What Are the Major Differences Between Graduate-Level Teaching Degrees
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What Are the Major Differences Between Graduate-Level Teaching Degrees?

Whether you have just earned your bachelor's degree in education or you have been working in the classroom for years, you may be thinking that it's time to take your education further. The challenge is deciding which advanced degree program in teaching is right for you given your educational goals, current employment, and work-life balance needs.

Many potential online graduate degree programs could apply to your higher education goals, such as a M.Ed., M.A.T., Ed.D., or Ph.D. As you search for the best route for you — and your future students — take the time to make sure you understand what each degree program and level have to offer.

What's Right for Me?

Of course, which degree program — and at which level — is right for you largely depends on your career goals over the next few years. Ask yourself the following questions to help determine your path:

  • Do you want to teach students? If so, what grade level are you interested in teaching?
  • Are you already a teacher, but want to advance your career?
  • Are you hoping to find a way to work in the education field without being in a classroom?
  • What particular aspect of education would you like to specialize in, if hoping to become a teacher?
  • Are you interested in an online degree program or taking some courses remotely?
  • How much education research vs. hands-on teaching do you want out of your degree program?

You should have a general idea of answers to these questions to help you determine your next step. Keep the following in mind as you search for answers:

  • If you are a first-time teacher looking for more classroom experience, an M.A.T. may be right for you.
  • If you have been teaching for years or are ready to move into a role where you can better use your experience to influence policy changes, an Ed.D. may be the better choice for you. According to the Carnegie Foundation's Lee Shulman: "We need Ph.D. preparation for scholarship and Ed.D. preparation for practice."
  • If interested in working in the education field but not as a teacher, consider a degree in educational leadership for an administrative and policy career.
  • As a teacher, you can choose to specialize in different aspects of education like education technology, curriculum and instruction, English as a second language, or special education.
  • To help fit your needs, many degree programs are available fully online, while some might be offered partially on-campus in what are known as "blended" or "hybrid" programs.

What's the Difference Between Graduate Degrees?

Having a general sense of your career goals is only part of the process. Next, you need to understand how graduate degrees in education vary from each other. There are certainly many different graduate-level education degrees out there, and they are usually either master's degrees or doctoral degrees. Here's a breakdown of program options under each category.

Master's Degree Programs in Education

A standard master's degree program in teaching typically lasts from 1-3 years and is the next logical step for a student who already has a bachelor's degree in hand. These program types may be online or on campus, and they usually consist of a combination of coursework and independent study or training that builds upon the information presented in a bachelor's program or learned during a career. Many require students to submit a research-based thesis or a substantial project in order to successfully complete the program.

Examples of master's programs available include the following:

  • Master of Education (M.Ed.) is a degree program often suited for working professionals that are interested in advancing their skills and moving beyond the classroom and into a leadership role in the educational system, such as the director of a department. Of course, those pursuing an M.Ed. can remain in the classroom if desired, but coursework is likely to focus more on collaborating with peers within a larger educational framework to prepare them for being a program specialist. Ultimately, students earning this type of degree may be better prepared to address school policies and implement broad changes.

  • Master of Arts in Teaching (M.A.T.) is a degree program that is more focused on the development of teaching skills in students who plan to use their higher degree to remain in the classroom. This program typically focuses more on hands-on teaching strategies and techniques that benefit future students. Online students can expect to work in local school districts as a student-teacher to learn from those already in the field, while completing coursework over the internet. Most M.A.T. degree programs have you choose between two different endorsements: elementary education, which focuses on educating classrooms usually up to the 6th grade, and secondary education, which focuses on teaching middle school and high school classrooms with the addition of selecting a subject major (e.g., language arts, mathematics, history, science, etc.).

Doctoral Degree Programs in Education

Doctoral programs are typically designed as the next step in an educational program after a master's degree. Oftentimes these education-related programs are an additional four years consisting of some coursework, but they are largely focused on research within a particular aspect of the education field. These programs usually require a substantial amount of work and a dissertation defense, and the decision to pursue one should not be taken lightly.

Online students are typically placed into a virtual doctoral residency where they can be paired with a mentor and have opportunities to network with other students. Mentors help students develop their dissertations and guide them in other academic areas.

As with a master's, there are a couple of differing opportunities for educators interested in a doctorate:

  • Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) programs are typically designed to further educational administrative leadership opportunities and collaboration with partners, such as instructional coaches, education consultants, and collegiate department heads. Earning this doctoral degree can offer numerous benefits when it comes to leadership and community outreach. Many Ed.D. degree-holders work as any of the roles mentioned above plus as academic counselors, college administrators, or community education program leaders.

  • Doctor of Philosophy in Education (Ph.D.) programs are more often designed for those that are interested in teaching or doing educational research (usually policy research) at a higher level. Doctoral degrees are required for most post-secondary educator positions as well as academic research positions.

Additional Resources

The Room 241 team at Concordia University-Portland's College of Education creates information resources for educators.

Article Sources


  • Rethinking the EdD in Educational Leadership, University Council for Educational Administration, Accessed July 2019, http://www.ucea.org/initiatives/rethinking-edd-educational-leadership-2/
  • What Careers Are Possible With a Ph.D. in Education?, Houston Chronicle, Accessed July 2019, https://work.chron.com/careers-possible-phd-education-13719.html