While online PhD programs can be an excellent option for many students, there are several potential pitfalls to consider before deciding on a program. Though many online students can overcome these issues with proper planning and flexibility, others may have to reconsider their plans.
Depending on your favored subject and your academic and career goals, potential problems include finding adequate opportunities for the research and teaching experience that make up a big part of many traditional PhD programs. You may also have difficulty developing good relationships with professors, other students and professionals in your field.
Virtually all PhD programs place great emphasis on academic research. In fact, most PhD courses are specifically designed to train students in the advanced research techniques common to the subject area. When the coursework is complete, students typically begin using those research techniques to complete a substantial research project representing new knowledge in the field. Known as a dissertation, this research project often marks the end of a PhD program.
Because there is so much emphasis placed on performing research, many PhD subjects in the experimental sciences are not available as online degree programs. From molecular biology and particle physics to materials science and chemical engineering, subjects that require extensive laboratory research using specialized machinery are simply not well suited to distance learning.
Subject areas that do not rely so heavily on laboratory work are better suited to online study. From nursing to public administration, these subjects allow for research that can be done far from the laboratories on campus. However, this distance can create other challenges.
For example, many PhD nursing students must carry out a clinical research project for their dissertation. On-campus nursing programs often have close relationships with nearby clinics, making it relatively easy for a student to organize research. In contrast, an online student may have to personally approach several local clinics to find a facility that will allow access for research purposes. This adds an additional layer of difficulty for online nursing students.
In most subjects, students must collect data, whether by survey or by observation. Additionally, students must spend considerable time in the library. In each of these cases, the work is usually somewhat more difficult to carry out from a distance than it would be for a student on campus. While these challenges can certainly be overcome, they are important to consider in your decision to begin an online PhD program.
If you intend to earn an online PhD in order to become a professor, you must consider the difficulties you may have in obtaining appropriate teaching experience during your program. While most on-campus programs offer teaching assistantships, if you live far from campus you probably will not have the ability to participate.
If you cannot participate in an on-campus teaching assistantship organized by your program, you can look for teaching opportunities in your local area. Try to find opportunities that allow you to speak on topics in your PhD subject area. If there is a university nearby, visit the undergraduate program in your area of study and look for speaking opportunities. Contact the program administration as well as individual professors. You can also contact student groups for leads.
A local community college is also a good source of teaching opportunities. In fact, you may even be able to find work as a regular community college instructor. If you are applying with a masters degree, you will have the best chance of being hired, though an applicant with a bachelors degree can be hired on the basis of professional experience.
Networking and Professionalization
Another problem associated with online study is the difficulty that students have in networking and professionalization. Developing a network of mentors, colleagues and friends is a vital component to any successful career, especially 1 in academia.
Many online students find it difficult to create lasting relationships with fellow students and professors online. To help ensure that you build strong bonds with others in your field of study, consider choosing an online PhD program offered through a traditional university. Most of these programs require several trips to campus each year for class meetings, seminars and networking events. Even a few weeks of personal contact each year can help build stronger relationships.
Attending conferences and national conventions for your field of study is another good way to network and meet new people. Virtually all PhD disciplines offer such opportunities throughout the year.
Professionalization is another benefit of meeting regularly with others in your field. Professionalization refers to the development of the skills, values and social norms expected of people in a given profession. While students on campus begin the process of professionalization on day 1, online students will only begin to fully develop the technical and behavioral hallmarks of their profession if they make an effort to network with others.