Choosing the “Right” Doctoral Program: How To Decide Which Program Is Right for YOU

Embarking on the journey toward a doctoral degree is a significant milestone—but, with countless options available, it’s essential to find the program that best fits your needs and goals.

In this blog post, I’ll discuss my journey of figuring out which degree to pursue based on where I saw myself in the future. It’s important to note that the decision about what program is best for you will be based on your own individual goals. There’s no “right” program for everyone.

Understanding My Calling – And Making an Informed Decision

Initially, it was my mother—an educator—who encouraged me to pursue a doctorate. She emphasized how this degree would open up various opportunities, including teaching at the collegiate level. However, it wasn’t until I entered my undergraduate program and found a mentor—my professor—that I truly understood my calling. It had two main focal areas:

  1. I wanted to teach students about the field of speech-language pathology.
  2. I wanted to encourage, guide, and mentor students on how to best reach their career goals.

So, I set my sights on getting a doctorate. But this journey—of finding out what type of doctoral program truly was right for me—turned out to be more complex than I had anticipated.

A common misperception is that the only doctorate speech-language pathologists (SLPs) can pursue is a doctor of philosophy (PhD) degree, but I discovered this to be far from accurate. During my time in graduate school, I came to realize that many of my professors and supervisors held diverse types of doctoral degrees. Their degrees weren’t confined to only PhDs: Some people had earned, for example, a doctor of education (EdD) degree. Others had earned a doctor of speech-language pathology (SLPD) degree.

I faced a decision point that was three-pronged: Do I go for the PhD, the EdD, or the SLPD? I began doing some careful research to come up with my answer.

For months, I had been creating several “pros and cons” lists comparing each degree. But before discussing the three degrees and how they differ, I want to offer you some self-reflection questions. These questions can help you decide which degree is the right one for you.

Ask Yourself These Questions

Here are some questions that you can ask yourself. They can help you determine what degree is right for you:

  1. What is your end goal? To emphasize, where do you see yourself in 5 or 10 years? Do you see yourself becoming a collegiate professor? Do you see yourself in a leadership role? This is a major factor in your decision making. I knew that I was always passionate about teaching others. I liked the fact that I could help students better understand content knowledge. At the same time, I had research interests that I was passionate about—and I wanted a program that would help me advance my knowledge in those interest areas.
  2. Are you interested in research and publishing? This is another major factor in choosing a program. Many doctoral programs will require you to conduct research and/or publish. For me, I wanted to do more research than publishing. I participated in faculty-led research in my undergraduate program and enjoyed it. I even got to present the findings at our state and national organizations. I thought that by choosing an EdD or SLPD program, conducting research and publishing might be more challenging because it might be more independent than a PhD program, where you have an agreement to work with a mentor who will allow you to work in their lab on their research projects and studies.
  3. Do you want to complete your degree online or in person? There are many traditional (i.e., face-to-face) doctoral programs where students can attend courses throughout the day. There are also programs where you enroll as a “hybrid student” by completing classwork online while attending class in person a few times or completing the entire program online. I went back and forth about whether to complete my doctoral degree online. At first, I assumed that an online program would be easier for me to complete, but after having conversations with individuals who had done just that, I realized that opting for either modality would be equally challenging. In my case, I opted for completing my doctoral degree in-person because after completing a graduate program online, I realized that I missed having face-to-face learning where I could have a more direct interaction with my professors and classmates.    
  4. Do you want to continue working a full-time job? Some doctoral programs make full-time education a requirement or encourage students to focus only on completing the program instead of working. Nevertheless, there are programs out there that will advertise that you can attend the program while continuing to work your full-time job. As someone completing her clinical fellowship now, I was initially not ready to stop working. After all, it had taken me 6 years to receive both my bachelor’s and master’s degrees—so, to stop working now was going to be hard! Nevertheless, my mom always told me that famous quote, “You have to crawl before you can walk.” I considered this carefully: If I found that I had some extra time, I could always do PRN to make some money and to keep up with my clinical skills. But while earning my doctorate, I knew myself well enough to know: I wouldn’t be able to work full time. While I was completing my graduate program, it was too mentally taxing juggling school and work. I was working all day and then I had to come home and complete schoolwork in the evenings into the nighttime. So, deciding that I wouldn’t work while completing a doctoral program was easy because it would allow me the opportunity to focus solely on school.
  5. Do you want to attend a full-time or a part-time program? Evaluate the pace at which you wish to progress through your doctoral studies, taking into account your personal and professional obligations. It’s important to compare the advantages of a full-time immersion in your program versus the flexibility that a part-time program offers. Some programs stated that if I attended a part-time program, I could continue working full time. This might sound amazing, but I always knew in the back of my mind that balancing work, school, and my personal life would be challenging. I struggled to balance these things in my graduate program, so I knew that I’d have an even more difficult time in a doctoral program. I had made my decision: I’d be a full-time student.
  6. Do you want a doctoral degree in speech-language pathology or in another field? Getting a doctoral degree in the same area as your master’s or bachelor’s degree can be helpful—you already understand the content knowledge. Nevertheless, getting a degree in another area can help open up amazing opportunities for you to learn and do different things. I love the field of speech-language pathology; however, there were certain topics that I wanted to learn more about that weren’t really emphasized in my undergraduate and graduate programs. For example, I wanted to learn more about language and literacy development in minoritized children. I wanted to learn more about non-mainstream dialectal differences. So, I started looking at doctoral programs that were different from (yet closely related to) speech-language pathology.

