Earn Your Online PhD in Education

If you’re reaching for a career where you can make a tremendous impact on higher education and want to earn a degree to fit that role, obtaining the PhD in education should be at the top of your list. Learn how PhD in education online programs enable educators to work in the highest echelons of education. 

Written by

PhDs.me Staff

Last updated

Mar 08, 2021

The education PhD is designed for educators who want to work in education research, administration, and teaching at the postsecondary level. While the doctorate in education (EdD) is considered by some to be a hands-on degree earned by students interested in careers as principals and superintendents at the K-12 level, the PhD in education could be described as the degree for students who want to apply their education to scholarly research, writing, policy-making, and leadership in higher education. Online education PhD programs give students the rigorous study they seek while still offering the flexibility they need in order to meet their other responsibilities.

How can I decide if the PhD or the EdD is right for me? Can I meet the rigors required to complete an education PhD program? What should I look for in an online PhD education program?

Get answers to these questions and more here, and find the best program for your educational goals. Whether you’re interested in learning more about the differences between the PhD and the EdD, need to find an affordable or part-time program, or want to know how much people with PhDs in education can earn, we can help. 

The Best Online PhDs in Education: 2021

Whether online or on campus, all education PhD programs have some distinct differences that appeal to a variety of students depending on factors such as specializations offered, faculty areas of expertise, networking opportunities, length of time of study, and more. The best online programs do have some aspects in common that make them an excellent choice for working professionals. Important considerations when choosing your best program include flexibility, affordability, convenience, accreditation, and rigor of study. We’ve chosen three education PhD online programs to spotlight so you can see what some of the best programs look like for 2021.

St. John’s University

St. John’s University Online PhD in Literacy

St. John’s University recognizes the key to economic and social equality lies in the ability to read and write. The school offers a PhD in literacy for students seeking professional careers as educational researchers on reading and writing in schools. Online PhD students in the program learn the theoretical and historical approaches to literacy and will develop the methodologies that will enable them to conduct their own original studies. Online PhD education students at St. John’s receive the same academic quality that on-campus students receive. They attend virtual classes, interact with other students, take exams, and watch lectures at their own convenience through an electronic course management system.

  • The 42-credit literacy PhD program admits students in fall, spring, and summer, and takes between two and a half and three years to complete.
  • Students are required to write a dissertation and successfully pass a comprehensive exam.
  • The cost of attendance is $1,265 per credit, with additional fees and supplies extra.
Indiana State University

Indiana State University Online PhD in Educational Administration

Indiana State University offers a hybrid online Ph.D. in educational administration for students who want a career path in K-12 administration leadership and research. The program requires a total of 72 hours of post-bachelor’s credits. Students can use up to 42 of their master’s credits towards the PhD and take the remaining 30 credits through the PhD program. Coursework is completed online through interactive lessons, and students are required to attend four in-person classroom meetings each semester in Indianapolis, Indiana.

  • Students can complete the program in two and a half years and take up to six years to finish.
  • Tuition for the online PhD education program ranges between $554.00 and $837.00 per credit, with students from a select group of Midwestern states paying the lower fee.
Colorado State University

Colorado State University Online PhD in Higher Education Leadership

The online PhD in higher education leadership at Colorado State University prepares graduates to lead faculty, staff, and students at postsecondary institutions. This program is a standout for people who already work in higher education and would like to take on a role as a dean or provost. Along with cultivating the skills needed to be successful in higher education leadership roles, the program also enables students to develop research skills and acumen that aid them in expanding their knowledge in practice and outcomes at the college and university level. The online PhD in education at CSU is taught in the cohort model, which means you’ll start and finish the program with the same group of scholars. This gives you the opportunity to build on your relationships with the members of your cohort as you go through the program together.

  • The program is 60 credits, comprised of 30 course credits and 30 research credits, and can be completed in five years.
  • Tuition is $926 per credit, with fees assessed separately. Out-of-state students and Colorado residents pay the same tuition.

Benefits of the Online PhD in Education

The PhD in education is one of the most diverse advanced degrees available to graduate students today. In addition to a wide range of leadership tracks, students can also focus on research and instruction in mathematics education, science education, special education, and more. Over a dozen PhD specializations exist to help students turn their academic and classroom interests into long-term career success.

Convenience and flexibility.

