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EdD vs. PhD in Education: Why Choose an EdD?

October 18, 2022

EdD or PhD? This is one of the first decisions aspiring education leaders face when exploring options for advanced degrees. The need for leaders in the field has never been greater. Integrating new educational methods and technology, addressing diversity and other social issues, and managing growing requirements for remote learning—these are just a few of the issues currently challenging educators. Taking a step toward earning an EdD or a PhD requires that prospective students first explore the differences between them to determine which track best serves their interests and aspirations.

Both degrees prepare graduates for rewarding careers and leadership roles in the education field, but they vary significantly in terms of study focus and typical career paths. Future education leaders wondering why to get an EdD or a PhD should understand the differences between the two degrees before they choose to pursue one.

What Is a Doctor of Education (EdD) Degree?

An EdD is an advanced degree in the education field that prepares graduates to succeed in leadership roles in higher education. EdD curricula incorporate heavy coursework in education policy, research methods, current social and political issues impacting students and teachers, developing teams and procedures, collaborating with internal and external partners, and managing and planning budgets.

EdD programs provide a solid foundation in modern education system operations, as well as extensive tools to create strategies and implement solutions to help schools and educational organizations succeed. Someone who has an EdD can teach or serve as an educator, but the degree program is more focused on helping graduates become leaders of educational organizations.

What Is a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) Degree?

A PhD is an advanced degree that individuals and professionals can typically earn after attaining a master’s degree. A PhD can be attained in several academic subjects, including education, and often prepares students for careers in more research-oriented positions, as well as university and college instructor roles. The curriculum for a PhD in education can vary by school, but it often includes coursework in educational research and evaluation, teaching methods, and a larger dissertation on topics or subjects in the education field.

Job Outlook

In broad terms, EdD programs help graduates gain a deep understanding of education as a field and profession, developing leadership expertise for various educational settings. The PhD track is more research oriented, helping graduates prepare for both the classroom and research aspects of teaching at a postsecondary institution. A closer look at career paths, salary projections, and growth outlooks can help differentiate the programs further.

EdD vs. PhD: Common Career Paths

When considering why to get an EdD or a PhD, it’s important to look at what happens after graduation. EdD and PhD programs’ different areas of focus mean each program best prepares graduates for different career options. The most common path for PhD recipients is to go right back into postsecondary education, with the hope of becoming tenured professors at a college or university. Gaining an EdD opens a variety of doors in the education sector.

Professional Options with an EdD

EdD graduates will have some research background, for example, in examining the implementation of a new curriculum and student response. EdD graduates also benefit from classes focused on leadership and strategic planning, which provide a more business-oriented viewpoint of education and illustrate how policies can impact education at all levels.

Educators who earn an EdD can choose to pursue any of a variety of paths throughout education. Most commonly, they go into elementary, secondary, or postsecondary administration, serving in such roles as college dean or school district superintendent. EdD graduates from a school such as American University can also become college professors or run education-based nonprofit organizations.

Professional Options with a PhD

PhD programs place greater emphasis on research, and graduates commonly work in academia or pursue academic research. Experts in their specific area of focus, they may choose to continue their research with students or other professors.

A person who holds a PhD in education can serve as a professor at a university, a consultant, or a researcher in a government education agency or organization, as well as in a larger leadership role in school or university administration.

EdD vs. PhD: Salary Comparison

Many education leadership roles can be filled by professionals who have earned either an EdD or a PhD, so their respective earning potential is difficult to define precisely. Salaries largely depend upon experience and geographic location. Salary ranges for postsecondary educators, for example, vary widely depending on whether an educator is working at the associate or assistant level or has attained a full professorship. 

According to Payscale, the median annual salary for professionals with a PhD in education is approximately $80,000. Payscale notes that assistant professors of postsecondary/higher education have a median annual salary of roughly $69,000. 

Doctoral degree holders who attain advanced roles in academia earn higher salaries:  Deans with the degree have a median salary of around $93,000 annually, according to Payscale. 

The median annual salary for EdD degree holders is around $80,000 in June 2022, according to Payscale. Salaries for EdD professionals can vary significantly by role. For example, Payscale reports the median annual salary of associate professors working in postsecondary/higher education is around $71,000, while EdD professionals serving in an executive director role have a median salary of around $104,000 per year.

