Degree Overview: Education

Children are the future. Those who work in education are in a unique position: they can preemptively shape our world for the the better. By earning a grad degree in education and committing to a career as a teacher, school administrator, coach, or any behind-the-scenes role that helps broaden a child’s knowledge of the world and of theirself, you can directly give young people a future filled with greater, brighter possibilities.

Education is a wide-ranging, interdisciplinary field that aims to address issues in teaching and learning. Graduate degrees in education prepare students for careers in teaching, but also for careers in school administration, counseling/psychology, special education, speech pathology, athletics, academia, human resources, and public policy—and much more.

In addition to the variety of roles a graduate of a school of education can play, a wide range of employers value a masters degree in education, including:

  • Public, private, parochial, magnet, and charter schools, and school districts
  • Government agencies that focus on education
  • Nonprofits that specialize in supporting education, teachers, and students
  • Museums and religious organizations that offer public education programs
  • Any employer that values the diverse skills a teacher brings, and/or that focus on an issue a former teacher specialized in
  • Advocacy organizations and teachers unions
  • Companies that write and publish textbooks, curricula, and pedagogical books

Additionally, students can couple education degrees with many other degrees to increase their career options. For example, if you’re considering a Masters degree in history, literature, a foreign language, a science—earning a Masters degree in education can open up doors to teaching in your area of expertise.

This overview focuses almost entirely on education programs in the United States. If you are an international student and wish to study education, schools worldwide offer similar degrees to those discussed in this article.

Alternative routes to teaching

While some careers in education like school administration and counseling require a masters degree, many paths to teaching careers don’t involve having a masters degree in education—at least not at first.

Alternative certification typically attempts to respond to teacher shortages, or to leverage of the experience and expertise of retiring professionals by easing their transition to a second career in the classroom. Depending on the state, you may be able to earn alternative teaching licensure and land a job as a public school teacher—but you may be expected to pursue education coursework in order to maintain your license over the long term.

The National Center for Alternative Certification outlines many different paths to certification .

One example of an alternative route that NCAC outlines is what they call a “Class K” avenue that “accommodate[s] specific populations for teaching, e.g., Teach for America, Troops to Teachers, and college professors who want to teach in K-12 schools.” You will have to do research to find out if an alternative route to certification is right for you, since a masters degree in education, by comparison, is the most direct route to certification.

A few other examples:

  • EnCorps Teachers increases the number of public middle and high school math and science teachers in California schools.
  • Accelerate Institute runs a Volunteer Teaching Corps and UNITE—two programs that place teacher-trainees in full-time classroom teaching positions in parochial and charter schools on Chicago’s South and West Sides while helping them earn alternative licensure.
  • Mississippi Teaching Corps is a two-year program that places full-time teachers in urban and rural teaching positions throughout Mississippi while offering a Masters degree in curriculum and instruction—tuition, fees, and books paid—through the University of Mississippi’s School of Education.
  • NYC Teaching Fellows offers initial teacher training, helps fellows locate a full-time teaching position in New York City schools, and subsidizes a Masters degree in education. Many other teaching fellowships exist, and each offers different benefits. DC Teaching Fellows, Prince George County Teaching Fellows, and Boston Teacher Residency are a few examples.
  • Teach For America  is a two year AmeriCorps program that places corps members in urban and rural schools throughout the country. TFA staff help corps members earn an alternative teaching credential before they start teaching.

Joint degrees

Typically, schools of education foster joint (or dual) degree options within the school, or in partnership with neighboring schools and universities. Examples include an education-related degree and a Masters degree in one of the following:

  • a specific academic discipline (math, science, English, French, history, etc.)
  • counseling
  • public policy
  • leadership studies
  • law
  • social work
  • theology

Joint degrees allow you to broaden your expertise and appeal on the job market by giving you two distinct sets of credentials, while also allowing you to specialize—for example becoming a social worker with a focus on school settings, or becoming a teacher of theology or math, or consulting on educational policy.

Joint degrees usually allow you to complete both degrees in less time and for less money than you’d spend pursuing each degree separately. Often students focus on one degree at a time which also saves money (because you only pay fees to one school at a time).

