2020 Top Online Doctorate Programs

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Last Updated: June 9, 2020

Many high-paying and prestigious careers require a doctorate. Professors who teach at colleges and universities typically hold a doctorate, and top executives like CEOs and healthcare administrators also often hold a doctoral degree. A doctorate also prepares professionals for careers as psychologists, biochemists, medical scientists, and nurse practitioners.

Universities offer doctoral programs in many specialties. A doctorate in business provides advanced training in accounting, management, and data analysis, while a doctorate in computer science prepares students for academic and research roles. Today, many universities offer online doctoral programs that prioritize accessibility. The flexibility of an online doctoral degree appeals to working professionals and students balancing school with personal responsibilities.

During a doctoral degree online, students meet with faculty virtually and interact with fellow doctoral learners through the university’s online system. After completing coursework requirements, online doctoral candidates pass comprehensive examinations and complete dissertations.

This page introduces the top online doctoral programs for 2020.

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

Doctoral Programs Overview

A doctorate is a terminal degree in most fields. As the highest degree in fields like business, education, and healthcare, a doctorate prepares graduates for roles with great responsibility and a high earning potential. Jobs that require a doctoral degree include professor, psychologist, CEO, and medical scientist.

Professionals with a doctorate qualify for the most advanced roles in their field. For example, most college professors hold a doctorate in their subject. Tenure-track professor positions at four-year institutions commonly require a Ph.D., and many two-year colleges also prefer instructors with a doctorate. Some administrative roles in academia, including college dean and provost, also require a doctorate.

Outside of academia, a doctorate also leads to careers in research and leadership. Senior healthcare administrators who make leadership decisions for their hospitals may hold a doctorate. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), healthcare administrators earned a median annual salary of over $100,000 in 2019.

Top executives like CEOs, school superintendents, and college presidents may also benefit from a doctorate. The BLS reports that chief executives earned a median annual salary of nearly $185,000 in 2019.

Research roles in science, computer science, and engineering often also require doctoral degrees. Biochemists and biophysicists, who conduct research in several fields, often need doctoral degrees. The BLS reports that these professionals earned a median annual salary of over $94,000 in 2019.

Medical scientists also typically need doctorates to conduct research and clinical trials. They may hold a medical doctorate or a Ph.D. depending on their specialty. According to the BLS, medical scientists earned a median annual salary of over $88,000 in 2019.

Earning a doctorate online often translates to greater earning potential. According to the BLS, professionals with a doctorate benefit from higher salaries and lower unemployment compared with those with a bachelor’s degree or master’s degree.

Common Doctoral Courses

  • Doctoral Seminar: Most doctoral programs incorporate seminars that provide advanced training in the field. During a doctoral seminar, students may examine current scholarship in their field, read foundational texts in different specialties, and write research papers that incorporate theoretical approaches in the field. Doctoral seminars often incorporate analytical discussions of the material led by a professor who specializes in the field. The format of a doctoral seminar varies depending on the program. Some seminars invite guest speakers to lecture on the topic, while others teach students how to conduct research in the field.
  • Research Methods: Doctoral programs culminate in writing an original dissertation. To complete a doctoral dissertation, graduate students must build a strong foundation in field-specific research methods. For instance, counseling doctoral programs train students in designing qualitative research studies, while a computer science or mathematics doctoral program incorporates quantitative research methods courses. During this course, doctoral students examine research approaches to solve different problems in their field. They learn about research design, analyzing data collected during a research project, and critiquing research methods.
  • Theoretical Foundations: During a doctoral degree online, students build strong theoretical knowledge in their field. For example, a doctorate in nursing includes theory courses on advanced practice nursing, while a doctorate in education incorporates classes on the theoretical foundations of different educational philosophies. This course typically includes extensive reading from theoretical works in the field. Online learners often analyze these works in a seminar format and write analytical literature reviews. Theory courses prepare students to take their comprehensive examinations and begin the dissertation process.
  • Proposal Development: Many doctoral programs include a proposal development class in which doctoral learners create a dissertation proposal. This course may include extensive secondary literature reading in a specialty area. Students may also write literature reviews. Typically, a faculty advisor supervises the proposal development process, providing feedback on the research methods, objectives, and project design. During this course, learners craft a proposal for their doctoral dissertation project. They may begin conducting preliminary research in their dissertation area to provide support for their proposal. At the conclusion of the course, doctoral students defend their dissertation proposal before their dissertation committee.
  • Doctoral Dissertation: After passing comprehensive examinations and moving into the candidacy phase, doctoral students enroll in a doctoral dissertation course. Students work with a faculty advisor to design an original research project in their specialty area. During the dissertation coursework phase, graduate students conduct research in their field, analyze sources, and draw conclusions from their research. Online learners then write dissertation chapters based on their research, which they defend before their doctoral committee.

Doctoral Program Concentrations

Prospective doctoral students must choose a focus for their doctorate. Universities offer online doctoral degrees in many fields, including education, counseling psychology, business, and healthcare. In addition, liberal arts fields like mathematics, history, English, and economics all offer doctoral programs. While a few disciplines, such as art, offer a master’s degree as the terminal degree, most college majors offer doctoral degrees. 

