To teach education at a college or university, you typically must have a doctoral degree. You may also need a doctorate to take on certain research roles or serve as a senior educational administrator, such as superintendent or chief academic officer.
Practice-oriented doctoral programs usually require about three years of full-time study, combining classroom learning with a field-based doctoral project. Research-oriented programs, however, require students to write a dissertation after completing their coursework. Most full-time students earn their research doctorate in 4-7 years.
This page provides an overview of online doctoral programs in education, including information on admission requirements, curricula, and scholarship opportunities.
With information on coursework, concentrations, timelines, and financial aid, our comprehensive program guide will help you decide if a Phd program in education is the next step for you.
What You Can Do With a Doctor of Education
Doctoral programs in education equip students with the knowledge and skills needed to teach, conduct research, or take on senior leadership roles in education administration. After earning a doctorate, you may serve as a college professor, training the next generation of teachers. You may instead choose to work as a superintendent, shaping education policy and practice for a public school district.
Make sure to choose a program that aligns with your professional goals. Programs that require a dissertation and feature coursework in subjects like research methodology and design generally prepare students for careers in academia. Those who hope to take on jobs in educational leadership should look for programs that require doctoral projects and offer instruction in areas such as personnel and financial management.
- School Principal
School principals oversee and monitor the operations of elementary, middle, and high schools. They develop educational programming and curricula, train and hire teachers and staff, manage finances and budget, and enforce disciplinary action. A principal creates a positive learning environment for staff, faculty, and students. Many principals start as teachers, then go on to earn their doctorate in education.
Median Annual Salary: $95,310*
- Training and Development Manager
Training and development managers create professional development programming for schools, companies, and other organizations. They develop programs like online learning courses and in-person workshops. They may also create and select curricula, recommend instructional techniques and learning materials, evaluate participant needs, and assess the effectiveness of educational programming. Training and development managers commonly study education, human resources, or business administration.
Median Annual Salary: $111,340*
- Postsecondary Education Administrator
Postsecondary administrators oversee academics and faculty at colleges and universities. They work within admissions, student services, the registrar's office, and other departments, collaborating with senior administrators and other staff to find better ways to support faculty and students. Administrators often begin their careers as professors and then become provosts and deans.
Median Annual Salary: $94,340*
- Postsecondary Teacher
Postsecondary teachers, also known as adjunct and tenured professors, instruct students at levels beyond high school. They may teach at technical, vocational, and professional schools; junior and community colleges; or universities in both public and private settings. These instructors create curricula, develop learning outcomes, and assess student progress. Postsecondary teachers also conduct research, publish scholarly articles and books, advise students, and attend conferences.
Median Annual Salary: $78,470*
- Executive Director and Chief Learning Officer
Executive directors are senior leaders at nonprofit organizations and businesses. Working closely with a board of directors, they make decisions that impact daily operations such as hiring and human resources, finances and budget management, fundraising, policies, and programming. Chief learning officers (CLOs), meanwhile, are senior-level leaders that focus specifically on training, learning, and development programs for an organization's staff. CLOs advise executive directors on effective coaching and training techniques.
Median Annual Salary: $104,980*
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
What to Expect in a Phd Education Program
Both research and practice-oriented doctoral programs in education typically begin with approximately three years of coursework in subjects like the future of education, creating supportive learning environments, and quantitative analysis. Students can also explore more specialized topics through concentrations in areas such as early childhood development or higher education.
After completing this coursework, students seeking a research doctorate, such as an online Ph.D. in education, begin working on their dissertation. In close collaboration with a faculty advisor, students develop a proposal, conduct original research, and outline their methodology and findings in a written document. The last step in earning the degree is the dissertation defense, where students defend their conclusions before a faculty committee.
Instead of a dissertation, practice-oriented programs may require you to complete a field-based doctoral project. For example, while pursuing a doctor of education (Ed.D.) or doctor of education leadership (Ed.L.D.) degree, you may partner with a local school district to design a policy that better incorporates exceptional learners into mainstream classrooms.
