What Is an Ed.D. Dissertation?
A traditional dissertation is a five-chapter paper showing that an Ed.D. student knows the discipline and can conduct original research that contributes to the field of education. The dissertation process starts practically as soon as students begin the program and can be broken down into six steps:
- Choose a topic. Near the beginning of the program, students identify a topic they will still be interested in even after years of exhaustive research. The topics need to revolve around a narrowly focused problem educators face.
- Craft a proposal. Students use the knowledge they’ve gained from didactic coursework and research classes to write the opening chapters: an introduction defining the problem they are trying to answer, a literature review, and a proposed methodology for finding the answer.
- Defend the proposal. After the student presents their work, the committee provides feedback, making sure the research is significant and relevant works are in the literature review.
- Research. After making any necessary tweaks to the proposal and getting it approved, students actually research the problem.
- Write the (rest of the) dissertation. Students write the final two chapters—one detailing their findings and the other analyzing what they mean and how they might be applied.
- Defend it. To graduate, students must present their dissertation, incorporate any notes from their committee, and finalize their submission.
It’s not hard to find examples of dissertations. Several schools publish full Ed.D. dissertations online for free, among them Concordia, George Fox, and University of San Francisco. Titles include “Education Reform in Rwanda: Impacts of genocide and reconstruction on school systems” and “Exploring High School Seniors’ Lived Experience of Teacher Empathy: A phenomenological study.”
Alternatives to the Ed.D. Dissertation
Ed.D. programs intentionally distinguish themselves from Ph.D. programs by focusing more on practice and less on research. Therefore, it makes sense that Ed.D.s might skip the traditional dissertation, which is geared toward producing academic research. However, for a terminal degree, students still must show they can improve the discipline; there has to be a final something.
Dissertation in Practice
In the 2000s, the Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate (CPED) consortium conceptualized an alternative to the standard dissertation. The consortium, which now includes over 100 schools, wanted to make the Ed.D. degree more relevant for school practitioners and education leaders, not researchers. One way was the dissertation in practice (DiP).
The basic idea was that students would take a “problem of practice,” a problem that an organization or stakeholder group in education has that makes their education goals harder, and try to make it better.
In reality, even when schools use the dissertation in practice name, they may still require what appears to be a standard five-chapter dissertation, whereas others might incorporate a group project, a video presentation, or other work. The unifying factor, however, according to Duquesne University School of Education, is that a dissertation in practice is meant to guide others and be used in the field. In other words, the concluding recommendations are the most important part.
Some dissertations in practice are more like the other alternative to a dissertation. Schools may call it a culminating project, scholarly delivery, applied inquiry project, or just a capstone project. In general, however, all alternatives to a traditional dissertation—including DiPs—deal with a problem of practice, which usually faces the student’s workplace. By completing a capstone, students set out to research the problem and create a workable solution.
That solution is not a research paper. Other types of deliverable could be a new curriculum or a training video for teachers, or even a portfolio showing multiple materials. This is typically accompanied by a shorter report explaining the process behind the project.
Ed.D. Capstone Projects
Ed.D. degree plans often incorporate capstone work into the orientation and throughout the project. Here’s a general summary of the steps involved:
- Take coursework, then choose a 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 students start to explore what a good capstone topic might be and learn the research tools they might apply.
- Meet with an advisor. Further along in the program, students work with an advisor to firm up the problem they want to address and determine how to approach it. Part of that is figuring out what an appropriate deliverable would be, such as a change management plan or curriculum. They also start developing a timeline and gathering members of the committee that will review the capstone upon completion.
- Draft a report. Most capstones still ask for a written report explaining the process students went through. Therefore, about halfway through the program, students may draft a problem statement that covers background info, outline a process for finding solutions, and describe the deliverable. Often, there will be required capstone coursework at this stage to assist students with putting it all together.
- Defend the proposal. Before the actual research takes place, the committee needs to sign off on the proposal.
- Collect and analyze data. To be clear, even without a standard dissertation, there’s no getting around conducting research. The key difference is how that research is gathered and applied. Students may use not only traditional research but also action research and/or evaluation research to complete their capstone.
- Defend the report. Students have one more defense—this time of their research findings and accompanying recommendations. This is separate from the project deliverable.
- Produce a deliverable. The deliverable is the most relevant part. It’s something the organization being researched can actually use to improve educational access or outcomes.
Ed.D. Capstone Project Examples
Just taking a glance at titles, capstone topics may not appear to be much different from dissertation topics. If they differ, it’s in scope and format. Students work on an issue tied to their workplace, and their deliverable can be in a form other than a paper.
One 2011 group capstone project from Virginia Commonwealth University, titled “Statewide Communities of Practice for Excellence: A Statewide Program Evaluation,” looked at a specific K-12 leadership curriculum being implemented in Virginia public schools and tried to determine if it was meeting its objectives. This was a worthwhile focus for a capstone project, the Ed.D. candidates decided, because no one had evaluated the effectiveness of the program. Moreover, they were all assistant principals and principals in Virginia, so they had access to determine this particular problem. The result was a report that concluded with recommendations.
Another capstone, this one from Capella University, analyzed records from an unnamed for-profit college to determine how effective its compensation system was. The candidate wanted to see if the institution could create happier employees with better work performance. The result came in two parts: a change management plan, which showed how the college should alter its philosophy toward employee compensation, and a final report explaining how the candidate created the plan. (Akin to showing one’s work in a math problem.)
For examples of dissertations in practice, visit CPED’s database.
Online Ed.D. Programs Without Dissertation Requirements
It’s not uncommon to see online Ed.D. programs without a dissertation. However, when schools advertise such a degree, they typically require a capstone project instead. For a program without either a capstone or a dissertation, students should typically apply for an Educational Specialist (Ed.S.) degree. (Prospective doctoral students should be wary of Ed.D. programs without a final project or paper and should confirm via the Council for Higher Education Accreditation database that the school is regionally accredited.)
Since dissertation alternatives vary, here’s a short, diverse sample of schools with online Ed.D.s and no dissertation requirements:
- National University’s Ed.D. in Organizational Innovation requires a culminating project, worth 9 quarter credits, which is a written work based on research students do in their workplace.
- Nebraska Methodist College runs an Ed.D. in Education and Leadership in Healthcare that has an 8-credit practice doctorate capstone split into four courses over a six-term program.
- University of Missouri-St. Louis employs an 8-credit dissertation in practice, which is completed through group work, for its Ed.D. in Educational Practice.
- University of Southern California’s Ed.D. in Educational Leadership incorporates a dissertation in practice that tackles an issue impeding K-12 students’ access to learning opportunities.
- University of Southern Mississippi’s Ed.D. in Educational Administration 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.
See our listings for other universities offering online Doctor of Education programs without dissertations.
Ed.D. Dissertations Vs. Capstone Projects: Which Is Best?
Doctoral programs with capstone projects lead to the same degree as doctoral programs with dissertations: an Ed.D. The biggest question to consider is: After your degree, do you want to research education or practice it?
If it’s the former, you might consider doing a Ph.D. because that’s what they’re built for—unless you want the future flexibility that a mix of research and practitioner skills could bring. If it’s the latter, you should be doing a dissertation or project that helps you solve problems in the field. The CPED includes numerous prominent universities, and U.S. News & World Report highly ranks several schools with project capstones, among them University of Virginia. Therefore, the value of a dissertation-less degree isn’t in doubt. It’s all about what you want to do with it.
Think that a no dissertation Ed.D. program is right for you? Use our listings (below) to browse Ed.D. programs without dissertation requirements.