5 Who Earns a Terminal Degree in Leadership?: Supporting Applied Doctoral Dissertations

Tania Carlson Reis and Marilyn L. Grady


Leadership remains an expanding discipline of study. Leadership programs span multiple domains within education, government, community, and business. Companies offer leadership development training, and non-profit organizations employ leadership frameworks. Leadership development is both formal and informal. In the end, practical and pedagogical forces intersect to build leadership knowledge overtime (Day & Thornton, 2018).

Adult learners looking for leadership education often turn to terminal degree programs in higher education. Ph.D. or Ed.D. programs in leadership development are housed within different disciplines of study. Some programs are specific to educational administrators in PK-12 schools or higher education; or are focused on developing student affairs professionals. Some programs are connected to business or medical leadership. The broad applicability of the leadership construct makes it valuable and useful within applied doctoral programs.

Connecting adult learners from different professions in a single terminal degree leadership program is a challenge. This session will describe how two Ph.D. and Ed.D. leadership programs used tenets of Danby and Lee (2012) to frame doctoral pedagogy as both design and action (p. 3). Through a process of applied research, elements of theory and practice were implemented to overcome student attrition and support degree attainment.


According to Danby and Lee (2012), doctoral program design includes pedagogy, and an interactive element is embedded in doctoral student training. Teaching and learning are not separate constructs but are implicitly connected through program delivery. Learning is co-created, not only in class content, but through social connection. More so, social connection bridges to program design, and includes intentional interaction between the student and doctoral advisor (Barnes & Austin, 2008; Grady, 2012; Harding-Dekam, et al., 2012)

A relational connection between a doctoral advisor and advisee mitigates program attrition, and supports degree completion. Doctoral advisors socialize students to discipline and program designs (Barnes, 2010). Doctoral advisors make implicit elements of the curriculum explicit, and convey not only subject knowledge, but ways to integrate course content with individual research or experience (Harding-Dekam, et al., 2012).

Advisors provide career and intellectual guidance, but often the relationship merges into psychosocial dimensions (Gammel & Rustein-Riley, 2016; Lunsford, 2012). Adult learners need to know the “why” behind the task. (Knowles et al., 2020). Given the noise in an adult learner’s life, even a leadership Ph.D. program with a theoretical foundation needs to be explicit in purpose and design.


The programs presented in this session utilize hybrid delivery. Students in the programs represent multiple professions: PK-12 teachers or administrators, higher education professionals, business personnel, health care leaders, and directors of non-profit organizations. The programs have a strong foundation in leadership theory, but many of the students in the program are leadership practitioners. The session will include how the program implemented: 1) a practitioner focused dissertation option; 2) opportunities to present student scholarship through an onsite peer reviewed conference; and, 3) ways that onsite and distance dialogues with advisors improved student dissertation outcomes. The program changes are presented through the lens of Danby & Lee (2012) and the dynamic of pedagogy in action. Practices in a doctoral program can be shaped to fit the learner and meet the program outcomes.


Barnes, B. & Austin, A. E. (2009). The role of doctoral advisors: A look at advising from the advisor’s perspective. Innovative Higher Education, 33, 297-315. https://doi.org/10.007/s10755-008-9084-x 

Day, D.V. & Thornton, A.M.A. (2018). The nature of leadership development. In J.Antonakis & D.V.Day (Eds.) The Nature of Leadership (3rd ed., pp. 354-375). SAGE Publications, Inc.

Danby, S. & Lee, A. (2012). Framing doctoral pedagogy as design and action. In A. Lee & S. Danby (Eds.), Reshaping doctoral education: International approaches and pedagogies (pp. 3-11). Routledge.

Gammel, J.A. & Rutstein-Riley, A. (2016). A relational approach to mentoring women doctoral students. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 147, 27-35.

Grady, M.L. (2012). Doctoral students in a distance program: Advising and degree completion strategies. Journal of Academic Administration in Higher Education, 12(2), 49-52.

Harding-DeKam, J.L., Hamilton, B., & Loyd, S. (2012). The hidden curriculum of doctoral advising. NACDA Journal, 32(2), 5-16.

Knowles, M.S., Holton, E.F., Swanson, R. A. & Robinson, P.A. (2020). The Adult Learner: The Definitive Classic in Adult Education and Human Resource Development (9th Ed) Routledge.

Lunsford, L. (2012) Doctoral Advising or Mentoring? Effects on Student Outcomes, Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnership in Learning, 20(2), 251-270, DOI:10.1080/13611267.2012.678974


Who Earns a Terminal Degree in Leadership?: Supporting Applied Doctoral Dissertations Copyright © 2022 by Tania Carlson Reis and Marilyn L. Grady. All Rights Reserved.

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