Is it possible do to an online or distance Ph.D. program at all?
If so, are there ones that are cheap or free?
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To a first approximation, it's not possible. There are few online or distance Ph.D. programs, and they usually have bad reputations. A Ph.D. from a university with a bad reputation will actually be worse for your career than having no Ph.D. at all, so you should be very careful. Plus these programs are as far as I know never free. You can get financial support for Ph.D. work in several ways (competitive fellowships, a faculty member's research grant, teaching classes for the department), so depending on the field you may not need to pay anything yourself and may even earn a modest stipend, but that's not because the program itself is cheap or free. Ph.D. supervision is intrinsically time-consuming and expensive.
I'm skeptical of how serious your question is. Hoping for a free online Ph.D. isn't really reasonable; furthermore, if you have no time to attend a university, then you probably have no time to complete the years of full-time research required to write a Ph.D. dissertation.
However, I felt it was worth answering to warn you about scams from unaccredited universities. There are plenty of diploma mills that will offer you a relatively cheap and easy Ph.D. online. Such degrees are completely worthless, so they'd basically be stealing the fees from you.
A PhD requires significant time input from an advisor – several hours a week from somebody earning a decent salary. That's not something you can get for free or at a distance.
If distance learning is an absolute requirement and you're in the UK, the Open University might be what you're looking for. If free is an absolute requirement, you need to look into potential sources of funding: in most places, there's no such thing as a free PhD but there are organizations (including some governments) that will pay the fees for good students. But be aware that these are very competitive.
Peter- where are you located and what is your citizenship?
Many countries have Higher-Degree-by-Research (HDR) for free or minimal payment but only available to local students and based on competitive entry.
For instance, in Australia, many PhD programs are currently free for local students, but you must be citizen, secure a commonwealth 'position' (as basically the Commonwealth covers your tuition) and in around 2016- fees will be introduced. I think international students can also apply for tuition-free positions but this might depend on the university.
Depending on your Faculty, research topic and resources required to undertake your research - it is not uncommon for a PhD to be undertaken 'remotely' in Australia. However, Australia generally does NOT have course-work related PhD - the entire 3 years is research and thesis writing (this differs from the system in the USA).
I think also Germany and Belgium have free higher education.
Many UK universities offer a "PhD by published works". Basically you take a group of scientific papers you have written that demonstrate a PhD level of work and competence. You then write an introduction/summary, submit it with the collection of papers (the university will provide a supervisor to assist with this assembly process) and they examine the work, give you a viva etc. There will be fees but afaict the total fees paid will likely be much lower than a traditional student will pay as you will only be registered as part time and will not be registered for as long.
Many Universities restrict this to their own former students or others who are in some way associated with the University, but there are some who offer it to extrnal applicants with no previous relationship to the University.
This is NOT going to be an easy way to get a PhD, but if you have managed to be active in academic publishing without getting a PhD the traditional way (a traditional PhD program is basically a research apprenticeship) and you want to convert that work into a PhD then it may be an option for you.
There is NO free doctorate ( or degree at any other level) from any properly accredited university. BEWARE diploma mills!! I began my PhD in Australia when the exchange rates were much better and later had to drop out due to a family emergency. I've been researching less expensive degrees, but my area is nursing, so it most likely does not apply to you. Your best bets are state schools which offer online doctorates, or looking overseas at England/Scotland/Wales. As mentioned above, Germany has free tuition, but not all courses are offered in English. My concern is that you say you "have no time". Do not believe that because a doctorate is done via distance that you will have an easier time of it. I skyped and phoned my advisor in Cairns, Au. weekly for an hourly conference. Then there were the hours of research I did prior to those conferences. A doctorate is time-consuming. There's no way around that. You may get decent tuition at perhaps 250.00 to 350 dollars a credit in a state school (most doctoral courses are 3 to 6 credits each depending on your area of study), but you will still have to put in the time and then you will write a dissertation with multiple revisions. You don't sound ready for doctoral study, my friend. I often tell my undergrad nursing students who say they have "no time" to do their work that the world will not accommodate them. That's just life. Sometimes we must wait for the right time to go to school, or we have to make a great effort to ensure we set aside the time if we really want the degree.
MOST PHD PROGRAMS IN THE USA ARE FREE!!! YOU WORK FOR THE INSTITUTION AND THEY WAIVE YOUR TUITION!!!! (You BECOME a servant for a professor for 3 to 7 years) (He may or may not give you a phd after your service!!!)
I suspect that most of the people answering this question have never been in a doctoral program!!
1) DO NOT WASTE YOUR TIME AND MONEY GETTING A MASTERS!! For most phd programs, you only need a ba or bs to apply.
2) Phd courses are all home made by the teacher from academic journals! Text books are not used (you already know every thing in all the textbooks)
3) The training program consist of reading adademic journals.(Thousands of them), then doing your research project.
4) The goals is to train you to be able to write, research articles for academic journals ( not to train you to teach in a college).
5) If you want to be a college teacher a phd is required to get a full time job. Ba or Bs Or Masters is good enough for a part time college teaching jobs.
6) College Chairmen are usually only hire people like them selF! if the chairman is harvard or columbia, he or she will only hire people from those schools!!!
7) REPUTATION OF THE SCHOOL IS VERY IMPORTANT, IF YOU WANT TO GET A COLLEGE TEACHING JOB!!
8) London university and the university of south Africa had very well respected external academic phd programs that could be done outside the country. I know of one person witha a south africia external phd, who worked at NYU business school.
9) The courses are twice as difficult as a regular BA course.
10) Most Phd students are foreign, so they audit the courses 1 or 2 times, before actually enrolling.
Good luck, Bill