The significance of a doctorate in education

If you’ve reached that stage in your career as an educator where you’ve realized you want to go a step further and participate in shaping the education system of the future, you may be wondering which is the best route forward for you in academia. You’ll hear a lot about PhDs. They’re familiar to most people because they work in a similar way in lots of different fields, and they’re highly esteemed, but what about an Ed.D.? Depending on what you want to do with your qualification, this could be every bit as useful, and in some situations, it’s much more practical. It will look just as impressive to potential employers and give you access to the very top roles in your profession. What’s more, it could enable you to bring about changes which long outlast you, improving education for vast numbers of people for many decades to come.

The aims of an Ed.D.

Unlike PhDs, which focus primarily on research and prepare graduates for future academic careers, doctorates in education are focused on preparing those who study them to become leaders on the ground and make practical changes within the field of education. Research forms part of the curriculum and it will certainly sharpen your research skills, but always with a focus on the practical benefits which new knowledge can provide.

An Ed.D. is designed to give you the thorough grounding needed to enable you to innovate and explore the potential of new ideas, while also providing you with the managerial and leadership skills necessary to put those ideas into action. This will prepare you for senior roles within individual learning institutions, on school boards and even at the federal level. You will improve your abilities as a policy maker and will have a deeper understanding of how policy can be implemented, regardless of if you are directly involved in that process.

Seeing the system as a whole

When you first study the field of education, no matter what type of program you choose, the focus will be on preparing you to work within a specific area, such as a teacher or museum education officer. You’ll understand your particular area very well, and you’ll have a general overview of how the wider education system works, but you won’t be able to discourse on the latter in depth.

An education doctorate is designed to give you an in-depth understanding of the overall system, so that you can work in senior administrative positions or in policy development and understand how your decisions will affect various aspects of that system. A thorough appreciation of how education is organized will help you to identify areas where change is needed at a systemic level, conduct or commission research to explore different options and then implement that research at a policy level. You’ll understand the different steps necessary to facilitate change and you’ll be able to anticipate where difficulties are likely to arise, identifying potential conflicts of interest and knowing what you need to take into consideration when trying to solve them.

Developing management skills

One thing which you won’t necessarily have learned earlier on in your training is how to be an effective manager. Although it’s often possible to pick this up along the way and do a fairly good job, especially if you’re working with a small team of people who already know and respect you, you’ll find it a great deal easier after you’ve been properly taught, and you’ll really need that kind of preparation if you’re to take the reins of a large organization.

Familiarity with formal management techniques will also help to boost the confidence of those working under you because they’ll see a style which looks familiar, making them feel that they know where they stand with you. This is true despite there being several different management styles and techniques you can utilize. You should aim to find the one which is the most comfortable fit for you, while keeping other strategies in reserve in the event you run into difficulty. This training will also improve your ability to anticipate other senior professionals’ decisions and recognize what will or won’t work for them when you’re planning structural change.

Leadership and vision

Unlike management, which is primarily about organization and efficiency, leadership centers on the ability to inspire and motivate groups of people to achieve specific ends. Developing leadership skills is a vital part of a Doctorate in Education. Without these skills, you won’t be able to put your ideas into practice. As you draw on what you’ve learned through observation and research to develop your vision, you’ll need to be able to communicate it to others and fill them with the same passion for making it a reality.

Leadership skills are also important for giving people the confidence to do their day-to-day work when under additional pressure. During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, when education had to be approached in a whole new way in order to keep students and staff safe, leaders in education needed to come up with solutions, implement them and give staff the confidence to continue their work in altered circumstances. Thanks to them, the students who were affected faced a lot less disruption to their education than would otherwise have been the case, and most of them will be able to make up the difference, enabling them to progress through the rest of their lives without the disadvantage of belonging to a less educated generation.

Management and leadership roles

Earning an Ed.D. will open up roles at the very top level of the education system to you. Your studies will also help you to think about what sort of role would be the most appropriate for you, where you could meet your personal needs, enjoy a high level of job satisfaction and make the most positive difference.

At the simplest level, you could take charge of an individual institution as a school or college dean, a school principal or a provost, and this is many people’s first choice after graduating, especially if there are opportunities available in institutions that they already have a strong connection with. It’s a good opportunity to get used to wielding authority and handling a significant level of responsibility.

At the next level, you could work as a school district superintendent or director of education. If you prefer a less public role, you could take the lead in curriculum development for your school district or a group of charter schools. If you want a wider reach, you could become a policy analyst or take on a senior role at the federal Department of Education.

Philosophy and ethics

Despite its practical focus, an Ed.D. provides the philosophical foundation which you would expect from any advanced degree. It will bring you up to date on the latest thinking about the foundations of the field, so that you are ready to become a thought leader yourself. Both during and after pursuing these studies, you will be expected to participate in discussions of ethics with your peers. Though these are sometimes referred to as ‘debates’, that’s a bit misleading, because the objective is to broaden your knowledge and understanding, not to ‘win’. Most importantly, it is to alert you to issues which might not previously have been on your radar and increase your sensitivity to the ethical aspects of everything you do.

