Online vs. Traditional Ph.D. Programs in Computers and Technology

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Earning a Ph.D. in computer science elevates tech professionals to the highest level of expertise in their field. Many computer science programs offer online learning options due to the subject’s independent nature. An online Ph.D. in computers and technology can also increase graduates’ salary and career potential.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics also projects a 13% growth for all computer and information technology occupations from 2020-2030.

Professionals who hold doctoral degrees in computer science earn an average annual salary of $127,000 as of August 2021. The Bureau of Labor Statistics also projects a 13% growth for all computer and information technology occupations from 2020-2030.

This page examines the differences between earning a doctorate online vs. in person. Courses and specializations tend to stay the same regardless of instructional style. Keep reading for more details on online Ph.D. expectations, instructional delivery formats, and online vs. traditional Ph.D. differences.

What to Expect From a Doctorate in Computer Science Program

Online Ph.D. in computers and technology programs help tech-minded professionals hone their skills and specialize their studies. Candidates can explore concentrations in artificial intelligence, robotics, software engineering, and bioinformatics. These programs also provide faculty advisors to guide students in their research goals.

Doctoral computer science programs focus on research, seeking to solve problems and offer solutions to issues in the tech world. Degree-seekers conduct much of their research independently, so they must possess strong foundational computer skills. Coding bootcamps can help prepare candidates who need to brush up on particular skills before entering a program.

Both online and on-campus programs share similar goals, coursework, and specializations, but the learning style differs. The following section details differences between the two learning formats.

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Online vs. Traditional Ph.D. Differences

Many doctoral computer programs offer at least some coursework online. Virtual learning platforms like Canvas and Blackboard have become the norm at universities across the nation. Online Ph.D. programs in computers and technology follow suit. In fact, the style of computer and technology courses naturally lends itself to online instruction.

The table below details some differences in program length, focus, coursework, scheduling, delivery format, and student demographics for earning a doctorate online vs. in person.

Traditional Online
Program Length 50-75 credits typically take 5-7 years to complete 50-75 credits typically take 4-5 years to complete. Students may also opt for accelerated tracks to finish more quickly, or part-time plans to better balance work and family obligations.
Focus Developing innovative solutions and contributing to the computer and technology field through research and scholarship Driving independent research to solve problems and create solutions for issues in the computer and technology field
Coursework Possible courses include: Artificial Intelligence, Databases, Computer Architecture, Artificial Intelligence, Logic and Theory of Computation Possible courses include: Artificial Intelligence, Databases, Computer Architecture, Artificial Intelligence, Logic and Theory of Computation
Scheduling Most classes occur at specific times, locations, and semesters Most classes occur fully online and asynchronous. Some on-campus requirements may be location- and time-restrictive.
Delivery Format Lecture, lab, virtual learning platforms Virtual instruction, online lab, virtual learning platforms
Student Demographics Generally master’s graduates with or without work experience studying full time Often experienced tech professionals pursuing their degree while continuing to work in the field

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Delivery Formats for Online Ph.D. in Computers and Technology Programs

Thanks to the growing prevalence of technology in the college classroom, students can access most instructional resources from anywhere with a wifi connection. Like on-campus programs, online Ph.D. in computers and technology programs use course management systems or virtual learning platforms, including Blackboard, Canvas, Moodle, Google Classroom, and Schoology.

Online programs use these platforms to deliver instruction to their on-campus and online students alike. Professors may offer instructional materials, like lecture videos, PowerPoints, reading material, tests, and discussion boards entirely online.

The terms “synchronous” and “asynchronous” describe the style and participation of online instruction. Synchronous instruction takes place on a specific schedule, where students engage in learning at the same time, sometimes collaboratively. Asynchronous instruction refers to independent lecture study, readings, and other educational resources, usually at students’ own pace.

Ph.D. candidates may study fully online or complete coursework in a hybrid style. Each format offers some flexibility.

Hybrid

  • Combined online and on-campus coursework
  • Offers the social and collaborative benefits of traditional classroom experiences
  • Uses online course management systems as well as campus resources
  • Applies the best instruction style for each learning goal
  • On-campus requirements can be time and location restrictive

Fully online

  • Usually asynchronous, with potential for some synchronous learning options
  • Requires independent motivation and self-starting
  • Uses online course management systems and other online resources
  • All discussion, coaching, and collaboration must happen virtually
  • Completely flexible study options

Accreditation and State Authorization for Online Ph.D. in Computers and Technology Programs

Third-party accrediting bodies do the work to vet postsecondary programs for academic quality and rigor. When searching for an online program, degree-seekers should look for accreditation to ensure the quality of their prospective schools.

Colleges and universities should hold regional accreditation with the organization regulating postsecondary institutions in their geographic region. Schools in the U.S. fall into one of six accreditation regions: New England, Middle States, North Central, Southern, Western, and Northwest.

