Question: Are there any online EdD programs that do not require a dissertation?

Answer: Yes – A number of schools offer Doctor of Education degrees online that do not require students to complete a traditional dissertation. However, these programs typically include another type of capstone requirement, such as an applied project or a “dissertation-in-practice.”

At this time, the majority of online Ed.D. programs require students to complete a dissertation in order to earn their doctorate. There are, however, options for those who do not wish to write a traditional research-based thesis. Several programs now offer students the opportunity to develop and implement a more action-oriented capstone project or dissertation-in-practice. While these projects also require a considerable amount of research and writing, they differ from traditional dissertations, focusing more on producing direct solutions to existing problems in education or organizational leadership, instead of furthering theory in the field.

A traditional dissertation has a formal five-chapter structure and aims to contribute to the existing scholarly literature on a topic in education development or leadership. The dissertation-in-practice, on the other hand, is an applied dissertation that still maintains the formal structure of the traditional dissertation, but focuses more on specific education challenges that students experience in their place of work. In contrast, the applied project is distinct from a dissertation in that it does not abide by the formal five-chapter dissertation structure, and has a more applied objective that relates to investigating or solving an educational practice or learning outcomes problem. In most cases, students who choose an applied project are tasked with examining an education challenge at their current place of employment (or one that is present regionally), and making an improvement to strategies or methods used in their organization or district.

Students should note that regardless of the option they choose, all three culminating experiences require rigorous research and writing. To learn more about the differences between these three capstone experiences, and to see a list of online programs that include an applied project option, continue reading below.

Note: At this time, all online Ed.D. programs require students to complete some sort of a capstone experience whether it is a traditional research dissertation, a dissertation-in-practice, or an applied doctoral project.


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Ed.D. Dissertation and Dissertation-In-Practice vs. Applied Project

While each is an extensive undertaking, intended to represent the culmination of one’s doctoral studies, a traditional Ed.D. dissertation, a dissertation-in-practice, and an applied capstone project are all similar to and distinct from each other depending on how you compare them. Additionally, for Ed.D. students, one option is not inherently better than the other; therefore, it is important to understand the similarities and differences and to choose an option that best aligns with a student’s educational and professional goals.

For students who are worried about the time it may take to complete a traditional dissertation, many Ed.D. programs are now better incorporating dissertation work into the curriculum. From the beginning of students’ enrollment, these programs have a structured environment in which students conduct their research, write their dissertation chapters, and consult with instructors for their dissertation work. This is a fairly recent change from the way dissertations have historically been completed in doctoral programs, where the student embarks on his or her dissertation work after he or she completes all of the program coursework.

The dissertation is an original research study, in which students use qualitative and/or quantitative research methods to examine and analyze a specific issue related to education. The goal of this project is to contribute new insights on a particular topic in the field, making a positive impact on established methods or theories by advancing existing research.

Students typically begin the dissertation process by formulating a specific research question to investigate. After reviewing past research on the subject, they then design and conduct a study of their own and analyze the results. The final product is a five-chapter document detailing the entire dissertation process, including students’ research methodology and conclusions drawn from their findings. Overall, students can expect to spend a significant portion of their Ed.D. studies planning for and completing their dissertation. Most programs include multiple courses related to dissertation research and development, and allow for one or more years of independent study to finish the project. The entire process is typically overseen by a dissertation committee comprised of program faculty, who provide mentorship and make sure students reach certain deadlines along the way. In most cases, students must present their initial research proposal to this committee for approval, as well as explain their findings during a formal dissertation defense at the end of their studies. For Ed.D. students, a traditional dissertation is very similar to what students in a Ph.D. program complete.

Unlike a Ph.D. in Education, the Doctor of Education degree is more focused on practice than scholarly research. Indeed, with the establishment of the Carnegie Project for the Education Doctorate (CPED) as a guiding organization in the area of Ed.D. curriculum development, a growing number of Ed.D. programs have joined CPED and expressed their commitment to the scholar-practitioner model. As such, many Ed.D. programs are beginning to offer alternative dissertation options that more closely align with the Ed.D.’s role as a practitioner’s degree. Therefore, students who prefer to focus on practical skills and real-world applications over intensive academic inquiry should look for programs that offer a dissertation-in-practice and/or an applied project option.