While you can typically earn an Ed.D. or Ed.L.D. in just three years, you may need 4-7 years to earn a Ph.D. Listed below are five classes common to most of these programs:
- Educational Leadership and Change: In this course, students learn the fundamentals of organizational behavior and change by drawing on case studies from schools, districts, colleges, and state education agencies.
- Program Evaluation: This class provides an overview of methods for assessing the efficacy of various educational programs and interventions. Students use this knowledge when conducting research, applying for funding, or advocating for policy changes.
- Using and Integrating Learning Technologies: Instructional technology now plays an indispensable role in classroom learning. This course emphasizes leadership in creating and supporting technology-enabled learning environments.
- Research Methods: To prepare for work on their dissertations, doctoral students typically take a series of courses in quantitative and qualitative research methods. Topics covered in these classes include multiple linear regression, cluster analysis, and ethnography.
- Doctoral Writing: In addition to research coursework, doctoral candidates must also learn how to properly cite sources, develop a research proposal and thesis, and construct a clear and compelling academic argument.
Deniece Dortch has a master's degree and a Ph.D. in education, and is happy to share her expertise as both faculty member and administrator in higher education. She has years of experience both advising and coaching students and perspective students about the graduate school process, and welcomes the opportunity to share her story.
- Why did you choose to earn a doctorate in education? Was this a field you were always interested in?
I chose to get a doctorate because I originally wanted to be a chief diversity officer. I had a master’s degree and several years of experience as an academic practitioner and felt that a doctorate would not only advance my career but also place me in a position where I could begin to make institutional and systemic change.
- Why did you choose to earn a general doctorate as opposed to a more specialized degree (e.g., a doctorate in educational administration or learning and instruction)?
I chose to obtain a Ph.D. as opposed to an Ed.D. because I wanted to understand and learn more about research. Further, the training that you receive when obtaining a Ph.D. prepares you to become a faculty member, while other degrees usually don’t. There are a few exceptions, such as an Ed.D. from Teachers College, Columbia University. Unfortunately, there is still an ongoing debate as to the value of a Ph.D. versus an Ed.D., with many folks favoring Ph.D.s due to their levels of rigor, research intensity beyond the writing of a dissertation, practice with teaching, drafting of literature reviews, policy memos, etc.
- What was the job search like after completing your degree? Did you feel fully prepared when making the transition from student to professional?
The job search can be challenging for anyone who is on the job market. As I mentioned earlier, I was an administrator first who then became a scholar. I call myself a scholar-practitioner. Because of this, when I applied for administrative positions, other administrators had a hard time categorizing me and my CV. They would say things like, “You have so much research experience, I can see you being a researcher, a faculty member, or an administrator. Why do you want to be an administrator?" For me, I take that as a compliment. I want there to be clear distinctions on my CV that indicate that yes, I be in any one of these career fields. Being a scholar has made me a better practitioner, and because I am a practitioner, I am a better scholar. Having a Ph.D. helped me do that. When I was applying for jobs as a faculty member, I didn’t really get that question, but employers appreciated and welcomed my practical experience in the field, which has helped me to secure positions over the years.
- What are some of the challenges you face in your work on a day-to-day basis?
As a faculty member who is also a woman of color, I am presumed incompetent when I walk into a room even if I was asked to be there. This challenge is a result of systemic racism and is no different than for any other young-looking person of color who teaches in spaces where students are not accustomed to people of color leading their classrooms. Further, my research largely addresses academic violence and the ways that institutions can combat it. This is a challenge for many to wrap their heads around, despite all of the research that exists recognizing how racial violence, racial trauma, gaslighting, and racial battle fatigue impact students of color and faculty of color in ways that hinder their progress and success within academia.
- How did your experience as a faculty member inform your experience as an administrator in higher education (or vice-versa)?
When I was an administrator, students treated me very differently; they considered my time to be their time. I would often find them in my office without an appointment, and they came to me much more often (several times a day) with their problems and issues. When I was an administrator, I think I had fewer boundaries.