What can you expect to find in a program?

Graduate degree programs in the field of education are versatile and do not all lead to state certification, or even to teaching roles. For example, some schools of education offer programs designed for people who aim to work in policy think tanks, museums, corporate human resources departments, private schools, and community centers—where teaching certification isn’t necessary. Other degree programs prepare future school administrators, literacy specialists, and other specialized roles within the field of education.

Degrees offered

Master of Science in Education (M.S.Ed.): A versatile degree offered in many disciplines, and for people with diverse career goals and experiences. May focus on a specific role (i.e. school administration), population (age level; general or special education), and/or subject area (math, art, science, literacy). May or may not lead to state teaching certification (check with your program).

Master of Arts in Teaching (M.A.T.) and Master in Teaching (M.I.T.): Usually these degrees are designed for people entering careers in teaching without a prior education degree. As such, they often do lead to state teaching certification.

Master of Education (Ed.M. or M.Ed.): Often designed for people who are experienced educational professionals looking for advanced coursework in a subject, a general theoretical background for understanding professional experiences in the field, or a way to hone skills related to instructional roles or educational issues. Incoming students may be required to have a prior masters degree in education. May or may not lead to state teaching certification.

Doctor of Education (Ed.D.): Research degree for people who aspire to school administration and leadership positions such as principal and school district superintendent.

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.): Research degree for people aspiring to a career in academia—teaching and researching at the university level—or high-level nonprofit, think tank, and government roles.

General structure of the curricula

Field experience (practice teaching, internship, classroom observations) is a very typical and essential requirement of teacher preparation programs as well as other education-focused masters degrees.

For grad students aspiring to teach, your field experience may involve one or more practice teaching commitments. Early in the school year or semester, practice teaching may include spending one day a week in a classroom that closely matches the focus of your degree (i.e., if you are in an early childhood education program, your practice teaching will take place in a lower elementary grade). In the beginning you may observe, help the mentor teacher, and/or teach a lesson here and there. Gradually you may increase the amount of time you spend in the classroom, culminating in your spending several weeks teaching the class full-time with minimal guidance from your mentor teacher. Some programs require one lengthy and one short-term practice teaching experience. Additionally, some programs require a minimum number of hours observing in other classrooms.

As Stephanie Uiga, alumna from UCLA’s Graduate School of Education puts it, “Having experience will give a student something to say in class discussions, the ability to apply learned knowledge to previous experiences, and a sense of one’s level of dedication to the field. The education field doesn’t pay much, so a person pursuing a degree in this field has to have a passion for the work.”

For non-teacher preparation programs, the field experience may involve an internship in a nonprofit or government setting, designed to highlight program goals. Internship lengths vary greatly, and most programs require some initial paperwork, and later, a culminating reflection or project in order for you to get academic credit.

If you’re already working full-time in an appropriate educational setting for your educational and career goals, you may be able to apply your current job towards your field requirement.

In addition to field experience, some programs require an undergraduate degree in a specified subject or a prior graduate degree in education. Others are designed for people who already have initial state teaching licensure.

In terms of time and structure, most Masters degrees require one to two years of coursework while doctoral programs typically take a minimum of three years to complete. More and more grad schools are designing their programs to benefit working professionals. Additionally, schools of education must accommodate grad students with rigorous daytime practice teaching requirements. These influences combine to create course offerings with a great deal of flexibility: classes take place on nights and weekends, and/or entirely online. Many schools of education use a cohort model—in which all students take most of their courses together.

Valinda Lee, alumna of the California State University, Northridge, School of Education  with an M.S. in Counseling says of her degree-related paid work experience,

“I was fortunate enough to find paid fieldwork positions. The program was designed for working professionals, with classes from 4-10 p.m. This was great because of the flexibility for my work schedule, and it meant that we had a fabulous diversity of students, in age and life experience. I also got to immediately apply the theories and strategies that we were learning in our coursework. Finally, it gave me great networking contacts to help me find my first full-time position.”

