Earning an Online Doctorate in Early Childhood Education

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that employment for elementary school principals will increase by 8% between 2016 and 2026, which is in line with the average rate of job growth for all positions in the U.S. Compensation for these positions, however, greatly outpaces the median pay rate. According to the BLS, school principals earned a median salary of $95,310 in 2018 -- significantly higher than the median pay for all occupations in the country.

While you may qualify for some principal roles with a master's degrees, districts may require school leaders and senior administrators to hold a doctorate. This page provides an overview of online doctoral programs in early childhood education, including information on how to apply to programs and how to help pay for your degree.

Why Get a Doctorate in Early Childhood Education?

Pursuing Specialization

Earning an online doctorate in early childhood education can prepare you for more specialized roles in the field. In addition to opening up professional opportunities in academia and research, this terminal degree qualifies you to lead elementary schools, school districts, and charter management organizations. A doctorate also provides ample preparation for shaping early education policy at a state agency, directing the efforts of a child services nonprofit organization, or working directly with young children struggling with academic or socioemotional issues.

Career Advancement Opportunities

Online Ph.D. programs in early childhood education can also help you take the next step in your career. While you can teach at some community colleges with just a master's degree, most postsecondary faculty positions -- especially those that lead to tenure -- require a doctorate. A Ph.D. or doctorate of education (Ed.D.) can also improve your earning potential. According to Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, early childhood educators with an advanced degree earn approximately $14,000 more per year than individuals who only hold a bachelor's.

Online Learning Technology

Finally, pursuing your doctorate online gives you the opportunity to develop familiarity with tools and technologies you may find useful throughout your career. For example, a chief academic officer may rely on the same distance collaboration tools used in online classrooms to solicit input from teachers and administrators across their state. If you plan to teach at a college or university, you may also benefit from direct experience with instructional strategies designed for online learners.

What's the Difference Between a Ph.D. and a DBA in Early Childhood Education?

Generally, a Ph.D. in early childhood education prepares students for roles in academia and research, while an Ed.D. prepares graduates for roles in practice, such as working as a superintendent.

Although both program types often include coursework in research and data analysis, some Ed.D. programs do not specifically require students to complete a dissertation. Instead, they may require a capstone or other culminating doctoral project. These experiences usually involve partnering with an educational organization, identifying a practical problem, and creating a set of recommendations to address that specific challenge. The dissertation process, in contrast, involves conducting original research and contributing new knowledge to the broader field of education.

Additionally, Ph.D. programs tend to demand a greater time commitment than Ed.D. programs. While students in Ed.D. programs may earn their doctorate in just three years, Ph.D. candidates usually need 4-7 years to meet all degree requirements.

Prerequisites for Online Doctorate in Early Childhood Education Programs

Admission requirements vary from program to program. For example, some schools may require applicants to hold a teaching or administrative license, while others accept students with a master's degree but no professional experience. The list below describes common prerequisites for online doctoral programs in early childhood education.

  • Work Experience: Given their focus on professional practice, Ed.D. programs may require applicants to possess several years of relevant professional experience. Ph.D. programs, however, tend to serve students interested in careers in academia; as a result, they may choose to make admission decisions based on your scholastic -- rather than your professional -- experience.
  • Exams and Test Scores: Most programs require prospective students to share results from the Graduate Record Examination (GRE); scores usually need to be from within the last five years. If you score below 150 on either section of the GRE, you should consider retaking the exam. Some schools waive entrance exam requirements for applicants with significant work experience in the education sector.
  • Coursework: These types of programs typically prefer to admit students who have earned a bachelor's or master's degree in early childhood education or a closely related field. However, if your degrees are in another field, you may still be able to qualify for admission into some programs under the condition that you complete prerequisite coursework in child development and instructional strategies prior to beginning your doctoral studies.
  • Recommendations: Along with the rest of your application materials, you should plan to submit up to three letters of recommendation. These letters should come from former professors, employers, and/or community leaders. Try to identify at least one recommender who can attest to your readiness to study at the doctoral level.
  • Essays: Nearly all schools require applicants to submit some kind of writing sample. Some programs ask students to detail their academic and professional goals in a statement of purpose, while others require a proposal outlining a student's planned dissertation research. In some cases, you may submit a master's thesis or research paper to satisfy this requirement.
  • Interviews: Many early childhood education doctoral programs require finalists to participate in an interview. These interviews give admissions officers the opportunity to determine your fit in a program and help pair you with a faculty advisor. Interviews can also give you the chance to highlight your unique strengths and explain possible weaknesses in your application, such as a low undergraduate GPA.
  • International Students: International students must meet the same admission requirements as students who attended college or graduate school in the United States. However, they may also need to demonstrate their proficiency with the English language, either by taking a standardized test (like the TOEFL) or by submitting an additional writing sample.

