A Guide to Earning a Doctorate in Organizational Leadership – PhD, EdD, and More

Written by Scott Wilson

earning a doctorate degree

The mystery of effective and inspirational leadership is both ancient and compelling. You can’t look through history without wondering about it. What made George Washington the first president of the United States and not John Hancock? Why was it that Neville Chamberlain was seen unequal to the task of leading the United Kingdom when World War II broke out, and Winston Churchill elevated by popular acclaim as Prime Minister?

There is an eternal puzzle in trying to answer questions about what makes a great leader; combinations of perspectives, personality traits, and management techniques that somehow come together just right under a particular set of circumstances. It’s a puzzle that modern government and business are forever trying to solve. Because great leadership solves problems, creates breakthroughs, and accomplishes goals that are unattainable without it.

The importance of leadership is a timeless reality in both business and non-profit ventures. But while finding inspirational and visionary leaders was once a matter of chance and guesswork, the science of leadership has been distilled today into tools and traits that can be taught and absorbed by anyone with the interest and the desire.

Doctoral programs in organizational leadership are where the science of initiative and guidance is honed to a cutting edge.

What Does It Mean To Earn a Doctorate in Organizational Leadership?

businessman in office windowsThe Doctor of Philosophy is the terminal level of university studies in many fields, including organizational leadership. That means it’s absolutely as far as you can go in the academic world in researching and understanding the phenomena of how to effectively inspire and lead groups.

It’s not easy to earn a degree at this level. There is stiff competition even to be accepted into a PhD program in organizational leadership. You’ll typically have to:

Once you are accepted, you can expect to spend four or more years of intensive study and research, working collaboratively with your professors and breaking new ground on theory and OL practices. You’ll be expected to come up with original ideas and help to design your own course of study.

To graduate, you will not only have to demonstrate an advanced understanding of the state of the art in organizational leadership concepts, but also build the body of knowledge and expertise in the field through your own dissertation efforts.

That will put you in an elite group of experts in organizational leadership and put you on a path to teach or consult at the highest levels.

Is a PhD in Organizational Leadership the Right Choice for Your Career?

lots of questionsSenior executives and managers who want to hone their leadership potential to the highest levels are often faced with a dilemma when it comes to advanced education. When looking at an organizational leadership degree, PhD programs are clearly at the highest level available for research and study within the field. But most of them are just as clearly aimed primarily at training for academic and scholarly pursuits, not active leadership in the field.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t make us of your PhD studies in genuine leadership roles. And it doesn’t mean that all doctorates in organizational leadership are purely academic in nature.

Some organizational leadership doctoral programs are specifically aimed at professional education. The EdD, or Doctor of Education, in Organizational Leadership is designed, ironically, to prepare graduates for educational leadership roles rather than jobs in academic instruction. And the Doctor of Management in Organizational Leadership is aimed at enterprise executives who want to build out their leadership chops.

Of course, a regular PhD in Organizational Leadership also offers valuable information and instruction you can adapt to operational leadership roles. But many people may find a master’s in organizational leadership more appropriate, except in certain industries.

What Will It Cost To Earn a PhD in Organizational Leadership?

Doctoral programs aren’t just intense and time-consuming; they’re also expensive!

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average cost in fees and tuition for graduate-level programs at American universities in 2021 ran to:

A PhD in Organizational Leadership Allows You To Specialize in Your Area of Interest

leading a discussion Doctoral studies are intense, but they come with a significant benefit, as well. With very small class sizes, significant one-on-one attention from instructors, and research goals that you are allowed to help define, there’s a lot of room to tailor your studies to any specialty in organizational leadership that interests you.

You’ll also find that doctoral-level studies in organizational leadership aren’t restricted to only OL programs. Certain other fields of academic and executive study also offer advanced organizational leadership-oriented degrees, such as the EdD (Doctor of Education) or Executive EdD in Organizational Leadership, or the Doctor of Management in Organizational leadership.

Unlike the academically-focused PhD, these degrees are often aimed at providing actual operational executive leaders in those fields with advanced practical training in leadership. They apply the lessons of organizational leadership studies to specific fields like education or business to train executives at the highest levels how to meld strategic vision, inspirational management, and operational excellence in that field.

Every PhD in Organizational Leadership Involves a Defined Focus of Study

focus of studyLike other organizational leadership degrees, you will find that some PhD programs also come with pre-defined concentration tracks to guide your studies. The flexibility and individualized exploration of doctoral studies mean that these are not set in stone, but they offer a launch point for you to develop your own unique approach to OL studies. As you explore the suggested course structure, you’ll inevitably find that it fuels your ideas for taking your ideas in new directions.

The kind of concentrations available at the PhD level are generally reflective of the kinds of fields where organizational leadership is often applied.

