Earning a PhD vs. EdD vs. DBA – Part 1

By Michael Berger, EdD
Dean, College of Doctoral Studies

group of doctoral students in a classroom

Grand Canyon University currently offers four different doctoral programs for learners: the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP), the Doctor of Education (EdD) in Organizational Leadership, the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in General Psychology and the Doctor of Business Administration (DBA).

The DNP is greatly different from the other three and we will discuss it at another time, but I wanted to discuss the similarities and differences between the three remaining programs.

The two main categories that allow us to compare and contrast these programs are degree type and degree content. In this post, I want to discuss degree type.

Research Degrees vs. Professional Degrees

When talking to potential learners, I usually ask fairly early in the conversation which of our programs do they find the most appealing, and I occasionally hear that they are interested in the “doctorate IN education.”

When I hear this, I probe further and I often have that followed up with something along the lines of “as a teacher, I want to research more in the field of education, so that’s the degree I want.”

I quickly jump in to clarify: GCU does not offer a doctorate in education, we have a doctorate in leadership. What GCU offers is a Doctor OF Education in Organizational Leadership.

So the first difference between the EdD and the PhD is that they are different types of doctorate degrees. The PhD is the older degree type, the original research/dissertation-based degree to come out of the universities of Europe in the mid-1800s and was adopted by the U.S. university system starting with Yale shortly thereafter (Rosenberg, 1961).

The EdD came about when a push for doctorates in professional fields started, being first offered at Harvard University in the 1920s (Toma, 2002). The DBA emerged similarly. While the EdD and DBA started out as professional degrees that did not have the research associated with it, over the years they became very similar in their scholarly requirements and expectations to PhD programs (Toma, 2002).

Here at GCU, the EdD and DBA programs have a strong grounding in professional practice and have a practitioner focus. However, there are still strong scholarly requirements for the programs.

Scholar-Practitioners vs Practitioner-Scholars

The PhD has its foundation deeply rooted in scholarship, but at GCU, we want all our doctoral learners to become leaders and make a difference in their communities so there is a clear practitioner element in the PhD as well.

So the difference here is a matter of emphasis. We refer to our EdD learners as practitioner-scholars, who seek to apply current theories in new environments with a focus on making changes, and our PhD learners as scholar-practitioners, who seek to develop new theories or adjust old ones in order to inspire or explain change.

Our DBA program is a practitioner-scholar program as well. All three programs have similar dissertation processes and will require learners to take courses on statistics, as well as learn about research methodology. The main difference is that the PhD program will go into greater depth on research methodology and encourage deeper exploration of theory.

In the next post, we will discuss how degree content should impact your choice of program.

Keep reading! Check out Part 2 of this post. For more information about earning your doctoral degree at GCU, contact us today!


Rosenberg, R. P. (1961). The first American doctor of philosophy degree: A centennial salute to Yale, 1861-1961. Journal of Higher Education 32 (7): 387–394. 

Toma, D. J. (2002). Legitimacy, differentiation, and the promise of the EdD in higher education. Annual Meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education: Education Resource Information Center (ERIC). Retrieved from here.

More about Dr. Berger:

Dr. Michael Berger has over a decade of experience in higher education and joined GCU in 2004. Dr. Berger participated in the teams that earned HLC accreditation for the current doctoral programs as head of curriculum design and development before moving to the College of Doctoral Studies in 2012. His dissertation focused on instructional techniques that online faculty can use to better connect with their students. He has presented at numerous regional and national conferences on the subjects of higher ed. assessment, online learning and virtual doctoral education. His bachelor’s and master’s degrees are from the University of Dayton and he received his doctorate in education from GCU. He started his doctoral program five days after his daughter was born, so he has experienced firsthand trying to simultaneously balance school, family and full-time employment.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.

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