How Much Can I Make with a Doctorate in Early Childhood Education?

According to the BLS, postsecondary education teachers earned a median salary of $64,780 in 2018. Jobs in education administration, however, can pay significantly more. For example, school principals earned a median salary of $95,310 in 2018, with the top 10% of earners commanding salaries in excess of $140,000. That same year, postsecondary administrators earned a median salary of $94,340, with the top 10% of earners bringing home more than $190,000.

Traditional Careers

Career Stats Description

Elementary Principals

Median Pay: $95,310

Job Growth: 8%

Principals oversee all of the operations of their schools. They create school-wide budgets, hire and train new teachers, manage student discipline issues, and collaborate with district administrators and community leaders. Most states require principals to hold a master's degree, although large districts and private schools may prefer to hire candidates with a doctorate.

Education Teachers, Postsecondary

Median Pay: $64,780

Job Growth: 10%

Postsecondary education teachers instruct students at colleges and universities. They may also conduct research and publish their findings in scholarly articles and books. Most professors advise students and perform certain administrative tasks, such as supporting the admissions process. The majority of these roles require a doctorate.

Postsecondary Education Administrators

Median Pay: $94,340

Job Growth: 10%

Postsecondary administrators oversee certain functions at higher education institutions. For example, an administrator with a Ph.D. in early childhood education may serve as the director of an elementary teacher preparation program or the dean of a graduate school of education. Entry and mid-level roles typically only require a master's degree.

Top Executives, Public Sector

Median Pay: $104,980

Job Growth: 8%

Top executives in the public sector, such as school district superintendents and heads of state education agencies, devise and implement strategies for government agencies. They may also oversee large groups of public employees. Though not usually required, a doctorate in early childhood education can improve a candidate's odds of receiving a high-level appointment.

Social and Community Service Managers

Median Pay: $65,320

Job Growth: 18%

Social and community service managers lead nonprofit organizations and advocacy groups. In addition to hiring staff and evaluating programs, these managers also play key roles in raising funds for their organizations and building connections with members of the community. Some positions specifically require an advanced degree in a field like education or social work.

Nontraditional Careers

Earning a doctorate in early childhood education online also equips you with the knowledge and skills needed to assume a variety of more hands-on roles in education and childcare. For example, you can use your expertise in child development to found a private preschool or kindergarten in your community. You may also choose to work exclusively with special needs students, modifying curricula and instructional strategies to suit the unique abilities of your students.

Career Stats Description

Preschool or Childcare Center Directors

Median Pay: $47,940

Job Growth: 11%

Preschool and childcare center directors, like principals, hold broad responsibility for all operational and instructional functions at their organization. They must hire caretakers and educators, develop and assess enrichment programs, and secure public or private sources of funding. While not a requirement, a doctorate in early childhood education may benefit school founders and childcare entrepreneurs.

Skills overlapped: Organizational and financial management skills

Kindergarten or Elementary School Teachers

Median Pay: $57,980

Job Growth: 7%

Kindergarten and elementary school teachers instruct young children, usually between the ages of five and 10 years old. They often teach multiple subjects, including math, reading, science, and history. No states require teachers to hold a Ph.D., but a terminal degree may give candidates a strong competitive edge for openings and promotions.

Skills overlapped: Instructional and interpersonal skills

Instructional Coordinators

Median Pay: $64,450

Job Growth: 11%

Instructional coordinators develop, implement, and assess curricula and teaching methods used in schools. They often specialize in a particular subject or with a certain age group of children. At the district and state levels, coordinators also play a role in shaping standards and educator training programs. Instructional coordinators typically need an advanced degree and a state-issued license.

Skills overlapped: Curriculum design and assessment skills

Special Education Teachers

Median Pay: $59,780

Job Growth: 8%

Special education teachers serve the needs of students with diverse mental, physical, and socioemotional issues. They often work with parents, administrators, and fellow educators to design individualized education programs for each of their students. Some states require special education teachers to earn a graduate degree to qualify for licensure.