In order to complete the degree, many non-teacher preparation research degrees in education may require a thesis or dissertation—a substantial piece of academic writing based on original research. Other programs, including teacher-preparation degree programs, may mandate a final project and/or a portfolio that includes examples of a grad student’s’ work (i.e., a curriculum unit they designed, samples of their students’ work, and photographs of the grad student practice teaching).


The type of accreditation your school has can affect your ability to receive federal student loans, transfer credits among schools, and get initial licensure in a different state from your grad school. For example, if your school is regionally accredited in the Pacific Northwest, you may have a much harder time getting an initial teaching license in a New England state.

Due to the number of accrediting institutions, it is helpful to find out whether your target school is accredited, and what the standards are of its accrediting body. Only colleges and universities accredited by U.S. Department of Education-approved agencies can accept federal student loans. Find out who accredits your target school at The Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs.

A number of DOE-approved organizations accredit Masters degrees in classroom teaching, including regional and local institutions such as New York State’s Regents Accreditation of Teacher Education or RATE.

NCATE not only accredits programs geared toward teacher preparation, but they also have a coalition of a diverse range of specialized professional organizations that accredit the many concentrations an education school may offer. For example, if you are interested in special education, you may want to look for a program that is accredited by one of NCATE’s members, the Council for Exceptional Children.

Due to the number of different accrediting bodies, there isn’t one standard of quality for schools of education. Prospective students should read up on regional, state, and national accreditation standards while researching graduate schools.

Usual coursework and concentrations

Good graduate programs in education place a strong emphasis on connecting the theoretical with the practical. Experiential learning is usually accomplished through student teaching, internships, or residencies.

If you are not already certified as a teacher, you may want to consider programs that lead to certification in a specific state. Otherwise, it is helpful to think about where you ideally want to teach and familiarize yourself with what is required for teacher certification in that area.

Many education programs, and particularly doctoral programs, offer their students the flexibility to research and explore intellectual and professional interests within their area of concentration. Students typically begin by choosing from one of many concentrations: Arts Education, Physical Education, Special Education, Student Affairs, School Counseling, Leadership, and Administration.

If you are interested in an aspect of education, but not necessarily teaching, you may consider joint degrees or specializations in Education and Counseling, Education and Social Work, Education and Policy/Leadership studies, or Education and Law. These types of programs will allow you to take your passion for education into other areas of public service.

Teacher Preparation, Classroom Education

Typical core curriculum offerings include courses that give you a foundation in:

  • history and theory of education
  • curriculum theories and practice
  • language and literacy in the classroom
  • issues and trends in education
  • psychology of teaching and learning

» Sample curriculum: Lewis and Clark Graduate School of Education

Education and Policy

Typical core curriculum offerings include courses that give you a foundation in:

  • context and history of education policy
  • sociology of education
  • policy analysis and program evaluation
  • economics of education
  • education finance policy
  • policymaking in education

» Sample curriculum: NYU Steinhardt School of Education, Education and Social Policy

Educational Psychology

Typical core curriculum offerings include courses that give you a foundation in:

  • child development
  • theories and techniques in counseling
  • foundations of school counseling
  • career counseling
  • psychosocial adjustment
  • social and cultural dimensions of counseling

» Sample curriculum: George Washington University School Counseling program

School Leadership/Administration

Typical core curriculum offerings include courses that give you a foundation in:

  • philosophy of education
  • ethical and legal issues in education leadership
  • the role of various levels of government in education, governance, policy, and leadership • social foundations of education
  • school and community relations
  • administration of curriculum
  • education, law, and policy
  • supervision and evaluation of instruction

» Sample curriculum: Portland State University Education Administration Program

Most graduate education programs post their course offerings online for prospective students to view. Studying the curriculum for the program in which you are interested will give you a clearer sense of how your graduate education will be structured and what you will be learning. Comparing curricula will also help you determine which graduate program may be a better fit for your interests. Here are some curricula from a few schools to give you an idea of what other graduate education programs may be like:

» Lewis & Clark’s Elementary – Multiple Subjects Teacher Education program

» A number of sample curricula at University of Denver’s Morgridge School of Education

» University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education for study in Primary school teaching

What to look for in a school of education

In choosing a school that is right for you, you have some thinking and asking to do—questions for yourself and for schools.

