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EdD vs. PhD in Education: What’s the Difference?

By Scott W. O’Connor

If you’re interested in pursuing a doctoral degree in education, one of the first questions you’ll face is: Should I apply for a Doctor of Education (EdD) or a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Education?

The decision between these two culminating degrees can be career-defining as each serves a very different purpose despite being equivalent in level. In order to ensure you choose the path that best aligns with your future career goals, it’s important to take the time to first understand the differences in program curriculum and future career opportunities that relate to each degree.

Read on to learn about the defining qualities of an EdD and a PhD in Education, and determine which program is the right fit for you.

EdD vs. PhD in Education

Doctor of Education (EdD) is a professional degree designed for practitioners pursuing educational leadership roles. A PhD in education, on the other hand, is designed to prepare graduates for research and teaching roles.

“With a PhD, [students are] reviewing the research, seeing a gap in the literature, and generating new knowledge based on a theory or hypothesis,” Joseph McNabb, a professor of practice in Northeastern’s Graduate School of Education, explains. “Conversely, an EdD student starts with a problem of practice and [works to learn] the skills it will take to resolve that complex problem of practice.”

What is an EdD Degree?

An EdD, or Doctor of Education, is a professional doctorate best suited for experienced educators and mid- to senior-level working professionals who want to lead and implement change within their organization.

EdD candidates work in a broad range of fields ranging from K-12 and higher education to nonprofits, government, healthcare, and the military. What each share is a desire to transform their everyday environment and apply the lessons learned through their doctorate to a complex, critical issue facing their workplace. 

The EdD is practice-based. Students in an EdD program don’t want to just research their area of interest, but leverage that research in ways that could positively influence their community or organization’s decision-making process.

Learn More: 5 Tips for Choosing Your EdD Concentration

Those who pursue an EdD focus on qualitative, exploratory research. Students collect data and conduct individual interviews, observations, or focus groups to construct hypotheses and develop strategies that can help solve or clarify a specific problem of practice, such as how to support student veterans transitioning to civilian life or how to foster more female leaders in higher education—two dissertation topics recently explored through Northeastern’s EdD program.

What Can You Do with an EdD Degree?

While an EdD can be applied to a variety of industries—such as K-12, higher education, the nonprofit sector, or civic service—there are several job titles you’ll likely come across within your cohort of classmates. They include:

  • Postsecondary Education Administrators: Postsecondary education administrators work in colleges or universities, and typically oversee faculty research, academics, admissions, or student affairs. Some job titles that fall under this category include president, vice president, provost, and dean. The average annual salary for a postsecondary education administrator rings in at $94,340.
  • Elementary and Secondary School Education Administrators: Superintendents, who are the top executives of a school district, fall under this category. They manage academic programs, spending, and the staffing of all educational facilities within their district, and typically earn an average of $98,880 per year.
  • Top Executives: In education, a top executive could be a “chief learning officer” or “chief academic officer”—senior-level professionals who drive and develop strategies that help their organization meet critical business goals. Top executives make an average of approximately $104,980 per year.
  • Instructional Coordinators: Instructional coordinators create and manage school curricula and other educational materials. They help teachers implement effective classroom learning strategies and measure the effectiveness of what’s being taught and how. The average annual salary for instructional coordinators is roughly $64,450.

These are just a few of the many career opportunities available to EdD graduates.

Learn More: Top Careers with a Doctorate in Education

What is a PhD in Education?

PhD in Education is a terminal degree best suited for individuals who want to pursue a career in academia or research at the university level.

Students in a PhD program take a more theoretical, study-based approach to learning. In most cases, their goal is to master a specific subject or add their unique findings to a body of existing literature. PhD candidates conduct original research in the hopes of driving change in their field or inspiring others to make change based off their work.

A PhD is the degree most popular amongst those who aspire to become a professor or obtain a tenure position. Through these programs, students tend to focus on getting published in well-respected journals, presenting at national conferences, and learning how to teach future educators.

What Can You Do with a PhD in Education?

While some of the above roles can also be earned through a PhD program, the most common job titles for PhD-holders include:

  • Postsecondary Teachers: Postsecondary teachers instruct students at a college or university. When they’re not in the classroom, they’re often focused on conducting research, attending conferences, and publishing scholarly papers and books. Postsecondary teachers earn an average $78,470 per year.
  • Academic Researcher: Researchers often have the opportunity to create their own centers or institutes, hire staff to help carry out their work, and secure funding for that work. Salaries often vary by subject area, but a general academic researcher typically earns an average $76,273 per year.

Taking the Next Step

Once you’ve explored the differences between an EdD and PhD in Education, the most relevant question to consider will be: What’s the next step I want to take in my career, and which degree can help me achieve my professional goals? The answer to this question will determine which degree you ultimately pursue.

Earning your doctorate can pay off no matter which path you choose. Professionals with a doctoral degree earn an average $3.65 million over their lifetime—nearly one million dollars more than master’s degree holders. Similarly, doctoral degree holders see an unemployment rate of only 1.5 percent compared to the national unemployment rate of 3.6 percent.

Regardless of which degree you ultimately pursue, there is enormous potential for you to advance your career in the field of education. Evaluating your needs and values will help you understand whether an EdD or PhD in Education is best suited to your personal and professional goals.

About Scott W. O’Connor

Scott W. O’Connor is a writer and SEO specialist for Northeastern University. He has been writing for both print and online publications for over 10 years and specializes in the higher education sector.

“With a PhD, [students are] reviewing the research, seeing a gap in the literature, and generating new knowledge based on a theory or hypothesis. Conversely, an EdD student starts with a problem of practice and [works to learn] the skills it will take to resolve that complex problem of practice.”

Joseph McNabb
Professor of practice in Northeastern’s Graduate School of Education

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