Do you think it's possible that in the future there will be programmes for PhD in mathematical physics all online?

As I see courses being offered online, I assume if academia is to progress, this is bound to occur.

I once graded people's HWs offline, and nowadays I am grading their work through my PC. Though progress is rather slow in academia... :-)

I also took an exam through Zoom... what an experience!

3 Answers 3


Anything is possible, and the future has a long time span, so yes, it is possible in some version of the future. It is unlikely, though, on any timeline that might be useful for someone at the brink of doctoral study.

The experience with online education in general during the COVID crisis has not been very happy. I doubt that many people are "yearning" for that to continue. Of course, that is a result of their training and background. It could be different by the year 2424.

In principle, it might be easier for doctoral study than at other levels, but perhaps not so much for US degrees that normally depend on advanced coursework and comprehensive exams. So, a lot might need to change here. In other places it might be more possible if the entire program is research based and doesn't require lab work or experimentation. People do remote collaborative research in some fields, of course, and that could be extended to doctoral study.

Theoretical physics in general and mathematical physics is probably a decent candidate for such a program, if the kinks could be worked out and the necessary marshaling of remote sources. Lab based physics probably is not so easy. Einstein, I remember did quite well with only physical mail for communication (ah, those were the days).

But, a student might have to be content with less guidance under such a system. That would disadvantage a lot of students who need that timely guidance.

In the short term, if someone were able to get such a degree they might have problems in the job market since there is a lot of experiences they might have missed, such as an opportunity to teach. So, a mixed system might be worse than one with only online study.

Caveat: There might even be such a program now, though I wouldn't have a way to know. I would be skeptical of its quality, however, and would ask serious questions of the proposer if I had to evaluate such.

  • notice the title of my question PhD in Mathematical Physics, no need for labs only brains. :-)
    – Alan
    Commented Dec 12, 2022 at 19:49
  • 2
    Always in short supply.
    – Buffy
    Commented Dec 12, 2022 at 19:53
  • "Of course, that is a result of their training and background." -- Not only. There is actual evidence that as a teaching strategy, Zoom-only classes don't work particularly well as far as "learning" is concerned. It isn't just a personal preference to go back to in-person teaching. Commented Dec 13, 2022 at 5:41

Under the traditional PhD model e.g. in Germany, you can do a PhD without ever showing up at the university or talking to anyone at the university, except for the defense of the thesis.

So yes, it is possible.

Whether this is desirable is an entirely different question.

  • Thanks for information. In matter of fact, I have an interest in pursuing traditional PhD in Germany. I learned so far is that it is better to contact professor first before starting thesis. I am still trying to find professor. Although I do not speak German but I do have European Citizenship.
    – Aschoolar
    Commented May 22, 2023 at 13:18
  • do you have experience with it? Is it popular in all German universities?
    – Aschoolar
    Commented Oct 13, 2023 at 18:14
  • 1
    In the natural sciences, it is almost non-existent. I am not sure about humanities, I think it is a bit more common there. Nevertheless, what I wrote in the answer is the most extreme case: Typically, you would first contact someone, agree that they would be the ones taking the role of the supervisor (=examiner) of the thesis, and then work on it. (You are not entitled to just hand in a thesis.) In addition, note that this is becoming less common (I wrote "traditional PhD model"), and often now there are PhD schools, you have to take courses, get admitted (which means getting an advisor) etc
    – user151413
    Commented Oct 13, 2023 at 18:23
  • Sounds like a bad news for me. Actually I am looking for PhD in physics. When you mentioned " you are not entitled to just hand in a thesis" does that means that I have to take courses, be there, etc.....?
    – Aschoolar
    Commented Oct 14, 2023 at 20:52
  • @Aschoolar No, I meant that even in the "old" model, you still needed some professor who would be willing to act as a main examiner of the thesis (i.e., "PhD supervisor", though no actual supervision might have happened). You can't just show up and force the department to accept your thesis. And yes, by the new and more and more common, you have to earn a certain number of credits. Except for that, "being there" is not a condition.
    – user151413
    Commented Oct 16, 2023 at 21:31

It depends what you mean by "on line."

Some classes have been video-recorded and those vids are available on line, often for free or at least very cheap. Probably it won't be the case that just consuming recorded information will ever get you a degree. At least, not in the next few years. There will need to be personal interaction with a prof and other co-students and other people.

There will very likely be more interaction done remotely. People were pushed strongly into due to COVID, and they got a taste for it. And various software products to assist with remote work have significantly improved.

In the other direction, it's expensive to provide office space and classrooms. Even for grad students that get stacked 4 or 6 or 8 to a room. And letting people access buildings requires services like security and maintenance and cleaning and so on. Universities would be glad not to have to pay for that.

Also, more and more of the reference material is available digitally. These days a text book or journal in digital is usually cheaper. And it's a lot easier to carry.

So remote work will probably be a big part of life in the future.

There will probably also be pressure for in-person at least some of the time. So far, the on-line stuff is still a narrow window, at least for setups that ordinary people can afford and accommodate. An in person interaction is still different in character.

A friend of a friend was telling me about a "remote conference room" setup. At the end of the conference table there is a very-big-screen high-def computer screen. It's like 8 to 10 feet long. And there are really good cameras at each end. It does compression and such and goes over regular WIFI internet. So you sit at the conference table and the entire end of the table looks like the other attendees are just at the other end of the room. The problem is, it's expensive hardware and you have to buy a subscription. Most uni students couldn't afford it.

The relationship with your prof and other people in the uni is an important part of an advanced degree. It's a good thing to have for an undergrad degree also. But for a PhD it's vital. You are expected to be a contributing member of the school. You are supposed to interact with other students, your prof and other profs, post-docs, and other people. It is possible to do this to some extent remotely, but it's a lot harder.

Just as one example, going out for lunch, or a beer, or whatever, was a big part of these interactions for me. Quite often the grad students would all head to the same bar on a Friday, and many good discussions were had. There's a bar in Toronto called The El Mocambo. During my PhD, the downstairs at the ElMo was where we'd hang. And between sets of some local band we'd argue about the latest homework sets, discuss what people were doing for research, and what we were going to do after we graduated. The current state of remote interactions could never have produced this kind of thing.

So I'm going to suppose that completely remote degrees will be quite rare, especially at the graduate degree level. At least for the near future. If the remote interaction tools are improved this could start to change.

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