If You’re a School Teacher, Should You Pursue a Doctorate of Education (Ed.D.)?

It all depends on how you answer these ten questions.

Albert Arnesto
Oct 5, 2020 · 20 min read

The path to earning a doctorate of education (typically abbreviated as Ed.D.) is fraught with many challenges and hazards, especially for a school teacher. Therefore, please carefully consider the following ten questions before pursuing the degree.

1. Why do you want to pursue a doctorate in education?

If your primary reason involves looking forward to being publicly addressed as “doctor,” then you should not pursue the degree. Most school teachers drawn toward the doctorate, though, likely aren’t interested in spending a great deal of money and a significant portion of their lives chasing a doctorate for the sake of vanity.

We expect lawyers to complete law school, which involves not only coursework but probably a judicial clerkship as well: they are awarded a Juris Doctor degree and, with passage of the bar exam, can practice law. Medical doctors don’t have the option to obtain a doctorate — they must do so, as a bare minimum, before they can practice medicine. (We formally address doctors who practice medicine as doctors, yet we don’t address lawyers as doctors. There is an argument to be made that only those who have medical degrees should formally be called doctors, though that is a debate for another day.)

But teaching is quite different: teachers are not required to obtain a doctorate to practice their craft, and, indeed, most choose not to. If you plan to remain in the classroom for the foreseeable future, there is a professional designation expressly designed for school teachers you can earn instead of an Ed.D.: National Board Certification, which most states recognize as the gold standard in elementary and secondary school teacher certification programs. Unlike the variability inherent in doctoral programs, National Board Certification is standardized — and thus a known (and respected) quantity; consequently, become Board certified and you will likely be rewarded with incentives exclusive to your state. Plus, many school districts nationwide not only help fund their teachers’ pursuit of Board certification, but they also raise their salaries upon its successful completion.

2. What do you believe to be the purpose of a doctorate of education?

Much of the difficulty in defining the Ed.D. involves arriving at a clear definition of what education is, to begin with. As strange as it might seem to intellectually corral or circumscribe “education” into a framework suitable for packaging and delivery to doctoral students, stranger still is to almost hubristically believe that “educational leadership,” or leadership in any sense, can be taught. Are there certain qualities that those judged to be effective educational leaders have in common? Perhaps, although what appears to be great leadership today might in retrospect look very flawed and naïve tomorrow. (Of course, some Ed.D.-granting institutions offer concentrations besides educational leadership, such as curriculum design and development, but any concentration still suffers from the same philosophical problem: How, precisely, to teach an educational skill.)

Yet even if we can identify those qualities, those best practices of effective educational leadership, the hurdle of actually teaching leadership remains. The assumption seems to be that teaching the skills of leadership is akin to teaching the skills of any other trade, such as mechanical engineering or candlestick making, and are thus transferable from master to apprentice. But this is a questionable assumption at best. As Barbara K. Townsend correctly notes in Rethinking the Ed.D., or What’s in a Name? the doctorate of education is a “beleaguered degree. In the field of practice, the Ed.D. is criticized for its failure to be neither fish nor fowl”:

Some educational leadership positions require a doctorate in a particular area on the assumption that a doctoral program in this area provides the degree recipient with knowledge and skills that will positively affect the degree recipients’ performance in positions in this area…. Because there is no conclusive evidence that the Ed.D. improves the field of practice, one way to rethink the Ed.D. is to see it as a degree that should be eliminated. Another reason to eliminate the degree might be its status in research institutions.

Consider that you will be committing years of blood, sweat, and tears to earn a degree that might soon be on the chopping block because its ontological foundations are suspect. Twenty or thirty years from now, will you call yourself a “doctor” but be shifty about what, precisely, your doctorate is in — because you will be too embarrassed to admit that you earned a degree in a field of study largely or completely rendered defunct?

