Change the educational system from within with a Ph.D. or doctorate in Special Education from one of our top-ranked online schools!

Being an implementer of positive social change often requires a comprehensive knowledge of the problem at hand. Teaching and researching more effective ways to address the particular needs of special education students is what Ph.D. or doctorate programs in special education are all about. While earning this degree won’t be a cakewalk, the positive impact you could have on thousands of students make this journey worth the effort. Keep reading to find out what you’ll be learning in this kind of program!

What Will You Learn in a Ph.D. or Doctorate in Special Education Program?

Ph.D. and doctorate programs are designed to concentrate the student’s focus in one of two directions—to either conduct research or to improve instructional methods. Carefully consider what you want to gain by completing a Ph.D. or doctorate in special education and choose a program that caters specifically to that need. Special education is a discipline that is concerned with helping those with disabilities overcome obstacles to learning through addressing the individual’s particular needs. 

In an online Ph.D. or doctorate in special education program, you’ll take a core set of classes and complete a dissertation or comprehensive research project. A dissertation is a process in which students research a new topic in their specific discipline and report their findings in an academic paper. This is a comprehensive and extensive process that is overseen by experts in the field, designed to teach students who wish to become doctors on how to research, design, and write academically about a question or topic of interest. 

Examples of some courses you may take during your Ph.D. or doctorate in special education include: 

  • Historical and Theoretical Foundations of Disability in Education
  • Inquiry in Special Education
  • Advanced Learning Theory & Research
  • Applied Research Concepts & Methodology
  • Literature Review for Applied Research

What Are the Best Online Ph.D. or Doctorate in Special Education Degrees?

Online College Plan uses data from the National Center for Education Statistics to determine the best programs. We factor in how robust the school’s online education is, how well that school delivers on its promises, how affordable the program is, and how selective the school is as a whole. For more information, see our methodology page.

  1. MERIT: 100

    Capella University comes in at our number one spot for the best online Ph.D. in special education because the program is rigorous and provides a $10,000 progress reward scholarship to its students to help fund their doctoral journey. When enrolling in this degree, you’ll be signing up to complete a Doctor of Philosophy in Education with a concentration in special education leadership. The dissertation is one of the most feared aspects of a Ph.D. program, but Capella eliminates the fears by providing a guided path to complete it. 

    The degree is composed of four core courses combined with ten specialization courses. You’ll be expected to attend three in-person residencies during this program and pass a comprehensive examination. Two internship experiences will provide you with the real-world experience needed to translate theory into practice.

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  2. MERIT: 95.12

    The doctorate with an emphasis in special education from Liberty University is not a degree for those looking for licensure as a teacher. The degree is more geared toward individuals who already have a teaching license and those that want a terminal degree credential. The degree is accredited through the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) and through the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP). 

    This degree offered through Liberty University is 54 credit hours in length, which takes students around three years to complete. The courses are held in eight-week modules, and students have the option to meet other students in their cohorts through optional intensives held on-ground at the university’s main campus in Lynchburg, Virginia.

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  3. MERIT: 94.60

    The Ph.D. in special education from the University of Washington is not for the faint of heart as the program is rigorous and challenging, but if you’re up for this adventure, your hard work is sure to be paid off by earning a top-notch degree from an excellent school. During the first two years in this program, you will be considered to be in a post-master’s program in which you will take the required courses necessary to complete the doctorate. 

    During the first two years, you will also be required to select a topic you would like to explore further during your dissertation. The program directs students to gain teaching and instruction skills by presenting presentations at conferences. The program is designed to produce a well-rounded researcher with expertise in special education.

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  4. MERIT: 93.62

    Educators who are looking to transform their approach to educating those with disabilities, as well as gain a better understanding of the current policies and issues surrounding special education, will be an ideal fit for the University of Florida’s Ed.D in special education. This program encompasses both theory and application of strategies and techniques that are most effective in educating people with disabilities as well as the ethics and family dynamics that are related to special education.

