Question: What is the difference between an EdD and a PhD in Education (EdD vs. PhD)?

Updated: February 23, 2022

Answer: While Doctor of Education (EdD) and Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Education programs may cover many similar topics related to education and learning theory, the primary difference between them lies in their overall focus and intended career outcomes. The EdD is fundamentally a practitioner’s degree, intended for working professionals interested in taking on leadership roles in both academic/educational and organizational settings. PhDs in Education, on the other hand, are more research-oriented, designed for those looking to pursue scholarly work or teach in collegiate settings.

Students of EdD programs apply the knowledge and skills they obtain in their doctoral program directly to improving education outcomes, and engage in research that solves concrete educational challenges in their workplace. In contrast, PhD programs in Education prepare students to advance the field of education at large, through research that provides insights into the discipline. It is important to note that both the EdD and the PhD emphasize the importance of research, but for different aims. While the EdD focuses on action-oriented research–that is, research that provides insights into a problem of practice that educators face in their work settings–the PhD focuses on pursuing research for academic publication and for pushing the overall discipline of education forward by advancing current thought and paradigms within the field.

Another way to view the difference between the EdD and the PhD is the types of careers they prepare students for. Whereas the EdD focuses on real-world application, equipping students with the knowledge and tools they need to effectively lead in educational settings, a PhD in Education is ideally suited for students who want to devote their careers to scholarship and/or teaching at institutions of higher education. While these degrees may touch on many of the same topics, such as learning theory, educational policy, and advanced research methods, they typically attract different students and lead to different careers.

Doctor of Education (EdD) Programs

The Doctor of Education is generally considered an advanced practitioner’s degree. It is designed for educators who want to have a farther-reaching impact on student and/or adult learning outcomes through program-level or institutional leadership, as well as professionals seeking concrete problem-solving skills and advanced leadership strategies that they can apply to their organization. To accommodate students’ diverse career goals, EdD programs are available in a number of different specializations, including higher education leadership, PK/K-12 educational administration, early childhood education, curriculum and instruction, adult education, educational technology, special education, organizational leadership, and more.

The curriculum for these programs will vary by specialization–for example, while an EdD program in Curriculum and Instruction may emphasize best practices for instructional design and course evaluation, an EdD in PK/K-12 Education Administration may have courses that focus more on the roles and responsibilities of principals and/or superintendents. Regardless of students’ chosen specialization, however, in general EdD programs will include courses in the history and central theories of education, as well as the research methodologies that underpin action research in education.

EdD programs are designed to combine theoretical study with practical knowledge that students can directly use in their place of employment. Depending on the specialization, students simultaneously learn about educational leadership, finance and budgeting, curriculum design and assessment, professional development, instructional methods, educational technology, and legal issues in education from a concrete, on-the-ground perspective, while also reading literature about these topics and looking at challenges in these areas through a scholarly lens.

Educators who pursue an EdD are typically equipped to step into leadership roles at the school and school district levels. Graduates might also work in administration, as principals, directors, superintendents, deans, or school presidents, or take on management positions in curriculum design or instructional coaching. Depending on their particular specialization, they could also become executive directors of youth or childcare facilities, oversee adult learning or vocational training centers, or work in student affairs and career services mentoring college students. Some EdD graduates go on to teach in their area of focus, instructing at a college or university after gaining several years of professional experience.

While traditionally EdD students are working educators or administrators, in recent years there has been an expansion of the appeal of EdD programs to individuals who wish to apply education principles and practice-oriented research to improving outcomes within their current organization. As a result, there has been a concurrent expansion of EdD specializations in areas such as organizational leadership, health care leadership, nursing education, and entrepreneurship. Graduates of these programs may apply their knowledge and qualifications to improving organizational outcomes at nonprofits, in the military, for government agencies, or at related private sector organizations. For example, graduates of an EdD in Nursing Education may go on to develop curricula for bachelor of nursing or master’s in nursing programs, or optimize training programs in a hospital setting.

Note: The Carnegie Project for the Education Doctorate (CPED) was formed to evaluate and redesign of EdD degree to ensure that programs are designed to meet the needs of leaders in contemporary educational and organizational settings. To learn more, check out our FAQ on the CPED.

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Education Programs

As opposed to the more applied EdD, a Doctor of Philosophy in Education is primarily concerned with conducting, publishing, and disseminating unique research in the field of education. Students in these programs collect and analyze data related to specific areas of education, and then use their findings to advance theory in the field, generate new instructional strategies, or otherwise enhance the teaching profession or educational system as a whole. In general, those pursuing a PhD are full-time doctoral students, fully committed to their research and associated academic endeavors (e.g., teaching or assisting with courses within their department).

PhD programs generally take a more theoretical, study-based approach to coursework. Students can expect to spend the majority of their time designing and conducting research projects and interpreting the results. When it comes to degree specializations, schools might offer education-related PhDs in areas such as education policy, literacy, program assessment, educational technology, human development, or learning and teaching, or concentrations in specific fields, such as special education, educational administration, adult learning, or early childhood education. Typically, specializations within PhD programs are closely aligned with the research interests of the program’s faculty, and students interested in PhD programs are often expected to research faculty at their programs of interest before applying.