Skills overlapped: Universal design and adaptive instructional skills

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Paying for a Doctorate in Early Childhood Education Online

The cost associated with earning a doctoral degree in early childhood education online can vary depending on several factors. For example, public universities typically charge less than private institutions, especially if you qualify for in-state tuition. In addition, some schools provide tuition discounts to military personnel or current educators.

You can also reduce the out-of-pocket cost of your education by applying for grants, fellowships, and scholarships. To identify possible sources of funding, start by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

Scholarships for Online Early Childhood Education Students

In addition to state and federal financial aid, you can apply for private scholarships to help finance your doctoral education. Private organizations tend to support students preparing for specific career paths (e.g., teaching at a college or university) or candidates from particular demographic backgrounds (e.g., women or students of color).

What to Expect from an Online Early Childhood Education Program

The nature of your doctoral experience will depend greatly on your academic interests and professional goals. For example, a learner who plans to work with gifted or special needs children may take classes in universal design, while individuals who hope to take on a leadership role at an elementary school may complete coursework related to financial and personnel management. The pace of study you choose also determines how long it will take to earn your degree.

Major Milestones

  1. Enrollment

    During your program's enrollment period, contact your faculty advisor to design a course of study and discuss your dissertation plans. You should also contact your school's financial aid office to review institutional fellowship and grant opportunities.

  2. Completing Coursework

    Most doctoral programs feature coursework in areas like cultural issues affecting diverse learners, models of assessment, and family and community relationships and advocacy. Student may also take classes in research design and methodologies to prepare for their dissertation.

  3. Passing Comprehensive Examination

    Comprehensive examinations assess a student's mastery of their doctoral coursework and determine their readiness to begin the dissertation process. These exams are often offered in a take-home, essay format.

  4. Defending Dissertation Proposal

    In many programs, students must write a dissertation proposal and receive formal approval from their faculty advisor to begin their research. While they prepare this proposal, students also recruit members for their faculty review committee.

  5. Conducting Research/Writing Dissertation

    Doctoral candidates must either collect original research or use multiple sources of existing data to draw new conclusions about their chosen topic. A student's faculty advisor often provides multiple rounds of feedback to improve upon a student's methodology and findings.

  6. Defending Dissertation

    Dissertation defenses usually involve a student giving a lecture on their research and answering questions posed by members of their faculty review committee. If a candidate successfully defends their dissertation, they may go on to formally earn their doctoral degree.


Your exact curriculum will vary depending on the program and research agenda you choose. However, many of the best early childhood education doctoral programs feature some similar coursework. The list below describes five classes commonly found in these programs.

Child Development and the Educational Process

In this class, students explore current research related to child development and its relationship to educational practice and processes. Learners examine early childhood development through multiple lenses, including social, emotional, physical, cognitive, and creative perspectives.

Early Childhood Leadership and Supervision

Students in this course review common models of educational leadership and administration, with the ultimate goal of developing a personal leadership framework that fits their unique management style. Topics covered include public relations, team building, and organizational theory.

Language, Literacy, and Reading Instruction in Early Childhood Education

One of the most important roles early childhood educators play is supporting their students' language and literacy development. This course introduces best practices related to that goal, emphasizing adult-child interactions inside and outside of the classroom.

Legal Issues in Early Childhood Education

Whether conducting research or leading a school, educators working with young children must possess an intimate understanding of relevant laws and regulations. In this class, students learn about mandated reporting, record keeping, and safety practices.

Quantitative Analysis

Most doctoral students take multiple courses in research analysis and design while preparing to work on their dissertation. This course focuses specifically on the collection and interpretation of numerical data using parametric and nonparametric techniques.

Degree Timelines

The time required to earn your degree depends on how quickly you advance through your coursework and, if applicable, how long you need to conduct your research and write your dissertation. Some online programs offer multiple formats to provide increased flexibility.


Time to Complete: 7-10 years

Many students choose part-time study to schedule their learning around full-time jobs or family responsibilities. These students typically take one or two courses each semester, then work on their dissertation at their own pace. Schools often allow part-time doctoral students up to 10 years to complete all of their program's requirements.


Time to Complete: 4-7 years

Full-time students usually take two or three classes each semester, completing all of their coursework in less than three years. Researching, writing, and defending a dissertation may then require an additional 1-4 years. Some full-time students choose to serve as teaching or research assistants while they work on their dissertations.