First of all, you probably have logistical concerns to plan for, such as how much time and money you want to spend on your degree, whether you are willing to relocate or commute to school, and whether you’ll leave a job to go back to school full-time or whether you want to enroll in a part-time or even distance education program.

Just as important as considering these logistical questions, it’s helpful to envision clear professional goals for yourself and to investigate what schools have to offer you in getting you closer to your goals. Below are some questions to ask yourself.

What role do you want to play?

Many roles exist within the field of education, including teaching a range of ages, populations, and subjects; leading a school or school district; counseling students; researching cognitive/developmental processes in humans; directing programs at a museum or nonprofit; and advocating for new educational policies.

Ask yourself what kind of role you want to play (in the short and long term):

  • Do you want to work directly with children or adults? What age range? Individually, in small groups, or in large groups? What settings?
  • Would you prefer to shape educational experiences through policy, curriculum development, designing assessments, training other teachers?
  • Do you want to manage or direct others as an administrator?

And what programs, coursework, and field placement options does the school offer related to your goals?

If you want to teach, whom do you want to teach?

  • What age group?
  • People with special needs? Immigrants who have limited skills in English? People with learning and other disabilities? Adults who can’t read?
  • People who want to concentrate on specific special talents? Arts, sports, science, math?
  • People from low-income families? People from privileged/ wealthy families? Kids in the foster system? Kids in talented and gifted programs?
  • Others: workers within a company or organization; members of a religious congregation; teachers themselves?

And what programs, coursework, and field placement options does the school offer related to your goals?

And where in the world do you want to teach?

Many states offer reciprocity with teacher certification—meaning that you may be able to transfer your certification in your state to another state. But read the fine print! Sometimes your certification is much easier to transfer after you have taught for a few years.

Additionally, if your school of education is regionally accredited and you plan to move directly after you graduate (i.e. with an “initial” teacher’s license and no years of experience) you may have a much harder time getting certified to teach the new state—which may require additional testing and even course-work—and which may be very slow to communicate with you (i.e., leaving you in limbo for a year or so, without being able to take a teaching job).

Consider the following:

  • Do you plan to teach for at least a few years in the state where you earn your Masters degree? (Of course, plans can change, but what are you hoping to do?)
  • If you plan to move to a new state soon after you graduate, what requirements does that state have surrounding teacher licensure?
  • Which agency accredits your target grad program—and is it regional or national? (You can search for this information on the U.S. Department of Education website at The Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs.

In addition to thinking about the state you’ll teach in, consider other questions about where you hope to teach like:

  • Would you prefer to teach in an urban, suburban, or rural setting? (Or does it matter at all?)
  • Do you want to work in a public, private, parochial, charter, magnet, or other school? Or in a non-school setting (business, nonprofit, etc.)

The best teacher preparation programs require students spend a significant amount of time in the classroom, so you might want to choose a school in an area where you can target your field experience setting to your goals. For example, if you are passionate about urban education, it’s a good idea to look at a grad school within a large city. Likewise, if you want to get as varied experience as possible, you might look into schools that offer a diversity of field placement options—urban, rural, and suburban. For example, the Academy for Urban School Leadership specifically prepares its students for work in inner-city school settings. And Mississippi Teacher Corps offers both rural and urban field placements.

What subjects or issues interest you?

When you apply to a school of education, as with many graduate schools, you’ll select from different options—for example grade/age level and subject area. Your job is to figure out what subjects or issues you want to focus on (in the classroom or elsewhere). Consider the following:

  • What academic subjects do you excel in, or do you have an undergraduate degree in?
  • If your goal is to teach, would you prefer to teach all subjects (as you would in most elementary school settings) or would you prefer to specialize in a single subject (as you would in higher grades)? Or will you focus on training adults in a non-school setting?
  • What social or environmental issues are you passionate about? You may have an easier time building on the subject you majored in as an undergraduate, or a subject.

Depending on the subject area(s) you decide on, consider whether you’re better off getting a dual degree in that subject, such as a dual degree in education and chemistry, history, or a foreign language.

