Education Administration

Is a Doctorate in Educational Leadership Actually Different From All the Other EdD Degrees?

Is a Doctorate in Educational Leadership Actually Different From All the Other EdD Degrees?
Doctor of Education degree programs afford educational practitioners enormous potential to advance in their careers and open doors to roles in K-12 school administration, such as principal or school superintendent, or within postsecondary education as an academic dean or provost. Image from Pexels
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Mairead Kelly September 13, 2021

Educational leadership programs aren't doctoral students' only option if they’re seeking to enhance their skills and advance their career goals. So, what exactly makes EdD in educational leadership programs unique?

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At a time when world events have propelled remote learning to the forefront and given rise to concerns about educational equity, and the quality and effectiveness of new learning models, educators interested in acquiring the insights and strategies required to successfully address these challenges (and more) may be considering earning a Doctor of Education (EdD) degree.

As the highest professional credential in education, Doctor of Education degree programs afford educational practitioners enormous potential to advance in their careers and open doors to roles in K-12 school administration, such as principal or school superintendent, or within postsecondary education as an academic dean or provost. Educational training and development jobs, such as training and development manager or instructional coordinator, also are options. (According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), elementary, middle, and high school principals on av erage earn close to $100,000 per year, while the average pay for post-secondary educational administrators was roughly the same amount.)

A wide variety of EdD program concentrations exist, allowing students to tailor their academic training to their specific interests within the field. Among them is the Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership, which can help increase your ability to influence and transform educational organizations in ways that improve the lives of children, families, and communities. But what makes these programs unique?

Is a Doctorate in Educational Leadership actually different from all the other EdD degrees? We’ll answer that by covering the following topics:

  • What is a doctorate in educational leadership?
  • Core EdD coursework
  • Alternative EdD focus areas
  • Choosing the EdD that’s right for you

What is a Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership?

EdD in educational leadership programs provide educators with the knowledge and leadership skills they need to solve problems and bring about positive organizational change in various learning settings. As such, they graduate prepared to serve in education leadership roles within their desired specialization, whether K-12, higher education, or serving as educational leaders at non-profit and government agencies, or in the corporate sphere.

Education doctorate programs of this type explore the human, organizational, political, social, and technical systems of educational institutions through case studies and problem-based learning applications that bridge the divide between theory and practice. After coursework is completed, students are typically expected to develop and present a dissertation or capstone project that examines a critical education issue within their specialization.

Many programs also use a cohort model, where students progress through their studies with a set group of classmates, taking the same courses in the same order. This approach offers several benefits and is common for online doctorate programs in education. The online EdD in Education Policy and Leadership at American University’s school of education, for example, offers a cohort environment where learning occurs “through robust dialogue, shared learning experiences, and presenting current professional work and doctoral research.”

EdD in educational leadership admission requirements also are similar to education doctorate programs in that they typically require applicants to have a master’s degree from an accredited college or university alongside work experience and relevant educational licensure. Some schools have a minimum graduate GPA requirement, while other schools mandate that an applicant’s master’s degree must be in education or a related field.

As well, some schools require GRE or GMAT scores, while others may make them optional or waive them for students who meet certain criteria, such as a high graduate GPA. When compiling their list of prospective programs, applicants also may find schools that don’t require them at all. It’s also common for schools to require a writing sample, often in the form of a statement of purpose, personal essay, or graduate-level academic paper.

How long does it take to get a doctorate in education?

Doctoral-level educational leadership degree programs are available through online, on-campus, and hybrid formats—and generally require students to complete around 40 to 60 credit hours of coursework. The time it takes students to complete their doctoral degree depends on factors that range from whether they enroll on a part- or full-time basis to the complexity of their dissertation or capstone project, if one is required.

In general, the majority of EdD programs in education leadership can be completed in three years of full-time enrollment. A limited number of executive programs also are available for candidates with significant teaching, school leader, or educational administration experience, and typically take about two years to complete. Students pursuing their degree on a part-time basis can take anywhere from four to seven years to finish their studies, depending on their specific school requirements and course schedule.


