As the cost of education in the U.S. continues to rise, more students are considering earning a degree online, where tuition costs are often lower and the flexibility of web-based coursework allows students to work while studying more flexibly than in traditional programs. In fall of 2011, 6.7 million students were enrolled in at least one online university course, up from 6.1 million the previous year. Additionally, fewer students see online study as easier or less legitimate than earning a degree on campus, since many online and hybrid programs are offered by colleges and universities that also offer traditional programs. Online programs can also be nationally, regionally, and programmatically accredited, ensuring the quality of their curriculum, faculty, student support, and technological resources.
Accredited online degrees generally consist of the same curricula as a traditional degree, with the same core coursework and hourly requirements as any other program offered by the school. For example, an online PhD in counseling accredited by CACREP (the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs) requires the same number of hours to be completed before an applicant is eligible for graduation, with lab requirements being fulfilled at a local clinic rather than on campus.
You want to choose a program that helps you advance your career, so make sure it is a good one. The Distance Education and Training Council is the accrediting body recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) for evaluating the quality of online and distance education at the undergraduate and graduate levels, and for granting accreditation status to programs that meet their criteria. Use their database of accredited online institutions to search for online PhD programs by subject. In addition, you can browse the U.S. Department of Education’s database of accredited postsecondary institutions and programs to see if the one you are considering is accredited. Be aware that the USDE list may not include newly accredited programs, and may contain programs that have recently lost accreditation, so it is always worth checking several sources.
In addition to accreditation, one of the best ways to determine the quality of an online program is to get the opinions of students who are enrolled or have graduated from the program you are considering. Get Educated is a website that features student reviews of a variety of online undergraduate and graduate programs, as well as the website’s own rankings of online schools. A similar website is StudentReviews, which features thousands of traditional and online schools, programs, and individual classes, all reviewed by students.
Finally, the U.S. News and World Report provides rankings of online schools and programs on their website. Graduate programs are divided by subject matter, so if you are considering an online PhD in education, for example, you can view their rankings of online graduate education programs.
After you’ve found a reputable, accredited online PhD program with good rankings and reviews, it’s time to prepare for class. Unlike traditional students, online students need to adjust to the challenges of distance learning as well as those all doctoral students face, such as returning to student life after a break from academia or choosing a dissertation topic. This is especially true if you earned your previous degrees exclusively on campus, as online study often requires higher levels of motivation and discipline in addition to the study skills developed in traditional education. While your motivation should come from within, these tips can ease the process of adjusting to studying online and make it easier for you to succeed:
If you have been a lifelong procrastinator, turning in assignments the minute they are due or later, and have always responded best to professors who regularly looked over your shoulder to make sure you were doing your work, you should not expect to magically change your habits the second you enroll in an online PhD program. Online study is not for everyone, and you will save yourself a lot of time and money if you know beforehand you would be more successful in a traditional program.
It’s much harder to remember the date when an assignment is due or an exam will take place when there’s not a professor reminding you at every lecture. This is why it is important to keep a calendar of due dates and check it often. Additionally, many instructors will send e-mail reminders of such dates, so remember to check your school e-mail account regularly.
Because online courses are conducted exclusively over the web, the most important tool you will need is a fast, reliable Internet connection. While speed is less important than reliability, if your courses require you to view large numbers of online lecture videos, you should at least consider a broadband connection. Of course, you will also need a computer to connect to the Internet and software that is capable of viewing whatever video format your lectures are in. Less important, but often helpful, is a printer, both for lecture notes and online reading material, though an e-book reader will also work. Many students also prefer to have tablets or smartphones to watch lectures or read notes while on the go, but these are not absolutely essential.