Most Unusual Doctoral Degrees You Can Earn Online (PhDs)


Online doctorate degree programs are becoming more varied. We rank some of the most unique and unusual online PhD degree programs.

Key Takeaways

  • Online doctoral degrees are growing in availability and variety.

  • Graduate students can even take unusual online programs in subjects like cybersecurity, forensics, and holistic health sciences.

  • Accreditation is very important when considering online doctorate programs, especially in unusual fields of study.

Featured Programs

As a growing number of colleges and universities offer online doctorate programs, the types of programs that students can choose from are becoming more varied. It’s not unusual to find a graduate program that offers online doctoral programs in areas like counselor education, nursing practice, or educational leadership. But it is far less common to find fully online doctorate degree programs in areas like learning technology, classical civilizations, and music education.

That’s why we’ve highlighted the cool and interesting doctoral degree programs included here. Each offers an online PhD or doctoral degree program that is not commonly offered in the fully online or hybrid format. This makes each of the online doctoral degree programs included here a unique opportunity to advance your career and education while balancing existing work and personal responsibilities.

For a look at how these online doctoral programs stack up against traditional on campus programs, check out our look at the 50 Best Graduate Schools in the U.S.

Otherwise, read on and learn more about how you can earn an online PhD or complete a top-ranked online doctorate program in an unusual subject.

Happy student studying on a computer

About Accredited Doctorate Degree Online Programs

Whatever subject you choose to pursue, quality and credibility are important when it comes to finding an online PhD. The best online doctorate programs will have proper accreditation:

  • Institutional Accreditation: Accreditation is vital for online doctoral programs. It signifies that the online Ph.D programs offered by the graduate school are in compliance with the standards of a Department of Education-approved accrediting body.
  • A school must also be accredited in order to offer federal financial aid to its online doctorate candidates. When looking for an online doctoral program, seek out options with accreditation from a colleges and schools commission in your region. This stamp of approval is critical for ensuring the quality and credibility of your online program.

  • Programmatic Accreditation: In addition to institutional accreditation, be sure that you are only considering doctorate degree programs with programmatic accreditation. For instance, if you seek a doctor of nursing practice, be sure that your online doctoral degree program has accreditation from the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE). If you seek a PhD in business administration, be sure you only consider online degrees with programmatic accreditation from the Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs (ACBSP).
  • Programmatic accreditation ensures you only select from online PhD programs respected in your field.

  • Carnegie Classification: The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, or as it is more commonly known, the Carnegie Classification, is a framework for categorizing all accredited, degree-granting institutions in the United States. Originally formulated in 1970 by The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and administered through the University of Indiana’s Center for Postsecondary Research since 2014, the Carnegie Classification is “the leading framework for recognizing and describing institutional diversity in U.S. higher education.”
  • Under this classification, top research universities for doctoral degrees and PhD candidates are identified as either R2: Doctoral Universities for “high research activity” or R1: Doctoral Universities for “very high research activity.” Look for these classifications when considering options for your online Phd programs.

Key Point: The best online doctoral programs will have both institutional and programmatic accreditation.

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Admission Requirements

Schools that offer online doctorate programs have different admission requirements. However, in most online doctoral programs will carry the same basic threshold for admission:

  • A completed online application
  • Official undergraduate college transcripts
  • A cumulative GPA of at least 3.0
  • GRE scores, MAT scores, or GMAT scores
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Personal interviews
  • Personal statement or essay
  • Plan of study

Key Point: In many cases, you’ll be eligible to enter a doctoral degree online after earning a bachelor’s degree. However, some specialized online PhD programs may require you to have earned a master’s degree as well.

Curriculum and Courses

Research is typically a central component of your degree program. This is true for fully online doctorate degrees as well as hybrid degrees combining online education with traditional on-campus courses. Regardless of whether you complete a traditional, hybrid or online doctoral program, the typical time to completion is five to seven years.

The typical components of your online doctorate or PhD program may include:

Foundational Courses

While some foundational online doctorate courses may be focused on your specific discipline or area of study, most courses will focus on research methods and experimental design. You may be able to complete many of these requirements through online classes.

