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What to Expect from an EdD Program

Industry Advice Education

Professionals looking to lead social justice focused change work may want to consider pursuing a doctor of education degree, or EdD.  

An EdD prepares students to create meaningful, social justice-oriented change across professional settings. The program expands students’ understanding of education, organizational development, and leadership, allowing them to approach practice-based issues in new ways. A PhD, meanwhile, focuses on preparing students for traditional roles as a researcher. 

If you’re considering furthering your career with an advanced degree, here’s what you can expect from an EdD program. 


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The Foundations of an EdD Program 

EdD programs focus on equipping students to make positive changes in the world. As a result, many of them use social justice as a core principle. 

“We want students to ask themselves, what am I doing to move the world forward? How am I working toward a more just and equitable world?” says Sara Ewell, director of Northeastern’s Doctor of Education program and teaching professor in the Graduate School of Education. 

Students are therefore encouraged to not only seek out ways to improve their workplaces and communities, but to do so in a way that promotes equality and advancement for marginalized groups. 

Top EdD programs also strive to equip students with the tools they’ll need to research and implement this change. 

“When you enter the program, you immediately become a scholar-practitioner,” Ewell says. In other words, students are not only understanding existing research and theory in the classroom, but they’re also putting their studies into action in their workplaces on a daily basis. 

The Structure of an EdD Program 

An EdD program is typically three to four years in length. At Northeastern, the program operates on a fast-paced quarter schedule. Students can choose to specialize in one of three concentrations: curriculum, teaching, learning, and leadership; higher education administration; or organizational leadership studies

Northeastern’s EdD program is offered online and asynchronously to ensure students can continue their professional work while pursuing their degrees, giving them the chance to immediately implement their studies within their established communities. The program has been online since it was founded more than 10 years ago, giving it a strong foundation in digital learning best practices. 

“What sets [Northeastern] apart is that we haven’t just put an offline program online,” Ewell says. “Our faculty are very thoughtful in how they present their information for an online class.” 

Ewell says that while the program is entirely online, students also create a strong community and can share ideas, network, and meaningfully interact with each other and their professors throughout their coursework.  

Classes are based in theory, research, and practice and typically include readings, classroom discussions, and both independent and group projects. Students are able to customize their learning based on their problem of practice, which they establish within the first few weeks of the program. This project helps students connect their learning to both their professional interests and the changes they wish to make in the world. 

Learn More | The Benefits of an Online EdD Program 

Types of Learning in an EdD Program

EdD students can expect a range of learning opportunities as they complete their degrees, from in-class assignments to field research. Here’s what you can expect in each. 

A Dissertation 

At the beginning of the EdD program, Northeastern students identify a problem they see within their workplaces, communities, or industries. This forms the basis of their dissertation in practice, which students undertake instead of a capstone project. The dissertation in practice focuses on students’ professional interests and gives them a unique opportunity to demonstrate what they’ve learned by developing and implementing an action plan to bring about real change.  

Recent dissertation topics at Northeastern have included cyberbullying and gender, culturally relevant pedagogy, campus museums, and the study abroad experience. 

“We’re creating the opportunity for students to have a highly personalized experience,” Ewell says. 

Throughout their dissertation process, students collect and analyze data, collaborate with community leaders, conduct change work and research, and make time to reflect. They also work with an assigned faculty advisor to refine their ideas and resolve roadblocks they encounter. The resulting dissertation explains both their findings and the results of their solution’s implementation. 

Experiential Learning Activities 

Students apply their learning to the problem they are exploring in their dissertation throughout their studies. For example, they may be asked to read literature or study another organization’s structure and explain how the assignment applies to their topic. Students can also expect to speak with community leaders, make observations within their workplaces, and evaluate community organizations to conduct research for their dissertations and class assignments. These activities reinforce each other, creating a stronger connection between your studies and your career.  

Faculty encourage students to present their findings in a variety of mediums, not just through research papers. You can expect to stakeholder presentations, film a video, or participate in online discussions to facilitate learning. 

“We know the written word isn’t the end-all, be-all,” Ewell says. “We want students to be able to share knowledge in different modes.” 

Residency Programs

In-person residencies are an important way for students to share their knowledge and network with their peers. In Northeastern’s program, domestic students are invited to complete a two-day residency at the university’s Boston, Charlotte, or Seattle campuses during their first and second years of study. International students may participate in an online version as well. The residency functions in the same way as a conference, with students sharing their expertise in a series of presentations. 

“It’s an opportunity to talk about your work in a low-stakes environment and get feedback on your research,” Ewell says. 

Students and faculty members may provide ideas for further research, new perspectives on the topic, and more. This feedback helps students strengthen their dissertations and gain insights on their topic of study. 

The conference format also provides networking and advisement opportunities, and students can meet with faculty to discuss the next steps in their class schedule or careers. 

They Outcomes of an EdD Program  

At the end of an EdD program, students will be stronger researchers and practitioners who are able to put their findings into action. They should be able to identify a problem, then evaluate, develop, and implement solutions that leave a lasting, positive impact. 

“You should develop a toolbox of skills to help you,” Ewell says. “The scholar part of our students is able to research a solution, and the practitioner part looks at what has succeeded before to put that research into action.” 

For professionals who seek to change the way their industries, communities, and organizations function, particularly through a social justice lens, an EdD program can be one of the best ways to gain necessary skills. 

Take the Next Step: Earning Your EdD 

Northeastern’s EdD program combines the hands-on nature of an EdD with the university’s top-tier experiential learning opportunities. The program is based on a reflection, equity, and action framework, which encourages students to constantly seek out ways to address real-world problems they see in their professional work. 

For more information about what to expect from an EdD program, download our ebook below.


Download Our Free Guide to Earning Your EdD