Leadership Degrees: Master's, PhD & Online Training Info

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What kind of job can you get with a master's or PhD in leadership? Find out degree requirements, online options and info on courses and leadership programs.
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Degrees in Leadership: Master's and PhD Programs at a Glance

Graduate programs that focus on leadership skills and theory are fairly common, and may specialize in specific career areas. Some programs are offered through colleges of education, while others are associated with business programs. Programs may also be interdisciplinary or associated with other departments. Finding the best fitting program for your career may mean both researching the fields and programs yourself, and approaching or developing contacts and mentors who can assist you with program selection.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), growth in the highest leadership positions varies among industries, though aggregate numbers for top executives in the profit and non-profit sectors in the years 2010-2020 are expected to develop at a rate below the average for all industries, at 5%. School administrators should fare a bit better over the same period, about average at 10%.

Master's Doctorate
Who is this degree for? Individuals interested in developing their leadership skills and credentials across the public, private and nonprofit sectors Individuals who want to work in academia as professors or researchers studying and teaching leadership skills and theory
Common Career Paths (with approximate median annual salary) - Nonprofit executive director or other top executive ($167,000)*
- School principal or other educational administrator ($87,000)*
- University professor of leadership ($59,000 - $64,000 depending on field of specialty)*
Time to Completion 1-2 years full time 3-5 years after the master's
Common Graduation Requirements - Roughly 10-15 graduate-level courses
- Master's thesis or capstone project
- Master's exams
- Roughly 18-23 graduate-level courses
- PhD qualifier exams or qualifying paper
- Dissertation proposal
- Dissertation and oral defense
Prerequisites Bachelor's degree Master's degree
Online Availability Yes Some hybrid programs offered

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures).

Master's in Leadership

In many fields, the move from working in operations to developing leadership roles is a common career goal. One route to accomplishing this is to develop leadership skills through further education. While some fields have management degrees associated with them across a number of other fields, such as a Master of Business Administration degree, a degree in the field of leadership may provide similar background and training. These degrees allow students to focus on specific areas, and some even provide concentrations within their programs that address important specific areas of knowledge and concerns.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Whether by providing concentrations within programs or by allowing you to develop educational plans within the framework of program offerings, these degree programs can offer more flexibly than ones based on only one career field
  • Leadership programs offer a route for using educational opportunities to stand out from competitors in the job market
  • Leadership education can provide opportunities for developing management skills and styles through internships and field experience

Cons

  • Education in the leadership field, in many cases, will need to be combined with expertise and experience in order to provide the best opportunities for leadership positions
  • Graduate degrees in leadership, though they require a significant commitment of resources, do not guarantee promotion to leadership roles
  • Some leadership positions may require doctoral degrees in the leadership field

Courses and Requirements

Coursework in leadership master's degree programs focuses on topics of interest to leaders across multiple fields, including effective communications, decision making, strategic planning and organizational structure. Some programs also offer thesis options, which are especially relevant if you are considering continuing on to a PhD program or otherwise engaging in academic circles through research and publication. Programs with thesis options will generally also offer courses in research techniques. Topics covered in programs may include:

  • Business ethics in sustainable organizations
  • Decision strategies for leaders
  • Leadership and diversity
  • Leadership communication skills
  • Leadership practice and theory
  • Promoting organizational effectiveness in theory and practice
  • Organizational management theory and execution
  • Research fundamentals

Online Degree Options

Online master's degree programs are offered in the field of leadership. These programs may be offered completely online, and courses are often offered with the flexibility of asynchronous delivery, which can help mid-career professionals fit their educational goals into busy schedules and balance educational and career requirements.

Stand Out with This Degree

If you are looking to stand out in a leadership master's degree program, you will want to carefully consider if a thesis option is the correct choice for you. If you are considering a career in academia, or even just want to leave the option open, a thesis and the associated research could be useful to you. Additionally, it can provide you with an opportunity to work with professionals in the field to address specific issues.