    Each graduate student will select an area of specialization with the help of their advisor. Areas of specialization include dyslexia, autism, and disability in society, among others. Students must achieve a B or higher in all of their coursework to continue on with the program. In addition, 12 credit hours of research is part of the Ed.D program at the University of Florida.

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  5. MERIT: 91.86

    Walden’s Ed.D in special education trains its graduates to solve problems commonly faced in the special education community. Using real-life case studies, students learn to become critical thinkers and arrive at solutions to educate those with disabilities. Walden allows up to eight years to complete the 79 credit program. 

    Students will complete two courses per 11-week semester. The program includes training in policy creation and policy assessment, along with how to implement research-based changes to current education approaches. In addition to coursework and a dissertation, the program also includes a face to face residency, which, of course, cannot be completed online. After graduation, students will be prepared to take on leadership and educator roles in a variety of settings, including schools, government, and educator director positions.

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  6. MERIT: 91.05

    The Ph.D. in special education from the University of Minnesota was named in the top ten special education graduate programs in 2019 by U.S. News and World Report. The program trains students to find solutions for people with disabilities to help them thrive academically and personally. This program is 69 credit hours in duration, which can be completed over an average of four years of full-time study. 

    This program allows students to choose a minor in which they can select a topic that they would like to explore more deeply. Students will complete 24 credit hours of thesis work while working toward their degree and are required to maintain a 3.0 cumulative GPA to remain in good academic standing.

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  7. MERIT: 90.23

    The goal of the Ph.D. in special education from the University of Wisconsin-Madison is to train special education teachers to address pressing issues in the special education field. Students can select a research interest that intrigues them, such as transitional and vocational education or diversity issues within special education. 

    This online degree program is designed to be 56 credit hours with core coursework comprising 18 credit hours. Students will gain the necessary credits by taking courses in research design and statistics, internship experiences, electives, and dissertation courses. The school allows up to seven credit hours of coursework to be transferred into this degree program from another educational institution.

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  8. MERIT: 89.14

    Students wishing to have control of what they learn should check out the Ph.D. in curriculum, instruction, and the science of learning from the University of Buffalo. The degree program allows students to choose a concentration in elementary education, English education, literacy and reading education, mathematics education, or science education. Students who wish to have more control over what they learn should select the general track, which has a more interdisciplinary focus. 

    This degree can be completed in as little as four years (but some students take five or more years) and consists of 72 credit hours of coursework. Those with a master’s degree can transfer ten credit hours of coursework into this program bringing down the total credits needed to complete this program to 62. The program also has optional teaching and research internships that online students can complete for credits toward their degree.

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  9. MERIT: 88.93

    The Ph.D. in special education from Texas Tech University is a first-rate degree designed to train graduates to be leaders inside and outside of the classroom. The program is 90 credit hours of coursework, but 30 credit hours can be transferred into this program from another school. Applicants to this program are required to submit official GRE scores, which cannot be more than five years old. 

    Students are also expected to participate in at least one internship experience during the course of earning this degree. The internship will count for three credit hours of coursework and can be taken over one semester. Around 21 credit hours of coursework will be spent in studying special education core topics with an additional 24 credit hours in special education electives of the student’s choosing.

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  10. MERIT: 87.20

    The Ph.D. in educational studies with a concentration in special education from Ohio State University is fully funded for students that are accepted into this program. To be a competitive applicant to this program, students must have already completed a master’s degree and have experience teaching or working with the special education population. This program only starts one time per year, in August, and the application deadline is December of the previous year. 

    This Ph.D. program is 63 credit hours in duration, with the core curriculum composed of 15 credit hours. The school dedicates 42 credit hours of the program’s total to specialization courses in special education. The remaining six credit hours are accumulated during the dissertation process. The school also provides graduate associateships to its students for those looking to get new teaching experiences. 

