Tips to Choose the Best Doctoral Program for Yourself

Dr. Ellen E. Mauer
Dr. Ellen E. Mauer
Elementary school principal; Ph.D. in Educational Leadership & Policy Studies
Some standing on two arrows, one labeled ‘yes’ and the other labeled ‘no’.

Career Goals

Begin by thinking about the future. Do you have immediate goals? Some educators think about gaining additional education as a way to a higher salary, but it is much more than that. It is useful to think broadly and long term. Consider your long-term career goals. Do you want to be a department head? A principal? Any kind of school administrator? A superintendent or other district level administrator? What about teaching at the college level? You may not want to do all of those jobs, but it is important to prepare for all possibilities. You may want a career in various school or district administration positions along the way, but what about retirement? Thinking ahead gives you more options for your future.

A common conundrum is which doctoral degree to pursue. Ed.D. or Ph.D.? In an Ed.D. program, curriculum will focus more on practical applications in the field. Ph.D. curriculum is designed for someone who wants to continue teaching at some point and there is strong focus on research that enhances the profession and field. Both programs will further your knowledge. For Ph.D. programs, an internship of some kind is usually required. To attain employment in K-12 education/administration, either degree works.

One thing to consider is that the program you are contemplating will give you the certification you need to further your career goals. If you can attain several certifications with the same program, that offers you flexibility and greater marketability when job searching.


There are a variety of options for enrolling in a doctoral program. There is the traditional face-to-face program in which you take courses on your own or with a cohort of the same students over a specific time period. There are online options. Online options come with choices of building classes yourself or enrolling in a specific cohort and following the same sets of classes together.

Online programming may be synchronous or asynchronous. Synchronous programs expect you to log in at pre-set times on pre-selected dates. Asynchronous classes will not usually have a time component for which to log on, but will push out assignments and discussion questions which are answered and posted within a certain time frame. Some programs will be hybrid. Part of the coursework is online and part is face-to-face.

You must decide what is best for you based upon the available options. You may want to have the same colleagues with you throughout a set program for added support. You may want to choose a program in which you set your own days, times and are able to completely individualize classes. Your instincts are best in making the decision.

Academic Resources and Information

The internet helps to find more information about resources available to you for doctoral programs. Individual university websites are good sources of information as well. Be sure to create a list of questions before investigating, and chart them for all possible choices for schooling so that you are comparing apples to apples when conducting your research into various schools.

It will be important to be sure that the schools you select has the programming that will help you to attain the additional certification you need for your future career. Find out what your state requires to get your additional certifications and then make sure that all of your university selections and programming offer what you will need in order to complete those specific requirements. This is particularly important when going out of state or using completely virtual programs.

Faculty and Staff

You will have certain expectations for the faculty and staff that you will be working with in a doctoral program. You may want mainly full-time university professors or you may like adjunct professors who are still working in the field day-to-day. You may want a mix. Decide what best serves you and find out what each program can offer you. It will be important to find out how available staff will be to you for advice and encouragement. Find out how much time you will be expected to consult with your advisor and be sure that is acceptable to you.


Affordability is going to be crucial. You do not want to set yourself up to be in debt for years without any chance of increasing your income significantly. You will also want to factor in costs for books and materials.

Check with your employer to see how much tuition they will cover for what kinds of programs. Most school districts will cover a share of the tuition and some could cover the entire cost, depending upon what position you have. Begin with your contract, then go to your human resources department to check that you have not missed anything in your contract. Ask them if they are aware of any scholarship money that is available for doctoral programs in your area.

Once you have this information, you can then compare costs of each of the universities. Be sure to ask university officials about any kind of discount or scholarship that may be available. Factor all of that into your overall cost comparison. Once you have gathered all of that information, you will see how much money you still need to acquire. Now it is time to check into financial aid and loan programs. You can start by filling out the FAFSA, and that will tell you if you qualify for any financial aid, grants, or student loans.

Seek Advice

Most importantly, seek the advice of others who have gone through doctoral programs. Talk to colleagues who have gone through programs within the last five years. Ask them for leads for others in the field to call. It is fine to cold call leaders in school districts to pick their brains about this topic. Don’t be afraid to ask them how they financed their doctorate or which program they selected and why. This cadre of people is very likely to be happy to share information and to give you helpful hints about how to make choices. They will want to share ideas that will make you more apt to be successful in a doctoral program.

*Updated November, 2020
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