The future of the Ed.D. degree—and how it will change over time

BY Isabel Peña AlfaroMarch 15, 2023, 12:57 PM
Jill Perry, executive director at the Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate. (Courtesy of Jill Perry)

The doctorate of education (Ed.D.) degree prepares professionals to lead and influence change in their professional community. While many Ed.D. students come from the field of education, the applicability of this degree spans not only schools and higher education institutions but also museums, police academies, youth organizations, and even corporations. 

The broad applicability of this doctorate degree has, in turn, led to a surge in interest. Among the eight schools on Fortune’s ranking of the best online Ed.D. programs, enrollment jumped 13% in the 2020-2021 academic year compared with the prior year. And some schools, like Baylor University’s online Ed.D. program, saw a 50% increase in enrollment.

Degree programs are also evolving. Some schools—like Johns Hopkins did—may move away from the dissertation in practice model or find ways to tailor the curriculum to Ed.D. students who work in various education settings, according to Jill Perry, executive director at the Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate (CPED). The organization plays an active role in guiding more than 135 member universities to redesign and revamp the Ed.D. so it prepares doctoral students for the profession of education. 

“Instead of having a one-size-fits-all model Ed.D., which was our original plan, we recognized that professional educational preparation needs to look different in different places,” Perry says.

Fortune sat down with Perry to learn more about the future of the Ed.D. and how it will evolve over time.

The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

How the Ed.D. will be redefined

Fortune: What is the Ed.D.?

Perry: The Ed.D. is the terminal degree for leaders in education. It’s the M.D. in education. It’s the degree that says: You have the skills to be able to transform practice and transform the field.

As the degree proliferates and we [CPED] have more influence with our framework, schools of education and employers will recognize more and more that leaders need certain skills to address problems on the ground. Solutions to complex problems need to come from people who are working in practice every single day. The Ed.D. helps practitioners address those problems through applied research, inquiry, and literature, in ways that are very different from other kinds of educational training, such as the Ph.D. The Ed.D. is going to become the degree that people want to get if they want to remain in any kind of educational practice. 

The Ed.D. is for leaders spanning a broad field of education. It provides professional preparation for those who will lead, design, and improve educational programs in whatever setting they’re in. For example, Ed.D. graduates might work in K-12 schools or they might work at YMCAs or museums where education happens in an informal, non-traditional way.

Fortune: Has the Ed.D. shifted to become a more general doctorate degree then?

No. Ed.D.s have been historically vague degrees that lacked a clear, distinct mission. But, as CPED has grown over 16 years, we have learned that schools of education cannot prepare people who work in various education settings in the same way. Education is a broad field. For example, programs cannot prepare people who are going to be superintendents in Houston the same way they might prepare somebody who’s going to be a community college leader in rural Kentucky. 

So instead of having a one-size-fits-all model Ed.D., which was our original plan, we recognized that professional educational preparation needs to look different in different places. To support this notion, CPED members created a framework to guide Ed.D. program design.

Fortune: What does the Ed.D. framework offer?

The framework offers a set of criteria that should be present in any kind of Ed.D. program, no matter what the concentration. For example, programs are guided to teach research methods so that Ed.D. graduates know how to collect data in their organizations, analyze it, and create change or address problems that they see. We view training as being more hands-on and tied to professional practice in the same way that doctor of nursing practice or doctor of engineering preparation is tied to professional practice. These other fields closely tie practice to doctoral preparation; that’s where we’re headed. 

Another distinction is the dissertation. We call it the dissertation in practice (DiP). It is meant to be applied to complex, local problems of practice. The DiP experience becomes, what I call “the cadaver,” as a medical student would, where they put their research into practice in a safe, supervised environment, learning the how-to for future use in practice. The DiP is very hands-on between the student and the faculty advisor. 

And, another distinction is the “laboratory of practice,” or applied internship or practical work, which might ask students to gather data, bring it to class, and work through it. Both experiences are meant to be hands-on and tied to the work that the students are doing on a day-to-day basis. As a result, these part-time students bring their daytime professional job and part-time schooling together for applied learning. 

The Ed.D.’s framework and style will continue to evolve

Fortune: Will more programs break away from concentrations? 

Many institutions are moving towards the notion of interdisciplinarity in their Ed.D. programs. I do not know if it means getting away from a concentration area entirely, but it definitely means moving away from keeping students siloed in one program area only. You might have an Ed.D. classroom with K-12 professionals, as well as university, museums, and HR professionals. 

In this interdisciplinary classroom, students learn from and with each other. The cohort might have a set of core courses that provides them with the core program knowledge, and which are taken together, and then break off into concentration area courses. This model seems to be more common right now. 

Fortune: Will more programs break away from the traditional dissertation like Johns Hopkins did?  

Yes. Many have and will break away with the dissertation in practice (defined by CPED as a scholarly endeavor that impacts a complex problem of practice). The goal of a DiP is to create work that is usable in practice. That does not mean that students aren’t doing the rigorous research of a dissertation. Rather, their work is a different kind of research. It is more applied, more localized. And the final document that they submit explains how that research informs whatever practical product they’ve created, such as a handbook, executive summary, podcast, policy change, presentation to the community. Their work is usable in professional practice and seeks to improve, change, or understand a problem at a practical level. 

Fortune: Are you seeing other changes with the dissertation?

We see institutions that will still have a traditional dissertation document that has to be turned in to satisfy the graduate school, but often either the inside of the document is different or a second project is included, which could be a portfolio or some of those examples that I’ve suggested that are more useful to practice settings. 

We also see group dissertations in practice. Whereas people like me who got Ph.D.s wrote our dissertations by ourselves because the our career goal was to be scholars and experts who generate knowledge. Practitioners, however, do not work alone. They work in teams. A group dissertation facilitates the team notion of doing research and inquiry collaboratively, and examining a problem of practice from various angles together to develop understanding and solutions.

Fortune: What do you think is the future of the Ed.D. degree?

The future of the Ed.D. is a continued journey towards becoming the degree for professional education preparation. Employers and universities will recognize that those who seek to lead educational practice, will need the skills the degree provides. Employers will also recognize that Ed.D. graduates have been trained with the specific skills, knowledge, and dispositions to apply research to practice to improve educational practice.

Check out all of Fortune’rankings of degree programs, and learn more about specific career paths.