How to Get a PhD or EdD in ESL

You are going to be putting forth you best efforts for the next four to six years, and, let’s face it, working very hard. You want be sure that you are in an environment that supports your educational and career goals as well as your lifestyle. That is why it is so important to research thoroughly your choice of schools.

The purpose of this guide is to help you through the labyrinth of information about PhD in education with a specialization in ESL so that you will have all the data you need to make the best possible decision about where to complete your education.

An Overview of the PhD in ESL

There have always been private language schools around the globe offering classes in many languages, including English, but formal courses of English as a second language (ESL) really started to boom in the U.S. in the 1960s with the influx of non-native laborers and their families. Public schools on all levels began to recognize the community need for ESL classes. Colleges and universities began to realize that students from outside the U.S. were willing to pay for English instruction on U.S. campuses just at a time when air transportation was becoming available and affordable for the masses.

These conditions created the need for PhD programs to research all facets of ESL and to formally prepare ESL teachers. Doctoral-level degrees and certificates emerged from departments of English, Linguistics, and Education, which is where you are still most likely to find them.

Alternative Degrees to the PhD in ESL

As you research the PhD in ESL, you may find that some schools offer the focus and content you are looking for under alternative degrees. These alternative doctoral degrees may be in English with an emphasis in ESL, education with an emphasis in TESL (teaching English as a second language), linguistics with an emphasis in applied linguistics, or psychology with an emphasis in psycholinguistics. Don’t hesitate to investigate offerings in these all these disciplines, as you might find the ESL doctorate offered through any of them.

The EdD in ESL

This is more of a professional degree than the traditional PhD in ESL. While a PhD program might focus more on developing the educational and teaching theories behind ESL, an EdD in ESL makes you an expert in the field, able to apply your expansive knowledge to a wide array of real-world situations.

A Doctorate by Any Other Name

Many campus-based and online graduate schools offer the EdD or PhD in ESL. It’s important to know what similar degrees might be available. Some of the following are nearly identical but warrant mentioning, so that you can complete a complete search of programs.

  • PhD or EdD in ESL (English as a Second Language)
  • EdD or PhD in TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language)
  • PhD or EdD in TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language)
  • EdD or PhD in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages)

Career Options for the PhD in ESL and an Illustrative Example

You may be interested in a PhD in ESL because you already know that you want to conduct research or teach at the university level. Yet there are other avenues for employment including positions with testing services, publishers, software development companies, consulting firms, and government agencies.

Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, investigates what causes success. A whole chapter is devoted to understanding how Korea Air was able to become one of the safest airlines in the world after a whole string of crashes. Analysis of the disasters by the airline, Boeing (the manufacturer of most of the planes involved), the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, and the psychologists, linguists, and pilots employed by these entities, determined that the ultimate cause of all the crashes was not bad weather, equipment failures, or that the pilots were poorly trained in flying. The cause of these crashes (and others documented in the chapter) was the way in which the flight crews communicated with each other and Air Traffic Control, combined with weak English language skills. Korea Air was able to turn around its safety record when management acknowledged that they had a communication problem and brought in experts to fix it, in part with ESL training. Chapter seven of Outliers illustrates the need for highly-trained professionals who understand language acquisition and production in cultural context in a business environment. This example should give you encouragement to pursue your PhD as well as food for thought about where you might apply your learning.

How to Find the Right PhD in ESL Program

The number of campus-based and even online graduate schools offering a PhD in ESL is relatively small. For example, among the ten University of California campuses with a total enrollment of about 220,000 students, only UCLA offers doctorate degrees related to ESL. UCLA offers PhD degrees in applied linguistics and TESL. One of the quickest ways to identify at least some of the schools that offer a PhD or EdD in ESL is to check out’s Degrees by Subject and Degrees by Level. In fact, you can fill out a form on this site and colleges that offer a PhD in ESL will contact you with information on their programs.

Once you find the schools that offer the PhD in ESL, consider what attributes are most important to you. Things that you should take into consideration are accessibility, accreditation, specialization, quality and availability of faculty, and program history.

On-Campus or Online ESL PhD Programs

Many ESL doctoral level programs require you to be physically present on campus to take classes. There are many reasons for this arrangement, including collaboration with faculty and classmates, availability of materials, and most importantly, teaching and research assistantships. These may help you cover the cost of your education while allowing you to earn credits toward your degree. If you find the perfect campus-based program, but it is not near your home, you will need to assess your willingness and ability to relocate. For an undertaking as significant as earning a PhD in ESL, the inconvenience of moving may well be worth the effort.

On the other hand, you can still earn your PhD in ESL even if you cannot attend classes on campus. A number of schools offer the degree through their online PhD programs. Some of the major benefits of an online graduate degree program include flexibility, convenience, and time savings.

Both on-campus and online programs sometimes permit or even require field research or practicum. Be sure you understand any such opportunities or requirements, and be sure that you are able to comply with them before applying.

