The difference between traditional and online doctoral programs

December 21, 2017

Enrolling in a doctoral program used to mean finding a brick-and-mortar university that offered your field of study and devoting yourself to being a full-time student at that location for at least 3-4 years.

But times have changed, and many institutions offer the opportunity to work toward a PhD not only part-time rather than full-time, but online rather than 100% face-to-face.

So how do online PhD programs compare to traditional ones?

Interaction level with faculty and peers

You may think you’d have more personal contact at a traditional university, but the structure of online programs actually encourages a great deal of interaction.

“There may be even more interaction [online] than in a face-to-face program,” says Curtis Brant, PhD, associate VP of doctoral affairs at Capella University. “In a classroom, you may go a whole semester without talking one-on-one with your instructor—not so online, where you will be interacting with your faculty one-on-one multiple times each quarter, typically each week.”

In online doctoral programs, students may interact with faculty and peers several times a week, at all hours of the day, instead of in scheduled timeslots.

Types of degrees available

Brant notes that you will find the same degrees offered online as you will in more traditional programs. For instance, Capella offers PhD programs in Psychology, Business, Education, Counseling, and Criminal Justice.

No matter which learning format you choose, it is important to ensure that the institution is accredited.

Program rigor

Accreditation helps ensure that the institution has made excellence in education a priority.

“Capella’s PhD programs are designed to align with professional outcomes in the respective area of study,” says Brant. “Appropriate research and ethical standards as well as level of rigor are carefully considered for the programs. Within a given program, you learn about and use the same theories and methodologies at both types of institutions. Although online programs can be more convenient for the student, the quality of work, research, and analysis is often comparable to a traditional university.”


The student-mentor relationship is a critical one in a PhD program. Although the official mentoring begins at Capella during dissertation writing, additional support is present right from the beginning.

“Most people only go through the PhD process once, so it’s new for everyone,” says Brant. “That’s why Capella provides resources and advisors from the beginning. The mentor will be there for the dissertation, but that won’t be the only time a student will have that kind of support.”


The similarities between online and traditional land-based PhD programs are seen in the process as well. In both scenarios, students will begin coursework, identify a problem to research, and get their research methodology approved.

In a traditional university, that means attending in-person classes. At Capella, that means taking online courses and attending three in-person dissertation-related residencies.

By the time coursework is finished, students will have already completed major sections of their dissertation work. Once coursework is completed, candidates will conduct research, use statistical tools to develop the dissertation, write (and rewrite!) the work, and be able to defend it to faculty.

Besides the mode of communication, traditional and online doctoral programs may be more similar than you would think.

Capella University offers PhD and professional doctorate degree programs ranging from business to education and nursing to psychology. Learn more about Capella’sonline doctoral programs.

What's it like to be a doctoral student?

Learn more about the experience, explore each step of the journey, and read stories from students who have successfully earned their doctorate. 

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