PhD in Education Degree Programs

A Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Education is a research-focused terminal degree that prepares graduates to teach at the postsecondary level and conduct scholarly research that tests theories to improve best practices in teaching and learning. Students entering a PhD program should expect to commit to many years (an average of four to six years) of full-time study. The PhD in Education is not the only doctoral degree in education; the more practice-based Doctor of Education (EdD) degree is another option for people who want to pursue a terminal degree in education. While there is some overlap between the two degree types, EdD graduates tend to pursue roles in education leadership and administration (such as school principal or educational technology specialist), while PhD graduates tend to seek roles as professors and researchers at universities or businesses.

Table of Contents

Reasons to Pursue a PhD in Education Degree

There are many reasons to choose to complete a PhD in Education. Among them are:

1. To get a job For those who would like to conduct research and teach at the postsecondary level, a PhD in Education is the best preparation. Even though it takes a serious time commitment, doctoral study will likely be necessary for these types of jobs.

2. To become an expert in the field. Students in PhD programs in education will develop testable theories in education through their research and become experts on one or more topics in the field. Those who have previously studied education at the undergraduate or master’s level but would like to expand their knowledge to other areas of education may benefit from a PhD in Education program. People who are already employed as school leaders and administrators may also wish to become experts in a specific topic of education, and a PhD provides the in-depth study needed to obtain expert-level status.

3. To effect change in education. Based on their research and expertise, PhDs may make recommendations to leaders and legislators to implement change in the field. Therefore, a PhD in Education may be a good fit for people who want to influence large-scale changes and improvements in education.

PhD in Education Majors and Areas of Study

Most PhD in Education graduates go on to become research scholars or professors at colleges and universities. Others may become policy researchers or analysts at governmental agencies or in consulting firms or research organizations. As with other advanced degrees in education, the area of specialization (also known as concentration, specialty, or emphasis) of the PhD defines the career path to a large extent. For example, pursuing a PhD in Education with a specialization in Education Policy may lead to roles such as public policy analyst or policymaker, while a specialization in Early Childhood Education may lead to roles such as professor or curriculum specialist. Common areas of specialization for PhDs in Education include:

  • Applied Developmental Science (ADS)
  • Counselor Education; Counseling or Educational/School Psychology
  • Curriculum and Instruction; Curriculum Studies
  • Educational Technology
  • Education Policy; Educational Policy Studies
  • Educational/School Leadership and Administration
  • Gifted Education
  • Higher Education
  • Literacy, Language, and Culture; Educational Linguistics
  • Other subject area, such as English, kinesiology, reading, mathematics, science, or social studies
  • Research, Statistics, and Evaluation; Human Development and Quantitative Methods
  • Special Education
  • Teaching and Learning
  • Urban Education Policy or Leadership
  • PhD in Education Degree Program Options

    Perhaps the most important factor you should consider when choosing a PhD in Education program is the area of specialization you wish to pursue. As mentioned above, the area of specialization of your degree determines the career path that will be available to you. Consider the type of job you want to target post-graduation. If you are interested in influencing education policy at a national or state level, you may want to consider a PhD in Educational Policy Studies. If you would like to work in a college university as an administrator (dean or department head, for example), you may wish to pursue a PhD in Higher Education.

    Program format is also an important consideration when choosing a PhD in Education school. If you prefer traditional, on-campus learning, there is a wide range of schools available to you. If you need some flexibility, you may look for PhD programs in education that include some online or hybrid courses. Whichever type of program you choose for your PhD in Education, unless you choose a school in your area or a 100% online program, you should be prepared to move to the location of the school in order to complete your degree. Since a PhD degree is a four- to six-year commitment and is highly specialized, it is crucial to spend ample time choosing the program that best fits your needs. In addition, PhD programs typically require a full-time commitment of their students, as opposed to EdD programs that cater to (and even prefer) working students. Therefore, if you are in an educational career that cannot be put on hold, a PhD in Education might not be the best doctoral degree choice for you.

    Online Degree Program Formats

    Due to the intense research focus of the PhD, it is more common to find traditional campus-based programs in education than online programs; however, online PhDs in Education do exist. These online programs offer more flexibility to learners as some coursework can be completed at their own pace, depending on the type of program. Typically, even online PhD programs require some in-person attendance, such as attendance at an orientation or seminars. Hybrid programs offer some courses in a traditional classroom setting and others in an online environment and may offer more flexibility than on-campus programs. Students interested in completing a doctoral degree in education fully online may find an EdD program to be a more suitable fit.