Online PhDs in education make earning a doctorate far more convenient. Students pursuing a PhD typically need to work and meet other personal obligations while going to school. An online program allows students to take courses, submit coursework, coordinate with fellow cohorts, and interact with professors from just about anywhere. To facilitate this flexibility, colleges and universities have either built their own proprietary platforms for communication and information sharing, or they use a combination of email, Skype, Blackboard, and other widely known tech solutions.


In addition to location flexibility, many online PhD programs offer more adaptable scheduling. This includes programs where students can accelerate or slow down their degree progress to ensure they’re moving in line with their educational, professional, and family needs. For example, some online programs offer fast-track options, with degree programs completed in as few as two years. For students who need more time, other programs allow completion of a PhD up to seven years after initial enrollment.

Types of Online PhDs in Education

When researching online PhD programs in education, make sure you fully understand the type and the amount of online learning you’ll experience. Will it be fully online? Partially online? If fully online, is there a residency requirement and, if so, for how long? Lots of questions will pop up during your education PhD search, but the following breakdown should be a good first step.

100% campus PhDs

All courses take place on campus, and all coursework is completed on a tight schedule. Students may be able to submit papers and coordinate on projects online, but campus participation is the default.

  • Best for students who thrive in a face-to-face learning environment, don’t need to juggle a full-time job, or don’t feel restricted by regular visits to campus during or after work hours.

Hybrid or blended PhD programs

A fast-growing delivery option, blended programs combine campus-based elements with various online learning opportunities. These opportunities come in the form of full online classes or classes with extensive online participation and submissions. An increasing number of colleges and universities are adding online classes to their degree programs to maximize flexibility for students while preserving many aspects of campus-based learning.

  • Best for students who want or need time and place flexibility but may not be ready for a fully online program. College and program availability are typically higher with hybrid programs than with fully online programs.

Fully online education PhDs

Online PhDs in education that are 100% online cater to students who need ultimate flexibility. Coursework and collaboration all take place via email and various online platforms. With fully online PhD programs in education, however, students may need to complete a residency requirement. Depending on the student’s specialization, this can include hands-on work with students and fellow educators and in-person meetings to propose and eventually defend a dissertation.

  • Best for students who need ultimate flexibility of time, place, and location. Also great for students comfortable learning online who don’t need face-to-face interaction.

Part-time education PhDs

These programs add an extra dimension of convenience. With full-time programs lasting an estimated three to five years, part-time programs allow students to extend their degree to up to seven years and sometimes longer. You can take a single course per semester to better balance your non-school commitments. When researching part-time education PhDs, pay close attention to the calendar and potential time restrictions that may pop up.

  • Best for working professionals and others juggling multiple commitments.

Timeline: How Long Does It Take to Get an Online PhD in Education?

Earning an PhD online can take anywhere from three to eight years, depending on your circumstances. Several factors can accelerate or slowdown the process. Let’s look at the timeline for the degree and the critical points that will dictate your time to completion.

Part-time or full-time

Some fully online programs have a part-time option available, allowing you to take as few as one course per semester. However, many do have a cap on the maximum number of years you can take to complete all coursework and finish your capstone project or dissertation. A part-time online PhD in education may take six to eight years and a full-time usually runs between three and five.

Transfer credits

Many education departments with PhD programs give you the chance to transfer a certain number of credits from a previous program. The amount can vary, but transferring credits earned elsewhere can shave an entire year off your PhD pursuit.

Comprehensive exams

To earn candidacy, most programs require students to pass a comprehensive examination. This can be oral and/or written and targets the material learned throughout the coursework phase of the program. The exam usually takes place at the end of the second year.

The dissertation

The dissertation process can be lengthy, especially if you’re in a part-time program. It includes literature review, research, proposal and defense, writing, oral defense, and publication. Some students may be able to complete the process in two years, while others may need up to six.

When charting your education PhD, a calendar can help you visualize where you want to be and when. Here’s a sample timeline to get you started:


Students take required courses and one or two electives in line with their desired specialization. Many programs also want to see a plan of work (academic intentions), and students should be identifying faculty with whom they want on their dissertation committee.


Students begin narrowing their focus and isolating education research interests. The end of year two brings the comprehensive exam and the creation of a dissertation committee. If the exam is passed, dissertation work can formally begin.


Dissertation research should be underway and a proposal crafted. Most programs require education PhD candidates to defend their proposal in front of their panel. Following the proposal, research and writing should be moving.


