EdD vs. PhD in Education: What’s the Difference?

Industry Advice Education

If you’re interested in pursuing a doctoral degree in education, one of the first questions you’ll face is: Should I apply for a Doctor of Education (EdD) or a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)?

The degrees are equivalent, but serve different purposes. This means that the greatest differences between the two degrees are in the focus of the curriculum and the career goals of the student.

When making the choice between an EdD versus a PhD, what you need to consider is the next step you want to take in your career.

What’s an EdD?

An EdD is a professional doctorate best suited for experienced educators and mid- to senior-level working professionals who want to lead and implement change at their organization.

EdD candidates work in a broad range of fields, from K-12 and higher education to nonprofits, government, healthcare, and the military. What each share is a desire to transform their everyday environment and apply the lessons learned through their doctorate to a complex, critical issue facing their workplace.


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The EdD is practice-based. Students in an EdD program don’t want to just research their area of interest, but leverage that research in ways that could positively influence their community or organization’s decision-making process.

Those who pursue an EdD focus on qualitative, exploratory research. Students collect data and conduct individual interviews, observations, or focus groups to construct hypotheses and develop strategies that can help solve or clarify a specific problem of practice, such as how to support student veterans transitioning to civilian life or how to foster more female leaders in higher education—two dissertation topics recently explored through Northeastern’s EdD program.

What’s a PhD?

A PhD is a terminal degree best suited for individuals who want to pursue a career in academia or research at the university level.

Students in a PhD program take a more theoretical, study-based approach to learning. In most cases, their goal is to master a specific subject or add their unique findings to a body of existing literature. PhD candidates conduct original research in the hopes of driving change in their field or inspiring others to make change based off their work.

A PhD is the degree most popular amongst those whose goal is to become a professor or obtain tenure. Through those programs, students tend to focus on getting published in well-respected journals, presenting at national conferences, and learning how to teach future educators.

Joseph McNabb, a professor of practice in Northeastern’s Graduate School of Education, succinctly summarizes the difference between a PhD and EdD, saying:

With a PhD, you’re reviewing the research, seeing a gap in the literature, and generating new knowledge based on a theory or hypothesis. An EdD student starts with a problem of practice and is going to be learning the skills it will take to resolve that complex problem of practice.

What Can You Do with an EdD?

While an EdD can be applied to a variety of industries—such as K-12, higher education, the nonprofit sector, or civic service—there are several job titles you’ll likely come across within your cohort of classmates. They include:

Postsecondary Education Administrators: Postsecondary education administrators work in colleges or universities, and typically oversee faculty research, academics, admissions, or student affairs. Some job titles that fall under this category include president, vice president, provost, and dean. The average annual salary for a postsecondary education administrator rings in at $90,760.

Elementary and Secondary School Education Administrators: Superintendents, who are the top executives of a school district, fall under this category. They manage academic programs, spending, and the staffing of all educational facilities within their district, and typically earn an average $95,390 per year.

Top Executives: In education, a top executive could be a “chief learning officer” or “chief academic officer”—senior-level professionals who drive and develop strategies that help their organization meet critical business goals. Top executives make approximately $103,950 per year.

Instructional Coordinators: Instructional coordinators create and manage school curricula and other educational materials. They help teachers implement effective classroom learning strategies and measure the effectiveness of what’s being taught and how. The average annual salary for instructional coordinators is roughly $62,460.

What Can You Do with a PhD in Education?

While some of the above roles can also be earned through a PhD program, the most common job titles for PhD-holders include:

Postsecondary Teachers: Postsecondary teachers instruct students at a college or university. When they’re not in the classroom, they’re often focused on conducting research, attending conferences, and publishing scholarly papers and books. Postsecondary teachers earn an average $75,430 per year.

Academic Researcher: Researchers often have the opportunity to create their own centers or institutes, hire staff to help carry out their work, and secure funding for that work. Salaries often vary by subject area, but a general academic researcher typically earns an average $72,988 per year.

Taking the Next Step

Now knowing the differences between an EdD and PhD, the follow-up question to consider is: What’s the next step I want to take in my career? The answer to this question will determine which degree you ultimately pursue.

Either way, earning your doctorate can pay off: Professionals with a doctoral degree earn an average $3.65 million over their lifetime—nearly one million dollars more than master’s degree holders.


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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in July 2017 and has since been updated.