing Practice (D.N.P.) prepare students for action-based work and research in an applied setting, while research doctorates such as the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) focus on subject matter expertise and academic research. While only a relatively small percentage of people attain doctoral degrees, there is an upward trend of students pursuing doctorates, potentially due to the increased availability of the programs via online or distance learning.
How Long Does it Take to Earn a Doctoral Degree Online?
The time it will take a graduate student to earn a doctoral degree, whether that be through traditional, face-to-face study or online learning, is affected by several factors, including the field of study, the amount of support provided by student services and faculty members, the focus of the research, and the student’s availability and motivation to complete the program requirements. The curriculum of most doctorates includes courses that are typically followed by comprehensive examinations that test a student’s knowledge of the area studied. Graduate students are also required to complete an original research project before earning their doctoral degrees. The time it takes a student to design, develop, execute, and analyze this project, as well as the process of getting the project approved by the faculty committee, varies depending on each individual project and student.
One factor that few consider is that the level of support a doctoral student receives from a faculty mentor or academic advisor can be critical when determining the time needed to complete the program. Before a student decides to enroll, it is recommended that he or she meets the future advisor and reaches out to former and current students to get a sense of what the advisor can offer. Also, if there is a gap between the amount of time a student’s funding lasts and the amount of time it takes to complete the doctorate, this can slow down the completion process. If a student runs out of money during the doctoral program, he or she will need to find paid work, which ultimately leaves even less time to focus on the dissertation — arguably the most important component of the doctorate.
The total number of courses, including electives and required classes, and other requirements such as teaching, clinical experiences, apprenticeships, and internships, also vary depending on the discipline chosen as well as whether the student chooses to pursue a professional or research doctoral degree. Prospective graduate students will find curriculum requirements that range from 36 to 90 or more credits in addition to the credits earned during the doctoral dissertation process. Keep in mind that students who have earned a master’s degree in a related field before pursuing their doctorate may be eligible to transfer a certain number of credits into the doctoral program and thus reduce the time to completion.
On-Campus Versus Online Doctorates
Students who pursue a traditional, campus-based doctorate can expect to spend an average of 5.8 years earning their degree. However, there are many types of programs that take even longer to earn, such as arts and humanities doctorates, where the median time to completion was 7.1 years.
Online doctoral degrees feature similar requirements in terms of dissertation research, examinations, and coursework, but many can be completed much faster, sometimes in as few as three to five years. Often referred to as “accelerated” or “fast-track” programs, these types of doctorates rely on already-developed ideas regarding a research agenda, prior related work experience for professional doctoral degrees, and the transfer of graduate-level credits related to the doctorate field. Also, depending on the format of the program itself, students may be eligible to graduate faster than their on-campus counterparts. For instance, some online doctoral programs offer a cohort learning model in which all students begin at the same time and complete the program requirements together as a group. Others feature an asynchronous format in which students can enroll and proceed at their own pace; those who take more classes and can master the material quicker may graduate sooner.
How Does the Doctoral Degree Field Affect Time to Completion?
According to U.S. News & World Report, the length of time it takes to get a doctoral degree varies greatly depending on the subject chosen. For example, students may earn a Ph.D. in Economics in fewer than five years, but this would be an impossible feat in the humanities such as art history, for example. This is because many humanities doctoral programs require graduate students to learn a foreign language, and fields like art history and anthropology require extensive research in the field. Unfortunately, funding for Ph.D. degrees in the humanities typically only lasts for five years, even though it is uncommon for a graduate student to earn his or her degree in that amount of time.
If a graduate student is pursuing a doctorate in a science-related field, they may be entitled to earn their degree in fewer than seven years. Doctorates in physics can be earned within five years, while psychology doctoral degrees can be completed within five to seven years. Other humanities-based programs that can take longer to complete include history and English, both of which can take up to eight years, and education, which can take as many as 13 years to complete.
How Can You Finish Your Online Doctoral Degree Sooner?
As we have seen, online doctorates typically feature accelerated courses that allow students to graduate within three or four years. Online programs also often offer multiple start dates that let students begin as soon as they are ready. Distance learning is touted for its flexibility, particularly since online learners are not required to come to class at set times. Instead, they can complete course requirements at their own pace as their schedules allow. Students who have opted for online learning may be able to use the following tips to accelerate the process even further.
Ask for Help
Students who do not have academic support may consider dropping out of the program. In fact, some students who do not complete the dissertation requirements simply put “all but dissertation,” or the abbreviation ABD, on their resumes. However, those who have solid academic support find that they can push through and finish their program faster. To accomplish this, build a team of academic mentors, friends, and family who can guide you, encourage you, and lend practical help when feeling overwhelmed by the program.
