What is a Traditional Ed.D. Dissertation?
A traditional Ed.D. dissertation is a five-chapter paper, roughly the length of a short book. It shows that you can conduct original research into the field of education. The dissertation process starts as soon as you begin your Ed.D. and can be broken down into six steps:
- Choose a Research Topic: Near the beginning of the program, you’ll be expected to identify a topic that will require substantial research. This topic should revolve around a unique issue in education (e.g. Helping Intellectually Gifted Middle School Students, Bridging the Gap Between Training and Educating in Adult Learning, etc.).
- Craft a Proposal: You’ll use the knowledge you’ve gained from didactic coursework and Ed.D. research classes to write the opening chapters of your dissertation, including an introduction that defines your chosen problem, a literature review, and a proposed methodology for finding the answer.
- Defend the Proposal: Before proceeding, you will need to present your dissertation proposal to a committee. The committee will want to see that your research is significant and relevant works are included in the literature review.
- Research the Topic: After making any necessary tweaks to the proposal, and getting it approved, you can begin researching your topic.
- Write the Remainder of the Dissertation: Once you have completed your research, you’ll write up the final chapters—one chapter will detail your findings; the other should contain an analysis of what your findings mean and how they might apply to professional situations.
- Defend Your Dissertation: At the end of the degree, you must present your dissertation to the committee (usually in an oral presentation). After you have incorporated any notes from the committee, you can finalize your draft and graduate.
Practice-Focused Alternatives to a Traditional Ed.D. Dissertation
Unlike Ph.D. programs, Ed.D. programs are focused on professional practice—Ed.D. graduates are expected to apply their research to solve or improve real-world problems. To that end, many universities in our listings have been moving away from a traditional dissertation to more innovative models like the DiP or capstone project. Keep in mind that these models are just as challenging and research-focused as a dissertation!
Dissertation in Practice (DiP)
In the 2000s, the Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate (CPED) wanted to make the Ed.D. more relevant for school practitioners and education leaders. So it devised a new Framework for Ed.D. Program Design, with a) a new definition of the Ed.D.; b) a list of guiding principles for program development; and c) a set of building blocks for the degree.
One of these building blocks is the Dissertation in Practice (DiP). During a DiP, you’ll be expected to:
- Tackle a complex Problem of Practice (PoP) facing an organization or stakeholder group in education.
- Create an innovative, research-based project that can help guide other educators and be used in the field.
- Integrate concepts of practice, leadership, and equity into your project.
DiPs are geared toward working professionals who want to make substantive changes in education. Experienced practitioners act as DiP advisors; collaboration is encouraged; and applied research & theory is the name of the game. Examples of this practical approach include ASU’s focus on “action research” within the workplace; Pitt’s use of “improvement science” to address equity and justice; and Harvard’s concern with “strategy in action.”
While you’re examining universities, you may also come across Ed.D. programs that contain a culminating project, scholarly delivery, applied inquiry project, or a capstone project. The choice of language is determined by graduate faculty and the university. But all of them hold the equivalent weight of a traditional dissertation or DiP.
To get a sense of how an Ed.D. capstone project is structured, we recommend you examine the Ed.D. program page carefully.
- Some schools like to put an emphasis on group work.
- Others are interested in seeing innovative final projects/deliverables.
- Many follow the DiP model.
In general, all alternatives to a traditional Ed.D. dissertation deal with a Problem of Practice (PoP) facing your workplace. By completing a capstone or DiP, you’ve made a commitment to applied research and workable solutions (e.g. recommending better practices and/or creating different approaches to current practice).
How an Ed.D. Capstone Project Works
Here is a general summary of the steps involved in completing an Ed.D. capstone project:
- Choose a Capstone Topic: The beginning of the Ed.D. is typically front-loaded with foundational coursework, as well as classes on how to conduct research. It’s here that you’ll start to explore what a good capstone topic might be and learn the research tools you might apply.