Accrediting agencies verify on-campus, hybrid, and 100% online programs. These agencies help ensure that degree programs hold weight with employers and on the job market.

Enrollees who plan to apply for federal financial aid must be especially careful to ensure their school is authorized for distance learning.

In addition to regional accreditation, programs may also hold subject-specific accreditation. The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET)oversees programs for doctorates in computers and technology. ABET ensures that programs meet quality standards in terms of faculty, facilities, and instruction.

Students can feel confident in ABET-accredited computer science programs from regionally accredited schools.

Online learners should also explore state authorization for schools providing online learning. Postsecondary institutions offering online classes must demonstrate that they hold authorization to educate students across the nation. Enrollees who plan to apply for federal financial aid must be especially careful to ensure their school is authorized for distance learning.

Cost Expectations for Online Ph.D. Programs in Computers and Technology Programs

Ph.D. computer science program costs vary by school and region. Factors impacting educational costs include school prestige or reputation, private or public funding, and student residency status. In addition to tuition, students should also expect to incur costs for books, technology, campus fees, and transportation.

The National Center for Education Statistics reported an average cost of $19,314 for graduate tuition and required fees for the 2018-19 academic year. Prospective students should develop a reasonable education budget and consider their potential return on investment before selecting a program.

To help finance their educational costs, candidates can pursue financial aid, scholarships, grants, and student loans. Additionally, many Ph.D. students can participate in internal competitive fellowships, research fellowships, and teaching fellowships.

Learn More About Scholarships and Financial Aid for Computer Science Degrees

Is Getting an Online Doctoral Degree Right for You?

Online learning may not suit all students. Some learners prefer traditional classroom settings.

On-campus students should live near a college campus that meets their needs. Their school should offer strong coursework and quality faculty to support students’ research. On-campus learners may enjoy studying in cohorts, participating in group and collaborative work. They should also have flexibility in their work and personal lives to accommodate their school schedule.

Online students, on the other hand, may live far away from their chosen university or be unable to commute to campus. Virtual learning works well for working professionals and homemakers who need to study at odd hours. Online learners should be self-motivated. These students conduct most of their research and experimentation independently, with only virtual consults from faculty and classmates.

Earning a Doctorate Online vs. In Person: Pros and Cons

Online Ph.D. Programs

  • 100% online asynchronous coursework offers greater flexibility for working students.
  • Typically lower tuition rates and fewer campus-related costs
  • Nearly unlimited freedom to select whichever university and program in the nation best meets student needs
  • Introverted, intrinsically motivated students can work independently to pursue their goals.

  • Limited networking opportunities
  • Students must designate a learning space in their homes.
  • Limited teaching and research fellowship options to help pay for tuition.
  • Fewer bonding opportunities with graduate cohort

In-Person Ph.D. Programs

  • Group and collaborative work allows students to form bonds with one another.
  • Academic settings and resources help students to focus.
  • Physical proximity to faculty and advisors helps students meet research goals.
  • Greater on-campus fellowship opportunities to finance education

  • Enrollees must typically reduce working hours.
  • Restricted by physical location and commute to campus
  • Students typically need to pay campus, technology, and parking fees.
  • Graduate students must often share office space and work closely with one another.

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Selecting Your Doctorate in Computer Science Program

Online Ph.D. in computers and technology programs take many years to complete, so candidates need to select a university that meets their needs. The following factors can impact a student’s overall experience:

  • Specialization: The sheer number of computer science subjects and concentrations can make it difficult to choose a specialty. Students should select a school with resources and accolades in their subject of interest.
  • Staff Credentials: Ph.D. students conduct their research under the guidance of faculty advisors. Staff members who have published on a student’s topic of interest can best help the student meet their research goals.
  • Cost/Financial Aid: Students may struggle to finance lengthy graduate programs. However, many accredited, online public schools offer lower tuition rates. Students should also consider schools providing scholarship, grant, and fellowship opportunities. Aid from such sources does not require repayment.

Trying to Select a Program? Start Here.

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Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can you get a Computer Science Ph.D. online?

    Many online Ph.D. in computers and technology programs offer asynchronous instruction 100% online.

  • How long does an online Ph.D. take?

    Most Ph.D. programs take 5-7 years to complete. However, many online doctoral programs run part time, and some may follow an accelerated format. Thus, completion times might vary dramatically.

  • Is getting a Ph.D. in computers and technology harder online?

    It depends. Some students may find online studies difficult if they prefer to work in group settings and collaborate with others.

  • Should you get your Ph.D. online?

    Students with demanding work or home obligations may prefer to pursue their Ph.D. online, because online schedules often offer more flexibility.

  • Is an online Ph.D. valid?

    Yes. Regionally accredited schools offering ABET-accredited online programs are equal in quality to on-campus programs.


Featured Image: Morsa Images / Stone / Getty Images

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