This year, drafting and revising is the main focus. This can mean various back and forth sessions with peer reviewers, editors, and your advisor. By the end of the year, the candidate should be submitting the dissertation and preparing to defend it. If defended successfully, publication may commence.


Any dissertation work that hasn’t been completed should be moving forward. Full-time students may be a little behind here, but part-time students may be right on time.

What’s the Difference Between an EdD and a PhD in Education?

In the field of education, advanced students have three primary degree options beyond the master’s level: Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), doctor of education (EdD), and the education specialist (EdS). Each has its own purpose and helps education students achieve a different professional track.

The Education PhD Breakdown

The research-based PhD in education focuses heavily on advancing knowledge and scholarship in the field. Programs stress the dissertation and academic publication process and may require students to present at conferences and other education-related gatherings. PhD programs also prepare students to teach at the college level via teaching assistantships, or to dive deeper into research projects via research assistantships. Many PhD holders in education go on to faculty positions at colleges, but may also enter school administration and related careers.

Average years to completion




Required degree

Master’s, although some programs may admit bachelor’s degree holders.

Example PhD course schedule:

Foundations courses

35 hours

Elective courses

11 hours

Research courses

20 hours


20 hours

Total credits to graduate


EdD Programs Compared

This is considered a “practical” doctorate in the sense that coursework and research apply directly to a classroom, school, or district setting. Although original research may occur, this more “hands on” leadership degree concentrates on taking current research and cutting-edge methodologies and creating new strategies for their day-to-day application. Some EdD programs include a dissertation requirement, while others allow you to a capstone project such as developing and implementing a new curriculum or building a new software program to improve high school student productivity.

Average years to completion



Dissertation or direct application project

Required degree

Master’s, as well as 3+ years of experience in the field.

Example EdD program course load:

Foundations courses

35 hours


10 hours

Leadership communication

3 hours

Clinical experience

10 hours


6 hours

Total credit hours to graduate


What About the EdS?

The EdS is designed for professional educators looking to become an expert in a specific area of education. For example, students in EdS programs can hyper-focus studies in areas such as curriculum, instruction, and assessment, instructional leadership, or K-12 leadership. Due to the more specialized nature of the degree, programs are often shorter and may place less emphasis on a capstone project. The EdS tends to appeal to educators who prefer a shorter program with a narrower scope of study.

Example EdS program course load:

Foundational coursework

30 hours

Elective coursework

10 hours


5 hours

Total credit hours to graduate


Online PhD in Education Learning Outcomes

Learning outcomes articulate why you’re attending the program and what skills and knowledge you’ll come away with. Programs are typically proud of their stated learning outcomes, and you should be able to find the learning outcomes for any PhD in education program you’re considering attending. While education PhD programs online will have different graduation requirements and specializations, they all have precise goals for learning that students must show proficiency of to be eligible for graduation. Learning outcomes in education PhD programs may include:


Analytical skills
Analyze, interpret, and disseminate expertise of higher education to inform research and practice in the education sphere.


Evaluation and exploration
Able to use ideas, theories, concepts, approaches, and rationale from education and related fields of inquiry in exploring and evaluating higher education topics.


Spirit of innovation
Innovative thinking shown through the application of complex approaches, create useful and fresh solutions to make breakthroughs in the field of higher education.


Relationship building
Ability to establish and maintain professional relationships to build networks and consensus.


Performance measurement
Proven ability to comprehend and use statistical and financial methods of inquiry and metrics for goal setting and performance measuring. Commitment to using evidence-based practices.

Specializations: Choosing the Focus of Your PhD in Education

Education PhD students have a wide range of specialization opportunities in just about any program. Here’s a look at the most common focus areas and how they break down.

By impact

While many education professionals spend their days in the classroom, so much more goes into the development and improvement of a quality educational system. Many online PhD programs in education offer specialization opportunities based on where and how students wish to make a difference, including:

  • Curriculum development
  • Education policy
  • Instructional & assessment
  • Leadership/Administration
  • New methods & innovation
  • Special education
  • Student advocacy (often for underprivileged youth)

By subject

Some educators have in-depth knowledge and skills in single subject. Doctorate programs give these professionals the opportunity to deepen their understanding and research new and innovative ways to approach education in their niche. Popular subject-focused specializations at the PhD level include:

  • Educational technology & design
  • Literacy & reading
  • Mathematics education
  • Science education