Now, as a faculty member, I have required that students in my classes come and see me during office hours as part of their grade. While they are in my office, they are allowed to discuss whatever they want (television shows, what they did over the weekend, class assignments, etc.). By doing this, I believe that it humanizes me to students in way that just being in front of them in class does not, and students are less likely to ask for help when it is too late for me to give it.
- What advice would you give to students who are considering a doctoral degree in education?
For all students considering a doctorate, I would tell them to make sure that you are able to give it the time and attention it needs. Make sure that you NEED to get a doctorate to do the work that you want to do. I am all for life-long learning and cultivating an inquiry-driven learner, but getting a doctorate is expensive and time-consuming. The process challenges who you are and what contribution you are going to make to your field.
Choose an institution, a program, and faculty who are going to support YOU and your process. Also, choose a program that is going to adequately fund you. Sometimes, the schools with the best funding are in places that you might find to be undesirable. Are you willing to live in that place 4-6 years? And yes, location does matter. Think about your own need for community and belonging.
Lastly, ask the faculty at the prospective institutions about the types of jobs that students have been able to secure upon graduating. Make sure that you put yourself in a position where that institution is able to supply you with the types of opportunities that you will need to compete with those folks who are going to be in your field when you are finished. Does everyone have teaching experience? Have they all been on research teams? Have they published prior to graduating? Have they secured grant funding? How often are students publishing on their own or with their advisors? Are they funded to travel to conferences to present their work? What types of jobs do students have while going to school? Is it a program where you can maintain full-time employment? Many students who leave their professional positions to become full-time students lose years of professional experience to then become graduate students or research assistants doing similar work for pennies on the dollar while completing their degrees. Is this something that you are willing to do for the next 4-6 years? I keep saying 4-6 years, but in truth, the national average is eight years to complete a doctorate. If you are wondering, I finished mine in three years. Sound impressive? It isn’t when you add the years it took for me to obtain two master's degrees.
How to Choose a Doctor of Education Program
Be sure to focus on accredited programs when evaluating schools offering an online doctorate in education. By participating in the accreditation process, colleges and universities demonstrate that they have met certain academic standards and appropriately prepare their students for careers after graduation. If you attend an unaccredited program, potential employers may not recognize your degree. You may also fail to qualify for state and federal financial aid programs.
Seven regional agencies accredit the majority of nonprofit schools across the country. For example, the Higher Learning Commission accredits institutions in states such as Arizona, Illinois, and Wisconsin. You can use the Council for Higher Education Accreditation's online database to find out what kind of accreditation a program holds.
Important factors to consider include:
- Available Coursework/Concentrations: Find a program with classes that suit your academic interests and career goals. For example, if you hope to work in postsecondary administration, look for coursework in student affairs, university governance, and higher education law.
- Dissertation/Capstone Requirement: If you want to teach or conduct research, make sure your program offers a dissertation track. If you hope to serve as an administrator, find a program that can help you develop real-world skills through internships, doctoral projects, or other field experiences.
- Cost/Financial Aid: The overall cost of your doctoral program should be one of your top considerations. Public colleges are generally less expensive than private schools, especially if you qualify for in-state tuition.
Educational Doctorate Program Admissions
Admission standards vary by program. For example, some schools may require prospective students to work as teachers or education administrators before pursuing their doctorate, while others welcome applicants directly from a master's degree program in a related field. The most common requirements for these programs are listed below.
- Master's degree
- Minimum graduate GPA (3.0 or higher)
- Relevant professional experience (often 2 years or more)
- The online application process typically requires you to create an account, provide information about your background, and submit a personal statement and resume. You can typically find these applications on schools' websites.
- Applicants must submit official transcripts from all colleges and universities attended. Paper transcripts in sealed envelopes or digital PDF versions can be mailed or emailed directly to the school's graduate admissions office.
- Letters of Recommendation
- Prospective students usually submit 1-3 letters of recommendation from professors, managers, or supervisors.
- Test Scores
- Not all schools look at standardized test scores; however, some institutions request GRE results and may have a minimum combined verbal and quantitative score requirement.
