Friday, February 16, 2018

So, You're Thinking about Getting an Ed.D.?

One of the things I love about my job is coordinating the higher education administration concentration of my department’s Ed.D. in Educational Leadership. My responsibilities include talking with prospective students about the program and answering their questions. In some cases, these conversations center on the nuts and bolts of our program--application deadlines, required courses, and so forth. Just as often, I step into the role of advisor and help students consider various points that I believe should inform their decision to apply. In this post, I’ll share a few of those considerations with the goal of helping others as they evaluate 1) whether they want to pursue an Ed.D., 2) when is the right time to begin, and 3) what type of program would best fit their goals and needs. To be clear, I won’t address the great “Ed.D. vs. Ph.D. Debate.” Although this is a worthwhile question, my advice in this post is for people who have already decided to go the Ed.D. route and plan to continue working while they complete the program.

Consideration #1: Timing

Perhaps the number one point I raise in conversations with prospective students is whether now is the right time for them to undertake a terminal degree. One thing to consider is where you are at professionally. Some people who are fresh out of a master’s degree see good reason to keep going while they are motivated. Although there is merit to this view, I suggest spending some time gaining professional experience and a sense of where you intend to go professionally before undertaking a terminal degree. Make certain that (higher) education is your long-term career before making a multi-year commitment to study it in-depth. The applied nature of many Ed.D. programs also means having some experience will benefit you during classroom discussions and as you consider dissertation projects. By ensuring you have sufficient professional experience, you can avoid the problem of being “over-educated but under-experienced” during the job search.

The other way timing should enter your decision-making revolves around other aspects of your life, like family, faith, or other obligations. If it’s the case that you are just barely balancing work and family responsibilities, or you anticipate a major life change soon (i.e., starting a family, making a big professional change, taking care of a loved one), now may not be the right time to start an Ed.D. program. I recognize that life happens, and it is impossible to predict what will happen two years from now. And there’s some truth to the idea that, like starting a family, there is no perfect time to start an Ed.D. program. But what I tell prospective students is if you’re barely keeping all your plates spinning, can you handle another couple of plates right now? To help create space in your life for an Ed.D., I suggest simplifying. Avoid taking on a major professional responsibility (assuming it is optional), such as organizing a conference. Talk with your family about ways in which you can carve out some time for your education.

Consideration #2: Goals

Many of the people with whom I talk about pursuing an Ed.D. hope the addition of those three letters after their name will propel their career forward. But as is true of any academic program, an Ed.D. is not a one-way ticket to your dream job. It may open doors, create new opportunities, and cultivate marketable skills, but it’s not a magic potion for promotion. Additionally, if your sole motivation is career advancement, I suggest that you reconsider whether an Ed.D. is right for you. Some of my students who only see an Ed.D. as a means to an end get overly focused on checking boxes, on finishing as fast as possible. In the process, they neglect to invest in all sorts of things that may ultimately benefit their career goals, such as building relationships with faculty members and peers.

At the end of the day, an Ed.D. is still--or should be--a rigorous academic program that will require that you have some basic scholarly interest in the field you are studying. It is this interest, more than anything, that will help you find joy in completing readings and writing papers. With an Ed.D., we’re talking about taking a significant number of courses and typically completing a major writing project. It will be hard at times, and it should be difficult. For these reasons, I typically tell prospective students that you need to have some rationale other than career advancement pulling you into an Ed.D. You have to be willing to see it as a journey whose meaning to you rises above the next job. Before applying, I suggest that you talk with the admissions coordinator of the program in which you are interested to see if you can sit in on a class. Pick up a recently published book about higher education and see if you can read it--without anyone forcing it.

Consideration #3: Program Structure

I recently wrote about the fact that there are a lot of Ed.D. programs these days. Because many of them are online, you might have a few options to weigh. I recommend that you try to gain a good understanding of the program structure before you apply. Some programs are entirely online and some are hybrid, with a mix of online and face-to-face instruction. The hybrid programs can also come in many shapes--the face-to-face instruction could happen in summer, on weekends, or on select weeknights. When you are considering the program structure, my best advice is not to prioritize convenience. Too often, I hear students complain about one thing or another not being sufficiently convenient for their busy working lives. My response is that an Ed.D. program isn’t supposed to be convenient or easy. Instead, you should identify a program structure that aligns with your learning style. If you learn best through regular interactions with people in the classroom, you ought to pursue a program that has plenty of face-to-face instruction or other forms of meaningful contact.

Program structure can influence all sorts of things beyond learning in the classroom. The ways in which a program structures various elements can affect how you interact with peers and the mentoring you receive from faculty members. Your peers can play an instrumental role in holding you accountable, keeping you motivated, and helping you to enjoy the process. Thus, you may want to look for signs that a program attempts to build community among students and encourages networking. For example, the program might be built around cohorts, which allows you to frequently learn alongside the same group of people as you advance through the program. And let me crystal clear: it takes a village to complete any terminal degree. You cannot do this alone! So, don’t just jump into a program that seemingly fits your schedule the best. It won’t matter that it was convenient if you don’t finish the program.

Consideration #4: Faculty Members

I mentioned above mentoring from faculty members. I’m a firm believer in the importance of program-specific, full-time faculty members. Let me explain that a bit. Some programs rely heavily upon part-time instructors to teach in their programs. There’s not necessarily a pedagogical problem with this, as part-time faculty can be outstanding educators with rich professional experiences. However, part-time faculty members may also have other jobs requiring their attention. I see great value in a program with a core group of full-time faculty members who were trained in the areas they are teaching/researching. In other words, if you are pursuing an Ed.D. in higher education administration, the faculty ought to include people who have advanced graduate training in higher education, are active in higher education professional/scholarly associations, and have experience advising higher education-related projects. Otherwise, you may start working on a dissertation, only to find that few faculty members in your program know much about the topic or how to best assist you.

Similarly, you might want to try and discern the faculty-student ratio. It’s no surprise that there is a market for people seeking an Ed.D., and many programs have not hesitated to grow enrollment quickly. Full disclosure, my own program did this a few years. The problem is that our faculty did not expand, or expand quickly enough, to meet the needs of students. And it’s fair to say that doctoral students, especially those who haven’t been in school in some time, have many needs to be successful. So, if it seems like a program is quite large with few faculty members, I advise asking about the advising model. Try your best to get a sense of whether the program promotes relationship-building with faculty to promote your success. Because word on the street is that there are many programs that are happy to take your tuition money without investing in essential resources.

Consideration #5: Cost

Speaking of resources, don’t forget to think about the cost. This often seems like something that gets glossed over by many prospective students. I don’t have to convince you that education isn’t really a lucrative career. Be cautious about financing your Ed.D. through loans with the assumption that you’ll get a promotion at the end of it to pay everything back. Keep in mind that, if you don’t finish (and there’s research showing that many doctoral students don’t), you will need to repay those loans. Many of my students, for various reasons, need to take time off or slow down their progress. Each additional semester comes with costs. Lastly, as is true with other levels of education, there are often additional costs with a terminal degree--books, travel, technology. Some programs include additional costs into tuition. It’s worth digging into what is and is not included with tuition and fees.

Concluding Thoughts

An Ed.D. is a big decision and investment of time and resources. My hope is that any of the programs you are considering provide you with all the information you need to make a good choice for you. Analyze all programs with a critical eye. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is (Finish Your Ed.D. in Two Years!) At the same time, I hope you ask some hard questions of yourself before jumping into anything. Make sure you are starting this journey for the right reasons and that you are setting yourself up to be successful.


If there are questions that I didn’t address in this post, feel free to get in touch with me. Maybe I can share my insights as part of a future post.