Doctorate in Leadership

Companies, foundations and colleges all have missions to fulfill. Graduates of doctoral programs in leadership are prepared to help their organizations meet objectives. A PhD in leadership can help qualify experienced professionals for executive director and CEO positions. Other possible positions include school principal or superintendent. As PhD programs also prepare candidates to be professional researchers, another option for graduates in leadership studies is returning to academia and seeking a professorship in a leadership studies institute housed at a college or university.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Whether promotion specifically requires a degree in leadership or not, depending on the field, the skills developed and studied can assist you in obtaining promotions to management positions
  • In addition to helping develop your current career, an earned doctorate can open opportunities in academia and research
  • PhD programs can provide you with the opportunity to do in-depth and professional-level research on areas of special interest to your career

Cons

  • Earning a doctoral degree is a serious investment of time and money with no guarantee of career outcome
  • There are several different kinds of leadership doctoral degrees that apply to different fields, and it may be necessary to do research to determine which one is right for your career
  • Dissertation research, as original research that advances knowledge of the field, can be both challenging and time consuming

Courses and Requirements

Doctoral programs in leadership studies pursue the dual goals of preparing leaders and training researchers. In addition to studying theories of leadership and organizational analysis, candidates pursue coursework that prepares them for a role in designing, completing and publishing research. This may include both research methods and mathematical analysis strategies. Coursework in specific areas of concentration may be either available or even required. Some programs require qualification exams, while others may require a paper or other project before beginning dissertation research. Topics common to programs may include:

  • Conflict resolution, leadership and negotiation
  • Diversity, complexity and globalization
  • Ethical decision-making for leaders
  • Strategic change and organizational culture
  • Strategic leadership and organizational structure theory
  • Systems theory in analysis and research

Online Degree Options

As of October 2012, there may not be any wholly online programs for earning a PhD degree in leadership, though hybrid programs may be found. These programs are predominantly delivered online, but have additional residency requirements, including such possibilities as yearly on-campus meetings and dissertation defense. These programs may have tracks for both executive and academic leadership available.

Stand Out with This Degree

Leadership studies are, at their core, a way of understanding and shaping the interactions of people and the behavior of organizations. Candidates looking to stand out with these degrees should take opportunities to combine their experiential knowledge of organizations with their academic credentials. This may include focusing research on areas of career interest, as well as fostering relationships with mentors and fellow students in order to develop broader career networks. Further, candidates may want to pursue both academic presentation and publication opportunities.

Popular Schools

  • Online Programs Available
    1. Colorado Technical University

    Program Options

    Doctorate
      • Doctor of Management - Global Leadership (Executive Format)
      • Doctorate: Management - Organizational Development and Change
      • Doctor of Management - Project Management
      • Doctor of Management (DM) - General Concentration (Executive Format)
      • Doctor of Management - Leadership
      • Doctor - Management - Nonprofit Leadership
  • Online Programs Available
    2. Northcentral University

    Program Options

    Doctorate
      • PhD in Business Admin - Organizational Leadership
      • PhD in Business Admin - Management
      • Doctor of Business Admin - Organizational Leadership
      • Doctor of Business Admin - General Business
      • PhD-TIM - IT Project Management
      • Doctor of Business Admin - Management
  • Milwaukee, WI

    University of Wisconsin

  • Southfield, MI

    Lawrence Technological University

  • Online Programs Available
    5. Indiana Wesleyan University

    Program Options

    Doctorate
      • Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership
  • Arlington, VA

    University of Management and Technology

  • Online Programs Available
    7. Grand Canyon University

    Program Options

    Doctorate
      • DBA - Management
      • Ed.D. in Organizational Leadership - Organizational Development

Featured Schools

Colorado Technical University

  • Doctor of Management - Global Leadership (Executive Format)
  • Doctorate: Management - Organizational Development and Change
  • Doctor of Management - Project Management

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Northcentral University

  • PhD in Business Admin - Organizational Leadership
  • PhD in Business Admin - Management
  • Doctor of Business Admin - Organizational Leadership

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Lawrence Technological University

Indiana Wesleyan University

  • Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership

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University of Management and Technology

Grand Canyon University

  • DBA - Management
  • Ed.D. in Organizational Leadership - Organizational Development

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