  • Education: The field of education offers doctoral programs in educational leadership and education. Students can choose between an Ed.D. or a Ph.D. An Ed.D. prepares graduates for professional leadership roles, while a Ph.D. provides research training for academic positions.
  • Counseling Psychology: In counseling psychology, students can earn a Ph.D. or a Psy.D., depending on their career goals. A Ph.D. leads to academic and research roles, while a Psy.D. focuses on patient-centered care. Many psychology jobs require a doctorate. 
  • Business: A doctorate in business or a related field like management, accounting, or finance prepares graduates for top roles in business or academia. Many doctoral programs in business build on master’s-level training, and programs may require work experience for admission. 
  • Healthcare: In addition to a doctor of medicine, or MD, the healthcare field offers multiple other doctoral specialties, including doctorates in nursing, public health, and healthcare administration. Many online healthcare doctoral programs incorporate clinical requirements to help students strengthen their patient-facing skills.
  • Liberal Arts: In the liberal arts, doctoral students pursue degrees in fields like anthropology, sociology, history, and political science. A Ph.D. in a liberal arts field provides extensive training in scholarly literature, research methods, and theory. Doctoral students often gain teaching experience by serving as a teaching assistant. At the conclusion of the program, Ph.D. students in the liberal arts write a dissertation.

Doctoral Program Requirements

Before beginning a doctoral degree online, prospective students must meet the program’s admission requirements. While requirements vary, they always include educational requirements and evidence of each applicant’s preparation for doctoral study. 

For example, some doctoral programs require a master’s degree before entering the program. Doctoral programs in education and business, for instance, often require a master’s degree. However, some doctoral programs admit students with a bachelor’s degree. 

Along with meeting educational requirements, doctoral programs may also set coursework prerequisites. In general, applicants with a degree in the field meet these prerequisites. However, students who majored in a different discipline may need to take additional courses before applying to doctoral programs. Applicants submit transcripts to meet degree, coursework, and GPA requirements.

Doctoral programs may also require standardized test scores. In liberal arts fields, applicants may need to submit GRE scores, while a doctorate in business often requires GMAT scores. Some programs waive this requirement for applicants with a master’s degree. Programs may set minimum scores to gain admission. Standardized test scores typically remain valid for five years. 

In addition, many doctoral programs expect a resume, letters of recommendation, writing samples, and essays. These supporting materials help programs determine whether applicants can succeed at the doctoral level. Most programs require letters of recommendation from faculty or professional references. These letters often speak to each candidate’s academic abilities and qualifications for doctoral study.

Requirements vary depending on the discipline and the school. For example, a doctorate in education or business may require work experience before entering the program, a requirement rarely found in liberal arts Ph.D. programs.

Steps to Earn a Ph.D

  1. Enroll in a Ph.D. Program. After successfully completing the application process, prospective doctoral students can enroll in a Ph.D. program. Some programs include an on-campus orientation to meet with other students and faculty members. At the beginning of an online doctorate, incoming students meet with faculty members to select their advisor. Some programs assign a faculty advisor based on each student’s research interests. Enrolling in an online doctoral program can take several months. While some programs offer multiple start dates per year, others may admit new doctoral students as a cohort, typically in the fall semester.
  2. Complete General Courses. Doctoral students must complete required coursework as part of earning their degree. This step generally takes 2-3 years. During the coursework phase, doctoral students take advanced classes in their specialty. Many doctoral programs include courses in theory and research methods, which prepare graduate students to write their dissertation. Learners also study research in their field and complete assignments. Depending on the program, coursework can also include practicum requirements to gain hands-on experience.
  3. Complete Comprehensive Examinations. Doctoral students must pass comprehensive examinations after completing their program’s coursework requirements. These examinations test the student’s knowledge in core areas of the field. Doctoral students often spend several months preparing for and taking their comprehensive examinations. Many examinations include a written and oral component. A faculty committee evaluates students’ answers to determine whether they pass or fail. After passing these examinations, doctoral students move on to the candidacy stage of their online doctorate. In many Ph.D. programs, doctoral candidates must write a dissertation proposal and defend it before their doctoral committee before beginning their dissertation.
  4. Complete Dissertation and Graduate. At the conclusion of a doctoral program, Ph.D. students complete an original research project demonstrating their mastery of the field. In many disciplines, the dissertation requires extensive research and writing. Some fields may incorporate a project-based dissertation in which students integrate practicum work into their dissertation. Completing a dissertation typically takes a minimum of one year. After writing the dissertation, doctoral students must defend their completed dissertation before a faculty committee. During the defense, the committee questions each candidate on their research and conclusions. With the committee’s approval, doctoral students can apply for graduation and earn their degree.

Top Online Doctoral Programs 2020

To develop this ranking of the best colleges for doctoral degree programs, we began with an initial pool of over 60 schools. To narrow the pool, we applied the rating and ranking methodology above, using data from College Navigator, U.S. News & World Report, and each school’s website. In cases of a tie, the schools offering the more affordable online doctoral degrees received the higher rankings.

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Featured Online Schools

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).


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Featured Online Schools

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).

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