How to Get a PhD or EdD in Early Childhood Education

If you’re thinking about pursuing a doctorate in early childhood education and development, consider this: The percentage of 3- to 5-year-old children attending full-day preschool and kindergarten programs has increased steadily since 2000. With more young children needing care outside the home during their preschool years, and with pressure to prepare children for increased academic demands upon entering grade school, professionals holding a Ph.D. or Ed.D. in early childhood education can help shape the education programs and services provided to the next generation.

Whether you’re interested in a research or teaching career, or otherwise enhancing the educational experiences of young people, you’ll find that a doctorate in early childhood education can help you to realize your career aspirations.

There are many factors to consider when selecting doctoral degree programs in early childhood education. The following guide can help you navigate the information-gathering and application process.

Types of Doctorates in Early Childhood Education

The field of early childhood education is closely intertwined with psychology and the study of early childhood development. At this highest level of academic studies, you can choose from two types of doctoral degree programs:

  • The Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) is generally considered the degree for aspiring professional scholars and researchers.
  • The Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) is often thought of as the practitioner’s degree, designed for working educators seeking to master the skills and best practices needed for effective teaching and educational leadership and administration.

However, the distinction between the two degrees isn’t always clear. The curriculum, specializations offered, and other program details may reveal more about the philosophy behind the degree than does the actual degree title.

Early Childhood Education Specializations

By earning a Ph.D. or Ed.D. in early childhood education, you can become a specialist in the field. Your dissertation, if required, is likely to demand a significant commitment to researching and writing about a topic in depth. Specializations for a doctorate in early childhood education include:

  • Curriculum development
  • Early childhood policy
  • Early childhood special education
  • Families as partners in children’s schooling
  • Impact of language and literacy development on children’s learning
  • Influence of culture, including multiculturalism, on teaching and learning
  • Multiple ways of knowing
  • Social contexts of learning
  • Uses of evaluation and assessment in teaching and learning

How Career Paths Align with Doctorates in Early Childhood Education

Earning a doctorate in early childhood education requires a significant commitment of time and intellectual work. You’re likely to get the most out of your degree if you have a clear career path in mind.

For those who hold a doctorate in early childhood education, possible careers include:

  • Teachers of early childhood educational professionals
  • Researchers and advisors who can help shape government programs in the field of early childhood education
  • Leaders in teacher training, curriculum design and professional development

Once you’re certain you want to pursue a doctorate in early childhood education, take the time to research appropriate programs at a variety of colleges and universities. Exploring a range of options can help you make a more informed choice.

Choosing an Early Childhood Education Doctoral Program

As you consider a doctorate in early childhood education, the following steps can guide you through the process of identifying your key criteria and finding doctoral programs that best match your criteria and goals.

Step 1: Finding Accredited Early Childhood Education Programs

Quality standards are especially important for competitive, advanced degrees like the Ed.D. in Early Childhood Education. Accredited schools are those with an established baseline of academic standards that meet criteria set by an authorizing agency.

  • The National Association for the Education of Young Children sets standards and policies as well as evaluating and awarding accreditation to postsecondary programs in early childhood education. Its website includes a searchable database of accredited programs. As of April 2020, almost 200 higher education institutions are listed on the NAEYC website as having earned programmatic accreditation.

If you don’t already have a master’s degree in a relevant field, you may want to limit your search to combined master’s/Ph.D. programs.

Step 2: Considering Online and Campus-Based Format Options

Doctoral programs in early childhood education are offered as full-time campus-based programs as well as part-time online Ph.D. or Ed.D. programs. Think about what kind of time investment you want to make.

  • Online programs: You may be able to combine your current career in early childhood education with your doctoral studies, as online Ph.D. programs are generally more flexible. The online Ph.D. in Early Childhood Education typically includes faculty-guided research based on your professional interests and background, face-to-face residencies and online courses.
  • Campus-based programs: If you’re ready to drop everything to fulfill your academic ambitions, look into full-time campus-based programs.

Step 3: Understanding Program Details for the Doctorate in Early Childhood Education

It’s now time to start reviewing the details of each college or university’s early childhood education program. Check the schools’ education department websites to see how they describe their doctoral program’s approach, degree requirements, course descriptions and research opportunities.

Philosophy and orientation of the program. Some programs explicitly prepare students to become researchers, while others focus on developing the skills needed to advance to top administrative positions. Make sure that the program is going to point you in the direction that best meets your career goals.

Degree requirements. Doctoral programs in early childhood education typically blend method, concepts, and practical experience, such as apprenticeships.

