Educational Leadership & Policy

What is a Doctorate in Educational Leadership? [Complete Guide]

What is a Doctorate in Educational Leadership? [Complete Guide]
Education leadership doctorate programs use cutting-edge research methods to go beyond a one-size-fits-all teaching method. Image from Unsplash
Ginny Bartolone profile
Ginny Bartolone June 30, 2021

Today's top educational researchers strive to make learning available and equitable for all. An educational leadership doctorate explores the policies and pedagogy to reach this goal.

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For everyone from preschool students to lifelong adult leaders, educational leaders set the tone for how we absorb, maintain, and interpret information. A doctorate in educational leadership enables career teachers, administrators, and community educators to explore today’s most advanced research on teaching and learning.

While schools of the past focused on memorization and repetition, 21st-century learning looks at the whole student within the context of their community. Creativity, decision-making, and social-emotional skills play a much larger role than they did in the past. In many schools, curricula now address more of the needs of unique learners.

Where does the doctoral degree fit into this movement? Education leaders drive research and necessary transformation in a range of educational settings. Candidates in these programs often include school superintendents, department chairs, and curriculum directors. You’ll also find political leaders, technology experts, and remote learning specialists pursuing this degree. From government agencies to learning startups and foundations, today’s top directors, teachers, and administrators take on a doctorate degree to shape a more equitable and dynamic world.

Our comprehensive guide to what is a doctorate in educational leadership can help you decide whether a doctorate degree program is suitable for this stage in your career. We’ll cover a lot of ground, including:

  • What is a doctorate in educational leadership?
  • Doctor of Education in Education Leadership admissions requirements
  • Do Doctor of Educational Leadership programs offer areas of specialization?
  • What subjects will you study in a doctorate of educational leadership?
  • Will you be required to write a dissertation in a doctorate of educational leadership program?
  • How long does it take to earn a doctorate in educational leadership?
  • What can I do with a doctorate in educational leadership?
  • Will I need certifications in addition to my doctorate?
  • Top Doctor of Education (EdD) in Educational Leadership programs
  • Top online Doctor of Education (EdD) in Educational Leadership programs
  • Is a doctorate in educational leadership worth it?

What is a doctorate in educational leadership?

Students pursuing an educational leadership degree may have similar goals, but their backgrounds vary. The majority of candidates come from traditional school settings, especially if the program only caters to P-12 teachers and administrations. In other instances, some candidates earn a doctorate to reach more of the public with technology and community initiatives.

Overall, you’ll find doctoral candidates from:

  • Educational non-profits
  • Entrepreneurs in the startup community
  • Government agencies
  • Higher education administration
  • K-12 leadership positions

As far as the curriculum, education leadership doctorate programs use cutting-edge research methods to go beyond a one-size-fits-all teaching method. Core courses cover areas like:

  • Educational policy its role in politics
  • Leadership skills in educational institutions
  • Organizational change in public and private schools
  • Teaching and learning topics

In both EdD and PhD programs, students carry their research findings back to their company or classroom. Through a personalized dissertation or capstone projects, these experts can implement new teaching methods in their schools or communities, and even at the national level.

Expect the program to take between two and five years, either online or in person. The majority of PhD and EdD in Educational Leadership programs require a capstone or practicum at the end of the program.

PhD students may dive more deeply into research-heavy topics like leadership theory and the structure of school systems, but research plays a large role in both degrees. Overall, the education doctorates typically explore what is known as evidence-based practice, often referred to as research-based practice, which we’ll explore in the next section.

What is evidence-based practice?

Evidence-based practice (EBP) offers a methodology for questioning the teaching and learning status quo. Without it, teachers may simply use instructional tactics passed down from a school’s trusted curriculum that is neither updated nor tested on today’s children. As research sheds more light on each type of student’s learning methods, teaching in the classroom needs to change with it.

EPB allows educational leaders to build curricula, reorganize subject matters, and alter the classroom atmosphere based on peer-reviewed studies. These studies go through a rigorous research process with a proper control and experimental group before making it to the classroom.

