Practice Area Column
International Education Leadership

Is the Doctor(ate) In?

Having a PhD or EdD is increasingly the key to professional advancement for senior leaders, but it may not be the right path for everyone.
“I do foresee more [senior international officer] positions in the future requiring a terminal degree,” says Roger Brindley. Photo: Shutterstock

When Kathleen Fairfax graduated from DePauw University, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do. She entered a PhD program in political science but hated it and left after getting her master’s degree. Looking for something to do, she saw an opening for a study abroad adviser position at her alma mater. Intrigured at the position because of her own study abroad experience, Fairfax applied for the job and was hired. 

Fairfax loved the work—so much so that after a stint as a foreign service officer, she returned to it. After 20 years in the field of international education, she is currently vice provost for international affairs at Colorado State University. 

Now, however, Fairfax sees the kind of career path she took narrowing. More and more, senior international officer (SIO) positions list a doctorate—either a PhD or an EdD—as preferred, if not required. Fairfax never acquired a doctorate, and she has seen her options diminished as a result. 

“I never felt the need to go back to get a PhD,” she says. “There are other jobs I was interested in that have had to have a PhD as a ticket to get interviewed, so they were not open to me.” 

A Debate That Mirrors Broader Changes in the Field

The question of whether a doctorate is now essential for career advancement is really a reflection of how much the field of international education has changed over the past 20 years, says Sora Friedman, professor of international and global education and chair of the master’s degree programs in international education at the School for International Training Graduate Institute. 

“When I started almost 40 years ago, and for 20 years after that, most of my colleagues fell into international education,” says Friedman, who is the coauthor of Careers in International Education: A Guide for New Professionals. “You got involved in an international program and then you moved over” into a professional position, eventually acquiring the skills needed to advance your career. 

“The field has been professionalizing for 30 to 40 years,” agrees Katherine Punteney, a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and author of The International Education Handbook: Principles and Practices of the Field. “People are not falling into it but choosing it. It’s far more common now that people applying to those roles are coming up through the practitioner line but [are] distinguishing themselves through getting a doctorate.”

The change is driven in part by how much international programs have grown over the last few decades. International offices and internationalization efforts, which were once relatively minor units on campuses, have grown both in size and importance to  institutions’ global visions. 

“The biggest change over the last 15 years or so is the title and gravitas given to the SIO,” says Roger Brindley,  vice provost for global programs at Pennsylvania State University. “There used to be associate directors and directors and then a lot of assistant vice provosts. But now there are a lot of vice presidents and vice provosts who take the role of senior international officer. As a result, a lot of those people are just one or two steps removed from the provost, as opposed to being three or four steps removed.”

Inevitably, that has meant a trend toward SIO positions having requirements on par with other senior administrative and academic positions. That may mean a PhD, an EdD, or a comparable degree. 

“I do foresee more SIO positions in the future requiring a terminal degree,” says Brindley. “There are least two of the SIOs in the Big Ten [Conference] who are lawyers. They have JDs [juris doctor degrees]. The key here is the doctorate: The doctorate opens new doors that wouldn’t be open to you otherwise.”

In fact, as Friedman acknowledges, at many institutions having a doctorate is needed just to be considered for a senior position in international education. 

“More and more universities are requiring candidates to hold an earned doctorate to even be considered for a place at the table,” she notes. “At a state school or a large private school, you more than likely need a doctorate.”

Getting in the Door: the Pros of Advanced Degrees

Punteney decided to pursue an EdD in order to advance her career. While she says that the ideal candidate for an SIO position has to have practical experience “to understand the nitty gritty of day-to-day work in international education,” she also argues that the doctorate provides a unique perspective for leaders. 

“With master’s degrees you’re able to do the work, but with the doctorate you’re able to think beyond the logistics and look at the underlying theories that guide the dynamics at play in international education,” she says. “The advanced degree helps you start thinking about looking a little further away—at the rationale, the history, why things are they way they are.” 

The doctorate isn’t just a box to check for career advancement, Friedman agrees.

“Actually, you do learn something at graduate school,” says Friedman. “It’s not just hazing to be a member of a club. You’re learning to think more deeply, learning about histories, data sets, and analyses. There are practical skills that are inherent in international programs to help SIOs.”

Friedman also notes that the emphasis on the doctorate signifies that international education has emerged as its own academic discipline, a major advance for the field and its place in academe.

“There is recognition that this is a field with its own body of work,” she says. “We have academic peer-reviewed journals, academic conferences. We have the kind of markers for it being its own discipline.”

Raising Barriers to Diversity: the Case Against Advanced Degrees

Despite the potential merits of SIOs being required to hold doctorates, there are also arguments against this trend. Fairfax voices the concern of those in the field that the emphasis on the doctorate can minimize the importance of the practical experience needed to run an international office. 

“I think the vast majority of universities will hurt themselves recruiting if they set that as a minimum qualification,” she says. “It doesn’t say anything at all about managing a budget or a strategic plan or negotiating a contract with overseas companies. In international education, you have to run the office like a business. You have to make enough money to pay your people. I don’t know what in a PhD program is going to teach you to do that.” 

Brindley and others stress that the focus on the doctorate doesn’t in any way diminish the practical experience of international education professionals: it’s more a question of how far they want to advance and the degrees that will allow and prepare them to do so. 

“There are amazing colleagues around me who are directors of education abroad, or directors of partnership development, but that might be as far up the administrative path as they want to go,” he says. 

Fairfax also worries about the impact of having a PhD requirement on efforts to increase diversity in the leadership of international education. Even at lower levels, she says, setting a requirement for a master’s degree can be a barrier to entry, which is why her office eliminated that requirement.

“The whole staff was pretty much white and female,” she says. “If you are already limiting your pool, it can have impacts on diversity and equity.” 

Asking the Right Questions 

Despite the shift toward senior international education professionals increasingly holding doctorates, Friedman emphasizes that people shouldn’t be asking themselves what degree they need. Instead, they should consider where they get satisfaction from their work. 

“Somebody would be director of a global program at a school with 2,000 students and have the most amazing career and may not get paid as much as someone at a school with 30,000 students,” says Friedman. “But just to compare where you can go with a doctorate is not to ask the right question. To me, the question is, ‘What does somebody want to be doing? What do they want for their career?’ Then, put all that together.”

“We have to step away from the assumption that moving up means working for a bigger school or a more prestigious school,” she says. “So much incredible education happens at tiny schools and regional schools, where lives are changed just as much as at big institutions. One of the beauties of the field is it’s huge and dynamic. There are spaces for so many people to be doing impactful work and to be able to move up professionally while they’re doing it.”  •

About International Educator

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