    Admission Requirements

    Admission requirements for PhD in Education programs vary; some require a master’s degree for admission and others require a bachelor’s degree. However, typical application packages include qualifying GRE or GMAT scores, postsecondary transcripts, a statement of purpose, a writing sample, a personal statement, and letters of recommendation. A personal interview may also be required for admission. Teaching or experience in applied research is sometimes required or preferred.

    Funding is another major difference between PhDs in Education and Doctors of Education, as the latter do not tend to offer tuition stipends to students. Most PhD programs in education offer tuition stipends and living quarters or cost of living stipends that are offset by students’ participation in graduate assistantships in teaching and research. In part because of this funding, admission to PhD programs is typically highly competitive. Applicants with related experience, strong GRE scores, and high GPAs may have the best chance of being accepted into a PhD in Education program.

    Core Concepts for a PhD in Education Degree

    At the PhD level, core concepts and coursework vary widely by the field of specialization of the degree. On a broad level, PhD in Education coursework tends to be focused on qualitative and quantitative research and is marked by close collaboration with faculty. Students may be trained on publishing their research in academic journals, presenting research findings at educational conferences, and securing grant funding as future faculty. Coursework for PhD in Education programs is highly-specialized and advanced and typically culminates in a large research project called a dissertation. Common courses in a PhD in Education curriculum include:

    • Cognition and Instruction in Classrooms
    • Design Research in Education
    • Dissertation Proposal Seminar
    • Doctoral Seminar in Curriculum Research
    • Educational Policy Analysis
    • Foundations of Teaching & Learning
    • Introduction to Quantitative Methods in Educational Research
    • Politics of Urban Education
    • Professional Seminar in Administration
    • Schools as Social Institutions
    • Statistical Analysis in Education: Regression

    Top-Rated PhD in Education Degree Programs

    US News & World Report ranks the top education schools with graduate education programs each year. The following schools from this list offer PhD in Education programs.1

    Select PhD in Education Programas

    Traditional Programs

    Harvard University

    Together, Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences offer a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Education with three concentration choices: Culture, Institutions, and Society (CIS); Education Policy and Program Evaluation (EPPE); and Human Development, Learning and Teaching (HDLT). The PhD is grounded in interdisciplinary research marked by quantitative and qualitative methods. Students may focus their independent research during the program on human development, teaching and learning, and policy analysis. The program can be completed in five years of full-time study. Courses available for all concentrations include Colloquium in Culture and Institutions, Education Policy and Program Evaluation, Introduction to Applied Data Analysis, and Introduction to Qualitative Research. The PhD in Education at Harvard culminates in the proposal, writing, and defense of the dissertation. Students are admitted for the fall term, and applications should include a resume, statement of purpose, three letters of recommendation, GRE scores, postsecondary transcripts, and an application fee. In-person interviews take place in January. Admitted students are guaranteed a full funding package for the first five years of study. Harvard Graduate School of Education also offers a Doctor of Education Leadership (Ed.L.D.); several master’s degrees in education; and several professional education programs in education that are offered both on campus and online.

    University of California–Los Angeles

    The Department of Education at the University of California–Los Angeles (UCLA) offers a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Education: Urban Schooling that trains graduates to improve the practice of urban education by investigating the complex issues facing urban areas and their schools. The PhD follows an interdisciplinary approach to solving problems in education by drawing on other disciplines such as political science, sociology, economics, linguistics, history, and psychology. Admission to the program requires a minimum GPA of 3.0 for undergraduate and graduate work; GRE verbal and quantitative scores of 150 each; and proven related career interest. A master’s degree is preferred; students entering the program without an approved master’s must take a Doctoral Screening Exam in the spring term of the first year or the fall term of the second year. Two strands are offered: Education, Schooling, and Social Transformation (EST) and Design, Learning, and Social Transformation (DLT). Core courses required for both strands include Schools as Social Institutions; Schools in Social Contexts; and Schools, People, & Power. Other cross-strand courses include Social Theories of Practice; Learning & Identity; and Language Issues in Education. The program takes most students around five years to complete and culminates with a doctoral qualifying exam as well as a dissertation. UCLA also offers combined Master of Arts (MA) and PhD programs in Higher Education & Organizational Change; Human Development and Psychology; Social Research Methodology; and Social Sciences and Comparative Education, as well as several Master of Education (M.Ed.) and Doctor of Education (EdD) programs and a postgraduate certificate open to doctoral students.