Examinations for PhD Candidacy

Many online doctoral students are required to complete certain examinations to enter into online PhD candidacy. This will typically occur after you’ve completed one to two years of foundational courses.


In most cases, the central component of your online PhD program will be the completion of your dissertation. After gaining status as an online PhD candidate, you will typically work closely with a professorial advisor or mentor to develop an original research question.

This research question will form the basis of your dissertation—an ongoing project designed to address this research question through applied research. While you will work closely with your advisor or mentor, much of your dissertation will be rooted in independent research. This is especially true for students pursuing an online PhD.

Oral Defense

Upon completion of the written portion of your dissertation—which will typically present the findings from your original research project—you will be expected to defend your findings. This “oral defense” will typically be conducted by a commission of professors and experts in your field. PhD candidates in some online degree programs may be able to conduct this defense via teleconferencing.

Teaching Requirements

Some online Ph.D programs will also include a teaching component, which will require you to work as an adjunct professor or teacher’s assistant in an undergraduate or graduate school. It may be possible for students in the online doctoral degree program to also serve teaching requirements by instructing online students.

Key Point: The online PhD is a research-focused degree. Your dissertation will be a central part of your online doctoral degree program.

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Careers for Students Who Complete Online Doctoral Programs

Accredited online doctoral programs are generally terminal degree programs. This means that students who complete credible online doctoral programs in their field are generally eligible for top positions and opportunities in their field. These opportunities, and the pay scale, may differ from one field to the next.

That said, the Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that, in 2021, working professionals with a PhD earned more per hour of work than Americans in every educational demographic.

According to the BLS, the median weekly earning for graduate students with a doctoral degree was $1909. By contrast, those with a master’s degree earned a weekly median of $1574, while bachelor’s degree holders earned a median of $1334.

These higher earnings are reflective of the rarified professional opportunities that await those with a PhD in their field. Working professionals who earn an accredited online doctorate may be eligible to work in the following areas.

  • Theoretical Research
  • Scientific Research
  • Publishing
  • Sociology
  • Post-Secondary Education
  • Public Policy Consultation
  • Clinical Practice
  • Organizational Leadership

Key Points: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, students with a doctorate will earn more than graduates with a bachelor’s or master’s degree.

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What’s the difference between online doctoral programs and online Ph.D programs?

Technically, a PhD is a type of doctorate degree. This means that all online PhD candidates are doctoral students. By contrast, not all doctoral students are PhD candidates.

The primary distinction is that doctoral students are primarily focused on putting existing theories into practice. Depending on your chosen field, your online doctoral degree may require participation in an educational leadership program, engagement in clinical practice, work as a resident in a nursing program, and much more.

By contrast, online PhD students are focused on creating new knowledge in their area of study. This usually means that online PhD candidates are focused on introducing new theories, creating research projects around these theories, and presenting new findings that demonstrate a mastery of existing knowledge and the insight to introduce new ideas into the field.

Today, more working professionals than ever before are pursuing both online doctoral degrees and online PhD programs.

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The Most Unusual Online Doctorate Degrees

The online PhD and doctoral programs identified were selected for the unique content of their online doctoral program offerings. In most cases, the degree programs themselves may not be entirely unusual.

However, their availability through online programs or hybrid programs is what distinguishes most of the programs included. The graduate schools identified here are highlighted for making online doctorate programs available to students that are otherwise typically offered through strictly residential degree programs.

  1. Other Rankings

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    Career Outlook for degree at North Carolina State University

    Cost of Degree: $11,700
    Expenses: $16,624
    Starting Salary: $59,500
    Cost Recoup Time: 10 years
    Paid back at 15% of annual salary

    NC State is noted for a number of unusual doctorate degree programs, which are available through online programs, including its Doctor of Design (DDes), where students pursue design research in support of those professions creating the artifacts, communications, environments, organizing structures, and systems of the future. The DDes can be completed through distance education but includes a one-week on-campus seminar each semester.

