Top Online Doctoral Programs 2021

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Professionals with a doctorate often work as professors, psychologists, education administrators, scientists, and chief executive officers. As the highest degree in academia, a doctorate can qualify graduates for the most advanced positions.

Earning a doctorate typically takes 3-7 years, depending on the program. Doctoral candidates must typically take courses in their field, pass comprehensive exams, and complete a dissertation or research project. Many students pursue their doctoral degree online for the flexibility and convenience of distance learning.

The list below ranks the top online doctoral programs to help prospective students find the best option for their personal and professional goals. This guide also introduces career paths for doctorate-holders and highlights scholarship opportunities for doctoral students.

Top 10 Ranking Online Doctoral Programs

RankSchoolLocationOnline Programs
1University of the CumberlandsWilliamsburg, KY6
2Johns Hopkins UniversityBaltimore, MD12
3Concordia University-ChicagoRiver Forest, IL8
4Regent UniversityVirginia Beach, VA10
5Nova Southeastern UniversityFort Lauderdale, FL9
6Brandman UniversityIrvine, CA6
7University of Southern CaliforniaLos Angeles, CA12
8George Washington UniversityWashington, DC12
9Andrews UniversityBerrien Springs, MI6
10Wilmington UniversityNew Castle, DE4
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  • Is a Ph.D. and a doctorate the same thing?

    A Ph.D. is one type of doctorate. Learners often pursue a doctor of philosophy to qualify for careers in academia. Students can also pursue a doctor of business administration, education, engineering, or psychology.

  • What can you do with a doctoral degree?

    An online doctorate can qualify graduates for advanced roles, including professor, senior researcher, scientist, and chief executive. Career options for graduates vary by field.

  • How long does it take to earn a doctoral degree?

    The time required to complete an online doctoral program varies. For example, students typically earn a doctor of business in about three years, while Ph.D. programs can take up to seven years to finish.

  • What are the most popular doctoral degrees to earn?

    Graduate students can earn doctorates in many fields. Some of the most popular doctoral degrees are in business, education, and psychology.

Top Online Doctoral Programs 2021

  • 1. University of the Cumberlands

    Established in 1888 as a ministerial preparatory school called Williamsburg Institute, University of the Cumberlands now supports nearly 12,000 students pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees across several disciplines. Cumberlands offers online doctorates in business administration, information technology, counselor education and supervision, and educational leadership.

    The doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.) in counselor education and supervision offers specializations in addiction, advanced counseling, and leadership. Degree-seekers can earn the Ph.D. in information technology completely online. The university also offers an executive Ph.D. in information technology with mandatory weekend residencies (one weekend each semester). Business administration doctoral candidates can choose to pursue a research-oriented Ph.D. program or a more practice-based doctor of business administration (DBA). The doctorate in educational leadership offers several specialty content areas, including health science, information systems, criminal justice, and student personnel services.

    University of the Cumberlands is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC).

  • 2. Johns Hopkins University

    Founded in 1876 Johns Hopkins University, enrolls more than 24,000 students pursuing bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees across nine academic divisions. JHU offers online doctorates in several fields, including nursing, engineering, and computer science.

    JHU offers both a research-oriented Ph.D. and a practice-based doctor of education (Ed.D.) program. Students can pursue the Ed.D. online on a part-time basis. The Ph.D. is only available as a full-time onsite program. The online doctorate in engineering covers civil engineering, electrical and computer engineering, and mechanical engineering. JHU offers an online dual degree option that combines the fields of nursing and business. The doctor of nursing practice (DNP)/master of business administration (MBA) program follows a cohort model.

    JHU also offers several online doctoral programs that follow a hybrid format, including public health, molecular microbiology and immunology, environmental health sciences, and epidemiology.

    Johns Hopkins University is accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE).

  • 3. Concordia University Chicago

    Although Concordia University Chicago offers undergraduate and graduate degrees across several fields, the school started as a small college for teachers founded by the Lutheran Church in 1864. 

    CUC offers online doctorates in business administration and education. Students pursuing a DBA can choose from four specializations: innovations in healthcare management, strategic leadership, innovations in human resources, and marketing innovations. The online DBA program begins the dissertation process early. Learners choose a preliminary topic as soon as they begin their doctoral studies.

    CUC offers both a Ph.D. and an Ed.D. in leadership in several areas, including education technology, health and human performance, gerontology, and sports leadership.

    Concordia University Chicago is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC).

  • 4. Regent University

    Established in Virginia Beach in 1978 with an initial enrollment of 77 students, Regent University now supports a student population of nearly 10,500. Regent comprises seven schools and two colleges.

    Degree-seekers can pursue online doctorates in several fields, including nursing, business and leadership, and psychology and counseling. Students can earn a Ph.D. in education or an Ed.D. Both programs support four specialization areas: higher education leadership and management, Christian education leadership, K-12 school leadership, and advanced educational leadership. Students can complete these programs entirely online.

    Some of Regent’s online doctoral programs require an onsite residency, including Ph.D. programs in organizational leadership, communication, healthcare leadership, and counselor education and supervision.