    Northwestern University

    Northwestern University offers an interdisciplinary Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Human Development and Social Policy (HDSP) that draws on the study of anthropology, political science, economics, sociology, and psychology to answer questions about public policy as it relates to human development. Coursework related to human development includes Child Development; Adolescent Development; Adult Development and Aging; and Nature-Nurture Revisited. Courses in the social policy discipline include Social-Community Interventions; Topics: Organizations, Institutions and Society: Persistence and Change Among Public, Private and Non-Profit Sectors; and Educational Policy: Design, Implementation and Effects. Additional methods coursework is required and includes courses such as Proseminar in Human Development & Social Policy and Quantitative Methods III: Empirical Tools for Causal Quantitative Analysis. Applications are due in December for a fall start date, and interview invitations are sent in January. Applications should include an application fee, a statement of purpose, a resume, a writing sample, transcripts from all postsecondary institutions, GRE scores, and English proficiency scores for non-native English speakers. Graduates of Northwestern have assumed roles as teachers and researchers at colleges and universities, as well as policy analysts for government or research organizations. Northwestern also offers a PhD in Learning Sciences and one in Computer Science and Learning Sciences (CS+LS), as well as several master’s degrees in education.

    Stanford University

    The Graduate School of Education (GSE) at Stanford University offers a unique Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) program in Social Sciences, Humanities, and Interdisciplinary Policy Studies in Education (SHIPS). The SHIPS approach includes two distinctive, but complementary approaches: to develop students’ skills in a disciplinary tradition and to develop skills in a major issue in education. Students can choose a program in one of the seven Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS) disciplinary traditions (anthropology; economics; history; linguistics; organizational studies; philosophy; and sociology); a program in one of the four Issue Domains in Education (IDE) areas (educational policy; higher education; international comparative education (ICE); and race, inequality, and language in education (RILE)); or a dual specialization program studying one HSS discipline and one IDE area. The dual specialization program takes full advantage of the SHIPS model and does not take more time or total units than a single program. The Stanford PhD program requires students to commit to four to five years of full-time study, but can take less for students who have a related master’s degree. Students who do not have a relevant master’s degree must earn a doctoral minor related to their program. The PhD culminates in a dissertation project, which is proposed during the fourth year of study. Stanford offers student fellowships and assistantships to graduate students in addition to loans and scholarships. In addition to the SHIPS program, the Stanford GSE offers several other graduate programs in education.

    Online and Hybrid Programs

    Michigan State University

    Michigan State University’s (MSU) College of Education offers a PhD in Educational Psychology and Educational Technology (EPET) that can be taken in an on-campus mode or hybrid mode depending on the student’s needs. Students attending the program on campus will need to pursue the degree full time by completing three courses each semester in addition to working 20 hours each week in a paid assistantship program; in this mode, the degree can be completed in four years or more. The hybrid mode is built for students who are working full time and can only attend school part time; these students will typically complete four courses each year and finish their degree in five or more years of mostly online learning. One semester of face-to-face learning is offered to those students who are able to take leave from their jobs, and graduate assistantships may be available during that semester to help with the cost of attending class on campus. Two areas of emphasis are offered in Educational Psychology and Educational Technology; an additional specialization in Language and Literacy Education is offered for the Educational Psychology emphasis, as well as an optional Urban Education Graduate Certificate. Graduates of the program have worked as teachers and researchers in a university setting and as leaders in school systems or the private sector. Several master’s degrees are offered at MSU in education, many of which are in an online format.

    Colorado State University

    Colorado State University (CSU) offers an online Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) program in Education and Human Resource Studies: Higher Education Leadership Specialization designed for students who are employed full time. The learning experience is marked by two video conferences per week plus two face-to-face meetings on campus per year, one in January and one in July. Only 10-12 students are admitted to each cohort, a group of professional peers who stay together throughout the duration of the program. To be admitted, applicants must have two years of experience in higher education and a regionally accredited master’s degree with a minimum 3.0 GPA. GRE scores are not required. Rather than exams, students submit papers as the predominant form of assessment. Coursework includes Higher Education Finance, Student Development in a Collegiate Context, Analyzing Education Literature, Simulated Presidential Cabinet I, and a final dissertation. Graduates of the program can advance their careers in higher education in positions in administration, student services, and academic support leadership. CSU also offers a hybrid PhD in Organizational Learning, Performance, and Change (OLPC), as well as several online and hybrid master’s programs in education.