Candidates in both doctoral and master’s degree education programs often explore EBP in the classroom and during their internships.

Doctor of Education (EdD) vs. Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Education

Educators have their pick of two education doctorate tracks: a PhD in Education or an Ed.D. in Educational Leadership. The former focuses on research and organizational change, typically for professors and full-time researchers. An EdD is ideal for practitioners working in the classroom and in director-level administrative roles.

Picking the right program for you comes down to where you see yourself working after graduation. If you hope to work with national or private education think-tanks, for example, the PhD may be for you. PhD candidates also teach in higher education institutions while pursuing ongoing research projects.

EdDs also engage in research but are more likely to apply their findings in the classroom or school immediately. Many candidates in Doctors of Education programs complete coursework online while maintaining their full-time teaching jobs.

Lastly, the structure of a PhD and EdD program may vary. PhD programs often require students to defend a traditional dissertation. EdD students may write dissertations, but they also complete internships or field placements to report their findings in a final capstone project.



University and Program Name Learn More

Doctor of Education in Education Leadership admissions requirements (200)

As we noted above, educational leadership students come from a range of fields and backgrounds. However, some programs offer more specific admission requirements.

American University’s EdD in Education Policy and Leadership, for example, gears its online doctorate toward K-12 school teachers and administrators. Harvard’s Doctorate in Education program, in contrast, builds a class of 25 students from a range of professional experience and career goals.

Overall, the majority of programs require:

  • Academic transcripts (many require a minimum GPA)
  • Application for the program
  • Application fee
  • Essay question
  • Financial aid and scholarship forms
  • GRE, GMAT, and/or TOEFL scores
  • Master’s degree, often in a related field
  • State administrator licenses (in some cases)
  • Three letters of recommendation
  • Work experience/resume

Admission to top programs can be competitive, especially since some schools only take in new students every other year. In some cases, the school may require an extensive interview process and writing sample to make sure you’re the right fit.

Schools often narrow down candidates by their years of professional experience, licensure, and past leadership roles in their community or industry. They will also typically request your research and specialization goals during the program to ensure they mesh with the program’s structure.

Do Doctor of Educational Leadership programs offer areas of specialization?

Educational leadership means different things in different school levels, fields, and points in an educator’s career. Many doctoral programs either require or highly encourage school leaders to choose a specialization.

In some cases, the degree itself focuses on a specialization—such as programs only geared toward superintendents. In this case, doctoral students will likely become certified as superintendents before graduation. Other programs specify that the curriculum only covers P-12 or post-secondary education.

Specialization tracks

While some schools encourage students to specialize through their dissertations, others offer tracks within the program as well. These include:

  • Education technology
  • Higher education curriculum
  • Higher education law
  • International education
  • P-12 education administration
  • Social inequality and policy
  • Student affairs

Electives, dissertation topics, and residencies

Whether your dream program offers specializations by title or not, students always have the option to choose electives from within the university’s college of education.

These classes often cover specific qualitative and quantitative research tactics, particularly for PhD programs. Others cover the economic systems and policies of education around the world. We’ll cover this more in the curriculum section to follow.

And lastly, candidates also hone their focus further by complementing their dissertation. Dissertation topics range from anti-racism and systems thinking to personal mastery topics. Once their topics get approved by the faculty, they often have the option of a written or oral defense.

Dissertation topics may include:

  • Charter, private, and public school-specific curriculum topics
  • Community involvement in educational administration
  • Effects of poor leadership by education administrators
  • Imbalances across school districts
  • The role of the department of education
  • Social-emotional learning in the classroom
  • Social and cultural impacts on education
  • Teacher evaluation methods
  • Teaching and learning tactics

Programs like the one at American University also enable students to connect with other professionals in their field. While their EdD is an online program, the school offers on-campus residencies that cover:

  • Public narrative
  • Anti-racism
  • Research methodologies

What subjects will you study in a doctorate of educational leadership?