    Regent University is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC).

  • 5. Nova Southeastern University

    Although Nova Southeastern University was officially established in 1994 after a series of consolidations and mergers, the school can trace its roots 30 years earlier to the founding of the Nova University of Advanced Technology in 1964. Today, NSU serves more than 20,000 students pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees across several academic disciplines.

    NSU offers online doctorates in several fields, including computer science, criminal justice, speech-language pathology, and nursing. Many of the university’s online doctoral programs offer specializations. For example, the Ph.D. in conflict analysis and resolution features four specializations: interpersonal conflict, community-based conflict, conflict in organizations, and global conflict.

    Some fields allow degree-seekers to pursue either a research-oriented degree or a practice-based program in their field, such as nursing, physical therapy, and occupational therapy.

    Nova Southeastern University is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC).

  • 6. Brandman University

    Brandman University’s focus on adult learners goes back to its founding in 1958. As an extension of Chapman University, the school was established to provide for the educational needs of service members at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. Today, Brandman enrolls more than 8,700 students and offers two online doctorates: the DNP and the Ed.D.

    Brandman offers its DNP as a hybrid program. Students can enroll in the program with either a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) or a master of science in nursing (MSN). Learners enrolled in BSN-to-DNP programs can specialize in one of two nurse practitioner (NP) fields: psychiatric mental health NP or family/across the lifespan NP. The DNP programs follow a cohort model of education and require students to complete clinical hours prior to earning the degree.

    Brandman University is accredited by the WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC).

  • 7. University of Southern California

    When the University of Southern California opened in 1880, it enrolled 53 students and maintained a 10-member faculty. Today, USC supports more than 48,000 undergraduate and graduate students and a faculty with over 4,600 full-time teachers.

    USC offers online doctorates in education and teaching, physical therapy, and social work. USC’s online doctor of physical therapy (DPT) program is the country’s top-ranked graduate physical therapy program. Learners can pursue the DPT either as a hybrid degree or as a completely residential program. USC offers the degree only on a full-time basis. Students typically graduate within three years. Degree-seekers complete the program’s clinical experience portion in their home communities or in other preferred sites throughout the country.

    University of Southern California is accredited by the WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC).

  • 8. George Washington University

    Chartered by an act of Congress in 1821, George Washington University is now the largest institution of higher learning in the nation’s capital. GW enrolls over 26,000 students, comprises three campuses, and offers more than 70 programs of study at the bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral levels. 

    GW offers online doctoral degrees in engineering management, occupational therapy, nursing, and systems engineering. Students pursuing a DNP can choose from six specializations, including family NP, adult-gerontology primary care, health policy, and executive leadership. GW also offers an online Ph.D. in nursing, which is a more research-oriented program compared to the practice-based DNP.

    George Washington University is accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE).

  • 9. Andrews University

    Established in 1874 with 12 students and one teacher, Andrews University now boasts over 4,700 students, maintains a 228-member faculty, and comprises five academic colleges. Andrews offers more than 200 programs at the bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral levels.

    Andrews offers online doctorates in education and nursing. Students can pursue either a practice-based Ed.D. or a research-oriented Ph.D. in educational leadership, curriculum and instruction, higher education administration, or leadership.

    The online DNP program at Andrews accepts applicants with either an undergraduate nursing degree or an MSN. The school’s BSN-to-DNP program comprises 65 credits. Learners can complete the program in 4.5 years. The MSN-to-DNP degree comprises 56 credits and takes students 3.5 years to complete. Andrews also offers an online DNP program for advanced practice registered nurses consisting of 40 credits.

    Andrews University is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC).

  • 10. Wilmington University

    Starting out in 1968 with just 194 students, Wilmington University today supports a student population of more than 20,000 and comprises seven academic colleges. Degree-seekers can choose from more than 125 online programs at the certificate, associate, undergraduate, and graduate levels.

    WilmU offers online doctorates in education, nursing, business administration, and social science. Learners can pursue an online Ed.D. in one of three areas: organizational leadership, learning, and innovation; educational leadership; or higher education leadership and innovation. WilmU offers a DNP in leadership and in advanced practice. Core DNP courses follow seven-week delivery schedules. Students enroll in one course at a time. Project courses follow a regular 15-week semester schedule. Online learners pay the same tuition as in-state on-campus enrollees, no matter where they live.

    Wilmington University is accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE).

Types of Doctoral Programs

Doctoral students can pursue degrees in areas such as business, education, the liberal arts, psychology, and engineering. Program requirements and career opportunities for graduates vary based on the field and type of degree.

Doctor of Business Administration
DBA programs emphasize practical skills for business executives. Coursework typically explores business analytics, organizational leadership, and business development. Students typically earn their online doctor of business administration in about three years.
Doctor of Education
Students earning a doctor of education receive training in leadership and administration. Online doctoral programs in education can lead to careers as superintendents, education administrators, and education professors.
Doctor of Philosophy
Learners can pursue a Ph.D. in academic arenas such as the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. Ph.D. programs prepare graduates for academic and research roles, including positions as college professors.
Doctor of Psychology
Psy.D. programs prepare learners for careers as psychologists. Doctoral students in psychology explore topics such as clinical psychology, neuropsychology, and child psychology.
Doctor of Engineering Science
Learners pursuing an online doctorate in engineering develop problem-solving skills. Students often concentrate in an area such as industrial engineering or operations research. Engineers with a doctorate can also become professors.

