Why I earned an Ed.D. instead of a Ph.D. in education

BY Sydney LakeAugust 05, 2022, 1:37 PM
Photo courtesy of Vaughn A. Calhoun

There are two terminal degree paths for people looking to study the field of education: a doctor of education (Ed.D.) or a Ph.D. program. While these programs sound similar in nature, they have differing purposes and associated career goals. The bottom line is that an Ed.D. program is designed for candidates looking to pursue leadership roles in education, while a Ph.D. program focuses on the academic study of the subject.

“A Ph.D. essentially is research-focused; it aims to create new knowledge,” Vaughn A. Calhoun, assistant vice president and dean for the Center of Academic Success at Seton Hall University, tells Fortune. “But the Ed.D. is typically practitioner-focused, using existing knowledge to problem-solve contemporary issues. It’s about how we can solve a problem, as opposed to how we can create new knowledge and disseminate that new knowledge.”

While most students who earn a Ph.D. in education go on to become professors or researchers, those who earn an Ed.D. have a wider array of career opportunities postgraduation. Ed.D. career paths include primary and secondary educational leadership (such as becoming a superintendent or school principal), as well as higher education positions such as a dean, provost, or university president. 

Calhoun was inspired to pursue his Ed.D. after his college football career. While he received a football scholarship from Rutgers University and studied there for undergrad, he didn’t feel as if he became fully educated there to achieve his career goals. 

“There was somewhat of a culture that education always took somewhat of a backseat to playing ball—rightly or wrongly,” he says. “And it wasn’t until after I finished playing that I realized, ‘Man, I kind of missed out.’” That realization, along with reading William C. Rhoden’s Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete, kickstarted Calhoun’s career in higher education.

Rhoden’s book investigates the “conveyor belt theory,” which says that higher education institutions go into minority communities and “extract talent,” as Calhoun puts it. These college athletes are then put on a figurative conveyor belt where someone is always in front of you and someone is always behind you—with the ultimate goal of finding the next superstar athlete. But you don’t quite realize you were ever on the belt until you’re off, owing to injury or having issues with a coach. 

“I was a part of a system, and I didn’t even know it,” Calhoun says. “Initially, I thought that I failed—not realizing that my destiny was already almost predetermined.”

From there, Calhoun made it his goal for student athletes to have a better experience than he did by pursuing leadership roles in higher education after earning his Ed.D. from Northeastern University. Fortune sat down with Calhoun to find out why he chose to pursue an Ed.D. over a Ph.D. and what he’s done with it so far. 

How an Ed.D. can help propel a career in education

Fortune: What were you looking for in a doctoral program?

Calhoun: I was looking specifically for doctoral programs that were practitioner-based and that would really help me harness current research and best practices to help student athletes navigate this terrain. I eventually ended up at Northeastern in Boston and did my dissertation on the lived experience of student athletes who were academically clustered.

What were your goals after earning your doctorate?

Initially, I wanted to work in college athletics—and I did for a brief moment. But then a mentor said to me, “Listen, you can go ahead and try to work in college athletics. But you know the way that you feel about the system of college athletics—would you then be in a position where you have to uphold a system in which you don’t wholeheartedly believe?” I was like, “Oh man, that’s a fantastic question.” So he said to me that I have door number two. He said, “You can teach.”

I was never thinking I would move into a faculty route, because that was never a part of my vision. But here I was talking to these different classes—undergraduate classes—about my dissertation, about my experience. 

Meeting a few different mentors along the way opened my eyes to what could be after the faculty route: a role in administration where I could not only help those in my class, but help those more on a systems level by helping influence policies to help more students out. That really appealed to me. Then my target moved from being a faculty member to asking how far I can take it in administration. 

The power of administration and being able to really help move policies and help move systems for the benefit of the student experience—that’s why I initially got into this. Because I didn’t feel that I had the best experience. It wasn’t the worst in the world, but how can we ensure student success and make sure they stay the course?

A doctoral program can help refine your career goals

How did your goals change as a result of the doctoral program?

My mindset totally was focused on being an athletic director at a Division I institution. I wanted to really understand how a college works and where athletics fits and how college athletics really can be of service to the student athlete. 

As I transitioned through my doctoral program and met a few mentors along the way, it became about how can I not only help student athletes, but the greater student body. Every student who goes to college should have a tremendous experience where they can take those experiences and really hit the ground running as they move into workforce and really be of service and really fulfill their potential.

How did your doctoral program prepare you for what you’re doing now?

It was the exposure to things that I didn’t necessarily know about. One thing that always pops up is that one of my professors was a former college president, and the insights that he was able to bring in terms of, not just how a college works technically, but more on a micro level of how to really make a change. 

What is your advice to people deciding whether to pursue an Ed.D. or a Ph.D.?

That’s something that people ask me often. And in my response it is, “What is your career goal? What is it that you want to do?” If you want to be a professor, conduct research studies, write articles, an Ed.D. would work, but a Ph.D. is more geared toward that type of training versus the Ed.D. A Ph.D. program, generally speaking, that’s your full-time thing, whereas an Ed.D., they are focused on the practice.

See how the schools you’re considering fared in Fortune’s rankings of the best master’s degree programs in nursingcomputer sciencecybersecuritypsychology, public healthbusiness analytics, and data science, as well as the best doctorate in education and part-timeexecutive, full-time, and online MBA programs.