By level

Many impact and subject area specializations can be sliced even further by grade level. In some cases, this is an absolute must, with problems, methodologies, and approaches differing greatly by student age, ability, or institution. Common level-based PhD tracks include the following:

  • Early childhood education (ECE) administration
  • Higher education leadership
  • Higher education policy
  • Secondary education leadership

Four Steps to Finding a PhD Education Program With Your Specialization

OK, so you know your interests. You’ve taught underprivileged students for years and you’re ready to make a systemic impact. You want that PhD, but you need to keep working while you’re in school. A blended or online PhD in education with a focus on student advocacy sounds just right for you, but does anyone offer it? And if no one has the exact program you want, what’s next? When searching for the ideal PhD program for you, start with these steps:


Narrow by program type.
The program directory on this page has a complete list of blended and online PhDs in education sortable by location, cost, and program delivery type. This should provide a solid list of target schools that give you the best chance to complete your advanced degree.


Search for pre-designed tracks.
Try this example search string to get the most relevant programs in your search results: “online PhD education advocacy site:.edu”. By restricting your search to “.edu” websites, you’re telling Google to show you actual college websites only.


Search course lists.
If your Google search didn’t turn up a full online program that fits the bill, see if any courses related to your niche popped up. This means the education department has a professor capable of researching and teaching in that specialization. This professor could be a valuable resource for determining whether or not a PhD in your desired specialization is possible at the college. Shoot them an email or give them a call.


Search professor bios.
If no full programs or courses in your specialization appeared, run a search for professors with experience in your area. They may not be teaching a course in what you’re hoping to study, but that doesn’t mean they can’t serve as a research mentor and/or a member of your dissertation committee.

Most PhD programs give students fairly significant leeway when it comes to specialization. At the very least, they can help you cater the research and dissertation portion of their program to fit your needs. But it’s always good to make sure each college, education department, and PhD program have what you need to reach your goals. 

The Dissertation Process

While coursework is a major part of earning an online PhD in education, the dissertation is the culmination of your program and signals to the education community that you’re ready to make a difference in your chosen field and sub-field. The lengthy and detailed nature of the process reflects this importance, and every education PhD candidate should understand the requirements. Here are the major dissertation steps, and how they work with an online PhD in education.


Select your dissertation advisor and committee
Choose a professor with practical and/or research expertise in the educational area that interests you. Seek out potential advisors who are accessible, will provide regular and candid feedback, with whom you get along, and who are comfortable with communication via Skype and other digital platforms. Because you’re earning your education doctorate online, non-face-to-face communication is a must. Your committee members should have similar characteristics, too.


Set your deadlines
While you have some flexibility, deadlines are key. They keep you on track and ensure you hit your milestones without testing the time limits of your program. They’re also important as you progress in your because scheduling your defense is a big milestone, and the timing needs to be right. You’ll defend your dissertation in-person, and that requires travel and coordinating face-to-face meetings with your advisor and committee.


Practice (optional)
Researching, writing, and presenting a paper at a conference can help you prepare for the dissertation process. The earlier in your program you can practice the better, given you’ll be busy with exams and early dissertation prep.


Submit your proposal
Your proposal is a comprehensive statement to your committee detailing your topic and research interests. The key to success is to outline both how and why you plan to tackle a specific and important problem in the field. Your proposal should also include a review of the literature targeting the issue, as well as a thorough rundown of your planned methodology. Stanford University’s graduate school of education has a great rundown of the major components of a proposal.


Find your funding
As an education PhD student, you may need to secure funding to finish your dissertation. Organizations such as the National Academy of Education (NAEd) have fellowship programs to help new education researchers complete their work and contribute to improvements in the field. As with any funding opportunity, seek out as many options as you can.


Draft and revise
The drafting process is lengthy and involves hours of collecting, analyzing, and synthesizing data, presenting that data with a logical thesis and support, and constant rewriting to ensure your argumentation is sound. In addition, you need to follow specific formatting guidelines. Your education department should have these guidelines readily available. See Penn State’s thesis and dissertation guidelines for a deeper dive.


The defense of your education dissertation begins with a presentation that gives a brief overview of the candidate, the problem, and the initial chapters, followed by a more detailed examination of key findings and the research that supports it. Following the presentation, the candidate answers questions posed mostly by the committee but also by other academics or guests in attendance. The candidate may also meet with his or her advisor afterward to address feedback, proposed revisions, and a timeline to complete those revisions.