Why Pursue a Doctoral Degree?

Earning a doctorate online can lead to many professional and personal benefits, including higher earning potential and increased career opportunities. Additionally, most online doctoral programs offer more flexibility and accessibility than in-person programs.

  • Increased Earning Potential: Earning a doctorate online often leads to increased salary potential. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, professionals with a doctorate earn a median weekly salary of $1,880, compared to $1,250 for bachelor’s degree-holders.
  • Advanced Education: A doctoral degree is a terminal degree in most fields. As the highest degree learners can obtain, a doctorate indicates that the holder possesses advanced expertise in their discipline.
  • Academic Career Opportunities: Many academic roles require a doctorate, including tenure-track professor positions. Administrators such as academic deans and provosts typically need a doctorate as well.
  • Career Advancement: An online doctorate can lead to high-level career opportunities. A doctorate meets the requirements for roles such as senior scientist, researcher, chief executive officer, and advanced practice clinician.
  • Specialization Options: Doctoral students typically complete focused research in a certain topic or area. Degree-seekers receive specialized training and build expertise in their field.

Doctoral Program Requirements

Admission requirements for online doctoral programs vary by school and field. Some programs admit candidates with an undergraduate degree, while other doctoral programs require applicants to hold a master’s degree. Applicants may also need to provide standardized test scores, a portfolio demonstrating expertise in the field, recommendation letters, a resume, and a statement of purpose. Some programs conduct interviews during the admissions process.

After gaining admission, doctoral students must typically complete coursework, pass a comprehensive examination, and write a dissertation. Doctoral candidates defend their dissertation before a faculty committee. Earning a doctorate typically requires several years of focused study.

Accreditation and Online Colleges

Common Courses in a Doctoral Program

Online doctoral programs typically require 2-3 years of coursework. Classes help learners build advanced knowledge and skills in their discipline. Students develop research and analytical skills while writing papers and completing projects. After finishing core and specialized courses in their focus area, doctoral candidates apply their training to conduct research and write a dissertation.

Course requirements vary greatly depending on the program. For example, doctoral programs in the humanities or social sciences usually include coursework in theoretical approaches and research methods. On the other hand, students pursuing a clinical doctorate, such as a nurse anesthetist degree, typically complete hands-on training. The following list features a few courses common to many online doctoral programs.

Learners in a doctoral seminar review work in their discipline and strengthen their critical-analysis and research skills. Students discuss theoretical approaches relevant to their field. Most seminars incorporate analytical writing assignments and require a final paper or project.

This class explores current and historical approaches to conducting research within the learner’s discipline. Doctoral students read prominent works to analyze various approaches, study qualitative and quantitative research methods, and become familiar with industry-standard software. This course prepares doctoral students to complete their dissertation.

Doctoral students in this course examine the dominant theories and methodologies in their discipline. Learners explore theoretical approaches and examine the evolution of theories in their field. Students may analyze how scholars approach topics through various theoretical lenses. Enrollees earning a practice-oriented doctorate may explore the connection between theory and practice.

Career Paths for Doctoral Program Graduates

A doctorate represents the highest degree in academia. As a result, individuals with an online doctorate often qualify for roles with high levels of responsibility. Doctorate-holders can pursue a variety of career paths, depending on their discipline.

For example, a doctorate in a liberal arts field such as history, political science, or English can lead to positions in research and academia. With a doctorate in a STEM field, graduates can work as data scientists, senior scientists, and engineers. Individuals with an academic doctorate can also secure administrative positions in higher education, such as academic dean or provost.

Professionals with a practice-focused doctorate, such as a doctor of business or education, can pursue leadership positions in their field. For example, graduates often become superintendents, chief executives, and higher education administrators. Similarly, graduates with a doctorate in nursing often secure advanced practice roles, such as nurse anesthetist and nurse researcher.

Scholarships for Doctoral Students

Doctoral students can qualify for many scholarship opportunities based on their field and career goals. For example, many organizations offer scholarships for doctoral students in education, business, healthcare, the humanities, the natural sciences, and the social sciences. The list below features two of the many funding options available to learners pursuing a doctoral degree online.

  • SMART Scholarship

    Who Can Apply: The Department of Defense offers this scholarship to students pursuing a doctoral degree in a STEM field. Applicants need a minimum 3.0 GPA. Recipients complete a summer internship and agree to work for the Department of Defense after graduation.

    Amount: Tuition plus a stipend

  • Citizens Scholarship

    Who Can Apply: Doctoral students qualify for this sweepstakes. Citizens Bank awards $2,500 each month and an annual $15,000 scholarship. Applicants must attend an accredited institution and be enrolled at least part time. Students can submit one application per month.

    Amount: $2,500-$15,000

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