- Application Fee
- Application fees are typically $40-$70. Fees are sometimes waived for alumni, employees, service members, veterans, and military spouses. Some schools waive an upfront application fee and then reassess the fee during enrollment.
Concentrations Offered for a Doctorate in Education
- Higher Education
- An Ed.D. in higher education focuses on postsecondary institutions, colleges, and universities. Students in this concentration conduct research and analyze challenges related to higher education administration. Topics include trends in higher education, education finance, educational law, instructional leadership, adult learning, and student development.
- Special Education
- An Ed.D. in special education develops the skills to successfully teach students with unique talents and mental, physical, behavioral, and learning disabilities. Students in this concentration discuss ethical practice, policies, program development, student assessment, and technology as they relate to improving instruction in the special education classroom.
- Curriculum and Instruction
- An Ed.D. in curriculum and instruction builds on the foundation of classroom teaching. Students in this concentration discuss innovation and research surrounding the design of strong curriculum and professional development programming at the elementary, middle, secondary, or postsecondary level.
- Educational or Organizational Administration and Leadership
- An Ed.D. in educational leadership combines classroom theory and real-world application to prepare graduates to be competent, effective, and influential administrators. Within this concentration, doctoral candidates may focus on early childhood, higher education, community settings, or other educational environments.
- Educational Technology
- An Ed.D. in educational technology develops innovative ways of using technology to enhance student learning environments. Students in this concentration learn to think critically and identify emerging technology and future trends to make strong decisions related to nurturing a digitally equipped classroom.
Courses in a Doctorate in Education Program
All Ed.D. programs prepare graduates for leadership roles; however, your specific doctoral coursework may vary depending on the program and concentration you pursue and the school in which you enroll. A few sample courses are listed below.
- Diverse Learners
Courses in diverse learners explore academic, cultural, socioeconomic, and emotional diversity. In this course, doctoral students learn to value diversity and apply strategies to enhance learning environments. Topics include special education, English as a second language, equitable access to high-quality learning, and differentiated instruction.
- Leadership Theory and Research
Leadership courses introduce students to the concepts, definitions, and analyses of educational leadership. Topics cover contemporary theories, research methodologies, emerging perspectives, and the future of educational leadership. Students also gain an understanding of the different leadership processes, such as group, organizational, individual, and dyadic.
- Educational Systems
This course covers the dynamics, nature, and implementation of politics, legislation, and practice within the educational system. Doctoral candidates analyze leadership strategies within micro and macro systems and structures, and organizations within public and private classrooms, schools, and districts. The curriculum emphasizes educators as change agents and instructional innovators.
- Social Change, Justice, and Educational Equity
Coursework in social change and justice examines oppression and justice within education. Doctoral candidates explore and analyze contemporary educational research and connect issues in social justice to problems in education. Topics include pedagogical strategies, independent and collaborative learning, the climate for social change, the use of service learning, and learner-centered curriculum models.
- Thesis Proposal, Data Collection, Analysis, and Presentation
No doctoral program in education would be complete without coursework that helps students propose, prepare, and present their final thesis projects and dissertations. These courses support the thesis proposal, submission, and presentation of a project in which doctoral candidates refine their data collection skills, engage in data analysis, edit proposals, expand literature reviews, and construct presentation strategies.
Resources for Doctor of Education Students
The U.S. Department of Education offers many resources for graduate students, including information on financial aid (student loans, scholarships, and grants) and lists of accredited schools and programs.
The Teach to Lead program has a mission of expanding teacher leadership to improve student outcomes. The program develops educational leaders by providing several resources such as professional collaborations, leadership labs, and grants.
AACTE is an association of university-based teacher education preparation programs, representing over 800 institutions. The association supports the Innovation Exchange, a unique initiative that offers educators progressive programming in pedagogy, workforce development, research, and more.
UCEA is a membership organization of higher education institutions, deans, departmental heads, and faculty. The organization develops school leadership preparation programs and enhances the practice of educational leadership by disseminating high-quality research.
Established in 1994, AAE is a national nonprofit organization of professional educators that focuses on student achievement. Members benefit from professional resources, scholarships, and liability insurance.