Work on the Dissertation Throughout the Program
The dissertation is considered the longest and most difficult component of the doctoral degree. Traditionally, most students begin to work on their dissertation once they complete the classroom-based portion of their studies. However, depending on the field of study as well as the student’s course load, he or she may consider beginning the process while taking other classes. Known as an embedded dissertation, this approach can help to ensure students have the time they need to complete their final projects. Even something as small as brainstorming dissertation topics, having a rough draft of the direction you would like to go, or plotting out resources can all be helpful ways to start and can speed up the doctoral timeline.
Opt for Shorter Classes
If at all possible, look for accelerated course schedules that allow you to breeze through the course requirements, particularly if the classes focus on topics previously studied at the master’s level. Ideally, a graduate student looking to reduce the time to completion will opt for a fast-track, eight-week format in which he or she begins a new set of classes every two months. Over the course of one year, a school may offer as many as five different sessions during which a student can complete doctoral-level courses.
Use Existing Knowledge and Experience
Each school has its own set of curriculum requirements that graduate students must complete to earn their degrees. To help students meet this threshold, some colleges and universities allow students to transfer in credits from master’s degree programs and other doctoral programs if a student did not complete the requirements. Schools may also offer graduates credit for professional experience, particularly if it directly relates to the doctorate’s area of focus. Reducing the number of courses required can save students both time and money when it comes to earning a doctoral degree.
Although these tips help reduce the time to completion, keep in mind that the process of obtaining a doctorate is arduous, regardless of the type or length of the program. A doctorate is a long commitment of a student’s financial resources, energy, and time, so it is often easier if he or she has a passion for research. In other words, earning an online doctoral degree is not about graduating as fast as possible by rehashing years of knowledge that is already available. Rather, it is about a student’s ability to generate new knowledge. The dissertation, often referred to as a student’s intellectual masterpiece, takes a lot of innovation, intellectual creativity, and time to put together, so students must be truly passionate about it.
Why Do Some Students Need Additional Time to Earn Their Online Doctorate?
While the time it takes to earn an online doctorate is a concern for many graduate students, the time is not necessarily the most important factor to consider. In fact, some of the best doctoral programs provide students with healthcare, generous stipends, and even subsidized housing. However, when students struggle to complete their doctorates, it might have more to do with their personal circumstances or academic interests than the programs themselves.
As we have seen, several variables affect the time to complete a doctorate, but the specific school or discipline would only account for one or two year’s difference. The reality is that, when a student takes longer to complete the program requirements, it is usually related to his or her research and coursework. In other words, students might change the focus of their dissertation or program, requiring extra research or coursework; they might need to take more classes to pass the required comprehensive examinations; or their research did not produce the results they were looking for, so they need to develop a new theory and conduct additional research to test it.
Instead of focusing on how long a particular online doctoral degree program lasts, prospective students should instead look at the program’s graduation and attrition rates. It might even be helpful for students to meet those currently enrolled in the program to gauge whether the school’s — and their — expectations are realistic.
Who Should Consider an Online Doctoral Degree?
Students who are considering pursuing an online doctorate are typically interested in learning how to conduct academic research as well as developing advanced knowledge in a specific field. Therefore, this level of academic work supersedes what is offered in master’s degree programs as doctoral students can contribute original research to other professionals and learn more about their area of focus. Most students who earn an online Ph.D. degree are seeking employment at research centers or universities and colleges, while those pursuing professional programs like the Pharm.D., D.N.P., or Ed.D. are generally interested in working in senior-level practical or clinical application roles following graduation, often in industry and business settings.
The main reason students may consider pursuing an online doctorate is because the positions in which they are interested require it. For instance, doctoral degrees are required for careers as a veterinarian, hospital pharmacy director, psychiatrist, senior research scientist, and university or college professor. In addition to developing expertise in a certain field, doctoral students develop advanced skills in written and oral communication, research design, project management, critical thinking and problem solving, and data reporting, analysis, and collection.
Earning a doctorate, regardless of the field, requires a level of focus and commitment that goes far beyond what is required for a typical corporate job. Therefore, finding an online doctoral program with flexible requirements that allow students to customize the curriculum based on personal obligations and academic interests is ideal. When looking for an online doctoral degree, evaluate programs not only based on how long they last but also consider the bigger picture and whether one matches your professional goals and interests better than the others. In addition to subject area and cost, other considerations to keep in mind include the specialties of faculty members, whether there are any in-person attendance requirements, if the program fulfills certification or licensure requirements, the flexibility of class schedules, and how the program is organized. Ultimately, determine the type of work you want to pursue as well as your professional goals to help you determine which type of online doctorate you wish to pursue.
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