    • North Carolina State is great for students who:

      Are looking to get involved. Students note that the campus has a wide selection of activities, athletics, and arts to choose from.

    • North Carolina State might not be the best fit for students who:

      Require a great deal of administrative support. Students report that offices like the Financial Aid department can sometimes be slow to respond to student needs.

  2. #2

    Clemson University

    Clemson , SC
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    Career Outlook for degree at Clemson University

    Cost of Degree: $12,204
    Expenses: $19,192
    Starting Salary: $58,900
    Cost Recoup Time: 11 years
    Paid back at 15% of annual salary

    Among its online doctorate degrees, Clemson offers a PhD in Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management (PRTM). Students enrolled in this program will take core courses such as Behavioral Aspects of PRTM and Grant Writing. The PhD program may be completed entirely through synchronous online courses along with a one-week campus residency each calendar year.

      • Clemson University is great for students who:

        Enjoy college athletics. Clemson’s Tigers enjoy an enormous cultural presence both on campus and in the surrounding region.

      • Clemson University might not be the best fit for students who:

        Are looking for a college in a lively area. Clemson is located in the foothills of the picturesque Blue Ridge Mountains, but this also means that the university is a two hour drive from the nearest city.

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    Career Outlook for degree at Pepperdine University

    Cost of Degree: $39,720
    Expenses: $22,060
    Starting Salary: $77,600
    Cost Recoup Time: 14 years
    Paid back at 15% of annual salary

    Pepperdine University is noted for a number of unusual online doctoral degree programs, including its EdD in Learning Technologies, which is distinguished by its focus on providing candidates with the expertise to effectively leverage new and emerging learning technologies to facilitate learning and development in the workplace and school. Students in this unique educational leadership program can earn their degree either online or through a hybrid online/on-campus program.

    • Pepperdine University is great for students who:

      Are looking for a small school where professors are highly accessible. Students report that they enjoy the direct one-on-one attention and support they have received from their instructors.

    • Pepperdine University might not be the best fit for students who:

      Are looking for a party atmosphere. Students note that Pepperdine is very welcoming, but that it is not always easy to find recreational activities on nights and weekends.

  4. Students in a park
  5. #4

    Boston University

    Boston , MA
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    Career Outlook for degree at Boston University

    Cost of Degree: $61,924
    Expenses: $20,400
    Starting Salary: $75,900
    Cost Recoup Time: 17 years
    Paid back at 15% of annual salary

    Boston University offers a number of unique doctorate degrees online, including its Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA) in Music Education. Students enrolled in this highly specialized program will learn strategies for leadership in music education policy and practice in a variety of settings both in and outside of schools. The online program will culminate in a one-week residency on campus.

      • Boston University is great for students who:

        Are seeking a postgraduate education. Roughly half of the school’s student body is made up of graduate students.

      • Boston University might not be the best fit for students who:

        Prefer a small, intimate campus. Boston University reflects the hustle and bustle of a metropolitan campus.

  6. #5

    Florida State University

    Tallahassee , FL
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    Career Outlook for degree at Florida State University

    Cost of Degree: $11,553
    Expenses: $18,124
    Starting Salary: $53,900
    Cost Recoup Time: 11 years
    Paid back at 15% of annual salary

    Florida State University is noted for several excellent distinctive online PhDs and doctoral degree programs, including its PhD in Classical Civilization. This unique program is designed for high school teachers and community college teachers who wish to improve their skills, prepare for serious research, and improve their credentials with a more general emphasis in classical civilization. PhD candidates in the online program are expected to take a variety of summer courses and independent studies in order to earn the full share of required credits.

      • Florida State University is great for students who:

        Are looking to participate in campus activities, Greek life, and sporting event attendance.

      • Florida State University might not be the best fit for students who:

        Prefer a more intimate college experience.

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    Career Outlook for degree at George Washington University

    Cost of Degree: $33,984
    Expenses: $18,745
    Starting Salary: $82,400
    Cost Recoup Time: 12 years
    Paid back at 15% of annual salary

    George Washington University is noted for several excellent online doctoral degree programs, many with direct relevance to government agency leadership in the nation’s capital. For instance, students can complete an online Doctor of Engineering (DEng) in Cybersecurity Analytics. Students will learn to plan and implement security measures to protect an organization’s network and systems, implement strategies to track threats and monitor networks for security breaches, and more. Online course completion takes place during weekend sessions.