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Core EdD coursework

Although programs differ depending on their focus, doctoral program curricula typically focus on a mixture of learning in leadership and practice-based subjects in areas like education reform, education policy, leadership theory and practice, and contemporary issues in education.

Core courses generally cover topics that afford students the knowledge and decision-making skills to address the most pressing questions impacting today’s education landscape and ensure equity, access, and opportunity for students across a broad range of educational settings.

Many programs also include coursework to help students gain the research skills to effectively evaluate and manage educational programs, and explore learning supports and barriers at the school, district, and state levels. Common subject areas in this realm include foundations of educational research, qualitative research methods, and strategies for inquiry.

Alternative EdD focus areas

Educational leadership degree programs aren’t doctoral students’ only choice when searching for an EdD degree program that allows them to tailor their studies to best suit their skills and career goals. Some of the more common options available include:

Curriculum and teaching

EdD programs in curriculum and teaching focus on the design and execution of education programs. Coursework typically emphasizes pedagogy, curriculum design and development, assessment, and contemporary teaching and instructional best practices—equipping students with research-based knowledge and skills to develop, implement, and evaluate curricula for an extensive scope of educational settings.

This degree type serves as a launching pad to roles designing and implementing curricula within private and public school districts and in the higher education sphere, and opportunities for work as K-12 school administrators, education specialists, instructional coordinators, postsecondary teachers, and college administrators.

Health and physical activity

Specific EdD program titles within this focus vary from health and physical activity to physical education, to health and human performance, and a range of others. But in general, they’re designed to prepare students to pursue academic, leadership, and research roles in health, fitness, physical activity programming, clinical application, and health and wellness education programs.

Coursework often combines academic research and practice, allowing students to grow their expertise in areas such as athletic training, physical education, psychology, and instructional behavior while examining how social, cultural, political, and economic forces impact physical activity, fitness, and health.

Graduates of health and physical activity EdD programs have a broad assortment of career opportunities, including work as teachers, researchers, professors, and health and fitness program directors in school settings, as well as corporate, commercial, hospital, and community-based wellness and recreational areas.

Higher education administration

EdD programs in higher education administration provide students with the advanced knowledge and skills that are crucial to succeed in administrator positions at postsecondary institutions.

Coursework explores the various academic, institutional, and cultural contexts of higher education administration through topics such as institutional assessment, organizational theory, diversity and access, and student learning and development, and generally include subjects specifically related to dissertation research and development on a topic addressing an issue within the higher education field.

Degree-holders may pursue work as provosts, deans, and directors in academic and student affairs, business, continuing education, development, and technology, or assume policy or evaluation-based leadership positions at colleges and universities, instructional agencies, or government organizations.

Human services administration

Education doctorate programs in human services administration prepare students for management and administrative positions at a range of human service agencies through coursework in areas such as management, board development, fundraising and outreach, ethical issues, community needs assessment, program evaluation, and advocacy.

Graduates may pursue work with agencies in the corporate, government, and non-profit sphere, including those that serve children, adolescents, adults, veterans, the homeless, and the elderly. The specific goals of agencies are often dictated by their setting, such as those that operate at K-12 schools, hospitals, colleges and universities, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, community organizations, and criminal justice facilities, among others.

Instructional technology and distance learning

EdD programs within this niche may be referred to as a doctorate in instructional technology and distance learning, educational technology, online learning, or instructional design and tech, among a range of other titles. Often catering to those with teaching experience, they’re designed to help students grow their ability to critically evaluate effective instruction, assess teaching and learning challenges, and make decisions regarding the development and implementation of learning technology to enhance student learning.

Coursework is typically composed of foundational work in educational leadership and research, along with a focus on various learning styles and how instructional design and technology play a part in reaching the unique needs of students and teachers. Students also learn advanced techniques using existing technologies for web-based learning and training alongside new developments in technology and their possible implications across a spectrum of education settings.

Opportunities with this degree are available at schools, corporations, or public sector agencies, and include roles such as instructional technologist, educational software consultants, directors of educational technology, training and development manager, and distance learning specialist.

