Is an Ed.D. degree worth it?

BY Rich GrisetSeptember 29, 2022, 2:24 PM
Vanguard University students prepare for the processional before graduation ceremonies at Mariners Church in Irvine, California, as seen in May 2022. (Photo by Paul Bersebach—MediaNews Group/Orange County Register/Getty Images)

For many professional educators, there comes a time when they weigh the benefits of pursuing a doctorate of education (Ed.D.) degree. Often compared and contrasted with a doctorate of philosophy (Ph.D.), an Ed.D. is a terminal degree for people in the field of education. While the degree has useful applications in corporate America as well, many people pursuing an Ed.D. aspire to become an educational or mission-driven leader, teach college, or move into a role as a school principal or school superintendent—and some of these roles earn six-figures.

“Our goal is to prepare educators to be better leaders,” says Kimberly M. Bridges, co-coordinator of the Ed.D. in Leadership program and assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Education. “Our grad students might be teachers in the classroom who want to be principals in their schools, or we might have principals who want to advance to higher levels in district administration.”

Is an Ed.D. degree right for you? Read on to find out.

Why the ‘practical focus’ of an Ed.D. may be preferable to a Ph.D.

Ed.D. and Ph.D. degrees may seem similar, but they typically help graduates to achieve different career goals. Generally, an Ed.D. program is designed for students who wish to pursue leadership roles in education, while a Ph.D. program is aimed more at the academic study of the subject.

“When we talk about research, we don’t talk about it theoretically,” explains Laila Y. Sanguras, graduate program director of the Ed.D.-Learning and Organizational Change program at Baylor University’s School of Education. “It’s all about using it in practice and applying it in their professional fields in order to create change.”

As a practice-oriented degree, an Ed.D. is different than a traditional Ph.D., Bridges notes. “The Ed.D. is distinguished with that practical focus.”

Meanwhile, Ph.D. degree programs typically attract a different cohort, with students who desire a “deep research and varied background,” Bridges says, adding that some Ph.D. candidates are practitioners or current leaders within K-12 or higher education. “The Ph.D. has been more for folks that are looking to become higher education faculty members, higher education leaders.” 

Even though the two types of degrees generally prepare graduates for different career paths, they continue to draw comparisons. 

“Especially in the higher education world, there’s this persistent myth of ‘the Ed.D. versus the Ph.D.,’ as if one has more value than the other,” Bridges says. “Really, it’s just two different degrees.”

What skills do you gain with an Ed.D.?

Most importantly, an Ed.D. imparts leadership skills, Bridges says. This can include the theory and applications of leadership, considering multiple perspectives, and making decisions that consider equity and sustainable change. By pursuing this degree, students will also learn how to gather data and learn what interventions can improve a school system or organization.

A master’s degree is required to attend most Ed.D. programs. Generally, Bridges says the degree attracts a wide range of degree seekers, but students have often worked in the field of education for some time.

“Our Ed.D. students are often early-ish to mid-career,” Bridges says. They definitely are working full-time. Ours is a part-time program, so they are students in every non-working hour that we can squeeze out of them.”

Sanguras says that while most students in her program come from education backgrounds, 30% are from other fields, including people who are employed by corporations, the military, and who work in healthcare and human resources.

“Everything that they learn is [applicable] to their daily professional work,” Sanguras says. “The students who come into our program are already leaders in their field. They have very big and incredible dreams and goals, and so we want this degree to help propel them forwards so they can reach those.”

What career prospects and salary outcomes are gained with an Ed.D.?

Earning an Ed.D. can increase a person’s impact, scale, and scope of reach, according to Bridges. And these attributes have a positive impact on employment prospects. “That can mean a wide variety of titles. It might mean that they have greater flexibility in making a career change,” Bridges says.

There are many job prospects for Ed.D. holders, including roles that average six figures. School superintendents, for example can earn anywhere from $105,000 to $228,000 per year, according to the School Superintendents Association. Someone who is the coordinator of a program might be able to become its director with an Ed.D., or a director could become a dean. Similarly, a principal could move into the central administration of their school system. Additionally, Sanguras says that students who obtain an Ed.D. may start foundations or organizations, benefiting from the credibility gained from the degree.

While earning an Ed.D. can increase someone’s salary prospects, money isn’t the reward for most educators. “They tend to think of this idea of value beyond that narrow focus on salary,” Bridges says. “The value for them is in increasing their impact.

Of students who graduated from VCU with an Ed.D. between May 2019 and Dec. 2021, those who responded to a survey reported an average salary of $86,073; 86% of respondents were employed at the time of the survey.

At VCU, Bridges says the Ed.D. program is growing rapidly, with classes now 50% larger than they were in May 2021. “For us, it’s a really exciting time, because we are expanding and we seem to be reaching more people.”

See how the schools you’re considering fared in Fortune’s rankings of the best master’s degree programs in data science (in-person and online), nursing, computer science, cybersecurity, psychology, public health, and business analytics, as well as the doctorate in education programs MBA programs (part-time, executive, full-time, and online).