The dissertation-in-practice is, in many ways, a compromise on the historical requirement that students must complete a dissertation in order to earn their doctorate, and the central mission of the Ed.D. degree to train students to be advanced scholar-practitioners (i.e. educational leaders who use research to solve education problems and challenges in their place of practice). Instead of focusing on furthering scholarly understanding of a particular issue in education, the goal of a dissertation-in-practice is to address a specific problem of practice (as such, a dissertation-in-practice is often referred to as an applied dissertation). Students who elect to complete a dissertation-in-practice identify a research question pertaining to a specific problem they wish to solve in their own place of work, or an educational issue that is affecting their region (e.g. school district or community).

Students completing a dissertation-in-practice utilize qualitative and/or quantitative research methodologies to investigate their research question, and to gather data that will provide insights on addressing, preventing, or mitigating their chosen education problem. They also generally follow the same process that students completing traditional dissertations follow, which includes forming a faculty research committee, submitting and presenting a research proposal, writing their paper, and presenting their final conclusions to their committee. In general, dissertations-in-practice also follow the same formal five-chapter structure as a traditional dissertation, but the implications of students’ research are much more aligned with the goal of directly improving learning outcomes or enacting positive change in organizations and systems of education.

An Ed.D. capstone project, on the other hand, is quite different from a traditional dissertation or even a dissertation-in-practice. While an applied project may have a similar scope or address a similar question as a dissertation-in-practice, instead of creating a traditional five-chapter dissertation, students typically have a much more concrete deliverable, designed to be implemented immediately with the goal of improving performance or learning outcomes in a particular setting. This can take many different forms, such as a new curriculum plan for students, a staff training program, a piece of learning software, a district-wide technology strategy, potential policy changes, or recommendations for other organizational improvements that may help solve a current educational issue.

As with a dissertation, students typically complete this project under the guidance of faculty mentors. They must submit their initial proposal for approval, as well as defend the final product in front of their project committee. Most Ed.D. programs that have an applied project option also include a number of credits or courses directly related to capstone development, as well as certain deadlines students must meet during the process. In the end, these projects are generally just as rigorous as a traditional dissertation, requiring a similar time commitment as well as substantial research and writing.

Note: For the most detailed information on a program’s dissertation or capstone requirement–as well as how the program may define a traditional dissertation vs. a dissertation-in-practice vs. a capstone project–it is always best to contact the program directly.

Online Ed.D. Programs: No Dissertation Required

Below is a list of online Doctor of Education programs that include an applied project rather than a dissertation as their capstone requirement. Students interested in earning their Ed.D. without completing a dissertation have a variety of degree options to choose from, with specializations ranging from P-12 Educational Administration to Global Sport Leadership. Keep in mind, the requirements and goal of each program’s capstone project or culminating experience may vary, depending largely on the degree’s particular area of focus within education or organizational leadership.

Below are the schools that currently offer Ed.D. programs online which do not require a dissertation:

  • Bradley University – Online Doctor of Education – Higher Education Administration
  • East Tennessee State University – Doctor of Education in Global Sport Leadership
  • Morehead State University – Doctor of Education with specializations in Adult and Higher Education Leadership, P-12 Administrative Leadership, or Educational Technology Leadership
  • Nebraska Methodist College – Doctor of Education in Education and Leadership in Healthcare
  • New York University – Doctor of Education in Leadership and Innovation
  • The University of Southern Mississippi – Doctor of Education in P-12 Educational Administration, Doctor of Education in Higher Education Administration
  • University of Miami – Doctor of Education in Applied Learning Sciences
  • University of Virginia – Doctor of Education in Curriculum and Instruction
  • Vanderbilt University – Doctor of Education in Leadership and Learning in Organizations

When researching potential programs, students should decide which type of capstone experience best fits their academic and professional goals. Ultimately, it is important to choose a degree that both aligns with one’s particular learning style and provides them with the type of training needed to advance in their field of interest. To learn more about any of the Ed.D. programs listed above, as well as their specific capstone requirements, students should visit the school’s website or contact an admissions representative.