Reading science

EdD programs offering reading science specializations stand as a pathway for students to advance their linguistic leadership skills and acquire the knowledge to successfully work with diverse populations, conduct new research, and enable students to reach their learning goals.

Coursework typically focuses on reading and literacy, curriculum design and instruction, teacher professional development, and program evaluation and assessment, as well as the social, political, cultural, and economic factors that impact reading curricula and literacy learning in the 21st century. Some programs allow students to design their studies to further suit their goals and interests in the field through certification options in areas like Pre-K-12 instructional coaching, adult literacy, and reading education supervision.

Employment opportunities for reading science EdD graduates are available at primary and secondary schools, higher education institutions, and organizations in the government, non-profit, and business sphere. Some degree-holders may continue in the classroom as reading specialists or resource teachers, while others handle the administrative end of learning initiatives of reading programs as literacy program managers. Others pursue work as teacher educators or trainers, instructional coordinators, and research specialists.

Special education

EdD programs in special education prepare education practitioners to serve as service providers, school leaders, professional development trainers, and advocates for individuals with disabilities at a wide range of education-based organizations.

Core coursework typically explores organizational leadership, program management, and the historical and theoretical foundations of disability in education, along with innovative tools and techniques that boost student and school improvement. From here, students can often choose specialized courses that train them to best serve a specific type of student population or pursue a particular focus in the special education field. Examples include applied behavioral analysis, autism, blindness or vision impairment, early intervention, emotional and behavioral disorders, and learning disabilities.

After completing their degree, graduates may seek out employment in both the public and private sectors, including schools, speech and language learning centers, research organizations, and government agencies. They work in a variety of special education managerial and leadership roles, including administrators of special education centers, directors of education accessibility, and professors of special education, among others.


EdD programs in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) are designed to help students gain in-depth knowledge, interdisciplinary research skills, and a variety of practical experiences related to STEM teaching and learning. Coursework mixes topics in pedagogy, curriculum theory and practice, and educational research with broader subject-matter training, sometimes alongside specializations in specific STEM subjects or approaches to education, such as STEM leadership, integrative STEM education, and K-12 STEM education. Some programs may also offer options for practicing teachers to earn STEM-related professional development certification.

Graduates of STEM EdD programs can pursue leadership roles in K–12 schools in positions such as curriculum supervisor or district leader in the STEM fields, or those in research and teaching in university settings, and research and development in the private or non-profit sector.

Urban education

EdD programs in urban education offer students an integrative approach to the analysis of social, political, and economic factors that shape urban schooling and learning, often with a focus on diversity, equity, inclusion, anti-racism, and social justice. Coursework integrates historical and present-day research, theory, and practice to prepare students to engage with the persistent and pressing problems facing urban education practice—and develop their understanding of urban education as part of other interconnected systems of urban life.

Many programs also feature core research courses that culminate in a dissertation or capstone project, which typically require students to investigate a problem in urban education and assess its implications for practice or policy at the state, regional, national, or international level. After graduation, these projects are one way that degree-holders can demonstrate their ability to thrive in leadership roles in urban school systems and other educational agencies, whether pursuing work as school superintendents, office administrators, advocacy organization leaders, or development officers.

Choosing the EdD program that’s right for you

Every EdD program offers different curricula, strengths and specializations, and community cultures, among other distinctions that influence students’ experience, like format options in on-campus, hybrid, and online programs, and tuition and financial aid. Which can make choosing the right program no small task.

When compiling a list of prospective programs with the appropriate accreditation, students should feel confident that their top school choices suit their values, needs, and priorities—and serve as a pathway to career advancement. Some might consider networking with graduates of certain EdD programs to get their take on the doctorate program experience. Others might research programs by pouring over school websites and social media accounts and reading student blogs, or opting for a good old-fashioned campus tour.

No matter your strategy, remember to focus on the things that are most important to you both personally and professionally, whether that’s student learning support, high job placement rates, particular extracurricular activities, or program flexibility. Identifying those “must-haves” will not only help you get a clearer perspective of your standing as an applicant, but also identify your motivations for an EdD—and how you’ll use it to make an impact once all is said and done.

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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