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  11. MERIT: 86.63

    The Ph.D. in special education is a joint degree offered by the University of California Berkeley and San Francisco State University, which allows students to specialize in a wider range of subjects than can be offered by just one school. Throughout the Ph.D. program, students pursue three areas of specialization with the ability to choose between predetermined specializations and creating their own specialization by consultation with a faculty advisor. 

    Online students participating in this program will complete the same requirements as on-ground students, which include two position papers, empirical study, an internship, oral examinations, and the completion of a dissertation and its defense. Students have the opportunity to participate in the school’s UC SPEDDR Center for Research, a program built specifically to address the special education population.

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  12. MERIT: 84.43

    The Ph.D. in special education from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has a strong research emphasis designed to train top-notch research scientists. Students in this program will also learn how to write grants and present at state and national conferences. Students can apply for funding for this program, including teaching and research assistantships, and also NC-LEND Fellowships. 

    Students in this Ph.D. program can select a concentration in applied developmental sciences, special education, or sociocultural diversity. The program is between 60 to 69 credit hours in duration. This Ph.D. is a non-licensure program, so those wishing to teach may want to consider another program. The degree is estimated to take students anywhere from four to five years to complete.

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  13. MERIT: 83.66

    With Michigan State University’s Ph.D. in special education, you’ll be taught by world-renowned professors with real-world special education experience. Students are able to select their own area of special interest for their concentration or choose a concentration in applied behavior analysis, language and literacy, mathematics or technology. 

    When pursuing this degree, students will take six credit hours of coursework in foundational courses, 19 credit hours in research method courses, nine credit hours in special education courses, nine credit hours in an area of interest (concentration), and 24 credit hours in the dissertation, for a total of 67 total hours for the Ph.D.

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  14. MERIT: 83.45

    In Indiana University Bloomington’s Ph.D. in special education, you’ll feel empowered to structure your program around topics that really interest you, and you’ll likely find a faculty member who shares your particular interest. The faculty in this program have vast amounts of experience that cover many areas of special education, so you’ll likely never feel like you’re learning the same thing over and over again. 

    Students wishing to pursue this degree can apply for fellowships and assistantships to help cover most or all of the tuition. The program is 90 credit hours long, with 36 credit hours in the special education major. This degree allows students to choose a minor, which is composed of 12 credit hours in the topic selected.

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  15. MERIT: 83.22

    Small class sizes and individualized attention are what you’ll find in the Ph.D. in teaching and learning with a concentration in special education from New York University. The program will prepare you to conduct independent research wherever you end up after graduation so you can contribute to the knowledge and progress in the field of special education. The program ranges from 48 to 60 credit hours in length and up to 72 credit hours for individuals without a master’s degree. 

    Full-time Ph.D. students may be eligible for full tuition remission through the Steinhardt Fellows Program. The application deadline for this program is December 1st of each year, and the official start date is in the fall. This program is available in a full-time and a part-time option, so students can self-pace, but if you want to get some of your school paid for then you have to be a full-time student.

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  16. MERIT: 82.89

    The doctorate program at Grand Canyon University will enable educators to hone their skills in working with special education populations. The curriculum includes proper educational interventions in a variety of environments, which allows teachers from K to 12 to work with the special education population in a meaningful and effective way.

    Courses cover topics ranging from the political issues within special education, proper educational strategies, to family dynamics and ethics. Since this is an Ed.D program, the emphasis is less on research and more on real-world problem-solving. There are 60 credits in total, and many finish the program in about four years. Because this program is offered online, professionals can plan to continue to work through their doctoral program.

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  17. MERIT: 82.79

    The Ed.D. program at the University of Pittsburgh is geared toward training teachers to develop advanced skills in education, specifically special education. The program is designed to be a part-time study spanning over three years. Therefore, it is suited for working professionals to complete in their off-time. In total, there are 90 credits to complete. 

