Guide to Doctorate of Education (EdD) Dissertations

The Doctorate of Education (EdD) dissertation is considered a central component of EdD programs. The EdD dissertation is a five-chapter document that investigates an issue in education, reviews the existing literature on this issue, adds additional insight through a qualitative and/or quantitative research study, and proposes one or more solutions. It is considered the culmination of a student’s knowledge of education systems and his or her training in the academic research process. Most EdD programs require students to formally publish their dissertation and/or present their findings to a group of faculty and peers.

The dissertation and dissertation defense are two of the most challenging experiences students will have during their program, but are also two of the most engaging and rewarding from an intellectual perspective. The dissertation allows students to truly apply all the skills and knowledge they have gained during their graduate work to an education issue in which they are invested. Below is a more detailed description of EdD dissertations and the important steps students should take to successfully prepare for, complete, and defend their dissertation.

Doctorate of Education Dissertations

EdD dissertations are students’ opportunity to contribute original research on and insight into an issue in education, such as educational disparities, curriculum development or instruction challenges, school funding problems, college counseling and guidance, job skills development, or standardized testing. For their dissertation, students complete research under the guidance of a research mentor, and receive academic credit for this work. Students typically attend seminars and/or other classes that provide structure around the processes of developing a research question, formulating a research plan, reviewing existing academic literature, and writing about their findings. Many programs require students to present their findings to a committee and/or publish their dissertation in an academic journal.

The Structure of EdD Dissertations

As mentioned previously, dissertations are traditionally divided into five chapters: Introduction, Literature Review, Research Methodology, Results and Analysis, and Discussion and Conclusions. A brief description of each chapter section is below:

  • Introduction: The introduction includes background information about the topic of study and its purpose, the significance of the student’s research, and existing literature on the subject. It also provides a summary of the results of one’s study, and their implications.
  • Literature Review: This section explains the existing literature on the student’s topic of study, and places the student’s work in the context of existing theoretical frameworks that are relevant to one’s research.
  • Research Methodology: This chapter focuses on how the student gathers qualitative and/or quantitative data regarding his or her research query.
  • Results and Analysis: This section explains in detail the results of the student’s study, and analyzes it to arrive at actionable conclusions.
  • Discussion and Conclusions: This chapter places the student’s findings in the context of the educational system(s) of focus (e.g. private or public education, secondary or post-secondary) to illustrate how the student’s research contributes to the larger understanding of the educational issue at hand. This section also makes recommendations for the application of the student’s findings to real-world education practice as well as further research on the subject.

Dissertations are typically very long, in-depth works. Many dissertations are between 100 and 200 pages in length or longer, and seek to comprehensively investigate a specific issue or problem in education. Due to the intensive nature of dissertation research and writing, students must plan their research query and methodology well in advance, and seek the support of research mentors and other faculty throughout the process.

Overview of the EdD Dissertation Completion Process

In general, students begin thinking about their dissertation topic during the second year of their program. The second year is also when students begin taking courses in research and data analysis. The term prior to the beginning of their independent research, students typically take a dissertation seminar, during which they discuss potential research topics to explore and learn more about the academic research process. During their third year, students delve into independent research, while still receiving guidance from their selected faculty research mentor. Students generally submit several drafts to a dissertation committee for review and revision suggestions before they finalize their paper. Upon the completion of their dissertation, students may be required to publish their writing and/or present on their research.

Below is a general timeline of the dissertation completion process, followed by a description of the eight steps to successfully completing an EdD dissertation. The timeline below should be used for example purposes only, as programs vary in terms of when they have students complete their requisite research courses.

Fall Term
Spring Term
Summer Term
Year 2Courses:
  • Quantitative and Qualitative Research Methods
Courses:
  • Design and Implementation of Research Studies
Courses:
  • Dissertation Seminar
  • Advanced Research Methods and Analysis
Year 3Independent Study:
  • Dissertation Research and Writing
Independent Study:
  • Dissertation Research and Writing
Dissertation Defense

The Steps to Completing an EdD Dissertation

Choose a Research Topic and Review the Existing Literature

During their classes, students should take note of the topics within education that interest them and the issues that they have encountered during their work in education that they would like to see resolved. These areas are often rich with potential research questions. Conducting research within these areas of interest by reading academic articles is an important step in finding a potential question or issue in education that merits further investigation. It is important that students select a research question that is specific enough to allow for in-depth research, is not overwhelming, and is engaging enough to students to carry them through over a year of independent research.

After identifying their field of focus and preliminary research query, students must gain a thorough understanding of the existing literature concerning their field, as well as the theoretical frameworks and conceptual models that have shaped current research methodologies. In general, students should start with articles that have been published within the last 3-5 years, and then review less recent studies that are considered flagship works that have shaped the field in important ways. While reading through this research, students should stay organized with their notes, the conclusions they draw from their literature review, and how these conclusions impact their research study, as they will have to write about these topics in their dissertation.

Select a Research Advisor and Committee

One of the most important parts of students’ research process is selecting a dissertation advisor and committee. Students’ dissertation advisors are faculty members within the school’s EdD program who work closely with students to ensure that they select a research question and project that are manageable in scope, meet certain research and writing deadlines, and have the support and mentorship they need to succeed.

