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Advantages and Pitfalls of Online Doctoral Programs (Guest post by Barbara Jolie)

As someone who likely works within a university system, you are no doubt acquainted with the Chronicle of Higher Education, the country’s leading publication on higher education news and thought. Lately, the newspaper has covered online degree programs, and they mostly underscore how for-profit enterprises like the University of Phoenix and Kaplan University are scams that lead the poorest of students to sign on for a lifetime of debt in exchange for a meaningless diploma. Of course, much of the scrutiny that online programs have fallen under is deserved, but if you do your research, pursuing an advanced degree online may benefit you.

Here are some the pros and cons of online doctoral programs:


1. You don’t have to leave your job or your family to pursue your degree.

This, perhaps, is one of the biggest advantages for the largest cross section of people. Considering that pursuing a Ph.D. at a traditional school often requires that you relocate, put your entire career and personal life on hold, an online degree provides an alternative in which you don’t have to sacrifice as much. Having the opportunity to complete work at home while still maintaining a part- or full-time job enables you to balance your work and social life.

2. You don’t experience the institutional pressure of teach classes while doing research.

Most online doctoral programs do not have similar workloads when it comes to teaching classes while juggling research. While some programs require that you teach other online/community college classes, there is not that atmosphere of extreme competition that burns out and causes depression and anxiety among so many doctoral programs at traditional schools.

3. You can finish your online degree more quickly and economically than if you were pursuing the same degree at a
traditional university.

If you decide to pursue an online doctoral degree, you can work at your own pace. Since most online programs don’t work like traditional Ph.D. programs, in which you exchange a very basic stipend for a teaching load, you can finish as quickly or slowly as you want. What’s more, since you can ostensibly still work, and you don’t have to pay for transportation or relocation costs, you can complete an online doctoral program much more economically than a traditional Ph.D. program.


1. There are more scams than legitimate programs, especially at the doctoral level.

Online degree programs are notoriously shrouded in secrecy. That is to say, it is very difficult to get clear information from any big online schools when you are looking for information on the Internet or elsewhere. Many schools offer “doctoral” programs that aren’t accredited. As such, if you plan on pursuing an online doctoral degree, it is best to do so through a program that has been established for several years, or one that is offered through a traditional school, and not a for-profit one.

2. Many potential employers do not take online degrees seriously.

Even if your program is accredited, not all employers take online degrees seriously, since the concept is still more or less in its infancy. Many hold fast to the belief that online degrees are “easier” than traditional degrees, although this isn’t necessarily true. Thus, if you are interested in pursuing an online doctoral degree, be sure to contact potential employers, like community colleges if you are interested in teaching, and other industries that you may be interested in, to find out if your career prospects will improve with an online degree.

3. You won’t have face-to-face support that is instrumental in building a student/professional mentor relationship.

One of the best parts about pursuing an advanced degree at a traditional university is that you will develop real relationships with serious academics. While online doctoral programs attempt to replicate this mentorship that is standard at “brick-and-mortar” schools, they never quite come close to professional development that is common practice at traditional schools.

When people ask themselves if online degrees are worth it, the answer is not quite as clear cut as a “yes” or “no”. The best answer is “it depends.” Depending on your circumstances and your career goals, then an online doctoral program might be just the thing for you. As long as you do your research thoroughly, you’ll be sure to find the academic track that is a best fit for you personally.

This guest post is contributed by Barbara Jolie, who writes for online classes.  She welcomes your comments at her email

Student Affairs & Graduate School: A Brief “How-To”

I remember the day I decided to pursue a career in student affairs as if it was yesterday. I was sitting in my apartment and texting back and forth with my supervisor. He said he was going to Penn State University in the coming days to register for dissertation classes and to speak with his advisor. He asked if I wanted to go and talk with the chair of the master’s program to see if this would be a career I would be interested in.

Prior to this conversation, I had my life planned out. I was going to teach, become a principal, earn a doctorate, and become a superintendent.

I thought about my experiences as a RA, student government member, and Student Trustee. I really enjoyed my experience at Bloomsburg University, but was this something I wanted to make into a career?

After speaking with the program chair and a bit more with my supervisor, I decided to apply to graduate school. After a two-month rat race of researching schools, registering for the GRE and speaking with advisors and professors, I submitted application materials to schools. After several interviews and campus visits, I accepted an offer from Bowling Green State University. There I would have a two-year assistantship as a Graduate Hall Director in the Office of Residence Life.

As I think back to my journey from undergrad to graduate school, I want to offer advice for those considering going to grad school for a master’s in student affairs.

  • Know thyself – I took a chance on a new career path and it has been rewarding. However, graduate school and student affairs are not for everyone. Graduate school should not be an avenue to delay “the real world” (for those going from undergrad straight to grad school). Likewise, viewing student affairs as an extension of undergrad or to “relive the best days” are two poisonous thoughts. Going into student affairs is a commitment to helping college students develop the necessary skills to be successful and mature adults.
  • Start early – My journey was unique. I did not make a decision until the end of September that graduate school was my next step. As a result, I rushed through certain steps and did not get the recommended preparation time for the GRE. Give yourself enough time to make correct decisions on how many and which schools to submit applications, who to ask for recommendations, drafting application essays, and proper preparation for the GRE.
  • Be prepared to get and give rejection – One of the key words you will hear on your search is “fit.” Just as schools are considering you, you have to consider the institution, program, and location. I interviewed with several schools (who accepted me into their program), but I felt it was not the best “fit” for me. Likewise, I was rejected from many programs where I thought I had a good “fit.” I learned to be honest with each school through the process. If you feel it is not a good fit, be open and honest with the department/program chair.
  • Patience – Everyone works with deadlines. Every school has a different deadline date, review date, and interview date(s). Being patient and trusting the process is all part of the application process.
  • M.A., M.S., or M.Ed.? The difference between the types of degrees depends on whom you ask. Traditionally, the M.A. is viewed as a generalist degree; having transferrable skills and prepares one for a variety of jobs. The M.S. is viewed as a degree with one specific focus such as microbiology or organic chemistry. The M.Ed. is rooted in educational disciplines such as guidance counseling, curriculum & instruction, or instructional technology. Whatever the type of degree it is, it will vary institution to institution, and in most instances, you will find answers in the program curriculum guide.
  • Type of Program – When researching student affairs graduate programs you will come across a variety of program names. Some of the more common program names include College Student Personnel (CSP), Higher Education and Student Affairs (HESA), Educational Leadership with a focus in Higher Education, and Higher Education Administration (HEA). While these names sound similar, their functions can be different. Some programs are student development focused while others are geared towards the administration within student affairs and/or higher education in general.

Below are two excellent web resources you can use when considering graduate schools for student affairs:

American College Personnel Association’s Directory of Graduate Programs

National Association of Student Personnel Administrator’s Graduate Program Directory

Steve Knepp (@stevenknepp) is currently finishing his first year as a full-time professional in higher education. His areas of interest include residence life, student government, and student leadership development. Steve earned his B.S. in Elementary Education from Bloomsburg University and his M.A. in College Student Personnel from Bowling Green State University. His hobbies include camping, golf, and traveling. You can follow Steve on his blog at