What it’s like to earn a PhD online


Online degree programs have endured a stigma. Many people believe if you didn’t go to a brick and mortar school, you didn’t really earn a degree. When I talk to some people about how I got my PhD, it goes something like this:

“Hi. I’m Dr. Kerry Chamberlain. Nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you too. Where did you get your PhD from?”

“Walden University.”

“Never heard of Walden University.”

“It’s an online university.”

“Oh. You didn’t really do any work then.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Aren’t online classes just watching video lectures?”

“No. I had to do a lot of writing. I also did a full research study, just like anyone else who earns a PhD.”

I have a hard time talking to people about earning an online PhD. Many don’t know what to say. I’ve even read blogs of people I respect that disparage a person who earned their degree online. If you earned your degree online you can’t be taken seriously. Granted, there are plenty of degree mills out there. If you want to read more about degree mills click here. Occasionally I hear someone say Walden is a degree mill. I can safely say it isn’t. Usually a degree mill asks for your money and you do a couple of small things a get your fake degree. My PhD took five years from start to finish. And contrary to what a lot of people think I came out the other side with some real partnerships formed. My dissertation committee chair and I talk regularly. All of the professors I worked with were not washed up has bins who couldn’t get a job anywhere else. They were people who earned their degrees from top-tier universities such as Cornell.

I earned my Bachelor’s degree from Michigan State well before they started offering online classes. I did my entire degree in person. Having attended in person and online classes, I can say for me I learned more in my online classes. I found sitting in a lecture hall listening to someone drone on was pretty boring. There were a handful of professors who were interesting, but many wanted to do research more than teach, and it showed. My online classes required me to be on the ball. Attending class meant writing a short research paper every week and actually interacting with other students. I had to spend time reading and researching. Interacting with other students meant actually reading what they wrote and discussing it with them. I couldn’t just say “good job”. I also never once sat and watched a video lecture.

I think most people can accept the online class environment, but what about a dissertation? Online classes are pretty common now. I can say the dissertation process occurred just like any other process at a brick and mortar school. The only difference is I was remote. One question that comes up is how I interacted with my committee if we weren’t in person. I updated my chair once per week with my progress. If you didn’t progress and for long enough, you could be kicked out of the program. My chair was there for me during the entire process. He talked me down off the ledge a few times. I received plenty of assistance. I wasn’t left hanging at all. If I needed someone, they were there. And the research? I spent seven months interviewing Iraqi immigrants 1.5 hours from my home. I designed all of it from the research design to the survey instrument and IRB approval. No online surveys or reanalyzing data sets. I know plenty of people who did the least amount of work to get the credentials, both online students and in person. I also know students who have done mind blowing work in both places as well. What I’m saying is don’t write off someone who did their degree online. Unless, of course, they got it from a degree mill or by cheating.

I am proud of my accomplishments. I do not regret doing the degree the way I did it. I also know that not everyone is going to think my degree is worth the paper it’s printed on. Before you make up your mind about how I earned my PhD, there is one person who can vouch for how hard it was to do this. My husband was with me through the whole thing. Just like any other PhD student, I missed a lot of time with him to work on my dissertation. He was there for me every day I drove to do interviews. He was there when I was crying over my statistics. I can tell you it was all worth it in the end. And if you don’t think much of my degree, I hope you think more of my science. I’ll soon have a couple of peer-review publications from my work. The dissertation was just the beginning. I plan to do more research in the future.