3. What kind of return on investment (ROI) are you seeking?

You might argue that there are other considerations besides money when contemplating ROI — such as knowledge, enlightenment, and purpose. No doubt this is true, but let’s focus strictly on the financial here. In the brief discussion of costs below, we’ll only consider the present value of money. (Plus, if you are interested in pursuing the doctorate of education solely for knowledge’s sake, you might want to reconsider. The Ed.D. is a practitioner-focused, managerial-prep track of study; by contrast, the Ph.D. in education prepares you for a more scholarly, research-oriented path in academia. If you’re a philomath, pursue the Ph.D. instead.)

Suppose your doctoral program costs $20,000 per year, and, in a best-case scenario, you spend three years in the program before successfully obtaining the Ed.D. If your district offers you a pay raise for earning the credential, does the pay raise, taken over the projected remainder of your career, sum to at least $60,000? In other words, do you anticipate that you’ll break even? Will the degree pay for itself?

But what if you instead invested that $60,000 — if you have it on hand, of course — in a low-risk portfolio, and then left it untouched for the remainder of your career? With the magic of compound interest, you might end up far exceeding the small yearly salary bump after leveling up with a doctorate.

“But it will be much more of an increase over time than just breaking even,” you might claim, “because I’d be able to leave my teaching job for an administrative role.” Which leads us directly to our next question.

4. Are you sure you want to obtain a doctorate before applying for an administrative position?

Perhaps you’ve come to believe that you have hit a ceiling in terms of career advancement, and the only way you’ll ever have the opportunity to move up is to earn a doctorate. This belief, though understandable, is not grounded in the facts.

The great majority of school administrators do not have doctorates. The degree is not required for obtaining most formal educational leadership positions; furthermore, it’s far from clear that earning a doctorate in, say, educational leadership correlates to improved leadership outcomes. As Barbara Townsend observes, “We need more conclusive evidence that individuals with an Ed.D. are more qualified and skilled than individuals without the Ed.D. when serving in educational leadership positions.”

Plus, holding an Ed.D. might even be viewed as a negative, since school districts typically have to pay more to employ the credentialed. Stay stuck in the classroom too long after completing your Ed.D., and your resentment might build, in the form of “I’m overqualified for my job.” Then, your work quality will suffer, as will your students, who’ll have a keen sense of the fact that you’re no longer content to “merely” teach them. Imagine if you never manage to move out of the classroom — then how will you view your ROI?

True, if you wish to climb the leadership ladder to the rarefied air where a school district’s director of education, assistant superintendent, or even superintendent resides, you might not even be granted a single interview without the credential in hand. Thus, if your long-term goal is to ascend to the top of a school district’s leadership food chain, then you’ll probably need a doctorate.

But if you intend to one day find work as an administrator supervising teachers in a single school — as a vice-principal or even a principal — then earning a doctorate, in and of itself, won’t necessarily make you a more appealing candidate on paper for the position. Consider obtaining your administrative certification first.

Yet if you still, despite the downsides, insist on pursuing the doctorate first, make absolutely certain that the doctoral program you choose has the necessary requirements for administrative certification in your state built into the coursework; not all of them do. Caveat emptor.

5. How will you deal with the people who’ll never respect your achievement — without losing your own self-respect?

About a decade ago, after one of my teaching colleagues earned a doctorate of education and his accomplishment was lauded publicly at a faculty meeting, a veteran teacher next to me mumbled, “Oh, he’s a doctor now? Can he take a look at my rash?”

Let’s put all our cards on the table here: An Ed.D., all things being equal, is not viewed anywhere near as prestigious as is a Ph.D. Some people even pejoratively refer to the doctorate of education as a “doctorate-lite.” Recall Barbara Townsend’s telling words: “Another reason to eliminate the degree might be its status in research institutions.” And it is a low status indeed.

In fact, teachers who earn Ed.D.s and then go on to teach at universities are generally relegated to the bottommost rungs of the academic totem pole (among full-timers with doctorates, career higher ed administrators who hold Ed.D.s occupy the lowest rung); for all their talk about ensuring equity, correcting injustice, and practicing anti-racism, enforcement of a degree-holding caste system among the professoriate is very much alive and well on college campuses. (If by some miracle you land full-time work as a junior faculty member, rather than cobbling together part-time or even full-time work as an adjunct, chances are, in the best of all possible worlds, that you will be instructing adult teachers in the very same courses that you successfully completed for your doctorate of education. You certainly won’t be teaching Victorian literature to bright-eyed graduate students.)