Curriculum. Common courses for all doctoral programs in this education field include:

  • Early childhood education and development (such as social learning and the nature of knowledge)
  • Language and literacy development
  • Learning experiences and environments
  • Curriculum design
  • Evaluation and assessment and special education

Depending on the program, additional course options may include:

  • Early childhood policy, leadership and advocacy
  • Teacher development
  • Social and cultural contexts in learning
  • Family/community relations

Research. Most programs also cover research (quantitative and qualitative), as well as research theory, design and method.

Step 4: Evaluating the Quality of the Ed.D. or Ph.D. Program

At this point you should have a working list of candidate schools — those that offer programs aligned with your interests and in the delivery format that meets your needs. To whittle down your list, you’ll need to do additional digging into the programs you’ve identified. Individual schools’ websites vary in the amount of information they offer, so if you find any gaps in information, call the school directly to fill in the blanks. Here are factors to explore when evaluating the quality of a doctoral program:

Faculty. As a doctoral student, you can expect to work closely with one faculty member who serves as your advisor. Be sure to carefully examine the expertise of faculty in each program you’re considering. Is there someone in the program who would be a suitable mentor for you throughout your graduate studies? Also look at the student/faculty ratio, as it can indicate the amount of attention each graduate student receives from an advisor. The program’s webpage should provide links to faculty bios and publications.

History. Consider how long a program has been in existence. If it is new, make sure it appears well-organized and seems comparable to other programs.

Reputation. Talk to professionals in the field to get their informed opinions about programs and schools. You may also want to review websites that rank doctoral programs at different colleges and universities. But when evaluating these sites, avoid those that show obvious bias or commercial interest. Also check to see if the ranking methodology is posted or otherwise available. Are the factors on which schools are ranked aligned with what’s important to you?

Graduation rate. How many students who begin the doctoral program complete it? School admissions counselors can provide these numbers.

Placement of graduates. Where are the graduates working? Do they hold important research and administrative positions? This is also something admissions counselors or a department administrator should be able to provide to you. You’re planning to make a significant investment in the degree program, so it’s important that you have a sense of potential outcomes.

School resources. Visit campuses and talk to faculty and students, whether you’re pursuing a campus-based or online doctoral degree. You’ll be spending the next three to six years working toward your doctorate, so finding the best fit is essential! Check the school’s library collection, campus facilities, and see what student/faculty networks are in place relating to early childhood education and development.

Step 5: Apply to Early Childhood Education Graduate Programs

Carefully review the school’s admissions requirements to ensure that you have what it takes to get in. The more stringent the admission requirements, the higher the caliber of doctoral student the program is likely to attract. It’s fine to aim high but don’t limit yourself to programs that may be too selective or exclusive for someone with your qualifications.

Allow yourself plenty of time to complete the application process. Arrange to tackle the most time-sensitive steps, such as taking entrance exams, early in the process.

Complete prerequisites:

  • Most programs require that applicants take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE).
  • International students may also have to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) exam.
  • Some schools may consider or require work experience in the field.

Prepare application materials:

  • Order your transcripts online, if possible, which can save you time and effort.
  • Solicit letters of recommendation from people who can attest to your ability to perform quality work and/or scholarship in the field.
  • Plan to spend plenty of time, thought and effort composing your admissions essay — it could make the difference between getting into your first-choice program or not.
  • Depending on the program, you may need to send a writing sample or sample curriculum you’ve developed.
  • For certain doctoral programs, you may need to submit documentation to prove you have the required credentials, such as a teaching certificate or master’s degree.

Submit your application materials well in advance of the deadline to ensure they arrive on time.

Step 6: Paying for Your Doctorate in Early Childhood Education

Many schools offer financial aid in the form of grants, scholarships, educational loans and teaching assistantships. Meet with financial aid advisers at your top schools to see what you might be eligible for.

For more information about funding options, check our article, Scholarships, Grants, Student Loans, and Other Financial Aid Resources.

Step 7: Building Your Academic and Professional Network

While you’re waiting to hear about your acceptance into a program, you can start to familiarize yourself with experts and current research in the field. Discover what’s happening in the field of early childhood education by:

Article Sources


  • Early Childhood & Childhood Education, Ph.D. in Teaching and Learning Concentration,Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, New York University,, accessed April 2020
  • Early Childhood and Elementary Education,Georgia State University,, accessed April 2020
  • Early Childhood Education, Columbia University Teachers College,, accessed April 2020
  • Early Childhood Education, Walden University,, accessed April 2020
  • EdD vs. PhD in Education: What’s the Difference?, September 12, 2019, Northeastern University Graduate Programs,
  • Envisioning a New Ed.D., April 10, 2007, Inside Higher Ed,
  • Fast Facts: Preprimary Education Enrollment, National Center for Education Statistics,, accessed April 2020
  • Instruction and Curriculum Leadership, The University of Memphis,, accessed April 2020
  • Prevalence of Doctoral Programs in Early Childhood Education, Electronic Journal of the American Association of Behavioral and Social Sciences,
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