    Students select their area of focus from applied behavioral analysis, autism, blindness/ vision impairments/orientation and mobility, early intervention, emotional and behavioral disorders, or learning disabilities. Unlike Ph.D. programs in special education, the Ed.D program at the University of Pittsburgh is ideal for teachers in practice. 

    The application deadline is in February of each year. To be considered for the program, applicants must have 30 graduate credits to transfer. For this program, a GRE is not required.

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  18. MERIT: 82.18

    The University of Kansas’ Ph.D. in special education strives to generate leaders in education to address the institutional barriers which prevent students with special needs from receiving optimal education. The focus is on the needs of students with disabilities, as well as their families.

    Students work with their advisors to determine their area of specialization within special education, which encompasses 24 credits. The primary focus is on developing the skills to solve specific problems in the special education field. This is achieved through a heavily researched based curriculum. This education program has been ranked #1, according to U.S. News & World Report’s Best Public Institutions. For most, the program is four years in duration and 78 credits in total.

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  19. MERIT: 81.78

    The curriculum of Northcentral University’s special education Ph.D. is concentrated on case law and research to provide evidence-based solutions to the issues faced by the special education population. The focus is on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA), which is a federal law that provides funding for students with special education needs. 

    Proper special education student placement, discipline, family rights, and interaction with educators are the primary outcomes of this program. There is ample one-on-one mentoring with doctoral-level faculty who can facilitate exponential learning by sharing their first-hand experience and wealth of knowledge. 

    The course itself is extremely flexible, which is ideal for students who are maintaining employment during their program or who thrive on working at their own pace. For most, it takes just under four years to complete the 60 credit hour curriculum.

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  20. MERIT: 81.48

    The focus of the Ph.D. program in early childhood education/early childhood special education at the University of Colorado is on understanding the educational needs of children as well as children with special needs. This program takes a neuropsychological approach that emphasizes brain development and its implications on education style and technique. 

    In total, the program is a 75 credit curriculum that is heavily researched based. The goal is to prepare graduates to become scholars and further the field and our understanding of early childhood education and special education. The dissertation is 27 credits, which is more than double the weight compared to some similar programs.

    Students pick from seven areas of focus, including leadership for educational organizations, family science for human development, and research, assessment, and evaluation. Students are required to hold a master’s degree to apply for this Ph.D. For most, the program takes between 5-8 years to complete.

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  21. MERIT: 81.27

    The Ph.D. in special education program at the University of Virginia has two avenues of study: high-incidence disabilities or gifted education. With either of these tracks, graduates will be qualified to become teacher educators, scholars, or researchers in the field of special education. 

    Of the 72 credits in the program, 54 are coursework, and the remaining are research-based. Research is conducted alongside the esteemed faculty members at the University of Virginia, which fosters mentorship from experienced Ph.D.’s in special education. Furthermore, there are internship programs where students gain important first-hand experience, which they will use in their careers.

    Students are evaluated in a variety of ways, including comprehensive examinations, multiple assessments from professors and faculty, and of course, a dissertation. Typically, the program takes students four years to complete.

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  22. MERIT: 80.33

    The special education Ph.D. program at the University of Connecticut has been ranked in the top 20 by U.S News & World Report for education programs. The program includes a combination of hands-on experience as well as research to create graduates who can go on to conduct further research as well as train the next generation of special educators. 

    Students enrolled in the special education Ph.D. program can customize the direction of their curriculum. There are four foundational categories of coursework: knowledge and content, research and scholarship, university teaching and professional development, and service. For each category, there is a combination of coursework and research.

    For students who need it, there are funding and living stipends available. For students who intend to become a full-time researcher at the university afterward, there is the Dean’s Doctoral Scholars Program, which provides all four years of tuition as well as living expenses.

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  23. MERIT: 79.74

    Ball State University’s Ed.D in special education was designed to prepare its graduates to take on pivotal roles in the special education arena. This program is focused on building a core understanding of fundamental special education theories, as well as providing students with the flexibility to curate and develop skills in their individual areas of interest. 