And although there is only anecdotal data to back up this assertion, the doctorate-holders most insistent that you address them as “doctor” are Ed.D.s — as if the insecurities that come with earning a “doctorate-lite” need to be managed by ensuring that the unwashed masses demonstrate proper respect through repeated public expressions of fealty. (Indeed, this particular quality is especially prevalent among higher ed administrators.)

It’s a shame that some school teachers and administrators are so concerned with titles. There is plenty of pride to be had in practicing and refining your craft enough to one day be known as a great classroom teacher, an effective and caring school administrator, or even both. Accept who you are, embrace what you do: the title doesn’t make the person, the person makes the title. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “If it falls to your lot to be a street sweeper, go out and sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures. Sweep streets like Handel and Beethoven composed music. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.”

The first Ed.D. was awarded at Harvard nearly a century ago. But in 2012, Harvard announced that they would stop offering the degree and collapse the Ed.D. program into the Ph.D. program. The less rigorous reputation of the Ed.D. foreshadowed its termination at Harvard; other top-tier institutions are bound to follow suit, sooner or later (as goes Harvard, after all…).

The author of an article from the magazine Inside Higher Ed put it this way:

“The Ed.D. typically has traditionally been designed like a research degree,” said Jill Perry, co-director of the Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate, “but was delivered to teachers seeking to advance into administration positions as practitioners. This is where the confusion began,” she said. Many studies indicate that differences between Ed.D. and Ph.D. programs centered around differences in the number of credits and dissertation topics. “As a result, the Ed.D. was viewed as less rigorous than a Ph.D., and was labeled a ‘Ph.D. Lite.’”

This “less rigorous” reputation was also the result of a celebrity effect: when the media reported on public figures such as Shaquille O’Neal earning doctorates almost as a lark, usually these were Ed.D.s being awarded. Making matters worse, most for-profit schools, if they have doctoral programs, usually offer doctorates of education, whether completely online, on campus, or via a blended approach. (Look in your email spam folder for the exciting details of their latest overpriced offerings.) Yet you’ll be hard-pressed to find for-profit universities that award doctorates in mathematics, chemistry, or English literature.

Worse yet, too many Ed.D. dissertations simply don’t read much like scholarly literature, with writing that screams of a surface-level, cursory analysis of the topic at hand — from the surveys performed to gather data, the phenomenological case histories collected, and the painfully apparent lack of rigor (and reliance on cookbook algorithms, oftentimes clumsily) when performing statistical analyses. Compared with Ph.D. dissertations in education, Ed.D. dissertations are, on the whole, quite a bit shorter. After all, Ed.D. programs are designed around the needs of working adults, not academics-in-training who have been preparing their whole lives to churn out one research paper after another. Working adults are more likely to view research and writing as a chore rather than as a marketable skill to be mastered. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that so many Ed.D. dissertations are substandard efforts, contributing little if anything to scholarly discourse. For the great majority of Ed.D. students, the dissertation marks the last time they will engage in any sort of serious academic writing.

Thus, the “less rigorous” reputation accorded the doctorate of education is not entirely unfounded; many Ed.D. programs are watered down, as compared to their Ph.D. counterparts, in order to boost enrollments and ensure that cohorts are sufficiently large. Could you imagine any serious Ph.D. program offering group dissertations? If the answer is no, then we have arrived at the crux of the problem: Despite their superficial similarities, we shouldn’t be comparing Ph.D.s and Ed.D.s to start with, any more than we should be comparing degrees earned by lawyers with those earned by medical doctors. Of course Ed.D. programs are going to be found wanting by that standard — they are designed to serve an entirely different clientele.

