How Does a Distance Learning PhD Work?

Many PhD degree programs can be completed through distance-learning programs, such as online or low-residency-requirement programs. Learn about these distance-learning PhD programs and how they work.

Essential Information

The Doctor of Philosophy, or PhD, is typically the highest degree that can be earned in an academic field. Students in PhD programs have usually completed undergraduate and graduate coursework in a specific academic field. While PhD programs generally consist of some coursework, the majority of student time is spent conducting research and writing dissertations. Distance learning PhD programs include the same requirements, but instead of conducting research and attending courses on campus, students typically communicate with faculty and advisors via email or telephone and complete courses online.

Important Information About This Program of Study

Prerequisites Require at least an undergraduate degree; may also require master's degree or master's-level coursework.
Programs PhD or equivalent level doctorate programs are available in most fields, including education, the arts, business administration, medicine, behavioral health, veterinary medicine, and physical therapy.
Concentrations Reflect the individual's coursework/research focus and therefore vary by degree program, research interests and capabilities of individual institutions.
Possible Careers Those with doctorate degrees qualify for most higher level positions in their field of study, including higher-level teaching positions.

Core Coursework

Most distance learning PhD coursework is completed online, which allows students to have easy access to materials, work at their own pace and take classes when and where it's convenient. Most PhD candidates are working professionals who may find it difficult or impossible to commit to traditional PhD programs. Students must have access to a computer with reliable Internet access.


In most distance learning PhD programs, exams are administered with online or with the aid of a proctor. Students may be required to visit the campus to complete exams. If oral exams are part of the degree curriculum, a visit to campus usually necessary. This provides candidates with the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge of their particular field.

Research and Dissertation

Because the majority of a candidate's research is conducted on his or her own time, enrolling in a distance learning PhD program, as opposed to a traditional PhD program, may not significantly change the research and writing process. Once students choose their dissertation topics, they can complete independent research while periodically checking in with academic advisors with questions or concerns about their research. Students may also contact their advisors with progress updates.

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