The dissertation committee is comprised of a group of faculty members and instructors who are qualified to read through and provide feedback on a student’s dissertation. The chair of the committee is a student’s dissertation advisor, and the student selects other members based off of their work and expertise in their area of research. Many schools have guidelines around the individuals students can select to be a part of their committee. For example, an EdD program may require students to select one more faculty member from within the EdD program (in addition to their faculty advisor), one individual outside of the department who works in a related field, and one subject matter expert from inside or outside the department who can give in-depth advice regarding the student’s research project. Students must obtain approval from their program for their committee member selections.

A student’s dissertation committee not only provides feedback and support on a student’s research, but also serves as a collective evaluator of a student’s research progress and final product. For example, the committee generally sets dissertation chapter completion and submission deadlines to keep students on track, and also listens to and evaluates students’ dissertation defense, which is a requirement for graduation.

Create and Defend Research Proposal

After students receive approval of their dissertation committee, they work individually and with their dissertation chair/advisor to develop a formal research proposal. The proposal typically includes the first three chapters of a student’s dissertation: the Introduction, the Literature Review chapter, and the Research Methodology chapter. In this proposal, students must outline their specific research query and its relevance to and impact on different spheres of education. They must also explain the work that has already been done in their area of research, their methodologies for the study they will conduct, and their tools and plans for analysis.

Once students have written these three chapters and formalized their research proposal, they must meet with their committee to present and defend their research proposal. This defense is meant to identify any issues with a student’s research objective, review of the literature, or study methodology, so that the student can address these issues prior to conducting their research.

Develop a Timeline for Research and Writing

Students work with their dissertation committee to establish timelines for the completion of certain chapters and milestones in their study (e.g. the conducting of surveys or the compilation and analysis of data or records). A reasonable timeline may have students writing the first three chapters during the fall term of their third year, and the fourth and fifth chapters during the spring term of the same year. However, dissertation timelines will vary depending on whether students are pursuing their degree full-time or part-time, how early in their program they are able to take the requisite research courses prior to starting their independent work, how soon they are able to identify a research question, and other factors.

Apply for Institutional Review Board (IRB) Approval

The Institutional Review Board protects the rights and well-being of human subjects of research studies by working to ensure their consent to certain research procedures, and assuring their ethical treatment during the research process. All EdD research projects must receive IRB approval before proceeding. The IRB approval application is generally comprised of any study subject consent forms; copies of any surveys, questionnaires, or other data collection methods and tools to be used; a completed application form; and proof of IRB Training completion. IRB Training is typically completed through an online course module that is delivered through the Collaborative Institutional Training Initiative (CITI) program.

Conduct Study and Analyze Results

Once students have received IRB approval, they are ready to proceed with their planned study. Data collection methods vary depending on the nature and scope of one’s research project, but may include sending out surveys, conducting interviews, conducting student or teacher assessments, compiling student performance metrics from public records, and other methods of collecting relevant data to try and answer their research query. Once students have gathered sufficient data, they move to the analysis of this data to try and find trends or patterns that help answer their research question. Throughout this process, students consult with their advisor and with members of their dissertation committee as necessary.

Complete Dissertation and Submit for Review and Revision

Once students have completed their analysis, they must write the Results and Analysis and Discussion and Conclusions sections of their dissertation. The Results and Analysis chapter is a straightforward explanation of one’s study results and the conclusions that can be drawn from them. The Discussion and Conclusions section places the study results in the context of the larger educational issue(s) affected by one’s research, makes recommendations for the application of one’s findings, and also provides suggestions for further research in the area of study. Upon the completion of a full dissertation manuscript, students submit their work to their committee for review and commentary. Students may go through several revisions and then final edits of their dissertation prior to their final defense and formal manuscript submission.

Conduct Dissertation Final Defense

A milestone in the EdD student’s graduate school career is the dissertation final defense, which is a formal presentation that students make to their dissertation committee, in which they explain their research objectives, methodology, and findings. During and after their presentation, committee members ask questions in an effort to identify any weaknesses, inconsistencies, or other issues in the student’s research. When faced with these questions, students must answer clearly and defend the validity of their research methods, results, and conclusions. After the presentation and questions are over, the committee confers to decide whether the student has passed his or her final defense and will receive the doctoral degree.

Before completing their dissertation defense, it is recommended that students prepare well in advance by attending the defenses of other students within the same program and discussing their dissertation manuscript with their advisor and asking any questions regarding what to expect during the defense. Students should craft a strong and well-organized presentation, and also anticipate questions that their committee members may ask them.

Submit Dissertation for Formal Review

The final step students need to take to complete their dissertation is to submit their fully edited manuscript for formal review by their dissertation committee, after making any necessary modifications in response to recommendations given during their dissertation defense. Some programs require students to publish their dissertation in an academic journal, which requires students to format their manuscript according to journal guidelines.

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About the Author: Kaitlin Louie is the Managing Editor of OnlineEdDPrograms.com. She specializes in writing in-depth content that helps students navigate important graduate school decisions. She earned her BA & MA in English from Stanford University.