Question: What is an embedded dissertation in EdD programs? Online EdD Programs with an Embedded Dissertation

Answer: EdD programs with an embedded dissertation integrate students’ work on their dissertation into dedicated classes that students complete as part of their EdD program’s curriculum. In EdD programs that use an embed dissertation model, students progress through the stages of their dissertation work–from proposal development to the writing of each dissertation chapter–with the support of a structured class environment, including instructor guidance, assignment deadlines, and peer feedback. In doing so, these programs differ from traditional EdD programs where students typically embark on their dissertation work independently, and only after they complete most or all of their academic coursework.

The EdD dissertation represents the culmination of everything students have learned in their doctoral program, and is an opportunity for them to investigate a research question that is of professional significance to them. Dissertations are also quite time-consuming and challenging, requiring months of independent research, data analysis, and intensive writing. The lack of structure and classroom support that is inherent to the traditional dissertation completion process (where students complete their research outside of classes and only consult their faculty mentors periodically) can prove challenging for some students. In fact, many students who pursue an EdD never complete their dissertation and end up finishing their program at the “all-but-dissertation” (ABD) stage due to the challenges they face while trying to complete their dissertation.

To address this and to give EdD students helpful structure and support during their dissertation, some EdD programs embed each stage of the dissertation process into their formal courses. Such programs are designed to have students begin working on their dissertation from the beginning of their enrollment. While the way in which dissertation work is embedded into a program’s curriculum varies by program, in general students take research or dissertation-related courses during each term of their program, during which time they work on their research question and early dissertation chapters (e.g., Introduction, Literature Review, Research Methodologies) as class assignments. The advantage of these programs is that students have extra layers of support and feedback from class instructors and peers to supplement the guidance provided by their dissertation chair and committee.

Furthermore, the structure provided by an embedded dissertation, where students have concrete milestones to reach each term, can be immensely helpful to certain students who might otherwise struggle with the highly independent nature of traditional doctoral research projects.


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Curriculum for EdD Programs with an Embedded Dissertation

For programs that use an embedded dissertation model, how much dissertation work students complete during their courses varies by EdD program. Some programs embed a student’s entire dissertation work into courses so that they are able to complete their coursework and dissertation at the same time (in such cases, students even defend their dissertation as part of their coursework). Other programs embed the first three chapters of a student’s dissertation into coursework, and then students complete the research and analysis phase of their dissertation in the final year of their program after they have completed their courses.

The embedded dissertation model is different from traditional EdD programs where students typically complete their coursework (and potentially a qualifying examination) before determining their research focus and starting their research. However, EdD programs with an embedded dissertation cover the same research and leadership concepts that their more traditional counterparts do.

The key difference between EdD programs with an embedded dissertation and those without is that programs with an embedded dissertation have students apply what they have learned in their classes directly and immediately to work on their dissertation. Therefore, students must identify potential dissertation topics early in their doctoral studies. In fact, some programs expect students to already have potential topics in mind before they start their program. That way, as students complete assignments that relate to the program’s course content, they are also working on their dissertation requirements at the same time.

In contrast, programs that do not embed dissertation work into courses might assign students different kinds of projects during their classes, projects that may relate to what students ultimately research for their dissertation, but which are not formally components of the dissertation.

The following are examples of dissertation-focused courses that EdD programs with an embedded dissertation might feature as part of their curriculum. Please keep in mind that, as mentioned previously, EdD programs with embedded dissertations vary in their course content, not only according to students’ chosen specialization, but also in terms of how they integrate dissertation work into select courses. As a result, the example courses provided below are for informational purposes only.

Note: Included in this list are also descriptions of dissertation workshops, which are a feature that some, but not all, online EdD programs may have; these workshops may be hosted remotely or held on-campus as short in-person residencies/intensives.

Example Courses for Embedded Dissertation EdD Programs

  • Evidence-Based Practice–Qualitative Research Methods: This course covers essential qualitative research methods and their application to evidence-based, practice-oriented education leadership research. Students learn how to design qualitative research studies and utilize methodologies such as surveys and interviews, case studies, and literature reviews to gather relevant data. Students apply this knowledge to their own research interests as they determine the types of research questions they would like to investigate for their dissertation, and the primary research methodologies they must employ in their dissertation work.
  • Evidence-Based Practice–Quantitative Research Methods: This course covers foundational and advanced quantitative research methods and their applications in practice-oriented research seeking to improve education leadership and organizational outcomes. Students learn how to design quantitative research studies and implement techniques such as large-scale surveys and the gathering and manipulation of numerical data to identify key trends. Students discuss these research methodologies in the context of their own research interests, with a mind towards determining the research question they wish to pursue in their dissertation and the quantitative research methods they will need to answer this question.
  • Technology for Research: In this course, students explore the different technologies that enable them to conduct their educational research for their dissertation more efficiently and thoroughly. Students learn about different types of data sets and the technology platforms they can use to organize, segment, illustrate, and analyze their data to understand important trends.
  • Applied Statistics for Educational Leaders: This course gives students advanced training in statistical data gathering, organization, and analysis. Students apply the methods they have learned to data sets relating to their dissertation research question, in order to arrive at concrete insights from the data they have amassed.
  • Dissertation Planning Workshop: During this course, which maybe conducted as a short (e.g., two-week) intensive course, students meet with their faculty advisor and committee to discuss their dissertation question and to map out a plan for working on the first three chapters of their dissertation. Students also engage in intensive writing workshops wherein they start drafts of the first three chapters of their dissertation and elicit feedback from instructors and peers.
  • Dissertation Proposal Workshop: During this course, students meet with their faculty advisor and committee to discuss the first three chapters of their dissertation and to prepare and practice their dissertation proposal defense.

