Enrolling in a PhD program used to mean finding a brick-and-mortar university that offered your field of study and devoting yourself full-time to that location for at least 2-3 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% in-person. So how do online PhD programs compare to traditional programs?


Interaction Level with Faculty and Peers

You may think you’d receive more interaction 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. “You can’t simply hide in the back of the room. Each student must have greater interaction online—that’s how we know they’re working.” Students may interact with faculty and peers several times a week, at all hours of the day, rather than in scheduled time slots.

Jerry Halverson, PhD, senior core faculty member at Capella, agrees. “Online interaction is much more intimate and totally focused,” he says. “You don’t have extraneous things distracting you. It’s a more intense relationship.”


Types of Degrees Available

Jim Wold, PhD, Special Assistant to the President, notes that online degrees tend to be professional training programs. “It’s not pure, government-funded research,” he says. “We have PhDs in business, information technology, psychology, education, counseling, human services, public service—career-based fields where the research students will have a direct impact on the work they do” (and are likely doing while they pursue a PhD).


Program Rigor

Are online PhD programs as rigorous as traditional university programs? Yes—if you choose an accredited university that has made it a priority to provide excellence in education, rather than a quick diploma. “I’ve had students tell me that our programs are more rigorous than other programs, and harder than they expected it to be,” says Wold.

Brant agrees. “We’re using the same methodology as traditional universities to guide students through the PhD process,” he says. “The mode of communication is different, but the quality of work, research, analysis—it’s the same as at a traditional university.”



The mentor-mentee relationship is a critical one for PhD students. “Most people only go through the PhD process once, so it’s new for everyone,” says Dick Senese, PhD, President at Capella. “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 PhD programs are seen in the process as well. In both scenarios, students with master’s degrees will have that work assessed to see if it transfers toward their doctoral degree requirements. They 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 residencies. But once coursework is completed, candidates must all do research, use statistical tools to develop the dissertation, write (and rewrite!) the work, and be able to defend it to faculty.


In other words, as Brant states, it’s only the mode of communication that’s different.

Capella University offers PhD and professional doctorate degrees in programs ranging from business to education and health to technology. Learn more about Capella’s online PhD programs.

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