Distance PhD


My employer is asking us engineers to look at some way of getting a PhD in Mechanical Engineering. Preferably something along the lines of Heat Transfer.

What formal Distance PhD programs do you know of/recommend?

Also, is it possible to approach colleges that do not have formal PhD programs and have them accommodate you, or is that completely out of the question?

I’ve never even heard of a distance PhD program in any formal sense. You can do a PhD with at least most of your time being located away from campus, but you will need to have an advisor that is willing to supervise a dissertation where the research is located elsewhere. It’s certainly not ideal. It does happen in situations such as where graduate students perform their research at a national lab, but it is a lot less common in industry. Would your current job be providing a suitable research project? If not then you will likely not be able to complete a PhD this way.

Also, there is basically no way to support PhD students at schools that don’t already have a PhD program in place.

I can’t imagine how long that would take, ignoring the logistics for a moment. PhDs are typically full time 5 year commitments.


What about this program?

I couldn’t even remotely imagine how a PhD would work completely off-site. Maybe they’ve found a way, or maybe that program is less “distant” than you think; I don’t honestly know.

Creating a PhD program involves a significant amount of work for the department and college.

Perhaps your employer is willing to pay for you to take PhD classes during the work day. How far away is the nearest program?

Fayetteville or Stillwater, OK. But neither of those have formal distance PhD programs.

Mississippi State (the link I posted above) is a formal distance PhD program.

Are you sure that your employer is going to require you to do a distance program? Have you spoken to any of these other programs about maybe accommodating you?

You still haven’t answered the core question here: is your dissertation research going to be carried out on-site at your current employer? You have to answer that first. If the answer is no, then there is not going to be such a thing as a distance PhD program because you will have to go somewhere else in order to do research. If the answer is yes, then the only things you need to be on campus for are courses and doctoral milestones (qualifiers, preliminary exam, and final exam). In that case, you just have to find a program that is willing to let you take courses from afar and an advisor who is willing to advise you from afar.

Yes, my employer has a lab so I am sure I can do work at my employer’s. Again, this is all in a very nascent stage, so nothing is really hashed out. Its all up in the air currently.

Well I think that you need to discuss that issue with your employer first. There would still be the issue of getting back to campus to do courses or convincing them to let you do courses online, which may or may not be doable. But the number one issue is nailing down for sure that you can do your dissertation work at your current employer. If that’s the case, then you can probably keep working while you earn the degree and you just need to look for faculty at various universities that specialize in areas that are related to the work you can perform in that lab already.

I don’t know enough about programs like that one at Mississippi State to say whether they are any good, so I won’t go too far either direction there. What I will say is that you shouldn’t choose a program based on whether or not they have an entirely online program. This is a PhD. You need to choose it based on the research.

Are you sure they said PhD, not “grad school”? If PhD, you may need to explain that typically that’s a full-time commitment, on campus.

The company I work for has “relationships” with a couple other schools, so they might use that to get those of us that want PhDs.

Lets assume I can do the PhD while working at my company. Can you all also sort of explain the benefits and drawbacks of doing so? Will it open lots of doors (in academia or otherwise)? Will I be pigeonholing myself for the future (I have firsthand seen a negative attitude towards offering PhDs jobs in the industry)?

Benefits: Knowledge, yours and others. Prestige. Cool robes.

Drawbacks: Time, opportunity cost. Sanity. Career options in engineering now center on your dissertation. Can have trouble transitioning into non-engineering roles, like management.

It will not open many doors. Academia won’t want you unless you have a stellar academic and/or professional record, and a part-time PhD is no route to the former. Industry will see you as a researcher, which can be good or bad depending on your goals and their needs.

Academia would only be an option if you were publishing your work and getting grants. But you won’t have time to do these activities because you are working.

Publishing is the big issue, and you can certainly do so from industry, it’s just challenging. I’ve known a couple of people who made that transition, including my old mentor, but it is rare. Grants didn’t seem to be an issue in either case though.

Career options don’t center on the dissertation as much as your might think, depending on your topic and the skills you picked up along the way. I know quite a few people with PhDs in engineering who got jobs that weren’t particularly similar to their dissertation topic but used various analytical techniques that were learned as part of that research.

I’ve always liked to talk about a MS opening any doors without closing any, then a PhD opens more doors but closes at least as many as it opens. There are research roles that are all but inaccessible to those without a PhD, but many more traditional engineering roles are now no longer available, as you will be “overqualified.”