    Other essential concepts in Ball State’s Ed.D. program are community and working together. The courses are taught in such a way that reinforces collective problem solving, which is invaluable in a school setting among other teachers and administrators. 

    In total, the curriculum has 91 credits, 10 of which are part of the research dissertation. Classes include study in Autism, Teaching Systems, as well as Emotional and Behavioral Disorders. In addition, there is a comprehensive examination at the end of the Ed.D program.

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  24. MERIT: 78.96

    The Ph.D. in special education program at the University of Southern Mississippi is a 66 credit hour program that prepares its graduates to become teacher educator researchers. In this program, the focus is on designing research as well as sharing information to improve the knowledge and skills of special education teachers. 

    Courses include a variety of research genres, such as Program Evaluation and Grant Writing in Special Education and Critical Issues in Special Education. Graduates will be able to apply for advance licensure within Mississippi as the program meets all the requirements to do so. Students who wish to become licensed in a different state must check with their state’s requirements for licensure locally.

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  25. MERIT: 77.99

    Nova Southeastern University’s Ed.D program is ideal for students looking to gain valuable knowledge in special education that translates into helping to support educators and students with special needs in the real world. This program is different from Ph.D. programs in special education in that it’s focus is more hands-on versus on research. 

    The program consists of 55 credit hours, 27 of which cover core classes such as Applied Behavior Analysis and Autism Spectrum Disorders. In terms of research, there are 12 credit hours of research classes as well as 12 hours allotted for the program’s dissertation. In general, this program is designed to prepare its graduates to work as educators, professors, mental health providers, or school education administrators.

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  26. MERIT: 75.85

    The University of Toledo’s Ph.D. in special education is focused on helping its students become leaders in the field of special education at a local level as well as the national level. This means they emphasize the real-life implications of research and how to use research in a meaningful way in the field. 

    This program has been approved by the Ohio Council of Graduate Schools and is the only program to hold this status. The program itself is four to five years in duration, with 70 credit hours. During the program, students have ample access to their professors and other faculty for guidance and support.

    During each semester, students complete six credit hours (2 courses). The classes cover early intervention, assessment tools, research, and more. At the end of the program, students complete a dissertation on a topic of their choosing in special education.

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  27. MERIT: 62.47

    Genuinely helping those that need special education often requires making changes through leadership in the educational system, which is the emphasis of the Doctor of Education from Gwynedd-Mercy College. Students that enter this program generally make it to the end with a 76% graduation rate, which is nearly double the national average for this type of program. 

    The program is 54 credit hours long, which can be completed in less than three years for most students. The small class sizes will give you the focus and attention you need when you encounter obstacles. The school has an extensive network of alumni that you will be able to connect with after graduating with your degree that may help you find your next job!

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  28. MERIT: 59.52

    After completing the Ph.D. in special education at Lehigh University, graduates can expect to find employment as teacher educators, professors at universities, as well as other leadership positions in the education arena. Their 60-credits program is completed over four to five years of study. 

    The coursework is completed in close contact with an academic advisor, which is primarily research work. Students can select from a variety of areas of focus, such as autism, academic interventions for children with learning difficulties, ADHD, emotional/behavioral disorders, or applied behavior analysis. To enroll, applicants are required to pass the GRE, provide letters of recommendation, obtain a 3.0 GPA in their undergraduate studies, as well as submit essays in their application.

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  29. MERIT: 72.56

    The education leadership doctorate at Portland State University is ideal for education professionals who want to advance their careers into leadership positions within education. Although this is not a doctorate in special education specifically, students will choose an area of specialization, such as special education or administration. This program is geared toward people who aspire to become an authority and leader in education. Graduates will be qualified to take on high-level roles in schools and universities. 

