Study Early Childhood Education: Masters, PhD & Online Degree Info

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What will you learn in an early childhood education degree program? Read about degree requirements, the pros and cons of a master's degree and a PhD, and potential careers.
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Early Childhood Education Master's and PhDs: Degrees at a Glance

Graduate degree programs in early childhood education are designed for people with experience working with young children. An early childhood education graduate degree can qualify you for leadership roles, enhance your teaching skills, or prepare you to become a teacher educator.

Career prospects in this field look favorable. There is an expected increase in the enrollment numbers of children due to an expanding population and a growing recognition that early education is a significant factor in a child's development, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). However, if you're planning on using your degree solely to teach young children, keep in mind that you qualify for teaching certification with a bachelor's degree. Also, according to the National Education Association, less than half of all teachers working in early childhood education hold a 4-year college degree, so a graduate degree may over-qualify you for some teaching positions.

Master's Doctorate
Who is this degree for? Teachers interested in furthering their knowledge in effective child learning or who wish to become involved in administration or supervision Experienced educators who want to work as teacher educators, researchers, or curriculum developers
Common Career Paths (with approximate median annual salary) - Kindergarten teacher ($50,000)*
- Elementary school teacher ($53,000)*
- Preschool teacher ($27,000)*
- Preschool and child center director ($44,000)*
- Instructional coordinator ($59,000)*
- University professor of education ($59,000)*
- Academic administrator ($84,000)*
- Academic researcher ($73,000)**
Time to Completion 1-3 years full-time 3-5 years full-time after completing a master's degree
Common Graduation Requirements - Practicum or internship
- Capstone experience
- Comprehensive examination
- Research courses and preparation
- Written and/or oral exams
- Dissertation seminar
- Dissertation
Prerequisites - Bachelor's degree in education or related field
- Certification and/or work experience in early childhood education
- Master's degree in education or related field
- Writing samples
- Experience working with young children
Online Availability Yes Few programs available

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures), ** (figures for May 2012).

Master's Degree in Early Childhood Education

Master's degree programs in early childhood education prepare you to educate and support the development of children from birth to age 8. These programs generally require that you have professional experience working directly with young children, which can be acquired in an early childhood program, as an educator, or in various other community agencies. Some programs additionally require that you have teacher certification in early childhood education prior to admission, and others offer a separate track for students who need to obtain teaching certification.

Pros and Cons


  • It's a flexible degree that allows you to work as a teacher, as an educational coordinator, or as an instructor at a community college
  • Helps you gain expertise in early education, classroom management, and curriculum development
  • Research shows that teachers with specialized training in early childhood are more actively engaged and are more likely to have the skills necessary to promote better outcomes for children*
  • Enrollment numbers for students in early childhood are expected to increase, and many positions, such as instructional coordinators, are predicted to have faster than average job growth (20% increase expected between 2010-2020)**


  • You qualify for most early childhood teaching positions with a bachelor's degree
  • Tuition costs are rising, and wages have stalled, so it might be difficult for you to pay off student loan debt on an education-related salary*
  • If you'd like to work in higher education, it can be difficult to obtain a job without a doctorate

Source: *National Education Association, **U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2010-2020 job outlook predictions).

Courses and Requirements

In addition to classroom learning, these programs typically incorporate seminars, classroom research, and group projects. Some schools also require the completion of a capstone experience during the final term of study. The capstone experience is a portfolio that demonstrates the personal and professional growth and learning that you have developed throughout your studies. You will also likely be required to complete an internship during your studies, during which you'll work with children, families, and staff to build your expertise. Generally, a master's program in early childhood education concludes with a comprehensive examination.

These programs generally require around 30-40 semester hours. The curriculum is designed to teach you how to develop programs and curriculum, principles of child development, and teaching techniques for a diverse group of students. Some examples of courses you might take at the master's level include:

  • Working with families
  • Language and literacy
  • Young children's learning
  • Mathematics for K-2

Online Degree Options

There are many schools that offer accredited online master's degree programs in early childhood education. These programs are offered in fully online formats or as hybrid programs that require that you complete a practicum and/or attend on-campus events in addition to your coursework. Online programs are generally designed for professional teachers, and the courses and requirements are typically similar to or the same as for on-campus programs.

