A Ph.D. residency requirement refers to a number of credits that must be completed at the institution where you are getting your degree. Generally, there is an in-person component to a residency requirement.

Some degree programs allow students to determine the timing of the residency sessions. Others structure the sessions intermittently throughout the program in order to build upon the concepts that the student is learning.

Online Ph.D’s and Residency Requirements

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Online PhDs generally require several short residencies. The list of the 10 top online PhDs in Special Education Programs from the site Masters in Special Education Program Guide gives the various residency requirements from the top Special Education PhD programs.

Most of the programs on the list require around 3 – 4 on campus intensives or residency visits in order to fulfill the residency requirements. A few of the schools on the list require no residency at all.

Examples of how online residency requirements differ:

  • Liberty University, a school that is ranked very highly for its online degree programs requires three on-campus intensives as well as an on-campus dissertation defense.
  • The Universities of National University, Concordia, and West Virginia have online Special Education PhDs that have no residency requirements at all.
  • Nova Southeastern University requires students to attend a summer institute on campus.

Traditional PhD programs have similar requirements to online programs. Because students generally live near the campus for traditional studies, residency requirements only require special attention in regard to their academic connotations.

Residency Structure and Content

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The structure of a residency will change from school to school. Generally, an in-person component is a part of a PhD residency program. Online universities usually provide weekend or summer residencies.

Traditional universities may have meetings weekly. Other residency programs will have conference-like meetings. Students may have pre-residency requirements, which could involve extensive reading and assignments by a faculty-mentor. There could also be post-residency coursework as well.

Each program will vary in what is covered in residencies, but the following are skills and topics that will generally be covered:

  • Learn how to identify a research problem
  • Examine and narrow down potential topic areas
  • Develop a literature review
  • Craft a well-formed research question
  • Select the appropriate research methodology and design
  • Develop a full research plan

These skills and topics are from Capella University’s “What is a Doctoral Residency?” page.

Residencies and Research

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“Research is to see what everybody else has seen, and to think what nobody else has thought.” – Albert Szent-Gyorgyi

Whether your PhD is being completed online or traditionally, the first focus of a residency requirement will be to establish the relevant coursework and literature review to give students a foundation for their research.

These core topics will include research methods and relevant specialization strategies unique to your field of study. All of the groundwork in research will lead, through the residency meetings or classes, to defining your dissertation research topic.

Professors and other faculty who lead residency sessions will be available to guide their students in research topics such as:

  • Discovery of research problems
  • Topics that they can further develop for their dissertations
  • Developing research plans
  • Preparing students to make logical arguments in their dissertations

The proficiency gained in research will prepare students for both the comprehensive exams and what has been called by many the heart of the PhD — the dissertation. Specific training in research prepares students for future success when they apply the methods and techniques they have learned into their daily work tasks.

Libraries and Residencies

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Residencies provide students with certain resources that they need in order to do legitimate research. In online PhD programs that require no residency, make sure that you have the resources you need in order to feel secure in your research. One of these is a research-caliber library.

PhD students will need regular access to a research-caliber library. A research library is needed as a supplement to the online databases that are provided by distance learning programs. A PhD student could potentially use a distant library and archive for their research. Library resources will be a vital component for research and will affect the quality of your dissertation.

Onlinephdprogram.org provides a list of 101 university library websites that “offer varying levels of access, but many of them have amazing informational assets that savvy researchers should know about, including:”

  • Databases of scholarly journals
  • Digitized versions of historical documents
  • Instructions for properly citing sources in APA, MLA, and other recognized styles.

These online databases will be vital of use to a PhD student. However, certain books will not be available in the online database. Prepare a list of books you will need for your research and, during your residency, use the library to gather the information that you can’t gather elsewhere.

Residencies and Labs


PhD students in STEM (Science, Technology, English, Math) fields can expect to utilize labs during their residencies in order to complete the research necessary for the completion of their studies.

STEM students need access to a lab, supervised by a senior scholar, in order to access equipment that can cost millions of dollars.

Online alternatives have become excellent as innovators have made many lab activities accessible.

Engineering – According to Grad School Hub, “Curricula developers have generated innovative programs that allow aspiring engineers to complete the majority of their programs via the internet and to make limited visits to main campuses.” Cloud-based computing in the field of higher education gives students access to numerous applications that can be used anywhere regardless of the students’ computer hardware and software configurations.

