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Online PhD Programs in Education

Pursuing advanced degrees and training in education is an excellent way to distinguish yourself in the field. Of the 693,000 master’s degrees awarded in 2009–10, more than 25% of the degrees were concentrated in education. The majority, roughly 77%, of those master’s degrees were awarded to women. Programs, curricula, and student outcomes vary tremendously by degree-granting institutions; the following guide can give you a taste of graduate degree options in the field of education.

Choose the Best Degree Path Based on Your Academic Goals

One important distinction in the world of advanced education degrees is the choice between an EdD (or Doctorate of Education) and the PhD (or Doctorate of Philosophy). Traditionally, a PhD is based in research, whereas an EdD is more focused on the practice of teaching, as well as applying theory and research to a teacher’s environment. These are important differences in terms of program structure and outcome — this guide from Northern Illinois University has more information.

Assess Your Options in Education

There are several sub-topics within most graduate-level education departments. Depending on the university or college, they may offer a master’s or PhD in some or all of these divisions. Here is a sampling of the most common sub-disciplines:

  • Elementary Teacher Education prepares teachers for pre-K through 6th grade students. Programs are often geared towards certain subjects, such as math and science.
  • Secondary Teacher Education prepares teachers who want to teach at the 6-12th grade level.
  • Curriculum and Instruction programs are focused around student learning and effective teaching strategies.
  • Special Education programs are designed for those who want to work with children that have certain needs and learning limitations.
  • Technical / Vocational programs are designed for those at the community college or two-year level in skill-based programs such as health care technician or computer repair.

A number of programs prepare individuals for roles inside the school working directly with students in a counselor or therapist position.

  • Educational Psychology degrees are geared towards people who want to work as school counselors and psychologists using the cognitive, social, and emotional aspects of students.
  • Student Counseling & Personnel Services train graduates to work in schools, mental health centers, and other organizations.

There is also a range of options at the policy or administrative level.

  • Education Administration & Supervision programs are designed for those who want to become principals, superintendents, or other higher education professionals.
  • Higher Education Administration is structured specifically for future leaders of colleges, universities or other administrators.
  • Education Policy programs typically examine educational theory, research, and leadership principles across the spectrum of early learning and higher education.

Prepare for Admission Requirements

In order to be accepted in most education graduate programs, students are expected to have a background in the field. Admission requirements vary depending on the program. For example, all graduate applicants at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are expected to have at least 12 professional education credits — and at least six of these must be in the social science foundations of education, such as educational anthropology, educational sociology, and human learning. The Danforth Educational Leadership principal preparation program at the University of Washington requires applicants to have a minimum of three years high-quality teaching experience, as well as a master’s degree.

All states require K-12 educators to have a bachelor’s degree, but 24 states promote the acquisition of master’s degrees, 16 pay higher wages for the advanced degrees, and eight require them in order to become teachers, according to a report from the Center for American Progress. Principals typically need at least a master’s degree — and often need a PhD EdD or principalship certificate. Top-level administrators, university faculty, and researchers will likely need the advanced degree and experience for career advancement.

The application process itself can be long, and requires a lot of planning.

In order to apply, most students will need to begin by studying and planning their degree path from start to finish. Consider your long-term career trajectory — will you want to stay in the classroom, work in policy, or become a school principal? Do you want to build your local network or make a geographic move? Once you’ve answered some of those big life questions, make a list of 10-15 programs — both realistic options, as well as dream schools.

  1. Make a chart of application deadlines and requirements, and keep studying for the GRE— test scores are often an important part of the application process.
  2. Start collecting transcripts from all your previous colleges and universities.
  3. Get in touch with potential professional and academic references. Letters of recommendation are almost always a part of the application; here is a guide to selecting the best references, courtesy of UC Berkeley.
  4. Once you’ve sufficiently studied for the GRE and taken a few practice exams, you can narrow down your programs. You should understand now how each option matches up with your preferences and qualifications. The GRE will send your exams to four universities for free — so decide if you want to send to any extra (you’ll have to pay a fee to do so).
  5. While waiting for your test scores, you should have a finalized list of your schools. Polish up your resume and start to work on those personal essays.
  6. Once you you’ve received your test scores, contacted your references and started to wrap up your personal statements, you are just about ready to finalize and submit your applications.

Carefully Research Tuition Rates

Note that tuition prices vary considerably between academic institutions. The tuition for the PhD in Educational Psychology at the University of Texas-Austin could be as much as $5,000 to $10,000 a quarter — but most students pay much less than that, thanks to the wide range of available financial assistance at UT, including fellowships, scholarships, and teacher assistant positions. Some doctoral programs, like the 25-30 students admitted to the education department at Stanford, receive four years of full-time financial support. Organizational Leadership PhD students at Vanderbilt University attend the university tuition-free for up to five years, and get free admittance to the American Education Research Association’s yearly conference.

Peek Inside the Programs

  • There are more than 1,000 colleges of education in the country. Here is a list of a few schools that are continually recognized for their sound, innovative programs.
  • Teacher’s College at Columbia University houses many of the oldest and most highly regarded education programs in the country. Home to 25 different teacher certification programs, Teacher’s college is also on the cutting edge of innovative research and the future of education and training.
  • Peabody College at Vanderbilt University is home to the National Center on School Choice and the National Center on Performance Initiatives — two government-funded research centers. Their top-tier education programs are continually ranked first by U.S. News and World Report.
  • Launched in 2010, the Michigan State University PhD in Educational Psychology and Educational Technology is one of just a few programs nationwide to offer an online-hybrid format for a doctoral degree. Students attend the program through online coursework and summer classes on campus.

Classes vary tremendously depending on the PhD program. For example, an EdD program in Leadership and Policy studies at Vanderbilt is going to include courses such as resource allocation and deployment in addition to a year-long independent research project as a capstone. Course work is quite different for the new teacher residency program at the University of Washington, where material is primarily focused on pedagogy or curriculum and instruction.

See What Happens After Graduation

Career possibilities after you graduate include:

  • Becoming a professor or post-secondary teacher is common. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS), post-secondary teachers earns a median salary of $62,050 every year.
  • Many PhD grads work as policy analysts at think-tanks or research organizations, where they typically bring in a salary that exceeds $100,000 (depending on experience and training).
  • Some stay in the school building as an administrator after several years of teaching. The median salary is $86,970 for elementary, middle, or high school principals. Compare that to the average salary of a superintendent, which is roughly $125,000.

The field of education is vast and multi-tiered. Prospective teachers, principals, and school administrators should thoroughly research this field prior to applying to schools, and a few years of professional experience will certainly help land a spot within a desirable academic program. Most teachers will attest to the dual nature of their profession; it tends to be both terribly challenging and incredibly rewarding in equal measure. Ultimately, teachers play a fundamental role in shaping and educating the nation’s young people—and this, many say, makes the career worth it.

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Online Phd Programs