Accreditation of ESL Programs

In the United States, schools are evaluated for the quality of their education, not by a government agency, but by peer review undertaken by third party accreditation boards. There are regional, national and specialized boards. The U.S. Department of Education (DOE) maintains a database of schools that are accredited by one of the 52 boards that the DOE recognizes as legitimate. Check the DOE database to see if the schools you are interested in are listed. If so, you will be able to see the name of the accreditation agency. Why does accreditation matter?

Students who attend schools that are not accredited by one of the sanctioned boards are ineligible for federally-backed student loans. Besides that, diplomas from non-accredited schools are not recognized by many employers. Additionally, units might not transfer between national and regional schools (regionally accredited schools are sometimes unwilling to take units from nationally accredited schools, but seldom is the opposite true). So, do not take accreditation lightly. Do your homework. Be sure your intended school is accredited.

Specialization within the EdD and PhD in ESL

As a profession, English as a Second Language seems to draw an eclectic crowd. There are those whose interest is scientific: how language acquisition and communication occur; there are the lovers of the English language who desire to share its intricacies and glories with willing learners; and there are those who are drawn to other countries and customs and have used teaching ESL, either in the U.S. or abroad, as a way to become more intimate with unfamiliar cultures. No matter what your particular interest in ESL is, you can find a program that accommodates your motivations. Some specializations include:

  • Research in all facets of second language learning
  • Applied linguistics
  • ESL administration
  • Language assessment
  • Curriculum development
  • Test preparation and administration
  • Teaching and teacher training
  • Interdisciplinary leadership

Choosing a PhD Program for its Faculty

Related to specialization is the reputation and availability of the faculty under whom you will study. Sometimes this factor alone is the reason to choose a program. If you want to pursue a specialization that is only taught by one specialist, you must seek out him or her. In addition, finding the right faculty can make all the difference not only in the knowledge you gain but in where you are published, and in the contacts you make, which in turn can determine where you spend the rest of your career.

The first line of research on faculty is a visit to school Websites where you can read abbreviated biographies of your prospective professors. The bios usually include a list of recent publications, awards, and projects. You can get more a more in-depth understanding of faculty at schools that interest you by reading their original research. Request copies of the research, or links to it, directly from the person who wrote it.

Research ESL Program’s History

Many programs are very concerned with maintaining a high graduate rate (having most people who enter the program leave with the degree they sought). This is important for several reasons. It verifies an overall market satisfaction level and it is an indicator of how much help you can expect to receive. The higher the graduation rate, the better. This information is usually available directly from school Websites. Newer programs are more difficult to evaluate. Your best bet is to look at the graduation rate and quality of a school’s closely-related other programs, such as linguistics or English. You can probably extrapolate the future performance of the ESL PhD program with that information.

Check Prerequisites of Doctorate Programs

Once you have narrowed your choices it is time to check the prerequisites for admission. Here is a list of some common prerequisites:

  • Some PhD programs allow candidates to apply with an undergraduate degree; others demand completion of a master’s.
  • Graduate Records Exam (GRE) results are usually required; the results usually must be current, so check for term of expiration. If you have not taken the GRE recently, make arrangements to do so. It is only offered on certain dates, so plan accordingly.
  • Letters of recommendation are usually mandatory. Get started on these early as the professors and professionals you need these from may not be immediately available, or they may need some help from you in the form of a list of points and accomplishments you want them to address
  • Personal essays or statements of intent are often compulsory. Do not wait until the last minute to prepare such a document as your admission may hang in the balance and be decided by this one factor.

How to Apply to Doctorate-Level ELS Programs

Even if you have your heart set on a particular program, apply to several others in case you are not accepted by your first choice. Gather the forms you need from all the places you plan to apply, and then carefully read the instructions for each, noticing in particular deadlines for submission.

College applications can be time-consuming and expensive. Applications can take anywhere from 30 minutes to several days to complete, and all have processing fees that range from $50 upwards. So set aside the time you need to do a good job.

You might consider composing your answers to narrative questions in a word processing program and then copying them into the college application form. That way, if the same or a similar question comes up on another application, you will not have to start from scratch.

Financial Aid for Doctoral Students

If you are applying for a loan, grant, scholarship, stipend, or teaching or research assistant position, expect that you will need to fill out separate applications for this aid. You may need your bank statements, pay stubs, last tax filing, and proof of assets and liabilities, so don’t wait until the last minute to begin to gather these supporting documents.

For more help on financial aid, pre-admission testing and many other topics see the Education Resources Guide at the website.


  • Educational Testing Service, GRE Details: Test Takers
  • Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers
  • Purdue University, English as a Second Language
  • University of California, Graduate Degree Programs: Academic Programs Inventory
  • University of California, UC Campuses
  •, Government Information by Topic
  • U.S. Department of Education, Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions
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