    • George Washington University is great for students who:

      Are interested in fields like political science, law, and civics. Its location in the U.S. capital makes GW a prime destination for these areas of study.

    • George Washington University might not be the best fit for students who:

      Don’t wish to attend college in an urban environment. GW is immersed directly in the city of Washington D.C.

  8. #7

    Gonzaga University

    Spokane , WA
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    Career Outlook for degree at Gonzaga University

    Cost of Degree: $19,811
    Expenses: $18,972
    Starting Salary: $63,800
    Cost Recoup Time: 12 years
    Paid back at 15% of annual salary

    Gonzaga offers an array of unique doctorate degrees fully online, including its Doctoral Program in Leadership Studies (DPLS). Students in this program will study leadership in three dimensions—the leader as a person, organizational complexities, and global systems. This online degree program is delivered through a Jesuit philosophical framework.

    • Gonzaga University is great for students who:

      Are seeking a beautiful and immersive campus. Gonzaga’s location near Spokane River makes for picturesque views.

    • Gonzaga University might not be the best fit for students who:

      Prefer sunshine and warmth. Students note that Gonzaga’s Pacific Northwest locale leads to a lot of gloomy weather.

  9. #8

    Saybrook University

    Pasadena , CA

    Student body


    What is Saybrook University known for?

    Saybrook University’s faculty and alumni have been influential in:

    Most Influential Alumni

    Among Saybrook University’s unique online doctorate programs is its PhD in Mind-Body Medicine, where candidates will learn how to apply holistic evidence-based therapies to support physical, emotional, social, and mental health through stress management and thought regulation. PhD candidates can choose through fully online and hybrid degree programs.

    • Saybrook University is great for students who:

      Are seeking remote learning options. Saybrook is described as a “low residency” institution.

    • Saybrook University might not be the best fit for students who:

      Have financial constraints. Some students describe Saybrook as a relatively costly online/hybrid experience.

  10. Student in a red coat holding books and a coffee
  11. #9

    Liberty University

    Lynchburg , VA
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    Career Outlook for degree at Liberty University

    Cost of Degree: $8,405
    Expenses: $19,987
    Starting Salary: $41,400
    Cost Recoup Time: 13 years
    Paid back at 15% of annual salary

    Liberty University is noted for its highly varied array of online graduate degree offerings, including its unique PhD in Business Administration-Entrepreneurship, where students can receive a doctoral-level business administration education with a heavy emphasis on biblical principles of leadership and ethics. This program can be completed entirely online.

    • Liberty University is great for students who:

      Wish to attend the world’s largest seminary—Liberty University’s Rawlings School of Divinity.

    • Liberty University might not be the best fit for:

      Students who do not identify with Evangelical Christianity.

  12. #10

    Walden University

    Minneapolis , MN
    Other Rankings

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    Career Outlook for degree at Walden University

    Cost of Degree: $10,381
    Starting Salary: $62,500
    What is Walden University known for?

    Walden University’s faculty and alumni have been influential in:

    Most Influential Alumni

    Walden University offers several unusual online doctorate programs, including its PhD in Forensic Psychology, where students will take a deeper dive into the biological, psychological, and socioeconomic factors that can drive criminal behavior. This fully online program prepares students to be advisors, thought leaders, and scholarly contributors in the fields of criminal justice.

    • Walden University is great for students who:

      Are studying nursing, public health, and healthcare administration. Walden is one of the nation’s top degree providers in these fields.

    • Walden University might not be the best fit for students who:

      Plan to earn PhDs in psychology. Walden’s PhDs do not have accreditation from the American Psychological Association (APA).

See our Guide to Life in Graduate School for valuable tips on applying to and succeeding in your master’s or doctoral degree program.

Or get tips on studying, student life, and much more with a look at our Student Resources.

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