Getting Ahead with This Degree

Participate in Professional Development

Whether you want to work as a teacher, as an administrator, or in curriculum development, it's important to keep up-to-date on the current trends and practices of the field in order to be a competitive job candidate. Organizations like the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) offer various online and face-to-face professional development opportunities that satisfy continuing education requirements for licensure and provide you with expertise in specific topics, such as screening and assessment. These organizations also hold national and regional conferences that you can attend as a student and/or as an early childhood professional. Along with networking opportunities, these conferences offer lectures from prominent leaders in the field, presentations, and exhibits.

Learn to use Educational Technologies

Due to the increasing popularity of online teaching, distance education, and Web-based instructional design, it's a good idea to stay up-to-date on the technological developments in the education field. Competencies in areas like educational software, podcasting, assessments, and Web-based forums can help you stand out to employers who are looking to utilize the technological advancements in education.

Obtain Additional Certification

You also might consider gaining certification to supplement your state-required teaching certification. The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) offers early childhood certifications in various areas, including art, literacy, and exceptional needs specialist. These certifications signify to employers that you are an experienced educator who has met the high standards of the NBPTS.

PhD in Early Childhood Education

A student's time in a PhD program in early childhood education is generally split between research and dissertation hours, foundational courses in education, cognate areas, and elective coursework. Many schools allow students to individualize their studies by specializing in areas like teacher education or curriculum development, or content areas like literacy.

Students in these programs work closely with the faculty, who serve as their doctoral advisors and mentors. Doctoral students also work on research projects related to their areas of interest throughout their studies, which can be lengthy.

Pros and Cons


  • Employment opportunities in many different positions in the field, including teacher educator, educational researcher, and educational administrator
  • You can specialize in your desired career field
  • PhD program allows you to assume a leadership position in the field and contribute to the research base of early childhood education


  • Can take up to five years to complete
  • Relatively low median salaries for the field ($59,000 for postsecondary instructors in education)*
  • Some programs require years of professional experience for admission

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

Courses and Requirements

The courses in these programs provide an in-depth study of childhood and learning development. Required coursework further explores the current trends and policies in the field, development and implementation of programs, and research analysis. Other areas might include play theory and parent involvement.

Coursework is supplemented by the completion of a minimum number of research hours. In addition, PhD students are required to complete a dissertation, which involves forming a dissertation committee of faculty members, preparing a proposal based upon your research, and defending the dissertation to the committee and other faculty members. Some programs also require that you pass written, oral, and comprehensive exams.

Online Degree Options

Accredited online PhD programs in the field are offered by a few schools, both as programs specific to early childhood education and as programs in curriculum and instruction with a program area in early childhood education. These programs generally combine online coursework with face-to-face events that are held on campus. The curriculum is comparable to on-campus programs, requiring the completion of coursework, research hours, and a dissertation.

Stand Out with this Degree

Supplement Your Skills with Technology

The educational field is becoming more technical in nature due to recent enrollment increases in online education and gains in educational technology. Though not all early childhood positions utilize educational technology, becoming adept in software office applications can help you evaluate and track curriculum, evaluate assessments, and study program effectiveness.

Conduct Relevant Research

Since there has been a push in recent years to recognize the importance of early childhood education, focusing your research on the benefits of early childhood education can help you gain allies and stand out in the field. You can further collaborate with faculty in order to participate in grants and studies that will allow you to conduct your own research and make a unique contribution to the field.

Get Involved with Professional Organizations

Getting involved with professional organizations by obtaining membership and/or attending seminars and conferences can help you network and obtain professional connections that might further your career. Annual conferences, such as NAEYC's National Institute for Early Childhood Professional Development, bring teacher educators, administrators, and other leaders in the field together, allowing you to get involved and build your expertise. These organizations also offer leadership positions at the local, state, and national levels.

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