A master’s program in education typically focuses on the in-classroom skills and techniques to help a child learn. When earning a Doctor of Education in educational leadership, the scope widens outside the classroom.

Depending on the school and specific program, the curriculum looks at an administrator’s impact on students and national education as a whole. Every program differs slightly, particularly if you choose one of the specializations above.

You will, however, find some subjects common to each school’s educational leadership doctoral program. We’ve broken them down by major subject areas.

Equity and inclusion

Anti-racist and equitable education is now one of the pillars of many leadership programs. Topics may include:

  • Culturally sustainable education
  • Equitable hiring and teacher training
  • Inclusion in the classroom
  • Promoting growth culture
  • Systems thinking

Policy, law, and economics

School leaders may work directly with local and state politicians to identify the indirect effects of federal policy. These topics help leaders understand the context of new and outdated policies that affect students daily. Focus areas include:

  • Advocacy in education administration
  • Education policy analysis
  • Local and federal political navigation
  • Social justice in education policy


Many classes in a university’s school of education help candidates apply their learning to real-life scenarios. Courses cover the logistics and theories of outstanding leadership. They can include:

  • Athletic administration
  • Conscious leadership
  • Communication skills in administration
  • Creating a trauma-sensitive school
  • Grant writing
  • Social-emotional leadership tactics


Research sits at the heart of both EdD and PhD programs, though PhD students focus more intently in this area. Topics cover research as a whole as well as education-specific topics.

  • Academic writing
  • Enacting critical research
  • Inequity and social change research
  • Learning technologies
  • Qualitative and quantitative research methods
  • Reading and acting on educational research

Teaching methods and practicum

Even if doctoral candidates do not plan to return to the classroom, understanding cutting-edge teaching methods is key to excellent school leadership. The curriculum may cover teaching methods from around the world and techniques for specific groups of students. Subjects include:

  • Innovation thinking in the classroom
  • International approaches to education
  • Language and literacy teaching tactics
  • Nursing education
  • Social and emotional learning
  • Special education topics

It’s also important to note that many online EdD and PhD programs split their curriculum between asynchronous and synchronous learning. This allows working professionals to complete the program while still connecting with a class through online learning tools.

Will you be required to write a dissertation in a doctorate of educational leadership program?

Many doctoral programs in education leadership—for both EdD and PhD programs—require a dissertation at the end of the program. However, the nature of these dissertations is not typically approached the same way.

A PhD student, for example, will research and write a more traditional dissertation. The final product is research-based and presented as an oral or written defense.

EdD students, on the other hand, often report their findings in dissertation form after a practice-focused project. Students can then lead an initiative at a local school or organization to report their practical experience and research.

You will also find popular programs, especially Ed..D degrees, that swap out a dissertation for a capstone project. While this is similar to the Ed.D. dissertation, the focus of the project is more solely on the work than the written defense.

How long does it take to earn a doctorate in educational leadership?

You will find a range of program lengths for doctorate degrees, especially once you start exploring online options. Overall, expect to complete the degree in anywhere between two and five years. This depends on a few main factors:

  • Credit-hour minimum
  • Part-time or full-time status
  • Online or on-campus
  • Dissertation requirements
  • Residency requirements

Let’s take a look at a few top programs. We’ll cover each one’s credit hour, residency, and dissertation requirements, as well as their estimated time to completion.

American University

American University ‘s EDd in Education Policy and Leadership requires 40 credit hours beyond a master’s degree for completion. The school predicts students can complete the degree in under three years, including its three on-campus residencies, which run four days each. Each week, the school breaks down class and work time into three sections:

  • 3 hours on online synchronous learning
  • 3 hours of asynchronous study
  • 8 to 10 hours of additional self-guided work and research

Harvard University

Harvard’s fully on-campus program is strictly completed over the course of three years. The first two years consist of classes with a cohort of 25 other students.

Harvard then funds a paid residency at a partner organization during the third year. Students can return to campus both online and in person for occasional intensives.