After graduation, you will be able to lead such discussions elsewhere, helping people who are working under you, or those you are training, to enhance their own ethical awareness and sharpen the way they think. Both you and, in turn, they, will be empowered to use your intelligence to best effect, while also developing the empathy needed to engage effectively as an educator.

Identifying areas where research is needed

Over the course of your studies, you will probably develop strong ideas about how the system currently works, even if you didn’t have them to begin with. What you can do will depend on the role in which you end up in. Identifying where you can be useful once you are in a role starts with listening. You will need to get to know the smartest people working under you and find out what their concerns are. These will not necessarily be those in the most senior positions. In fact, often people working at the most basic level have the most acute understanding of where there are problems, and the clearest ideas about how to fix them, even if those ideas need to be properly tested before they can be taken further. Of course, you can also identify under-researched areas simply by going through the research which already exists. Academic literature reviews are particularly helpful in this regard.

Teaching the teachers

In many of the roles in which you might find yourself as a Doctor of Education, your job will be to pass your ideas on to the next generation, to teach the teachers — or even university professors — how to do a better job. With this in mind, you’ll learn a new set of teaching skills, focused not only on adults, whom you may have taught before, but on educated professionals, some of whom are likely to have strong ideas of their own. Winning over people like this isn’t easy, so you’ll need to develop your powers of persuasion alongside the ideas you wish to implement. You’ll be able to draw on your past experience in the sector, and observations of colleagues, when thinking about how to inspire learners and figuring out what they want to get out of the process.

Bringing research into practice

Turning the ideas which emerge from your research into policy which works on the ground involves more than just educating others. You’ll need to establish the ways of applying them which are likely to be most effective, assess the wider context in which they will be applied and identify possible pitfalls. You’ll need to do equality assessments to make sure that they won’t lead to discrimination against vulnerable groups of students or inadvertently entrench existing systemic bias.

In some contexts, you will also be obliged to consult with stakeholders and even run public consultations, a form of research in itself. Merely possessing the authority vested in your role is not enough. You will need to have the courage to assert it, no matter who stands in your way, and the confidence to interact with people at the top level.

You will need good negotiating skills and a lot of patience. Generally speaking, the more far-reaching the change you are trying to make, the longer you will have to work to make it happen, but persistence usually pays off, and if you’re willing to put in the effort, you will leave a legacy you can be proud of.

Shaping the field

It should come as no surprise to you that doctorates in education appeal to the most ambitious people in the field, as they create the opportunity to get involved in shaping that field for the future. You may want to give better opportunities to kids in a neglected area, change the way a particular subject is taught in your school district or alter the funding priorities of an entire state, but whatever it is, this is the level at which the big ideas are formed.

Studying for an Ed.D. means you will be surrounded by people with similar aims, so it’s a really good opportunity to network and build alliances. It’s always easier to convince colleagues of the value of your ideas if you can point to similar work being done elsewhere. Networking also makes it easier to stay abreast of current research, especially if you want to look beyond the borders of the US at what’s happening internationally, because you can share articles with people when you spot something related to their interests, making it more likely that what you are interested in will reach you quickly and directly.

Beyond education

Although the title of this degree might suggest that it’s relevant only to the field of education, it can be useful in other sectors as well — anywhere where education is needed. In a profession such as healthcare, where there is a big focus on ongoing learning, Doctors of Education are needed to ensure that educational structures are working effectively at every level, to oversee research into areas where altered or enhanced education might be necessary and to advise on implementing such changes.

Doctors of Education go on to train the trainers in every sector, from management to agriculture, because although you won’t have the same expertise about the subject matter in those sectors as people who have built their careers there, you will have a much more sophisticated understanding of how to help people learn. Some Doctors of Education set up their own training companies and others develop secondary specialties, making their way to the top in areas as diverse as diplomatic training or air force education.


What to expect as an Ed.D. student

If you’ve reflected on the virtues of studying a doctorate vs PhD and decided that the former is for you, it’s time to start thinking about how you would like to specialize. By studying for an Ed.D. through a reputable institution such as Rockhurst University, you can choose to specialize in higher education, K-12 leadership, health care education or organizational leadership.

If you decide at some point that you’re more interested in another area, an Ed.D. will still give you an advantage in a variety of fields, but if your doctorate aligns with the area where you true passion lies then you can look forward to a thoroughly enjoyable period of study before emerging perfectly qualified for the best jobs in your field.

Alongside classes that are offered 100% online, you will participate in workshopping and other forms of peer-to-peer engagement which mirror the experience of developing policy inside educational institutions and school districts. You’ll be supported by experts in the field who will use all their resources to bring you up to their own level, and you’ll make valuable connections in the process.

Final thoughts

If you’re truly devoted to seeing education improve and expand as a field, giving future generations the opportunity to realize their full potential, then a Doctorate of Education will prepare you to play an active role in making it happen. With online courses and part time options available, there’s no need to take time out from working in the field you love in order to study, and even if you teach night classes or provide training at odd hours, there are options to suit you. Studying at this level means taking your future into your own hands, with the opportunity to become the very best you can be. It’s the final step in your own education, and it could be the start of a revolution for others.

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