Online Doctor of Education Dissertations and Doctoral Capstone Projects

Traditionally, the Doctorate of Education (EdD) dissertation is one of the most important elements of an EdD program. It is a five-chapter document that details a student’s intensive investigation into a specific issue in education. The dissertation seeks to contribute new insight into this issue through an examination of existing research on the topic, an original study utilizing qualitative and/or quantitative research methods, and an analysis of the results of this study. Though rigorous and time-intensive, the dissertation constitutes the culmination of students’ doctorate-level knowledge and skills, and results in a substantive contribution to the existing scholarly literature on building, maintaining, and improving education systems and sound pedagogical practices. The dissertation is also students’ opportunity to apply their graduate education to a research project that can have a positive impact on an area of education, whether it is education accessibility, education financing, or curriculum development and improvement.

With the establishment of the Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate (CPED) in 2007, schools and colleges who offer EdD programs have been working to improve the curriculum and focus of the Doctor of Education degree. Part of that reassessment has included both the topic and structure of the traditional EdD capstone: the doctoral dissertation. Some EdD programs now feature what is known as a dissertation-in-practice, while other programs have replaced the dissertation with a project option or other form of applied capstone.

The dissertation-in-practice maintains the formal five-chapter structure of the scholarly dissertation, but is distinct from the traditional dissertation in that its focus is both narrower and more directly applied to a professional context. For a dissertation-in-practice, students typically choose an education issue or challenge specifically within their place of work, with the aim of applying a scholarly lens to a problem of practice that impacts their students’ educational outcomes or their organization’s goals. In contrast, traditional dissertations typically seek to examine a phenomenon that occurs on a broader scale (by examining, for example, multiple schools within a district, or a phenomenon across higher education institutions nationwide). Therefore, while traditional dissertations and dissertations-in-practice share the same structure and scholarly rigor, the content and objectives of their studies differ.

While a dissertation (either a traditional dissertation or a dissertation-in-practice) is the most common capstone for EdD programs, including online EdD programs, a small number of schools now allow students to work on a less traditional research project in place of a dissertation, which are often referred to as capstone projects. Typically called a doctoral capstone, this project requires research that is similar in rigor to that of a dissertation; however, the project focuses more on the application of research to an implementable education solution that can take multiple forms. In this way, the capstone project differs from the formal five-chapter structure that defines the doctoral dissertation. Examples of doctoral capstone projects may include but are not limited to proposed curriculum plans, education technology solutions for the classroom, community education initiatives, published research papers, or a proposed teacher training plan. Below are more detailed descriptions of EdD dissertations and doctoral capstone projects.

Overview of Traditional EdD Dissertations and Dissertations-in-Practice

The steps to completing a dissertation are methodical and rooted in longstanding traditions of academic research and faculty mentorship. Students begin their dissertation by formulating their specific research question, reviewing past studies in the field(s) relevant to their question(s), and examining the theoretical frameworks underpinning their understanding of their issue of interest. Students then design and conduct a study that aims to answer their question.

For students of a traditional dissertation, their research query will typically be designed to help the educational community gain insight into a particular educational phenomenon, challenge, or opportunity. For students completing a dissertation-in-practice, their research query will generally concern a challenge that they have witnessed or experienced in their place of work or other sphere of influence (such as a student’s volunteer work). Therefore, while students completing a traditional dissertation apply education research methods and advanced theories to a research project that aims to contribute to the larger literature on effective pedagogy, the dissertation-in-practice will consist of research that is largely focused on one school, district, or other single organization or local education system.

Prior to commencing their study for their dissertation, students select individuals to be a part of their dissertation committee. The dissertation committee is comprised of faculty members and other subject matter experts who can speak to the student’s research and provide useful feedback on their dissertation. Members of the committee serve as invaluable resources for students throughout their research. The committee reviews students’ research proposal, and also attends and evaluates students’ final dissertation defense.

The Chapters of an of EdD Dissertation

As mentioned above, the EdD dissertation is traditionally comprised of five chapters: Introduction, Literature Review, Research Methodology, Results and Analysis, and Discussion and Conclusions. The Introduction provides an overview of the student’s research query and objectives, and the broader applications of the student’s research to real-world situations. It also summarizes the existing literature on the student’s topic of research, and explains the general results of his or her research study.

The Literature Review chapter provides an in-depth description of the past studies conducted in the student’s field of interest, and the theoretical frameworks and principles that underlie the student’s understanding of the education issue at hand. The Research Methodology chapter explains the student’s methods for collecting the quantitative and/or qualitative data necessary to answer his or her research query, while the Results and Analysis chapter focuses on explaining the results of the study and their implications. The Discussion and Conclusions section places the results of the student’s study in the context of existing research developments, and discusses the relevance of their findings to different education settings.

For students completing a traditional dissertation, the discussion section will generally be framed as being applicable to a larger educational community, whether that be faculty at institutions of higher education, secondary school students, online adult learners, or first-generation college students. For students completing a dissertation-in-practice, their Discussion and Conclusions chapter will often discuss how the insights the student gained through their study will be applied to improving educational and/or organizational outcomes within their place of work.

EdD Doctoral Capstone Projects

Similar to EdD programs, doctoral capstone projects require a great deal of intensive research and writing. However, capstone projects differ from dissertations in that they do not follow the five-chapter format, and can take multiple forms–for example, a new curriculum for students, a teacher or staff training plan, a new piece of software that addresses a learning need, or an in-depth research paper on solutions to a particular education issue. Capstone projects tend to focus more on developing an implementable solution to an existing problem in education.

Both the dissertation and the doctoral capstone result in the completion of important and impactful work, but the emphasis of each is different. Below is a discussion of the structure of doctoral capstone projects, and important considerations for students who are interested in programs that offer the doctoral capstone as an option in place of a dissertation.

The Structure of Doctoral Capstone Projects

The structure of doctoral capstone projects varies depending on what students wish to create for their project. For example, a sample curriculum plan may involve a lot of writing and lesson plans, while a piece of learning management software would require considerable coding and/or design work. Some students may even elect to create a proposal for changes in the organizational structure, employee training, or management practices of a corporate setting. In general, the components of a doctoral capstone project include a paper that explains students’ research and its purpose, existing research in their area of study, students’ project plan, and explanations of their work’s application to real-world situations. Students must clearly show how their project is grounded in theoretical frameworks and established principles in their field of study.

The process for completing a doctoral capstone project is similar to that of completing a dissertation, in that students must seek the mentorship and guidance of one or more faculty advisors, meet certain research and writing milestones, and ultimately present their capstone deliverable to a committee of evaluators. However, specific guidelines regarding the capstone project and accompanying paper may differ among schools that offer this option. As the capstone project is a recent and innovative development in EdD programs, this option is currently only offered by a relatively small number of programs.

For more information on schools that allow students to complete a doctoral capstone project in lieu of a dissertation, check out our FAQ on online EdD Programs that do not require a dissertation.