Once you’ve decided on some clear goals and preferences for your education, you will be in good shape to narrow down your choice of schools, and to apply to schools that you’re confident will prepare you for the work you’re most passionate about.

Other aspects of the program you might investigate include:

  • How much time (in credit hours or semesters, etc.) do your grad students spend in field placements?
  • If you’re entering a teacher preparation program, how much training and support will you get (from observations, mentor teachers, a cohort, etc.)?
  • How supportive is the career advisory office?
  • How is the job market in the area for jobs you’re interested in?

Get answers to these questions and more by reading the school’s website and course catalog, doing informational interviews with current and former students, and during a campus visit.

Who gets this degree and what do they go on to do?

Some schools of education recommend you have a strong background in Liberal Arts and Sciences, with an undergraduate concentration in one of the Liberal Arts and Sciences. For future teachers, both state law and graduate schools may require you to have an undergraduate degree in a subject related to your teaching goals.

Applicants to an advanced Masters of Education program (M.Ed.) often must have a either a prior Masters degree or state certification and proof of employment. Similarly, Ed.D. or Ph.D. candidates must have a prior masters degree and an interest in researching and specializing in a specific area of education.

Prior experience

People enter the field of education from a wide variety of backgrounds, including diverse first careers in business, science, art, and nonprofit work.

Often times people already engaged in the field of education head back to school themselves in order to advance their careers, from assistant teaching to teaching, or from teaching to school administration, and so on.

As in any field, it’s a great idea to get some experience in education before committing to a graduate degree program. It would be a mistake to spend time and money on an early childhood teaching degree, for example, only to discover you dislike working with small children. You might be better off volunteering or serving in a national service corps for a year to find out what you like and don’t like about the field, and then shape your educational and career goals accordingly.

If you have not worked professionally in education, you may choose to get some experience prior to school by:

  • Participating in a national or international teaching program like Teach For America , the Japan Exchange and Teaching ( JET) program, or Accelerate Institute.
  • Participating in a term of national or international service such as AmeriCorps or Peace Corps, which can offer you a chance to work in schools or education-focused nonprofits.
  • Volunteering in your local community on your own. Teaching English to immigrants of any age in your community—either in a classroom or one-on-one—is one way to get started. Look for community centers, adult education centers, and library literacy programs for opportunities to volunteer. Likewise, elementary schools sometimes partner with local nonprofits to place volunteer readers one-on-one with kids.
  • Serving as a school-based teaching assistant, paraprofessional (an aide who works with one or two kids with special needs, such as an English language learner or a someone with a developmental disability), substitute teacher, summer camp counselor, or teacher in a parochial, private, or charter school (where sometimes a license isn’t required to teach).
  • Working or interning in an office that specializes in student affairs, school counseling, or a nonprofit that focuses on education

As you gain experience in schools and teaching, remember to build your network—keep supervisors in mind for references, and also take the time to do informational interviews with the teachers you meet.

Career paths

Most students of education intend to become teachers, and after several years, use their degree to prepare for and transition into leadership positions at organizations of all sizes as staff or board members—perhaps even founding their own nonprofits. Some typical job titles that graduates may qualify for include:

  • School counselor, school nutritionist
  • Assistant principal, principal, school district administrator, district curriculum specialist, superintendent
  • Special education teacher
  • K-12 teacher
  • Assessment specialist, reading specialist
  • Music teacher, physical education coach, bilingual education specialist
  • Director of education programs for a nonprofit, museum, hospital, summer camp, etc.
  • Media specialist/school librarian
  • Education policy advisor
  • Textbook writer or editor

Here are a few sample job postings for positions in education found online. An education graduate degree would help prepare you for the following responsibilities and duties:


For a nonprofit organization providing educational and training opportunities to at-risk youth

Essential functions:

  • Develop daily lesson plans based on an existing curriculum framework.
  • Teach 3-4 periods a day in their subject area.
  • Collaborate with media arts teachers for instructional delivery.
  • Participate in weekly team meetings and common planning time.
  • Provide individual academic counseling to students as needed.
  • Meet with case managers, media staff, and others as necessary to support clear and consistent communication about the students’ behavior, progress, and goals.
  • Participate in ongoing professional development activities.
  • Maintain course and program documentation as required.
  • Model professional behavior for students at all times.