But for most doctoral candidates in organizational leadership, their focus of study is essentially unique. More than any other kind of education, a PhD programs allows you to break new ground and encourages you to combine studies and pursue ideas that no one has defined yet. If you want to be the first to develop a specialization that hasn’t been invented yet, this is the path for you.

A PhD in Organizational Leadership Comes With a Curriculum You Create Yourself

informal meetingBecause doctoral studies in organizational leadership are so heavily built around your specific learning goals, they aren’t usually as broad-based as other degrees in the field. It’s expected that you will have attained at least a general overview of leadership studies before you even get to the PhD level. Once you are there, you’re likely to be narrowly focused on classes that fuel your dissertation topic and research subjects.

But that can be anywhere within the broad areas that organizational leadership is built from. And it will certainly be at a highly advanced level. Classes are small and many are conducted in seminar style, involving discussion between you and the professor and other students as you pursue valuable lessons in the material.

Some of the advanced subjects available for study in doctoral organizational leadership programs include:

Leadership Theory

One course that almost all PhD studies have in common in OL is leadership theory. This takes you through all the research and analysis that have gone into the history of OL. You’ll explore case studies and distill the essence of leadership qualities and processes that form the foundation for all other OL studies.

Organizational Strategy and Innovation

The purpose of leadership is to accomplish goals. Great leaders can accomplish great things, but first they must establish the strategy to execute and come up with innovative, effective ways to do so. This coursework looks at the process behind innovating and developing organizational strategy, as well as how the key skills that lead to innovation are taught and developed.

Organizational Development Practices

Leaders don’t usually just show up and get handed the keys to a completely effective organization; instead, they are part of the process that leads to the creation of those organizations. These courses look at different organizational models and studies their suitability in different industries and circumstances. They also look at how leaders build those models by shaping management and culture.

Cultural Diversity and Inclusion

The cultural part of the organizational leadership puzzle is one of the toughest to master. This coursework will look at diversity and the importance of building an inclusive organization, valuing communication, innovation, and mutual respect up and down the ladder.


Leadership comes with great power, and as we all know by now, that comes with great responsibility. Ethics is the process by which leaders conduct their business in a way that is fair, open, and just. Understanding how ethics can be built into the organizational model and how to use it as a leadership tool is the subject of these courses.

Quantitative Research and Analytics

Any PhD program is built in large part on original research. Although you’ll need some background in statistics and analytics before you come into a doctoral organizational leadership program, you’ll probably receive additional training in how to conduct and assess research that will drive your theories.

These kinds of classes can be rounded out by a range of graduate-level electives ranging from executive finance to systems theory.

In doctoral OL programs with a focus on practical applications, you may also have the opportunity to take practicum courses that put you in a position to actually try out some of the concepts you’ve been learning.

For PhDs that have a more academic bent, you can also expect to spend some time teaching in lower division classes. Some programs come with formal instruction in pedagogy to help you prepare for work as an academic professional.

Your Doctoral Dissertation May Define Your Career in Organizational Leadership

presentation to full roomThe biggest part of your doctoral studies will be the formulation, testing, and writing of a formal doctoral dissertation.

Ranging from 120 to 200 pages, these papers can take two years or more to write. They represent your unique ideas in organizational leadership, contributing thought and analysis of genuine merit to the field. You’ll prove as much by defending yours in front of a panel of professionals and academic experts, going through questions and challenges that will sharpen your thinking and force you to support every aspect of the paper.

Professionally-focused organizational leadership doctorates sometimes offer completion options such as applied dissertations or capstone research projects as alternatives to a traditional dissertation.

In every case, you get to decide on the topic for your dissertation or project, with input from a faculty advisor. That makes it an especially personal kind of assignment. And as the centerpiece of your PhD, it’s also going to be the biggest example of the kind of work you can accomplish when future employers are looking you over.

How To Find the Right School for Your PhD in Organizational Leadership

successful business meetingThere are relatively few universities that offer doctoral-level studies in organizational leadership, but your choice of where to study has critical importance to your future success. The work you do in your PhD program will define your career. Your doctoral dissertation will be the first thing that any future employer takes a look at. The reputation of the professors you work with and the contacts you make through them will be the foundation of your future possibilities in the organizational leadership world.

So picking the right school at which to earn your PhD in organizational leadership is a big deal. You’ll want to consider important factors such as:


You’ll be working very closely and individually with the professors in your OL program, so it’s vital that you find the right fit. You’ll want a school that has instructors with not just strong academic and research credentials, but also important and relevant real-world leadership experience. And, more than in any other kind of OL degree, you’ll want to identify programs that have instructors you can personally connect and feel comfortable with, and whose own research and interests aligns with your goals.

Research Programs and Facilities

PhD candidates spend much of their time in research, so you will want a school that has the resources and opportunities to find what you need. Major business research centers and extensive libraries are always a good sign. While you will be engaging in original research in your pursuit of a PhD, it’s always a good idea to pick a school that has already broken ground in your area of interest. You’ll be building on a base of material and ideas that are broader and more stable than if you were starting from scratch.