    In total, the course is designed to take two years and has 27 credits. Each term is 11-weeks in duration. The type of study is a hybrid between in-person learning and online learning. To be accepted into the program, applicants must demonstrate competency in writing, professional experience in the education field, as well as academic ability, among other things.

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  30. MERIT: 63.20

    With the Doctor of Philosophy in educational management from Hampton University, you’ll learn how to navigate the often complex educational system while being able to specialize in special education, higher education, pre-K-12 education, or STEM leadership. If your goal is to effect positive change in the educational system, then learning leadership and management skills are necessary, which is what this degree teaches students. This is a 66 credit hour program that normally takes around 2.5 years for students to complete. 

    Courses are held in nine-week modules, which will give you enough time to thoroughly digest the material taught, while quickly progressing through the program. The application deadline for this program is January 15th of each year, and to complete this degree, students are required to attend two summer sessions on-campus that lasts two weeks.

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What Is the Difference Between a Ph.D. and an Ed.D? 

This is a good question that we are glad you asked. These degrees vary quite a bit, and one may be more suitable for your future goals than another. Let’s start out with what is similar about both of these degrees. Both of these degrees are doctorates, the highest degree possible in their respective fields, and both of these degrees can have a focus on special education. 

These degrees differ in that a Ph.D. is more of a research-focused degree, which places more emphasis on the production of academic writing than on the practical application of the subject. Conversely, Ed.D degrees place emphasis on the application of learned knowledge, in this case, special education. Students in an Ed.D still learn to evaluate and conduct research, but often these degrees don’t require a thesis. 

Ed.D students are typically required to perform a comprehensive research project in which they may have to select a question, formulate a survey, study, or improvement outline, conduct the project, and present the findings in an academic paper. These projects are commonly conducted in the student’s place of work or in a setting that is familiar to the student. While these projects may sound very similar to a thesis in a Ph.D., these projects tend to be less rigorous and can be completed in a shorter amount of time. 

What Will I Need to Apply to a Ph.D. or Doctorate in Special Education Program? 

So you’ve finally committed to the idea that you’re going to get a doctorate degree in special education, but you’re curious about what you’ll need to submit in the application. Some schools may have specific school and program requirements that are not talked about here, but many schools have some of the same requirements that are asked for in the school’s admission application. We’ll talk about the commonalities for admission into an online doctorate program, but you should check with the school you want to attend about any additional requirements that they may have. 

Many online Ph.D. or doctorate programs in special education, but not all, will want to see that students have completed a master’s degree in the subject, or at the very least a bachelor’s with evidence of work experience in the field. The school is going to want to see official transcripts from all the universities and colleges you have attended in the past. This will show the admissions group how you have been able to handle the academic rigors of college in your past. 

Some programs require that students submit an essay or sample of the prospective student’s writing in their application packet. There will be a lot of writing in a Ph.D. or doctorate program, and students must be able to communicate their ideas clearly and succinctly, and these writing samples held the school ensure you are ready for this level of education. When applying to this program, schools will likely also ask you to submit at least three references, with one being from a professor you have had in the past. 

Should I Attend an Online or On-ground Ph.D. or Doctorate Program? 

The decision to attend an online or an on-ground program has to be made after a careful evaluation of your learning style and the obligations and commitments you have in your life now. If you have completed online coursework in the past and didn’t have trouble turning in assignments on time and completing the coursework, then you’ll likely do fine in an online doctorate program. Students that have difficulty meeting deadlines and have a tendency to procrastinate may find an online program more challenging than an on-ground program. 

Additionally, individuals with full-time jobs and families often find that online programs offer the flexibility and convenience needed to reach their educational goals. Those with families should have a serious discussion about the commitment you are making to enroll in an online doctorate program. Family members of those in an online program often make sacrifices along with the learner with regard to time spent together, and having a fully supportive family will make the doctoral journey much easier. 

If you’re interested in pursuing higher education, then you should check out Top 20 Fastest Online Doctoral Programs and Top Online PhD Programs in Management!