Drexel University

Drexel offers the longest and one of the more flexible options. Students can complete their Doctorate in Education Leadership and Management in as many as five years. There are no in-person requirements, even for a residency.

The school breaks its years into four terms to maximize flexibility for full-time working professionals. Drexel also offers hybrid programs online and in-person in Philadelphia and DC.

What can I do with a doctorate in educational leadership?

In the competitive world of education administration, most directorship, superintendent, and principal roles require a doctorate degree. One of the most common and versatile degrees is in education leadership. We’ve broken down the most common roles by EdD and PhD career tracks.

As we touched on earlier, EdD candidates are likely to stay in the field, either in the classroom or by managing a school or organization.

Superintendant or headmaster

Both superintendents and headmasters oversee all the grades—and their related administrators—in a school system. However, superintendents typically manage a public school district in tandem with a school board. A headmaster is more likely to manage a private school with individual campuses.

Both roles require an in-depth knowledge of education policies affecting their students and teachers. They manage budgeting, communications, and staffing to drive the general direction of the schools from pre-K through 12th grade.

A school superintendent makes an average of about $165,000 a year while a headmaster earns an average of approximately $110,000. It’s essential to note that salaries widely vary between states and from public to private schools.


Like headmasters and superintendents, principals oversee the curriculum, budget, and staff management, but at the school rather than school-system level. This requires more specific training in that age group and modern curriculum policy.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, principals make an average of $98,000 a year.

Curriculum director

These experts coordinate with the school’s principal and faculty to shape each grade’s curriculum in each subject matter. Teachers within each subject may also serve as department chairs under the direction of the curriculum head. These positions are sometimes listed as instructional coordinators or curriculum specialists.

The median pay for these roles is about $68,000 a year, but administrators can expect higher pay at private companies.

PhD career opportunities

Many education institutions, organizations, and even private companies consider PhD holders for similar jobs as the EdD. However, this track often sends students toward research and post-secondary education.

University president

Presidents of colleges and universities lead the way in and out of the classroom. With their research-focused background in education, they have the overarching skills to lead executive management, marketing, and fundraising for a major institution.

Salaries in the US for university and college presidents range over $300,000.

Educational researcher

Educational researchers work for private, non-profit, and government organizations. At the federal level, these experts can make an average of $125,000.

Depending on the institution, researchers continue the type of work they pursued in their doctoral programs. They work behind the scenes to analyze effective teaching and administrative strategies for various ages and learning preferences.

Academic dean

Deans have their hands in a range of education initiatives. They assist with a university’s admissions, student affairs, and advancement program. Additionally, they may assist in managing ongoing research initiatives at the university.

You can expect to earn approximately $95,000 as a dean of a college or university.

Will I need certifications in addition to my doctorate?

Requirements for school certifications and licensure vary by state and can be quite complicated at first glance. Most education doctoral candidates will already hold a certification for teaching in their state but may not have the administrative and leadership credentials quite yet.

Certifications typically break down into:

  • Administrative roles
  • Business administration roles
  • Supervisory roles

Most states require both a bachelor’s and some postsecondary-level degree, a minimum GPA, and related work in the field. In some cases, you must apply for eligibility, work for several years in the role, and then apply for full certification. Most state programs require a complete application and test to meet requirements.

In most cases, certification links up with master’s programs, such as an MA in Education Leadership or Master of Arts in Teaching. However, a doctorate will prepare you for the certification process and requirements.

Top Doctor of Education (EdD) in Educational Leadership programs

The highest-ranked education doctoral programs reside in a range of accredited universities around the country. Each of the degrees below is offered on-campus and have received recognition from sites like US News and World Report, the Princeton Review, and Times Higher Education.

Harvard University

Harvard tops many lists as the best post-graduate education program in the country. Professors include leaders in the education and policy field, including award-winning authors, former members of the Department of Education, and directors of major national education organizations.

During the structured three-year EdLD program, students receive one-on-one coaching. By year two, they are personally assigned to one of the university’s partner programs for a paid year-long residency.