Courses in a PhD program typically focus on topics that will help students in their research pursuits, including not only qualitative and quantitative research methods, but also advanced approaches to inquiry, research design, data analysis, and writing, as well as historical and emerging theories related to their area of focus. Students also take several courses dedicated to completion of their dissertation (see below for more information).

In general, students earn a PhD in Education with the intention of building careers in academia or research. Graduates typically become postsecondary educators or researchers, working or teaching in colleges, universities, or other research institutions. As mentioned before, their ultimate goal is often to develop original research in a given subject and add their findings to the existing literature on the topic. This might mean having their work published in an academic journal or similar scholarly outlet and presenting it at national (or even international) conferences. Depending on the subject matter, their findings may then be used to teach future generations of educators, or help make improvements to current systems of education.

Doctorate in Education: EdD versus PhD

As detailed above, there are several key differences between an EdD and a PhD in Education. Overall, the EdD is much more applied, focused on preparing graduates with practical job skills they can immediately use in professional settings. Students typically pursue the EdD for career advancement, either to move into leadership roles or improve in their current position. The PhD, on the other hand, is more theoretical, with a greater emphasis on research and inquiry. These programs are typically for students who want to stay in academia, using their advanced knowledge to teach others and further thought in the field of education.

There are a few other factors to consider when deciding which degree to pursue. Students should note that most PhD programs are campus-based, meaning they will need to live in close proximity to their school in order attend lectures, participate in research projects, and otherwise assist with departmental duties. In contrast, EdD programs can be pursued online or on campus, with a wide range of options available for fully online study (or with minimal campus requirements).

EdD and PhD programs also differ in their typical time to completion and their admission requirements. An EdD degree program generally takes around three to four years to complete and, in most cases, requires a master’s degree for admission. (There are a few programs that will accept students who only have a bachelor’s degree.) PhD programs typically take longer to complete, usually four to five years, but students can often enter with only a bachelor’s degree. Students with a master’s degree may be able to earn a PhD in less time.

Finally, as the EdD is a practitioner’s degree, students of this type of doctoral program are often working professionals, and therefore many EdD programs are designed to accommodate full-time work schedules. In other words, in addition to offering their courses online, many EdD programs allow students to pursue a part-time course of study, extending their enrollment over longer than four years in some cases, so that students can better balance their coursework with their personal and professional obligations. In contrast, students of PhD programs in Education generally pursue a full-time course of study, dividing their time between courses, independent research, meeting with their faculty mentor, and fulfilling teaching assistant or research assistant roles.

The EdD Capstone versus the PhD Dissertation

Returning to the key point mentioned above, both the EdD and the PhD in Education emphasize the importance of research. As a result, it is fitting that both doctorate degrees require a final research project–traditionally a five-chapter dissertation–as students’ culminating experience. However, the EdD capstone and the PhD dissertation differ dramatically in their objectives. In fact, many EdD programs call their dissertation a “dissertation-in-practice” in order to emphasize this difference. In addition, there are several online EdD programs that do not require a traditional dissertation, instead allowing students to complete a research project or publish research articles in lieu of a dissertation.

The EdD dissertation is fundamentally the application of scholarly research methodologies to investigating and seeking to solve a real, education-related problem of practice often within the student’s work setting. EdD students generally select a topic that is relevant to their profession, their immediate workplace, and their personal interests, and they craft a research question that they subsequently answer by employing a variety of quantitative and qualitative research methodologies. The final deliverable maybe a traditional five-chapter dissertation, or for programs that allow students to complete a project, the deliverable may take the form of a curriculum plan, an on-boarding or staff training program, or an informational website or piece of educational software.

For EdD students who come from traditional academic settings, a problem of practice might concern barriers to educational attainment for particular populations at a given school, or the need for a curriculum redesign that incorporates new ways that students interact with technology. For EdD students who come from less traditional work backgrounds (such as those in health care or the corporate sphere), a problem of practice might be the identification of a disconnect between nursing training and nurses’ clinical experiences (and identifiable opportunities to address this disconnect), or the need for a corporate crisis management or employee development plan.

In contrast, the dissertation for the PhD in Education is very much a traditional dissertation, in that it focuses, not on a question derived from a problem of practice, but rather a question that is more steeped in theory and broader cultural, social, and/or political significance. For example, a PhD student focusing in education may craft his or her dissertation around a question about the impact of social justice movements on history pedagogy in institutions of higher education, or how social media has changed the ways in which the brain receives and processes information, and how that in turn affects learning. Unlike questions that EdD students investigate, which typically concern their direct sphere of influence, PhD students examine questions that do not impact their immediate context, but which contribute to the discipline overall.

In summary, students considering an EdD versus a PhD in Education should carefully consider their professional goals and the reasons for which they desired to pursue a doctorate in education. Both the EdD and the PhD are rigorous doctoral programs that require a considerable time and financial commitment, but they can both prepare students for advanced leadership roles inside and outside of academia.