Community Connections

It’s also a good idea to pick a school that has solid connections with the industry or community in which your interests lie. These relationships will have implications on what sort of research and observations you can easily conduct in your program, as well as what sort of expertise and professional connections you can make. It can have a huge impact on how easily you complete your studies and what your post-graduation career options look like.

History and Reputation

Organizational leadership is a relatively new field in the scheme of business studies, but some schools got on board earlier than others. The history and reputation of these universities in the overall field of OL research and scholarship reflects their quality and standing in the community. That, in turn, will reflect on your own reputation when you graduate with a PhD from one of them, so exploring how others view your training will be important.

In some cases, you’ll be able to use a school’s specialty accreditation status as a sign that it offers excellence in organizational leadership training. Not all organizational leadership doctorates are offered by business schools. For those that are, however, you can get a quick idea of the overall competence and quality by looking at whether that school holds a specialty accreditation from one of the three major business program accreditors in the United States:

Is an Online Program the Right Choice for Your PhD in Organizational Leadership?

studying hardVery few individuals make it to the level of doctoral studies without developing a pretty impressive career in a position of responsibility first. With a master’s degree and years of experience already behind them, it also means PhD students are older, with the kinds of family and social commitments that come along with that territory.

So it can be exceptionally difficult to find the time and to upend your personal and professional life to move to and attend a traditional, on-campus PhD program even when you find a good fit.

This is exactly the situation that online doctoral degrees are designed to address. By taking advantage of modern communication technology and ubiquitous internet, they shift your studies over to a format you can fit around your lifestyle, not the other way around.

With chat, e-mail, and video conferencing, you can stay just as connected and in tune with your professors and fellow students as you would in a traditional program. More important, you can shift around the times you are keeping up with your classes to whatever moments in your day you find most convenient. Whether it’s just after getting the kids fed and off to school, or on your lunch break, anywhere you can get an internet connection is an effective classroom.

Most online PhD in organizational leadership programs do come with the occasional campus visit, which allows you to build stronger relationships and more significant ties with classmates and instructors. But with only a handful of required on-campus visits, you still have the flexibility to keep up your career and maintain the kind of lifestyle balance your family will appreciate.

Doctoral Studies in Organizational Leadership Often Lead To Careers in Academia or Consulting

A doctorate in organizational leadership on your resume is a powerful qualification, but your career potential will depend on more than just your education at this level.

By itself, a PhD in organizational leadership gives you the academic and research skills to be successful as a professor teaching in the field.

But not everyone who pursues doctoral studies in OL intends to put them to use in teaching. Together with more domain specific experience or training, this level of understanding and expertise in what it takes to create a big-picture, visionary strategy is a skillset that many organizations will pay big bucks for.

That means jobs in senior leadership at major corporations or big non-profits or government agencies. You might also carve out a lucrative niche consulting with such organizations, as many academic experts in OL do.

What Kind of Salary Can You Expect With a PhD in Organizational Leadership?

using a tablet at a cafeThese different objectives create something of a salary divide among graduates with PhDs in organizational leadership. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has a straightforward answer for those on the academic track: the median salary for post-secondary teachers in business fields was $105,720 as of 2021, with the top ten percent approaching $200,000 per year.

On the path of active leadership, it’s unlikely that you’ll even consider pursuing a doctorate in organizational leadership unless you are already fairly high up on the management ladder. So there are few mountains left to climb in the salary world as chronicled by BLS. The median salary for many of the jobs you might hold before seeking a PhD in organizational leadership can be pretty impressive already:

Instead, doctoral studies may bring the biggest financial advantages in areas that BLS doesn’t specifically account for. All of the job titles listed above max out in BLS world with a salary level above $208,000 per year in the top ten percent. But clearly there are many executives who make much more than that, largely through generous benefit and stock options offered by their company.

That kind of compensation aligns what you make directly with the overall performance of the organization. And that’s exactly the kind of performance that advanced OL studies help you improve. So by becoming a better strategist and a more inspirational leader, you’re also generating more wealth for yourself.

And as a consultant or professor with a PhD, while salary itself may not vary much, you may find yourself landing bigger, more lucrative projects, or getting the opportunity to conduct research and studies at more prestigious schools or organizations. It doesn’t show up in the BLS numbers, but as a thought-leader and an expert, it has real value to your career.

Although doctoral studies in organizational leadership are a serious commitment in both time and money, they are also intensely personal. Earning a PhD isn’t just another box to check on your path to becoming an executive or business owner. It’s a formative experience that will allow you to engage with the community you help lead, and develop your skills and insights to become an effective leader.

Where you choose to go with that advanced learning will be entirely up to you.

2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for  Management Occupations and Business Teachers, Postsecondary reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed December 2022.