Science – Labster, a “million dollar lab in your browser” allows students to “perform advanced experiments to achieve core science learning outcomes. Theory and practice are connected in a novel way.” The simulations on Labster run even on older laptops and computers. The simulations are able to be played without installing any browser plugins.

In spite of these amazing options and developments, like libraries, certain aspects of your research may require residency time in order to complete in a traditional lab.

Professional Communities and Residencies

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An important aspect of residencies is the ability to connect with colleagues and teachers. These connections will help give you the support you need to complete your PhD.

They also will be an important part of networking and finding a job after you finish the degree. While attending your residency, take the time to meet people and get to know their interests. Collaboration is a vital part of success in doctoral programs. An online professor puts it this way:

Residency “is also about political and networking opportunities…students who don’t attend departmental functions – research talks, conferences, workshops, etc. – are often at a disadvantage. An advisor’s time and energy (fair or not) will frequently go to the students whom s/he sees regularly… You can’t underestimate the value of “face time.”

Networking can also be done online and in a job in your field. When attending a residency, keep in mind that the time you spend with colleagues in person is important.

Residencies and Practicum

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Often a practicum will be a part of the residency in a PhD program. Practicums are used to provide students with real work experience. Their emphasis is to teach students through hands-on training. During a practicum, a student can transfer their head knowledge to actual work in their field. Practicums also create many networking opportunities for PhD students.

PhDs that often require some kind of practicum are Education and Psychology. Virtual field practicums have also been created and are an innovative way to create an experience for students. However, they may not provide the ideal networking situation.

Practicums are important in order to qualify for a secure job. Employers want to make sure that you can put into practice what you have learned. Some practicum credits are separate from residency requirements; however, residencies will vitally prepare you for a successful practicum.

Virtual Residencies

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Many reasons have already been mentioned for the importance of traditional residencies. but with online education expanding, at least one college has instituted a virtual residency.

Virtual residencies may be an experiment that doesn’t fulfill the desired expectations of a residency program, but just in case they stick around, here’s how Walden University’s virtual residency program works.

Eligibility – Certain eligibility requirements must be met in order to participate in Walden’s virtual residency program. Students must be participating in a four-residency model. Students must also have completed at least one face-to-face residency.

Good Options – Virtual residencies are good options for:

  • Those who have professional or personal difficulties traveling.
  • Students who prefer to work independently or in small groups.
  • Those who would like to develop skills with innovative technologies

Technical Requirements – Technical requirements include owning a laptop, speakers, high-speed internet and Zoom web conferencing software.

Overview – Students participating in a virtual residency will be placed with a small group of students and participate in conferences and online classrooms. Online events are scheduled throughout the residency. Seminars are scheduled over the course of nine partial days through a month rather than the on-site four full day requirement.

Residencies are Different from Coursework

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Although residencies are usually listed as credits, they should not be considered in the same light as coursework. One of the most important differences is that residencies more directly prepare you for your dissertation. The structure and feedback that students receive during their residencies allow them to develop plans for research and focus the essential elements of their dissertations.

Often, the needed levels of approval for their dissertation work will be acquired through residency programs. Students can often meet with consultants for a school’s research and writing groups. These groups can be linked to particular approvals needed before beginning the dissertation process.

A research plan is vital to the success of a dissertation. Generally, coursework doesn’t prepare students to organize a specialized research plan. Residencies will give students the necessary feedback not only in regard to their topic but a comprehensive and effective research plan.

Low Residency PhD Programs

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Any residency program requires careful planning and coordination on the part of the student. Some pre-requisite requirements for residency expect at least one day a week to set aside for preparation. Going into a residency program without having adequately prepared will drastically affect the success of your dissertation and degree.

Since 50% of PhD students don’t finish their degrees, preparing adequately for residency programs could be the key to finishing. Students need to be especially careful about low residency PhD programs. These programs are set up for students who have:

  • Good student habits
  • Time management skills
  • No need for remedial assistance

Low residency PhD programs are often more specifically designed to support students who are pursuing research that is closely related to their current job. They are a good option for people who already have secure employment in their field and who have the full support of their employers.

Because the residency experience is often at the heart of success for any PhD program, the invaluable learning opportunity that they provide should be highly valued.