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Online Learning and the Doctorate

By Alison Carr-Chellman / December 2014

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More and more universities are starting to turn their attention toward online doctorates. As the number of master's students from the initial flush of fully online degrees stabilizes, those interested in increased revenue streams have opened up the university gates wide and have started to look to doctoral-level education for the next big democratization of higher education.

But before we go too far down this path, we may want to examine a bit more closely just what's happening in the world of online doctorates—what we promise, and what we deliver. I am seeing increases in doctoral level online study, but I am quite concerned that there is little clarity around strong expectations for those earning the doctorates, while there remains a bit more clarity across the higher-education enterprise in terms of future job expectations for those with online doctorates.

There has been a good deal of work done, naturally, examining the extent to which employers will accept any entirely online degree as proper credential and training for the purposes of all types of employment. Most of this work has been survey and self-report in nature, but it remains the case that we are seeing general increases in acceptance levels of online degree training for many jobs in lots of sectors.

As the newest entry into the online degree market, doctoral training, however, hasn't been examined heavily in terms of its acceptability to those hiring doctoral level positions. Many of the current doctoral offerings remain at the "professional" or "practical" level. That is, within Colleges of Education, one can earn a doctorate of education (Ed.D. or D.Ed.). In business, there is a DBA, doctor of business administration; and in psychology, a DClinPsy, doctor of clinical psychology. Engineering has an EngD, which is an engineering doctorate. Surprisingly, the M.D. is considered a professional doctorate or a practical doctorate, not an academic doctorate, which typically prepares someone for work in a university as a faculty member. The expectation for those in academic doctorates is that they will focus on the creation and dissemination of new knowledge in their disciplines. They will have experience in presenting their ideas to academic communities for criticism and feedback. Academic doctoral students are expected to publish their work in peer-reviewed journals with findings from their original research.

Professional doctorates, however, are trained differently. While much of the coursework will appear similar, those inside the academy can attest to the differences in the kinds of experiences for these two different tracks. Those with practical or professional doctoral preparation will focus on improving practice. They are more likely to learn to consume research rather than producing copious amounts of original research themselves. They focus on translating current research findings into practical implications for those in their fields. They tend to be leaders in their chosen practice areas, and typically don't work in academic appointments.

This distinction, while it may seem unimportant is of vital importance when designing, and even more importantly, when marketing, the online doctoral experience to potential doctoral degree seekers. Learners need to have clear expectations on their futures when pursuing online doctorates. Designers must create online learning experiences that match the expectations of employers for their future employees. I fear that many of those seeking online doctoral degrees are not really seeking the professional degrees that they are earning. Rather they are hoping to become academic faculty in what are known as R-1 or research one institutions where the focus is on research creation and dissemination. They aren't training for that end goal, rather for a professional or practical end goal. Launching a professional doctorate into an academic appointment might be most akin to putting a teacher in a classroom without any prior classroom experience-no student teaching. Or putting a medical doctor on the hospital floor without having had any prior experience in hospitals, with no knowledge of how they run, or what the practice of medicine is like in a hospital, having only learned from the books but not real patients. Naturally, these seem ludicrous, but often learners imagine that an online doctorate is the key to an academic faculty appointment in their future, although they haven't actually spent any real time in academic spaces. They haven't had the opportunity to really watch faculty in their daily lives, to see them writing, teaching, serving on committees. They haven't had the luxury of a research apprenticeship, in which they learn how to formulate questions, seek answers, design studies, explore methods, and analyze mountains of data. Thus the analogy here works.

A 2005 survey of those hiring for faculty positions in higher education indicated that those with online doctorates don't really stand a strong chance of gaining a footing in the university ranks as an academic if they are sporting an online doctorate. The reality is few if any online doctoral recipients will find themselves in academic appointments at the conclusion of their online training. Blended doctorates fair a bit better, though fully residential doctoral training seems to be the preferred mode for most committees hiring faculty colleagues. Community colleges are somewhat more willing to consider online doctorates when they hire, but the R-1 institutions are very slow to consider online doctorates for their academic posts. Some may suggest this is a way to keep the academy closed, and to fight this last bastion of academic training, to keep the ivory tower from full and open democratization. I think there are real, and justifiable reasons for expecting that those who earn doctorates and plan to spend time in the academy as their work place home, should, in fact, spend a good deal of time training within that context.