US News and World Report notes that students have the option to study with partner schools around the country, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Mount Holyoke College, and University of California – Berkeley.

Stanford University

Topping Times Higher Education’s list of education programs, Stanford University offers the highly specialized Doctoral Training Program in Leadership for System-wide Inclusive Education (LSIE).

The fully-funded five-year program coordinates with the Department of Education Office of Special Education. Students rigorously research new tactics to tailor education to each unique learner. Graduates go on to work in top leadership and research positions in special education and specialize in analyzing and ridding the field of inequities.

University of California – Los Angeles

Hosted by the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, UCLA’s EdD program offers students a chance to work in some of the top research labs in the nation. Its EdD in Educational Leadership has been on the map since 1993.

Students complete the problem over three years, focusing primarily on education theories, equitable leadership, and their chosen dissertation topic.

Graduates have gone on to lead four-year universities, community colleges, P-12 public and private schools, as well as public policy positions. US News and World Report ranks it as a top ten school for education programs, education policy, and higher education administration, among others.

Top online Doctor of Education (EdD) in Educational Leadership programs

A large cohort of students pursuing a doctorate at this stage in their career have a strong foothold in an educational community. Stepping away for three to four years is not always an option. These highly ranked programs offer complete flexibility for their students as well as an engaging remote curriculum.

American University

As we’ve touched on several times throughout this article, AU’s Ed.D. in Education Policy and Leadership offers in-depth training for working educators. Set in the heart of DC, students have free reign to explore the political and societal forces that shape each student’s learning and school experience.

Students typically take less than three years to complete the 40 required credits. Most notably, the program intersperses three in-person residencies to collaborate with their peers and build professional links for their future careers.

AU ranks in a range of highly respected lists, including in the top 100 national universities by US News and World Report.

University of Pennsylvania

UPenn ties for first with Harvard in US News and World Report’s ranking for education programs. Its EdD in Educational Leadership is designed for mid-career professionals seeking to balance an online and in-person curriculum for minimal interruption in their ongoing work.

The program website indicates that candidates typically have decades of experience in their field, whether in education or the public or private sectors. Classes work rigorously online but meet one weekend a month and one week each summer for personalized support.

Between its coursework and dissertation structure, students typically take 36 months to complete the programs.

Arizona State University

Arizona State has earned awards for being one of the top education schools as well as one of the best for online instruction. Its flexible programs work around the schedules of working professionals, requiring between seven and 15 hours of work each week. Students can also transfer up to 30 graduate-level courses toward the EdD’s require 90 credit hours.

ASU attracts teachers and school leaders from each stage of a child’s education and top organizations around the world. The program states that it focuses on “research in action.” This inspires students to explore their research through practice in the field. The program culminates in an action-focused dissertation.

Is a doctorate in educational leadership worth it?

Post-secondary education often requires a hefty financial investment. Deciding whether a doctoral degree is worth it for you often comes down to timing and your unique financial goals.

The average cost of a full education doctorate ranges between $20,000 and $80,000. However, doctoral candidates are more likely to receive funding for roles like research assistant, teaching in the graduate school, or through traditional scholarships. Some doctoral candidates also receive funding from their employer—particularly if a private or independent school offers professional development funds.

Pressing pause on your educational career is another significant factor to keep in mind. If you choose a flexible online program, however, you may be able to earn a salary and apply your program’s research to your everyday work environment.

In many cases, you may need to secure a doctorate to receive a promotion. In that case, the time and tuition may balance out with the significantly higher salaries found in school administrative roles, as well as the satisfaction of taking on a more challenging and more responsible role.

In addition to career opportunities, doctorates in educational leadership are constantly changing. By taking this extra step, students gain access to cutting-edge research on teaching and learning. The work of graduates can alter the educational playing field for countless students and communities.

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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.

To learn more about our editorial standards, you can click here.


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Categorized as: Educational Leadership & PolicyEducation & Teaching