- Meet with an Advisor: You’ll work with an advisor to firm up the problem you want to address and determine how to approach it. Part of this process will involve figuring out what an appropriate deliverable would be (e.g. change management plan, new curriculum, portfolio of educational materials, etc.).
- Draft a Proposal: About halfway through the program, you may be expected to draft a report that contains a problem statement, an outline of your process for finding solutions, and a description of deliverables.
- Defend the Proposal: Before any actual research takes place, the committee needs to sign off on your proposal.
- Research the Topic: Even without a standard Ed.D. dissertation, there’s no getting around conducting research. The key difference is how that research is gathered and applied. You may end up combining traditional research with action research and/or evaluation research (e.g. collecting and analyzing real-time data from your workplace).
- Defend Your Findings: You have one more defense—this time of your research findings and accompanying recommendations. This is separate from the project deliverable.
- Produce a Deliverable: The deliverable/final project is something that an organization can actually use to improve educational access or outcomes.
Online Ed.D. Programs Without Dissertation Requirements
No matter what Ed.D. you choose, you are always going to have to complete a research-based doctoral project. Schools that advertise “No Dissertation Ed.D. Programs” typically require a DiP or capstone project in lieu of a traditional dissertation. These are the Ed.D. programs that we’ve included in our listings. Examples of online options include:
- National University’s Online Ed.D. in Organizational Innovation, which requires a culminating project, worth 9 quarter credits. This is a written work based on research students do in their workplace.
- Nebraska Methodist College’s Online Ed.D. in Education and Leadership in Healthcare. This degree contains an 8-credit capstone split into four courses over a six-term program.
- University of Missouri-St. Louis’s Online Ed.D. in Educational Practice. UMSL employs an 8-credit Dissertation in Practice (DiP) model, which is completed through group work.
- University of Southern California’s Online Ed.D. in Educational Leadership. This program involves a Dissertation in Practice (DiP) that focuses on issues impeding K-12 students’ access to learning opportunities.
- University of Southern Mississippi’s Online Ed.D. in Educational Administration. This degree includes a 12-credit capstone research project, which runs the length of the program. Students are expected to focus on a problem of practice in their workplace.
Avoid like the plague any Ed.D. program that claims to have no dissertation or capstone requirement! They almost certainly will a) not be accredited; and b) not be recognized by employers.
Note: If you don’t have the capacity for a large research project at this time, you could consider pursuing an Educational Specialist (Ed.S.) degree. This leaves the door open for you to complete an Ed.D. completion program or All But Dissertation (ABD) program later down the track.
Ed.D. Traditional Dissertation vs. DiP/Capstone Project
Ed.D. programs with DiPs and capstone projects lead to the same degree as doctoral programs with traditional dissertations. And there’s absolutely no difference in quality. The CPED consortium includes numerous prominent universities, and U.S. News & World Report highly ranks several schools with Ed.D. capstone components, among them the University of Virginia. So you have a choice.
Traditional Ed.D. Dissertation
You may wish to consider Ed.D. programs with a traditional dissertation if you want to dig deep into original research. This research may not be immediately applicable to your workplace, but it will help advance educators’ understanding of an issue. It contributes new knowledge to the field. Some dissertation writers like to investigate cultural topics (e.g. Latinx learning experiences); others are interested in the effect of education in particular settings (e.g. U.S. prison system).
Ed.D. Capstone Project or DiP
If you would like to tackle a specific problem in your workplace, then we recommend you consider Ed.D. programs with a DiP or capstone project. As we mentioned, these doctorates are focused on applied theory & research—you will be expected to test & implement changes over the course of your degree (e.g. new education methods, curriculum changes, leadership interventions, etc.). Ed.D. programs with a DiP or capstone project may also contain more group work and interpersonal opportunities.
Note: When in doubt, talk to Ed.D. alumni and the Ed.D. program coordinator. Some education doctorates with “traditional” dissertations are actually following the DiP model—they just haven’t changed their language.