What this means is that we need to take an ethical stand on how we are designing and marketing online doctoral study-and that stand includes for-profit universities as well. It is imperative that online degree seekers understand that there are likely to be limitations for their degrees. Naturally, not all degrees prepare learners for all possible jobs. You can't practice psychiatry with a psychology degree and no medical training; you can't be a licensed engineer if your training has been as a Shakespearean scholar. Most degree seekers understand that there are limitations on what their degrees will prepare them for. I'm just not certain that most in online doctoral degree programs understand that their chances at an academic appointment are quite slim. I believe that we need to make it clear in our marketing what online professional doctorates will do for learners. These degrees will bring the learner to the pinnacle of achievement within the practical and professional areas they are studying. They will launch them into leadership positions within their places of work. What they will not likely do is get a job as a research faculty in an academic appointment. And we need to be clear that very few of those earning online doctorates will likely receive a coveted position as a faculty member at an R-1 institution.

The online doctorate is a very important and viable degree option for those seeking advanced practical training in the areas of their specialty. I am in no way denigrating those degrees, they are vitally important as a convenient and realistic way to reach the highest levels of education in a practical or professional field. However, it is misleading to our learners to promise them a Ph.D. in an online format will deliver an academic appointment, as the data surely suggests otherwise. It's possible, over time, we will find that online students in Ph.D. programs that are seeking academic appointments will have great success. Perhaps the attitude that keeps hiring committees at R-1 institutions from seriously considering online doctoral graduates may change over time, but at present, we need to be aware and our learners should also be aware, that most of those who are hiring work under a particular bias against fully online programs for doctoral-level degrees associated with academic faculty appointments. To do otherwise, may be, ethically at least, false advertising.


Adams, J. and DeFleur, M. The acceptability of a doctoral degree earned online as a credential for obtaining a faculty position. The American Journal of Distance Education 19, 2 (2005), 71-85.

Guendoo, Leon, M. Community colleges friendlier to online Ph.D.'s. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration 11, 3 (2008).

About the Author

Dr. Alison A. Carr Chellman is editor-in-chief of eLearn Magazine. She has been a professor of Instructional Systems at the Pennsylvania State University for 17 years and currently serves as the Head of the Learning and Performance Systems department. She has written more than 100 articles, books, book chapters, and papers on topics related to school change with a particular emphasis on those populations who are underserved by the current system. Her recent TED Talk, Gaming to re-engage boys in learning, has brought international attention to the issues facing boys in the current educational system and ways that digital learning media may be used to highlight the mismatch between boy culture and school culture.

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2014 Copyright held by the Owner/Author.


  • Wed, 14 Jan 2015
    Post by Ali Carr-Chellman

    Great to see some dialogue on this here. Glad it was helpful to some. I totally agree that there are significant places where doctoral study is moribund, I also see some terrible infractions of doctoral degree awarding not just for inappropriate or unworthy topics, but also, far more insidiously, for mediocre work. All of this is worthy of careful study, and I encourage more study of the doctorate. My point here is not to defend the current system, it's to point out the realities of online delivery as potentially out of alignment with the needs of academic institutions. Most importantly, I think the academy expects people to fill faculty positions who have strong research backgrounds, who have spent good swaths of their life within the very institutions that they want to populate. Practice, while important is not the focus for faculty working at an R-1 institution. Many faculty do not wish to go to an R-1 research focused university. But being prepared outside of that space makes it difficult (but not impossible) to translate the practical background of the online EdD or DEd into a more academic and theoretical focus of an R-1 faculty appointment. Saying so out loud is being honest with those who seek doctorates so that they can be faculty someday. Making it clear that there are currently still limitations on what an online degree will get you doesn't seem heretical, but straightforward and forthright.

  • Tue, 06 Jan 2015
    Post by sherio

    Not only is the argument that Dr. Carr-Chellman makes based on a 10 year old study when online doctorates were in their infancy, but Dr. Chellman clearly lacks knowledge of research into doctoral education. The work of the Carnegie Institute on the Doctorate, Lovitts' work on time to completion and departure rates and the Carnegie Project on the education doctorate among other efforts point to a wide-spread need for renewal and study of doctoral education. Why is there but one journal wholly devoted to the study of doctoral education?

    I would love to hear Dr. Carr-Chellman explain/defend the PhD Harvard University awarded to Jason Richwine for his offensive screed.

    Doctoral degrees have come down from their elite perch. The massive expansion of doctoral degrees, programs, for profit & delivery options has exposed a lack of rigour/knowledge/renewal in the pedagogy of doctoral education. It needs to be the quality of the pedagogy of the program that employers use to discern worthwhile applicants not the delivery mechanism.

    Show me a doctoral program devoted to ongoing renewal via study of the program, as in the work done by the Carnegie Institute on the Doctorate, and I'll show you a more aligned doctoral grad.

  • Sat, 20 Dec 2014
    Post by Adriana Meza

    This is an article that help us to make a better election of the doctoral program that we are going to chose.