  • Demonstrated track record as a classroom teacher in the core content subject area(s) with the target population.
  • Ability to engage, motivate, and challenge students in an orderly classroom environment.
  • Vision with commitment to the values, mission, and goals of the organization.
  • High degree of energy, flexibility, consistency, and creativity in design and implementation of academic curriculum.
  • Commitment to youth development and research-based educational innovation.
  • Demonstrated ability to work as part of a teaching team.
  • Excellent communication, interpersonal, and technology skills.
  • A valid Pennsylvania teaching certificate (i.e., Instructional I, II or Intern).
  • Masters degree in education preferred. Enrollment in Masters level program acceptable.
  • Clearances including: PA Child Abuse, FBI Criminal Background Check, and FBI Fingerprint Check. School will assist in obtaining these clearances.

Director of Research and Evaluation

For a government agency

Description: Experienced researcher to plan and implement evaluation of city public school system.


  • Develop a core research infrastructure within the district and across local and national research organizations to support the improvement of schools and address district priorities
  • Work with external researchers to assist them in providing strategic research that will help the district reach both short and long-term goals
  • Maximize the assistance of external research organizations by leveraging areas of common interest and using the technical and content expertise
  • Approve and manage all external research agreements and contracts and ensure appropriate compliance with the Research Review Board policies
  • Coordinate the design and administration of surveys and other data collection from schools
  • Lead the district in the development of new accountability strategies and metrics
  • Align department resources to successfully carry out research agenda


  • Ph.D. or Ed.D. preferred with 5–10 years of quantitative and qualitative research experience
  • Proven ability and experience translating organizational goals/priorities into research agenda that enhances organizational effectiveness and outcomes
  • Ability to communicate research insights to a variety of audiences through reports, presentations, and tools designed to increase data usage at all levels of the organization.
  • Excellent technical skills and record of published research.

Youth Development Coordinator

Various settings

Description: Youth Development Coordinator provides college preparation and asset-building support to youth participants based upon comprehensive youth development and social justice frameworks.


  • Recruit youth employees to participate in program operations and program services.
  • Provide comprehensive individual support to approximately 15-20 youth participants in the core areas of asset building, academic support and youth development.
  • Conduct resiliency assessments to inform and monitor Individual Development Plans and academic needs for youth on caseload.
  • Actively engage and collaborate with youth’s parents, schools, and community.
  • Maintain appropriate case notes and documentation systems for program accountability using our XYZ database system.
  • Coordinate social services referrals as necessary with other agencies that meet youth needs, including housing, health issues, and other services.
  • Coordinate peer support circles in the schools to facilitate academic support, skill building, leadership, and consciousness-raising.
  • Assist with designing and implementing project-based learning curriculum that leads to skill development in three core areas: critical thinking, self-management, and written communication.
  • Actively engage youth in drop-in space and in the community.


  • BSW or B.A. in Education required, Masters degree in Social Work or Education preferred.
  • At least three years experience working with youth of color, working class and low-income youth, and vulnerable populations in a strengths-based and social justice methodology.
  • Familiarity with youth development frameworks and research.
  • Familiarity with systemic and psychosocial issues among foster youth populations.
  • Ability to communicate clearly, both in verbal and written forms.
  • Ability to be supportive and provide guidance in a non-judgmental manner.
  • Demonstrated respect and interest in youth leadership and youth culture.


For a private school

Description: A small, private special education therapeutic day school for children and adolescence is seeking experienced, certified history teacher, grades 7-12, for immediate hire.

Essential Function: Teacher will provide history-based curriculum as outlined by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Teacher must be skilled in meeting standards, MCAS prep, and classroom management. Strong written skills. Requires flexibility as a team member. Requires strong communication skills and proactive initiatives with parents and guardians. Teacher will work a 220-day school year.


  • Content area certification M.A./Special Education Certification M.A.
  • Demonstrated teaching experience with middle/high school aged learners

Candidates who are bilingual, have experience leading and teaching behaviorally challenged youth, and demonstrated commitment to improvement of others will receive immediate consideration.