The “soft” nature of educational research is lamented in Reforming the Doctorate in Education: Three Conceptions by Luise Prior McCarty and Debora Hinderliter Ortloff, who quote from a National Research Council Report:

This [educational] knowledge is thoroughly soft because it is an effort to make sense of the collective consequences of actions of large numbers of willful individuals who are making decisions about teaching and learning within a complex and overlapping array of social systems in response to multiple and conflicting purposes…. Under such circumstances of great complexity, vast scale, uncertain purpose, and open choice, researchers are unlikely to establish valid and reliable causal claims that can be extended beyond the particulars of time, place, and person. As a result, research claims in education tend to be mushy, highly contingent, and heavily qualified, and the focus is frequently more on description and interpretation than on causation.… Educational knowledge is also thoroughly applied because it arises in response to the needs defined by an institutional arena rather than emerging from a particular theoretical problem.

McCarty and Ortloff conclude that the Ed.D. suffers from an identity crisis because it’s not clear precisely what “education” is to begin with:

To ask after the purpose of doctoral education is already to presume that we know what that education is. One cannot improve a table or decorate a cake apart from the knowledge of what a table is and is supposed to be, or what a cake is and is supposed to be. This simple point is even more telling when it comes to a complicated phenomenon like doctoral education. We need a clear and widely agreed-upon vision of what the doctorate is in itself, before we can sensibly propose to improve it. If we start only with practical questions about the purposes that doctoral education is intended to fulfill, we have skipped over the essential questions about what it is supposed to be, and what it now is. The question of the doctorate is therefore a philosophical question about that vast and mysterious undertaking we call “education.”

If you journey on the difficult path with a doctorate of education as the end goal, you’ll experience firsthand how challenging it is to cross the finish line with a degree in hand and health intact. Still, you will need to forever hold your head high and remain proud of your achievement, despite the whispers behind your back and the demonstrable disrespect shown toward your degree. But that still shouldn’t mean that you demand everyone call you doctor.

6. To compensate for the perceived “less rigorous” reputation of the doctorate of education, are you willing to apply only to top-tier programs, despite their more difficult entrance requirements and higher costs?

Certainly, for-profit schools are out of the question; don’t even give them a first look, no matter their claimed accreditations.

Yet there are plenty of non-profit colleges that promote their doctorate of education as, in effect, a status marker in the form of an advertising gimmick: “We offer everything from undergraduate degrees to doctorates!” they boast. Such Ed.D.-programs-as-money-grabs are not worth your consideration, either, no matter how “flexible” or “accommodating” they seem for working professionals like yourself. Don’t be swayed by slickly produced video testimonials of those supposedly highly successful graduates of the program. The investment of time and money is far too great for the doctorate not to be worth the paper it’s printed on.

Thus, you’ll have many hours of serious research ahead of you, poring over the details of doctoral programs and the schools that offer them, in order to make an informed decision. You should also ask probing questions of people who have been through the process: How did they fare? Was it what they thought it would be like? What piece of advice would they give someone searching for a quality doctoral program? Would they do it again if they had to do it over?

Even once you think you’ve found a match, consider delaying the application process for six months to a year, taking the time to make absolutely sure you’ve picked a reputable school (the school in which you earn your degree can and should be a calling card) and a program that you are comfortable with and that you can realistically finish (research the attrition rates!). Make sure to investigate whether, and how much, your employer will subsidize this continuing education. Most of all, make sure you’re really ready to go forward with such a huge commitment.

In addition, you should find ways to offset the high upfront costs, including applying for merit-based scholarships and low-interest rate student loans, while recognizing that such opportunities are nowhere near as abundant as those for Ph.D. students.

It will take a lot of work, over a long period of time, to get to the finish line; your life will be totally upended. You’re likely not as young as the average Ph.D. student and therefore have additional adult responsibilities to factor in, which can include everything from family to financial.

So make absolutely sure your eyes are wide open before you take the plunge, especially if you anticipate that you’ll simultaneously be working full time as a school teacher while you slog through the coursework and write the dissertation.