Final approval
After the defense or after all revision requests, you should receive final approval. This means the green light to publish your thesis and apply for graduation.

Accreditation of Online PhD Education Programs

Accreditation acts as a stamp of approval for schools and programs by assuring they meet and exceed stringent and uniform standards for learning outcomes, curriculum, student services, transparency, financial management, and more. The two main types of accreditation are institutional and programmatic. Institutional accreditation is bestowed on an entire school, while programmatic accreditation is bestowed on the various programs offered at a school. While any university or college you choose should be accredited by an institutional accrediting body, not all programs will be accredited.

Accreditation enables you to transfer recognized credits from one accredited institution to another. Additionally, in order for its students to be eligible to receive federal financial aid, a school must be accredited by an accrediting body recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. To ensure that your chosen school has received accreditation recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, do a quick search on the department’s website.

While regional institutional accreditation signals that the school you’re attending adheres to stringent standards in all aspects of higher education, programmatic accreditation helps ensure that the program you’re enrolled in adheres to the standards and best practices of your subject area. The Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP) is one such program that accredits education programs, including the PhD. You can do a search on the CAEP website to see if your education PhD program is accredited.

Application & Admissions

When applying for admission to an online PhD program in education, you’ll need to submit a few basics. Although some variation exists, the staples are generally similar across programs. These include: official transcripts, GRE scores, letters of recommendation, research-heavy writing samples, a resume/CV, and proof of English proficiency. If you have these ready to go, you’re well on your way.


Many programs look at a candidate’s readiness for PhD work as a whole, which includes but is not limited to GPA. Some may consider your GPA in education courses only, others may look at your master’s GPA, and others at your overall GPA. For example, Indiana State University’s online PhD in educational leadership requires a B+ or above in all graduate work attempted.


GRE scores
Unlike an EdD program where GRE scores may hold little weight or not be required, they can matter when it comes to PhD programs. Colorado State University’s online PhD in higher education leadership requires all applicants to submit his or her scores if either their undergraduate or graduate GPA is below 3.0. And St. John’s online PhD in literacy requires a score of 4 on the analytical written section of the exam. If you have a less-than-ideal score, or you’re far removed from entrance exams, look for programs with wiggle room when it comes to standardized tests.


Online EdD programs tend to require at least three years of professional education experience for admission. This usually isn’t the case with online PhDs in education, where the experience focus is on academics. The standard degree requirement is a master’s in education, although some programs may accept students with a bachelor’s, as long as the student completes master’s-related coursework first.

How Much Does an Online PhD in Education Cost?

Most working professionals wonder if they can afford to earn a PhD online while balancing other financial responsibilities. There’s tuition, fees for application and graduation, technology fees, online fees, and more. The good news is, each aspiring PhD earner has a number of funding options available, from grants and fellowships to federal financial aid.


Tuition makes up a majority of the cost of your online PhD. However, fully online programs, as opposed to hybrid programs with a campus element, often charge online students the in-state tuition rate, making an online PhD more affordable. This can save between $15,000 and $25,000 over the life of your program. Here’s a glimpse at the tuition rates for some of today’s best online education PhDs:

SchoolCost per CreditTotal CreditsSubtotal
St. John’s University$1,26542$53,130
Indiana State University554.00–$837.0030-72$16,620-$60,264
Colorado State University$92660$55,560
Northcentral University$1,18060$70,800
Capella University$74577$57,365

NOTE: You have many options when it comes to paying for your online PhD in education. Look for scholarship, fellowships, employer assistance programs, and federal student loans. Several PhD education programs also offer scholarships just for their students. For example, Northcentral University offers the Give Your All scholarship, which awards two full-tuition scholarships and two $20,000 scholarships. Capella University offers the Capella Progress Award, which is a $20,000 scholarship for doctoral students.

Salaries for the Online PhD in Education

The PhD is highly coveted, particularly in higher education. It’s typically required for careers such as dean of students or provost. Payscale.com reports those holding a master’s degree in education make an average of around $58,000 across the nation, but those with an PhD in education can see an increase of average salary to approximately $85,000 per year. While education alone can’t guarantee earned salary, the education PhD may elevate salary dramatically, depending on the career path you follow upon graduation. PayScale reports the following salaries for professionals who have earned the PhD in education:

Job TitleMedian Earnings90th Percentile Earnings
Academic Dean$92,000$160,000
Assistant Professor$69,000$106,000