Time to Complete: 3-4 years

Accelerated courses of study allow students to advance through their coursework and dissertations at their own pace. To demonstrate mastery of the material, students may take exams or submit portfolios of work to their faculty advisor. Self-paced learning -- while appealing to students who want to graduate as quickly as possible -- requires exceptional self-discipline and strong time-management skills.

Licenses and Certifications

If you plan to teach in a public K-12 school, you must hold a state-issued teaching license. Educational administrators, like principals and superintendents, must hold similar licenses to practice.

While a doctoral degree represents the pinnacle of academic preparation for early childhood educators, some scholars and practitioners may choose to seek out optional certifications to further signal their expertise in a particular area or qualify for specific professional opportunities.

  • Teaching License: All states require public school teachers to hold a license. While the exact requirements vary, licensure candidates typically need to have at least a bachelor's degree, complete a supervised teaching experience, and pass a criminal background check and a teaching certification exam.
  • Administrative License: Most states require principals and district-level leaders to hold an administrative license. Requirements typically include a master's degree in educational administration, several years of classroom experience, and successful scores on a certification exam. Some states also require aspiring administrators to shadow an experienced school or district leader.
  • National Board Certification: The National Board of Professional Teaching Standards offers this certification to current educators, with an option to specialize in early childhood education. To become certified, candidates must hold a state teaching license and at least three years of teaching experience. They must also pass a four-part exam that costs approximately $2,000.
  • AASA National Superintendent Certification Program®: Offered by the American Association of School Administrators, this credential signals a professional's readiness to contribute to operational and instructional excellence as a district-level leader. Certification involves specialized coursework, ongoing mentorship, and a capstone project. In total, the program costs $6,000.

Professional Organizations and Resources

Professional organizations offer a wealth of resources for early childhood educators and academics. For example, many of these associations host regional and national networking events, giving you the chance to meet new colleagues and share best practices. These organizations may also provide online and in-person training opportunities, helping you satisfy continuing education requirements or hone a new set of skills. In addition, professional organizations advocate on behalf of their members, offer scholarships to education students, and pair recent graduates with experienced mentors.

  • National Association for the Education of Young Children: NAEYC works to promote high-quality educational opportunities for children by connecting research, practice, and policy. Members can attend annual conferences and training institutes, subscribe to a news and policy digest, and browse job listings through the association's career center.
  • National Head Start Association: NHSA represents the students and staff of Head Start facilities throughout the United States. In addition to offering professional development opportunities, the group collects and disseminates research on topics like neuroscience, extended learning hours, and wraparound services.
  • National Education Association: NEA represents more than three million educators and support staff across the country. The association provides continuing education scholarships, lobbies state and federal governments for increased education funding, and hosts sample lesson plans and classroom management tools.
  • American Federation of Teachers: Founded in 1916, AFT currently represents about 1.6 million teachers and education professionals. Along with organizing its members around issues like school violence and immigrant student protections, AFT maintains local chapters in every U.S. state and territory.
  • American Educational Research Association: AERA is the leading research society in the education field. The association convenes an annual research conference, offers dissertation fellowships to doctoral students, and publishes the American Education Research Journal.
  • Federal Student Aid: The U.S. Department of Education (ED) provides financial aid to early childhood education doctoral students in the form of grants, work-study opportunities, and low-interest student loans. The department also offers guidance on identifying and applying for private sources of funding.
  • U.S. Department of Education, Early Learning Resources: The ED also curates a set of resources for early childhood educators, scholars, and policy makers. Selected publications cover topics like supporting dual-language learners, assessing math learning, and diagnosing early literacy issues.
  • Harvard Graduate School of Education, Usable Knowledge: Usable Knowledge serves as a repository of research and policy analysis undertaken by Harvard education faculty. Students and professionals can review brief summaries of subjects like the pedagogy of play, the science of motivation, and elementary civics education.
  • Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative: Also housed at Harvard, this education initiative provides fellowships to master's and doctoral students, operates a professional learning academy, and conducts and shares new research on early childhood development.
  • Purdue Online Writing Lab: Earning a doctorate requires strong writing skills. The Purdue OWL features advice on how to properly cite academic sources, structure your dissertation, and draft an effective cover letter and resume.