7. Are you ready to transition from a consumer of knowledge to a producer of knowledge?

You will spend so many hours reading books, research papers, articles, and various other studies during your doctoral program coursework that your eyes will hurt and you’ll trigger migraines. You will consume a great deal of content, and learn much in the process. But merely reading passively is not enough: a key goal of any quality doctoral program should be to transform you from a consumer into a producer of knowledge.

To that end, as early into the program as possible, you should brainstorm ideas for your dissertation. Would you be more comfortable engaging in quantitative or quantitative research — or a mix of both? What theoretical framework or frameworks might best suit your topic? What has already been written about your topic, and how do you see yourself contributing something new? Will you have to collect data and, if so, how will you go about it: with interviews, ethnographic analyses, surveys? What about participatory-advocacy writing — would that be the right course of action, or does that strike you as too politicized? Will you be synthesizing extant texts and performing archival research? Or will you discover “emerging” themes narratively hinged (post hoc) upon participants’ interview responses?

All of the above assumes, of course, that you opt for a doctoral program that has a dissertation component.

8. Are you open to considering a non-traditional program, such as one without a dissertation?

Not all reputable doctoral programs require a traditional dissertation; some, instead, demand you produce a product, such as a capstone project. For a school teacher interested in becoming an administrator, a dissertation seems an odd hurdle to overcome on the road toward earning the terminal degree. If the Ed.D. really is supposed to serve as a proving ground for scholarly practitioners, then an actionable project might be a more relevant culminating experience rather than a long-form paper disconnected from practice (even if you write that paper in collaboration with others in your cohort). After all, typical Ed.D. programs are ostensibly designed with the hectic schedules of working adults in mind — residency requirements are minimal if they exist at all — and a relevant capstone ideally should, in some way, contribute positively to real-world educational experience rather than be a two-hundred-page doorstop filed away in the shelves of a stuffy university library never to be seen again (except on ProQuest).

Organizations like the Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate (CPED) have taken the lead in rethinking the Ed.D. for the twenty-first century, and a number of top-tier schools have adopted their framework for Ed.D. program redesign. The basic idea involves taking a step back and asking: What is the Ed.D., and what is it good for? If the doctorate of education is to survive and have appreciable value over the long term, we must carefully reconsider its purpose and what these doctoral programs are supposed to prepare students for.

9. Can you pursue the doctorate of education not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself?

Typically, institutions offering Ed.D. programs, such as the doctorate in educational leadership, will pointedly advertise numerous potential professional outcomes as a result of program completion — as if earning their Ed.D. might conceivably lead directly to anything, such as full-time work in an ivory tower.

The reality is, most especially for the public school teacher looking to polish off a résumé with an Ed.D., post-graduate employment outcomes are usually limited to administrative work in primary and secondary schools: you are, if anything, preparing to become a professional school administrator, not a professional scholar.

You could certainly find plenty of opportunities to teach college courses as an adjunct professor, but landing a job as a full-time higher education junior faculty member requires, at a minimum, an extraordinary leap of faith on your part: You’d not only have to have earned your Ed.D. or be close to graduating from the program, but you would also have to quit your full-time job as a school teacher or administrator. But even after you’ve crossed that bare-minimum rubicon, expect to adjunct at multiple institutions for some time, repeatedly churn out publications in peer-reviewed journals, and present at a number of symposia before even being considered for something more than a glorified higher ed temp job. And even then, there are no guarantees that you’ll ever be able to land at any reputable institution as a junior faculty member (let alone the prospect of obtaining tenure, which makes building a rocket ship to take you to the moon look easy by comparison). University teaching is a hyper-competitive, publish-or-perish, dog-eat-dog world, with a glut of overeducated contenders ferociously competing for precious few prizes. After all, who wouldn’t want to land full-time work in which you get paid to think all day?

With no employment outcomes guaranteed, it is especially important for you to not only have a passion for education but to also have a strong interest in what you’ll be studying in the doctoral program: namely, methods classes in the form of “content courses” (e.g., social justice, ethical challenges, organizational theory, professional development and supervision, and the like) and “research courses” (e.g., qualitative, quantitative, and mixed-methods research; for more information, see John W. Creswell’s comprehensive book Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative, and Mixed Methods Approaches). If you have little or no interest in these lines of inquiry, then you should reconsider your goals.

