Getting a Ph.D. in computer science can help students pursue niche technology careers, but it's not easy to find an online program. Here's why.
Computer science is a vast and complicated field. While many CS professionals enter their careers with only a bachelor's or master's degree, students who are interested in more abstract or cutting-edge topics in computer programming often pursue doctorates.
While there are plenty of options to earn a BS or MS in computer science online, online Ph.D. in computer science programs are far more rare, especially now that schools are returning to in-person learning after the lockdown portion of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Why get a Ph.D. in computer science?
Most people who stay in school long enough to earn doctorates in computer science do so because they are interested in academics rather than pursuing regular tech-sector jobs. They often focus on abstract subfields like quantum computing or machine learning, leading to jobs working in research labs funded by universities or the government.
Meanwhile, most high-paying tech companies are happy to hire bachelor's-level CS graduates straight out of undergrad, with master's graduates filling more senior or managerial roles. Earning potential in these roles can be higher with a Ph.D., but a BS-holder with enough career experience can often earn a comparable salary.
Highest-Paying Computer Science Jobs
Minimum Education Required
Computer and Information Research Scientist
Computer Network Architect
Information Security Analyst
Postsecondary Teacher (Professor)
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
In short, when it comes to computer science as a degree options, earning a Ph.D. only makes sense if you're pursuing cutting-edge research or becoming a college professor. For most programming roles, a bachelor's or master's degree is enough, even at higher career levels.
The best online computer science doctoral degrees
While online learning can work for lower-level CS courses, where datasets are limited and require less processing power, computer science doctoral candidates often need access to specialized computing equipment that can process the large amounts of data required for cutting-edge work. That kind of computation simply can't be done via a home WiFi, so Ph.D.-level students need access to research labs — or their own expensive, high-end equipment.
Aside from the technology limitations, many CS doctoral students are pursuing professorships and a career in academia. For them, making an in-person connection and being present on campus is often necessary for career advancement.
For these reasons, it's relatively rare to find fully online Ph.D. in computer science programs. There are a few — for example, Northcentral University and Auburn University both offer fully online options — but it's far more common for "online" doctorate programs in CS to offer some classes remotely while still having on-campus requirements for other courses or research work.
During the height of COVID-19 lockdown, most doctoral programs in CS moved partially online. This included programs at private schools, like Johns Hopkins University, and state schools, like Mississippi State University. However, with vaccines lowering virus rates, these programs are returning to campus, where students have more equitable access to technology and mentorship.
The lack of available, fully online computer science doctorate programs is why we are not offering a comprehensive ranking at this time. There are not enough programs to make an honest list, and many of the online programs currently available are moving back to in-person formats for 2022.
What to expect in a computer science doctoral degree program
If it sounds like a Ph.D. in computer science is the right path for your career, here's what you can expect once you've enrolled.
Computer science courses
Unlike at the undergraduate and master's levels, where students can expect to take a variety of computer science courses covering both general and niche topics, doctoral programs in CS are more targeted. Students are responsible for conceptualizing and executing their own research, and what subjects they can pursue often depends on the specialties of working professors at their chosen university.
There is some coursework at the doctoral level, but independent research and dissertation projects take up the bulk of students' time and attention.
Computer science degree levels
If a Ph.D. sounds like more than what your computer science career goals require, you have a few other options.
Firstly, not all computer science professionals need a full degree. For example, computer support specialists often only need a high school education and a certificate in computer science. With an associate degree in computer science, you can pursue roles like web developer or designer, though some employers prefer a bachelor's degree.
Most tech-specific jobs require at least a bachelor's degree in computer science. This includes many of the highest-paying roles, because technology companies often reward experience over education, especially in team development environments. It's far more common to find cheap online computer science degree options at the bachelor's level than at the doctoral level.
However, a computer science master's degree can help with career advancement when seeking managerial or executive roles. For example, chief technology officers often hold a master's degree — sometimes a dual computer science and business master's.
Earning a Ph.D. in computer science is a great move for students interested in computer research careers or roles in academia. For most tech-sector professionals, though, it's not necessary, and there aren't many options when it comes to earning a doctorate online.
For most CS careers, a doctorate isn't necessary. But if a Ph.D. in computer science is in your career plan, it's best to research on-campus options, where you can access the school's resources and develop a personal relationship with your professor.