    University of Kentucky

    At the University of Kentucky’s (UK) School of Educational Leadership Studies, students can get an online PhD in Educational Leadership. The PhD at UK focuses on scholarly research and graduates seek roles as faculty, research scientists, or other professional educational roles. In a rare 100% online format, students at UK will complete 42 credit hours of coursework plus four credit hours in a residency for a total of 46 credit hours, taking an average of five to six years to complete, though it is possible to complete the program in as little as four years. The program has a cohort format in which a new group of students is admitted each fall, with applications due by January. Coursework focuses on a Leadership Core (with courses such as Leadership in Educational Organizations I and Politics of Educational Leadership) and a Research Method Core (with courses such as Research Design & Analysis in Education and Field Studies in Educational Settings. In addition to taking 15 hours in each of these two areas, students take 12 hours of elective courses. A handful of courses are held in a live, synchronous format via Zoom sessions on five or six Saturdays each term, but other courses are taught in the evening during the week, allowing students to work during the day. The PhD in Educational Leadership culminates in a dissertation, qualifying exam, and dissertation residency. To be admitted, candidates should have an accredited master’s degree with a GPA of 3.5 or higher and GRE scores in the top 49th percentile. They should also have completed a basic graduate-level course in statistics with a grade of B or higher.

    Employment Opportunities for a PhD in Education

    Frequently Asked Questions

    Question: What is the difference between a PhD and a Doctor of Education?

    Answer: While there are some similarities between these two terminal degrees in education, there are also distinct differences. In general, the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Education tends to focus on research, theory, and preparing graduates for roles as college professors and researchers. The EdD tends to focus more on the application of research to solve educational problems and preparing graduates for roles in educational leadership and administration. PhDs typically (but not always) require students to attend full time, while EdDs are often designed for working students. Still, PhDs tend to take longer to complete (commonly four to six years as opposed to three years for an EdD).

    Question: What can you do with a PhD in Education?

    Answer: A PhD in Education can prepare graduates for many types of careers. Many graduates of PhD programs enter teaching and research roles at the postsecondary level at colleges and universities. However, others enter careers in public policy, consulting, or education administration. The specialization you choose for your PhD will largely determine your career opportunities after graduation.

    Question: How long is a PhD in Education?

    Answer: PhDs in Education usually take between four and six years of full-time study to complete. Often, the first four years are spent in coursework and preparing the dissertation proposal, and subsequent years are spent writing the dissertation and finally, defending it in front of a panel of faculty members.

    Question: What can you do with a PhD in Curriculum and Instruction?

    Answer: A PhD in Curriculum and Instruction prepares graduates to become teacher educators as well as researchers, policymakers, and administrators. Sometimes PhDs in Curriculum and Instruction offer specialization options, further narrowing the scope of study and career possibilities. Specializations may include Early Childhood Education or a teachable subject area such as science or mathematics.

    Question: What is a dissertation?

    Answer: Most PhD in Education programs culminate with the writing and defense of a dissertation, which is an in-depth research project in which students study and develop an original concept related to their degree, and then present it to faculty who ask questions while the students “defend” their work. Even if you are attending an online or hybrid program, certain aspects of the dissertation may have to be completed in person, but you should check with the schools of your choice for more information.

    Question: What is tenure?

    Answer: In the United States, many colleges and universities offer academic tenure, which is a permanent job contract, for faculty positions under certain circumstances. Tenure is appointed by the college or university administration (usually via a tenure committee) to instructors who meet a set of guidelines set by the school. Tenured faculty positions are typically coveted because these instructors can only be terminated under exceptional circumstances such as the discontinuation of the program or high financial demand.

    Question: How do professors get tenure?

    Answer: Tenure requirements depend on the college or university and may be somewhat subjective. Professors who are hired on a tenure track are typically called assistant professors and it may take six or seven years (or more) to earn tenure. When considering assistant professors for tenure, the tenure committee typically reviews their research contributions, published work, ability to secure grant funding, and teaching effectiveness in the classroom.

    1. US News & World Report Best Education Schools, 2023-24: https://www.usnews.com/best-graduate-schools/top-education-schools/edu-rankings