Online EdD Programs with Embedded Dissertations

Demand for online EdD programs has risen in recent years due to the desire for many students to continue working while earning their doctoral degree, and to have maximum scheduling flexibility when completing their courses. As a practitioner’s doctorate, the EdD lends itself particularly well to the online education model, for students can take what they learn in their online classes and apply it directly to their work at their school or organization. Online EdD programs have numerous advantages, such as saving students time they would otherwise spend commuting to campus, and allowing them to attend a program of their choice even if it is outside of their region of residence.

However, online EdD students might find the independent research process for their dissertation more challenging than do campus-based students who have access to a physical library, in-person faculty meetings, research specialists, writing tutors, and other campus resources. For this reason, increasing numbers of online EdD programs have begun adopting embedded dissertations so that their students can benefit from a structured sense of community during their remote work on their dissertation.

Examples of such programs that have an embedded dissertation include but are not limited to:

  • Bethel University’s Online EdD in Higher Education Leadership: This program features four research courses that help students both develop advanced research skills and apply these skills to their individual dissertation topic and research processes. In addition to their faculty advisor and committee, students receive support and guidance through three campus residencies. In particular, the third campus residency focuses on giving students individualized support and feedback on chapters 1-3 of their dissertations. (For more information about this program, please read our exclusive interview with Program Director Dr. Jessica Daniels.)
  • Maryville University’s Online EdD in Higher Education Leadership: This program can be completed in as few as 32 months, with students completing their dissertation chapters simultaneously with their core courses. From the beginning of their enrollment in the program, students receive guidance and advising from a faculty member. Students are also required to attend a residency wherein they receive further support and feedback on their dissertation, though they have the option to attend this residency on-campus or virtually.
  • Northwest Nazarene University’s Online EdD in Educational Leadership: This program not only requires students to complete parts of their dissertation throughout their research courses, but also has a two-week summer residency that includes an intensive dissertation writing and research workshop. This program follows an accelerated model, allowing students to complete their courses and dissertation in 26 months of study. (For more information about this program, please read our exclusive interview with Program Director Dr. Heidi Curtis.)
  • Southern Nazarene University’s Online EdD in Administration and Leadership: This program follows an accelerated model that is designed to have students complete their entire doctoral degree within 32 months. Students complete chapters 1, 2, and 3 of their dissertation during their core research courses, and also have the option to attend two dissertation-focused campus residencies for their proposal defense and final defense. (For more information about this program, please read our exclusive interview with Director of Graduate Programs Dr. Stephoni Case.)
  • The University of Wisconsin’s Online EdD in Student Affairs Administration: This program features a Dissertation Planning course, a Writing Retreat on campus, and a Dissertation Seminar where students have the support of an instructor as well as their faculty advisor and committee. This program also boasts strong faculty advising from the beginning of students’ enrollment in the program, and students are guided through the process of formulating their dissertation research question at the beginning of their first year. (For more information about this program, please read our exclusive interview with Program Director Dr. Becki Elkins.)
  • Trevecca Nazarene University’s Online EdD in Leadership and Professional Practice: This program has a core set of Research courses that cover qualitative and quantitative methodologies, research-based technology, and applied statistics. Students build the components of their dissertation throughout their Research courses, which are complemented by more content-specific courses in Leadership and Professional Practice. (For more information about this program, please read our exclusive interview with Program Director Dr. Ryan Longnecker.)
  • University of Dayton’s Online EdD in Leadership for Organizations: This program has students begin work on their dissertation from their first day of enrollment, enabling them to apply their course content directly to work on their dissertation research question and formal chapter development. As they work on their dissertation, students receive ongoing guidance from faculty members. Students also attend two immersions on the University of Dayton campus in Ohio, where they meet with faculty advisors who support them in their research work and offer valuable feedback on their dissertation.

Note: Embedded dissertations are just one way in which EdD programs are adapting to the research needs and learning preferences of their students. Other programs may allow students to complete an applied research project that does not require the traditional five-chapter structure of a dissertation or “dissertation-in-practice.” For more information on such programs, please read our FAQ about online EdD programs that do not require a dissertation.


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