PhD Correspondence Programs: How Do They Work?

Like those conducted on campus, Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) correspondence programs typically emphasize theory and research in a field of study. These distance learning programs are generally designed for busy working adults. View article »

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  • 0:03 Online Ph.D. Programs
  • 1:12 Learning Methods &…
  • 2:09 On-Site Components
  • 2:51 Online Learning Support
  • 3:30 Technology Requirements

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Video Transcript

Online Ph.D. Programs

These days, correspondence programs are typically conducted online, rather than by mail. Find out about online Ph.D. programs, including learning methods, on-site requirements, online learning support, and technology requirements.

Ph.D. correspondence programs are available in many different subjects from both traditional four-year institutions and private online schools. They may be completed in two to three years, though some online programs allow students to take additional time to earn their degree. In most cases, doctoral applicants are seeking advanced leadership positions or plan to work in academia and research. For this reason, these intensive programs usually require students to have a master's degree in a related area of study and possibly relevant work experience. Examples of fields that students can pursue in an online or correspondence Ph.D. program include the following:

  • Counseling
  • Nursing
  • Computer Science
  • English
  • Business

Learning Methods & Requirements

Coursework in these distance learning Ph.D. programs is typically delivered electronically through a course management system, such as Blackboard. Courses may be synchronized so that classes and assignments have fixed dates; however, there may also be asynchronous self-paced learning options. In many cases, doctoral students enrolled in a correspondence program interact with fellow learners and instructors electronically through media such as:

  • Email
  • Instant messaging
  • Discussion boards
  • Video chatting

Programs may expect that students already working in their chosen field are able to perform research, assignments, or other Ph.D. program-related activities at their workplace. Some programs require a formal acknowledgment of the student's academic obligations at the workplace and the employer's written support of the endeavor.

Find schools that offer these popular programs

  • Agriculture
  • Architecture
  • Biological and Biomedical Sciences
  • Business
  • Communications and Journalism
  • Computer Sciences
  • Culinary Arts and Personal Services
  • Education
  • Engineering
  • Legal
  • Liberal Arts and Humanities
  • Mechanic and Repair Technologies
  • Medical and Health Professions
  • Physical Sciences
  • Psychology
  • Transportation and Distribution
  • Visual and Performing Arts

On-Site Components

Some Ph.D. correspondence programs are available fully online, but many are in a hybrid format that requires a certain amount of in-person cohort learning, campus visits, or a residency. Short-term residencies are sometimes called intensive sessions and may vary in length from a few days to several weeks. Students may have to visit campus just one time, a few times per year, or a few times per academic quarter or semester.

The dissertation, a major research project, is usually a central focus of doctoral-level programs. These typically require an in-person defense before a faculty committee prior to graduation.

Online Learning Support

Students enrolled in a Ph.D. program online can also have access to a specialized level of academic support services. In some cases, library services can serve online students by sending books and photocopies by mail or locating necessary research materials.

Distance learning students may also have remote access to online databases and other digital library resources. Computer helpdesk support, including telephone support or help-desk ticketing systems, can be tailored to online learners. There may be online tutorials for students new to an electronic course delivery system.

Technology Requirements

For success in an online program, students need to have computers that fulfill specific hardware and software requirements. Schools typically include a list of minimum technological necessities on their websites, but there may be program-specific requirements as well. In general, students need to have access to computers with the following features:

  • A recent Mac or Windows operating system
  • A core processor of a certain level
  • A certain amount of memory
  • High speed internet access, and sometimes a specified browser
  • Speakers
  • Microphone
  • CD and/or DVD drive


Ph.D. correspondence programs are offered in numerous fields of study and give students the opportunity to fulfill many of the educational requirements online. These programs typically have a few in-person requirements, like the dissertation defense and short-term residencies.

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