Growth Outlook for EdD vs. PhD

The bright career outlook for degree holders is another reason to get an EdD or PhD. Advanced leadership roles for education professionals generally have a positive growth outlook. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the number of jobs for postsecondary teachers will grow by 12 percent between 2020 and 2030, which is much faster than the average 8 percent growth the BLS projects for all professions. The BLS estimates that over the same period, postsecondary education administrator positions will grow by 8 percent, which is on par with the national job growth average projected by the BLS.

Differences Between EdD and PhD 

EdDs and PhDs are valuable to professionals seeking to become leaders in education. Both require significant commitments—a doctoral-level degree can take three years or more to complete. While there’s overlap between the coursework and career options for EdD and PhD programs, a review of the differences can help determine a good fit for prospective students.

The curricula for the degrees themselves prepare students for different career paths after they graduate. There are generally more options and specialties for PhD programs than there are for EdD programs. An EdD primarily prepares graduates to become leaders and strategists in the education field—for example, as superintendents, deans, provosts, and school district officials—while a PhD is more tailored to preparing graduates for instructional and research roles in education and higher education, for example, as professors and researchers.

This doesn’t mean that an EdD degree holder can’t serve as a professor or an instructor in a university environment or that a PhD in education degree holder can’t succeed as a superintendent or a dean. EdD programs just focus on the larger scope and strategy of an educational organization or institution, while PhD programs are more tightly focused on academic research.

EdD candidates learn about different educational and leadership styles and how education fits into the larger world. They explore policy at the local, state, national, and international levels. Ultimately they discover how to spearhead change throughout the educational system. EdD graduates can learn how to make strategic partnerships and forge meaningful relationships in the professional world.

PhD students focus much more on research methods and data collection. They typically explore a more narrowly focused dissertation than that of EdD students. PhD students often choose their specific area of research and then spend much of their time collecting, analyzing, and interpreting data so that they can draw informed conclusions. While EdD work looks at systemic progress and trends, PhD work typically examines education theory and methods, with the end goal of having them applied directly in the classroom.

Ultimately both degrees are associated with professionals who’ve earned leadership roles in education, and both degrees enable degree holders to make a positive impact on students’ lives and on educational communities.

Why Get an EdD?

One of the main reasons to get an EdD is that it can prepare graduates to take on leadership roles in different aspects of education. These are more commonly operational roles in academia, such as a higher education administrator. However, an EdD education can also lead to roles in a classroom setting, such as a professor.

The process of earning an EdD degree helps individuals gain expertise in concepts such as leadership, academic policy, and resource management. While these skills are often useful in administration, policy development and implication, and leadership contexts, an EdD can also give degree holders the foundational knowledge to conduct academic research. 

Choosing an EdD Program

No two EdD programs are alike. Exploring their differences can help prospective students determine the program that’s the right fit for them. EdD programs may offer varying specializations, for example, education policy and leadership or school administration. Programs can also differ in delivery options, such as online versus in-person coursework. 

Benefits of an Online EdD

Individuals who opt to pursue their EdD through an online program can benefit in several ways. A significant advantage is the flexibility of an online program, as its structure makes it possible for students to build their studies and coursework around their existing schedule.

Another benefit of an online EdD program is that students who are concurrently working full-time can immediately apply what they’ve learned to their job. Additionally, the flexibility of an online program fosters discipline, such as good time management, which is essential for professional success.

Become an Education Leader 

As society continues to evolve, effective leadership will be needed to guide educational institutions toward a brighter future. Earning an EdD can prepare an individual to guide others confidently as an academic leader, either in the classroom or in an administrative role. Being fully able to lead this charge can make earning an EdD an immensely satisfying achievement.

American University’s online EdD in Education Policy and Leadership program offers students a flexible option to participate in an innovative EdD program from one of the nation’s leading universities. Because the program is online, professionals have the ability to pursue their educational leadership goals and connect with established thought leaders and decision makers, all while still being able to balance their other responsibilities. 

Explore American University’s innovative program to learn more about how the EdD in Education Policy and Leadership program can help educators advance in their field and change lives.