10. Are you ready to walk away from the doctoral program without obtaining the terminal degree?

Not everyone who starts a doctorate finishes it, either at the school in which they took their first doctoral class or at any school at all; the attrition rate is far from zero percent, otherwise, there would no such thing as the ABD (all but dissertation) — a permanent status for some walking among us. (One of the vice principals in my school building, an ABD, has told me that “interacting with other instructional leaders in school settings taught me much more than the doctorate classes ever taught me about leadership and teaching.”)

If you’ve hit the point where you feel that staying in your doctoral program for even one more day is infeasible or torturous beyond measure, you have to be prepared to walk away and not commit the sunk-cost fallacy of throwing good money after bad. In such situations, it is better for your long-term health and well-being to quit than to press on — perhaps because you dislike the classes or the content, or you find the amount of reading and/or writing intolerable, or you’ve hit a wall while assembling your literature review or writing your dissertation, or trying to defend it, or because your adviser turns out to be the most unhelpful, least empathetic person on the planet.

By walking away and not earning the terminal degree, you’ll still owe money to the institution(s) you attended. And you may indeed feel like a failure for a long time afterward — especially when you have to tell the same people who believed in you enough to write sterling letters of recommendation on your behalf, helping grant you entry into the program, that you dropped out. Not to mention the heartache involved in breaking the bad news to your friends, family, and work colleagues. You might question your decision-making skills, and your life choices, for years to come. At times, you will avoid looking at yourself in the mirror.

But someday you won’t feel as bad about quitting the program, and the dark clouds will lift. You will realize that you don’t need to hold a doctorate in order to feel whole. You will better accept who you are, and even come to embrace your limitations. You’ll even be able to write about it, posting your experiences for all the world to read.

You’ll finally come to believe that, despite it all, walking away turned out to be the best decision you ever made.

Sometimes it can be difficult to separate the romantic notions surrounding doctoral study from the sobering realities.

I studied under a brilliant professor of education who reached a crossroads around a decade into her teaching career. She quit her full-time job in the classroom and earned a Ph.D. in education from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the home of luminaries like curriculum theorist Thomas S. Popkewitz (himself the rare Ed.D. that is a scholarly leader in his field); in fact, Popkewitz was her advisor. I once asked what motivated her to leave behind a public school career to pursue a Doctor of Philosophy at a top-tier institution.

“I had to decide whether to save enough money for a house and a family or if I wanted to pursue my dream and have crushing student loan debt instead,” she told me. “I chose the dream.”

I’m hardly in a position to advise you not to follow your dream. But I can warn you about the very real possibilities of decision regret — wasted time, wasted money, and crushed spirits — if you don’t tread very carefully.

So, if you desperately want to pursue a doctorate of education, then pursue it. But just do yourself a favor first by ruminating on its many downsides: the lack of applicability of the degree; the expenses you’ll accrue coupled with the potentially limited return on investment; the fact that the degree isn’t truly necessary for building-level leadership positions at primary and secondary schools and may in fact serve as an albatross when seeking them; the limited respect accorded the Ed.D.; and so on. Perhaps most importantly, consider the opportunity cost: Could you be doing something better with your precious time and hard-earned money?

Think long and hard, because the commitment will be all-consuming and overwhelming for many years — and you won’t emerge the same person on the other side.

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Albert Arnesto

Written by

Albert Arnesto is the author of the book “Chalked! What I Wish I Knew Before I Became a High School Teacher.” He lives in Ohio with his family.

The Faculty

A community of academics and storytellers writing and sharing thoughts about teaching, learning, research, and life at the faculty.

Albert Arnesto

Written by

Albert Arnesto is the author of the book “Chalked! What I Wish I Knew Before I Became a High School Teacher.” He lives in Ohio with his family.

The Faculty

A community of academics and storytellers writing and sharing thoughts about teaching, learning, research, and life at the faculty.

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