When Harvard University’s Education School said it would end its Ed.D. program many higher education experts questioned if this would start a trend. If it does that could be the end of a popular degree for academic librarians.
I’m going to do some generalization here. Based on my experience, many of our academic librarian colleagues who hold the Ph.D. degree earned it before they decided to become a librarian. Many of these academic librarians hold their degrees in disciplines representative of the humanities and social sciences; Ph.D.’s in Library and Information Science are far fewer among us. Among those who earned the doctoral degree after establishing their career in academic librarianship, the most common field of study is education. And the Doctorate of Education (the Ed.D.) – rather than the Doctor of Philosophy (the Ph.D.) –is the preferred choice and one I’m personally familiar with since I earned the Ed. D. in 1997. It’s a good option for an academic librarian who wants to either go into administration rather than the professoriate, especially if one is working as an academic librarian at an institution where the Ed.D. is obtainable through tuition reimbursement. A debate about the value of and need for the Ed.D. has been escalating for the years, and now a move by Harvard to eliminate its Ed.D. may be the start of the end for the Ed.D. – and that could have profound implications for academic librarians seeking to further their education and career.
Not much difference
The Ed.D. and the Ph.D. in the field of education are quite similar. The coursework leading up to the doctoral exam, and the exams as well, is much the same although those on the Ph.D. track may take a course or two in more quantitative research methods while the Ed.D. candidates may focus more on planning or qualitative methods. To my way of thinking the two programs primarily differ around the intent of the student. I planned to remain a practitioner, and wanted a degree that would strengthen my skills as an academic administrator and allow me to pursue research to support those goals. My Ph.D. classmates mostly wanted to pursue faculty careers, doing more experimental research and teaching others about higher education theory and practice. The challenge for Ed.D. students is that their track was routinely perceived as being less rigorous, less scholarly than the Ph.D. That perception leads some to conclude that the Ed.D. is out of step with other Ph.D. programs. Arthur Levine, of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, has long advocated that the Ed.D. should be phased out and replaced with something more like an M.B.A. for academic administrators. The Ed.D., claimed Levine, suffered from the perception it was inferior to the Ph.D. It may be reasonable to question why it is necessary to write a dissertation if your career path is going to involve little research and mostly practice. I would argue that designing and conducting a dissertation research project allows the Ed.D. candidate to develop high-level expertise in a specific area of academic administration while connecting theory to practice.
Why get the Ed.D?
On a discussion list for academic librarians, a recurring topic concerns whether to get a doctorate degree or not and if so in what field. The requestors typically want to know if all the time, effort and money they put into earning a doctorate will yield dividends. Will it create a path to that better professional future or add another framed sheet of paper to the office wall? The result is a debate about whether the Ed.D. is the best choice for academic librarians, or is the Ph.D. in education a better choice – or perhaps another discipline, such as organizational dynamics or public administration. For advice seekers who want to know which field is best, I suppose it depends on who you ask. The outcome of this discussion is that it ultimately matters little what doctorate an academic librarian decides to get. If one believes that it creates the aura of greater research expertise, provides a competitive edge as a job candidate or leads to some degree of equality with faculty, then obtaining the degree may be worth the effort. But doing it just to pin a few letters after one’s name is always the wrong reason.
What should matter most is that the degree seeker is truly passionate about learning the subject matter and is committed to research in the field. Pursuing the doctorate is a journey that requires much grit and determination, especially during the lonely dissertation writing phase. If the pursuit is based mostly on extrinsic motivation for prestige or academic equity, it may offer too little inspiration to make it to the end. To my way of thinking the Ed.D., with a concentration in higher education administration, is just right for academic librarians who seek high-level leadership opportunities. It is also a good fit for those who regard themselves as students of higher education. For those interested in more quantitative research or who aspire to join the teaching/researching professoriate, the Ph.D. is probably the better choice.
In the immediate future there is probably no cause for worry. Despite Harvard’s decision to eliminate the Ed.D. in favor of the Ph.D. I suspect the majority of the programs offering the Ed.D. will choose to keep doing so. It will remain a popular degree among K-12 administrators who need the doctorate for career advancement. What we may see more of are initiatives among colleges of education to better distinguish the Ed.D and Ph.D. from each other, and to establish equality between them. Catherine Emihovich, professor and former dean of the University of Florida’s College of Education, said that her department – which offers both – made some changes to clearly distinguish between the two degrees. The goal is to clearly position the Ed.D. as a professional degree that is best suited to the needs of an academic administrator. The Ed.D. should be comparable to the legal practitioner’s J.D. – and clearly differentiated from the scholarly-focused Ph.D. Holders of and candidates for the Ed.D. degree should feel no burden to prove their worth. As one commenter to the Inside Higher Ed article asked of those holding Ed.D. degrees, “Are we soon to be the chiropractors of higher education?” Let’s hope not. Instead, when academic librarians seek to take their education to the next level, it should be abundantly clear exactly what the Ed.D. offers, and there should be a clear rationale for why it makes a better choice than the Ph.D. – or maybe not. As is often the case, it depends.