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Educational Leadership Degree: Master’s vs. Doctorate

While many educational leaders are former teachers, others have always been passionate about influencing what quality education looks like through research, administration, and other approaches to challenging what has always been done and finding new and better ways to do things. Prospective educational leadership candidates generally need a master’s degree or doctorate to qualify for most positions, and considering what type of career you are interested in can help you determine which option is the best fit for you. 

Here are some of the most important things to know about how the expectations and typical outcomes of these programs differ and how you can decide which path can best prepare you to meet your goals!

Overview of a Typical Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership 

Most educational leadership master’s programs take approximately two to two and a half years to complete, so choosing this accelerated option can be a significantly faster path to a new career than working toward a doctorate. These programs help educators develop skills that prepare them for various middle management roles within the field of education, such as high-level positions in elementary or secondary schools or school districts or select management positions at the university level. Master’s courses generally focus on building a broad understanding of how strong educational systems work and how to create policies and select and implement educational strategies that best set students up for success. 

Overview of a Typical Doctorate in Educational Leadership 

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Earning a doctorate in educational leadership can prepare you for nearly any high-level position in education, such as top research positions and consulting roles. Still, these programs can require a significant financial and time commitment. Most educational leadership doctorate programs take approximately three to four years to complete on their own, and many doctoral candidates do not begin these programs until they have earned a master’s degree. These programs generally place a much higher emphasis on research, analysis, and strategy development than master’s programs, which prepare candidates to succeed in research positions that change the standards of what quality education looks like. 

Career Prospects 

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Considering the specific type of career you are interested in pursuing and the type of institution you ultimately want to work for is an important step in determining which type of educational program can best prepare you to reach your goals because master’s degrees and doctorates in this field are typically designed with specific career paths in mind. While some educational leaders do eventually earn both types of degrees as they advance in their careers, considering your current experience and where you want your education to take you is key when it comes to finding the right program for you. 

Master’s Degree

Earning a master’s degree in educational leadership is a natural next step for teachers or less experienced school leaders interested in progressing to a position that gives them a higher level of control over local educational policies and best practices. While this path will not immediately qualify a student for some of the most lucrative positions at the top of the education field, it is an ideal option for those looking to continue working with K-12 students in a more influential position. Some master’s students may also be considering whether pursuing a doctoral-level position years down the road might be a good fit for them and taking a step toward improving their qualifications for a future higher-level program. 

Many educational leaders who earn master’s degrees find positions running elementary and secondary schools, while others may qualify for certain positions at the post-secondary level. Some common positions educational leaders with master’s degrees obtain include: 

  • School principals 
  • Department heads
  • Curriculum directors
  • Educational consultants 

Some educational leaders may also qualify to teach certain university-level courses with a master’s degree, although most of these positions require a doctoral degree in a field that is more specific to their academic area. 


Educators considering pursuing a doctorate in educational leadership are typically interested in impacting the future of education at the highest level. Doctoral candidates often seek positions at the university level or other research institutions that give them nearly unlimited opportunities to dig deeply into learning more about how specific aspects of education that most interest them can impact students or change how the content and methods education students are taught can impact how they ultimately teach their own students. Many educational leaders who are selected to serve in government roles that impact what education looks like at the national level hold a doctorate, and other common positions these leaders may pursue include:

  • University dean
  • Superintendent
  • Educational policy analyst
  • Senior educational consultant
  • University professor (required to teach many bachelor’s courses and most master’s or higher courses)

Salary Differences 

The specific position you seek plays a crucial role in determining your expected income, but both programs will likely lead to a significant salary increase over what you are currently making as a teacher or other aspiring educational leader with a less advanced degree. The specific institution you work for, its location, and your overall experience level can also influence your individual salary.

Educational leaders with a master’s degree typically earn an average base salary of approximately $65,000 per year, and many principals, executive directors, and other positions near the top of this degree’s qualifications can pay upwards of $125,000 per year.

Earning a doctorate can be a path to significantly higher earning potential because this degree opens the door to most of the education sector’s top roles, and educational leaders with this degree can expect to earn an average of approximately $78,500 per year. Some positions that require a doctorate in educational leadership may pay significantly more, such as: 

  • Academic deans (average of $92,000 per year) 
  • Superintendents and university administrators (average of $115,000 per year)
  • College or university presidents (average of $150,000 per year) 

Although many factors influence your salary, the top ten percent of educational leaders with doctorates earn more than $194,000 annually. While these salaries are generally reserved for educational leadership positions at the highest level, there is very high earning potential for the most motivated educational leaders. 

Deciding on an Educational Leadership Degree Program

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While obtaining a master’s degree or doctorate can both be excellent choices for aspiring educational leaders, carefully considering your personal goals and the type of career that most interests you is a key step in determining which path might be the best fit for you. Both types of programs give participants the tools they need to use their passion for improving education in various ways, provide access to new opportunities and responsibilities, and pave the way toward career advancement that can come with a significant salary increase. 

Becoming an educational leader can allow you to influence what quality education looks like at any level. Our academic advisors and other professionals regularly host a variety of informational sessions that can help you determine which option is the best fit for you. Continue to learn more about the benefits of earning a master’s degree or doctorate in educational leadership or the most important things to consider when selecting a degree type, program, and career path to pursue!

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