Executive Doctorate: Executive PhD vs. Online PhD Programs

Published: 3 October 2020 | by Thomas Graf

Often times, the terminology and names of doctoral programs can lead to confusion. On the internet, you can find "PhD programs", "Executive PhD programs", and "Online PhD programs", for instance. Let's break down these terms and clarify what they mean one by one. This should help you to better understand the concepts behind each program type and program name in their given context.

What's a PhD program?

A PhD program is a doctoral program that leads to the Doctor of Philosophy degree. If you read "PhD program" only, it does not tell you anything about the target group or the teaching mode. In other words, it can be a fulltime program or a part-time program. It can target graduates aiming for a career as academics or it can target professionals who want engage in research besides their jobs.

Does "Doctor of Philosophy" mean learning about philosophers?

Don't be misled by the word "Philosophy" - it does not mean that you have to read or (even more difficult) understand Adorno or Socrates. "Philosophy" refers to its original meaning in ancient Greek: "philos" is friend and "sophia" is wisdom or sapience. The PhD, thus, literally just means that you are interested in gaining wisdom and understanding phenomena better. It is granted in many academic areas, for instance in social sciences or humanities.

What's an Online PhD program?

A Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) program can be structured in many different ways. A basic distinction is between fulltime and part-time studies. Fulltime PhD programs require you to be on campus most of your time, while "part-time" indicates that you can keep on working wherever you are and only need to come on campus occasionally, for instance to meet with your professors or advisor. "Online PhD" refers to a specific part-time program where most of your communication with professors takes place via an online platform offered by the respective university.

PhD online and blended programs

Moreover, some PhD programs follow a blended approach that is a mixture of residential and online periods. During the early part of the program, for example, you may have coursework that can be done partly online and partly in class. After this coursework period, you may work on your dissertation from wherever you are based and come to campus only every few weeks. When you see "Online PhD", you know that this is not a fulltime PhD, but you do not know the target group, however. Is this for anyone with a first academic degree or specifically for professionals? Or is it particularly for senior professionals often called "executives"?

What's an Executive PhD program?

An Executive PhD program is a doctoral program that leads to the Doctor of Philosophy degree - specifically designed for executives. Executives are senior managers, who already are successful in their business jobs and who are interested in doing research and earning a doctoral degree. In contrast to the Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) or similar degrees such as "Professional Doctorates", the Executive Doctor of Philosophy is a program with the renowned PhD degree and thus very likely more research-oriented and theory-driven.

Difference to the Executive Master of Business Administration (EMBA)

The Executive MBA is also a postgraduate program for senior managers. The EMBA, however, is a taught degree - not a research degree. Executive MBA students learn the latest knowledge and techniques in management and network with other senior managers. In contrast, the PhD for senior managers is a research degree. The students do not learn management techniques, but rather management theories and empirical findings; also in a PhD you create knowledge, whereas in an EMBA you primarily absorb knowledge.

Executive Doctorate programs in Business Administration

While the Executive Doctor of Business Administration refers to "executives" - that is senior managers with leadership experience - Professional Doctorates in Business Administration refer to professionals in general, whether they are senior and have leadership or not. However, the term "executive" is often not applied too strictly, with the result that an Executive Doctorate in Business Administration may target the same people as a Professional Doctorate in Business Administration.

Other degree types for professional doctorates in management

You may also find Executive Doctorate in Business, Doctorates of Management, Doctorates in Organizational Change, and Doctorates in Management Studies.


By Thomas Graf