Types of Doctoral Programs in Speech-Language Pathology

So, now, let’s break down each doctoral degree, examining the pros and cons as well as the potential career trajectories associated with each one:

1.   Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

A doctor of philosophy (PhD) degree is an individualized research doctorate that focuses on developing your expertise through original research. Many people who obtain a PhD become professors, researchers, scholars, and experts in the field. Even though you can become a professor with any doctoral degree, many institutions still consider the PhD the most “respected.” Although many institutions are steering away from this notion, it doesn’t change the fact that this degree opens more doors.

Students typically fund their PhD studies through fellowships, grants, or assistantships. Having a research or teaching assistantship makes up for the fact that you won’t be able to work full time. These opportunities allow you to still receive a stipend while you benefit from working under a mentor, helping them with their research.

All PhD programs in speech-language pathology (i.e., speech and hearing science, communication sciences and disorders [CSD], etc.) are full time and in person. Even though a school might advertise that an individual can complete the degree in 3–4 years, the average student takes 8.2 years to complete the PhD degree. This does mean that you have to sacrifice your full-time job (i.e., stop working), but the long-term benefits can be worth it.

Once you finish your coursework, you must complete and defend a dissertation.

2.   Doctor of Education (EdD)

Historically, higher education experts have debated on whether a doctor of education (EdD) is considered research based or practice based, so people question whether it’s a “respected” degree. It certainly is a well-recognized and respected research degree. Students can focus on (a) creating original research or (b) applying existing research.

I know more SLPs with an EdD than a PhD. I’ve always liked that this degree can prepare you for a leadership career at the school, district, or university level. EdDs—which can be completed online, in-person, or in a hybrid program—typically take 3–4 years. You can also work alongside a cohort of several other professionals. Some programs also provide courses that take only 8 weeks compared with an average 16-week course.

EdD programs typically are not free, but you can work while completing the program. Many people with an EdD become administrators, policymakers, and professors and obtain leadership roles in local school districts and higher education institutions. Currently, there aren’t any EdD programs in speech-language pathology: SLPs typically get their EdDs in special education, health science, or educational leadership. The EdD program also includes a dissertation, which can be either traditional or project-based (capstone).

3.   Doctor of Speech-Language Pathology (SLPD)

Compared to the PhD, the doctor of speech-language pathology (SLPD) is a relatively new degree and is excellent if you want to perfect your clinical skills because it prepares you to become a master clinician. You learn more about making ethical decisions using current research and best practices. Usually, these programs are online (although some might be hybrid), with requirements to be physically present at the university to complete residency activities for a certain period. It’s customizable—so you can choose courses depending on your interests. An SLPD usually takes 3 years to complete, which includes a dissertation that can be traditional or project-based (capstone).

Similar to the EdD program, in an SLPD program, you collaborate with a cohort of fellow professionals. However, it’s crucial to recognize that the SLPD is categorized as a clinical degree, rather than a terminal one like the PhD or EdD. Consequently, aspiring tenure-track professors may encounter challenges. However, your background of combined clinical, research, and teaching skills can make you stand out. With an SLPD, you can continue to be a clinician, teach college courses, supervise speech-language pathology students, or become a leader in the clinical setting.

Making the Choice

So, what option did I choose?

Initially, I went back and forth on a PhD versus an EdD. I liked the idea that I could work while completing a specific EdD program 100% online. After I gave it more thought, however, I realized that I wanted to pursue a PhD—I liked that it would give me more opportunities to participate in faculty-led research and publishing.

After a year of research, discussions, and contemplation, I knew I wanted to become a tenure-track professor. However, as a minority student who works in a marginalized community, I had pressing questions about how best to support children who speak a non-mainstream dialect with their language and literacy development.

So, I decided to pursue a PhD in literacy, language, and culture. Like many other students, I thought I couldn’t financially afford to take on another degree, but I learned that there are many opportunities for funding support. I received a fellowship and assistantship to help me during my time in the program. I found a mentor with similar research interests. I’ve also networked with many SLPs—with whom I can collaborate in the future.

My bottom line: Originally, I thought that there was only one way to reach academia, but not everyone’s journey is the same. All three doctoral degrees that I’ve discussed carry unique merits—but you are the only one who knows which path is right for you. Discover something that you find interesting and fascinating—and let that deep level of interest guide you. Don’t worry: You will succeed.

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