University of Massachusetts Amherst

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Doctoral Program

A doctorate in higher education prepares students to become scholar-practitioners (often as administrators on campuses), researchers, policymakers, or faculty members. Prospective students with these careers interests, who have a genuine interesting in continued learning, and who are ready to generate new knowledge via scholarly research are encouraged to apply.
Admitted students join their cohort of doctoral students for an initial course that serves as an introduction to academic inquiry and doctoral-level research. This cohort will also participate in a four-semester sequence of applied research, completing projects as mentees and then as mentors, as well as an individual research project. This cohort, although not explicitly together beyond these initial courses, serve as a source of support throughout the doctoral process.
Doctoral students in higher education come from a range of backgrounds and professional situations. About 80% of our students attend UMass full-time, coming not only from New England, but also from a range of national and international locations. The other 20% of our students work full time, often in higher education institutions in the region, and take classes part time. Part-time students typically take two courses per semester. Full-time students typically take three courses per semester. For more information see our Higher Education Program Handbook
Our doctoral students become active members of the higher education research community. Students often present at professional conferences individually, with other students, and in collaboration with faculty members. Common conferences attended include NASPA, ACPA, ASHE, AERA, and CIES.
Doctoral students are also active in publishing their work individually or in collaboration with others, often in some of our most prestigious academic journals in the field of higher education. After completion of coursework, comprehensive exams, and the dissertation, our graduates go on to a variety of distinguished careers.

First Year Portfolio Assessment

At the end of the first year, students assemble a portfolio of their writing from first-year courses. Students submit copies of the original papers with instructors’ comments from each, then meet with their advisor and another faculty member to discuss both the work from the first year of doctoral studies and future directions for students as they move through the program.

Designing Your Program of Study

Students will design a Program of Study in their first year. An important part of this process is developing a set of goals and a set of courses and experiences to meet those goals. Advisers consult with the students in developing their Program of Study.

Comprehensive Exam

The comprehensive examination is designed to provide doctoral students with an opportunity to demonstrate mastery of the knowledge, skills and expertise necessary for conducting dissertation research in this multi-disciplinary applied field. Students are required to demonstrate knowledge about the key issues and concepts within at least two specific areas of study within higher education (History; Leadership, Management & Organization; Law & Ethics; Student Learning & Development; Academic Affairs; Social Justice, Oppression & Diversity; and Policy, Politics, & Economics) while also demonstrating knowledge of the research process through an individual research project.

The examination consists of two components, an applied research paper and two applied analysis papers that respond to questions prepared by your committee.


Whereas the comprehensive exam demonstrates breadth of knowledge about higher education, the dissertation is the opportunity to demonstrate depth of knowledge in one particular area of higher education. The dissertation is a highly individualized endeavor representing the area in which the student will become an expert and generate new knowledge for the field of higher education. In close coordination with one’s dissertation adviser, a student designs, executes, and reports on a major research study. The student forms a three-person faculty committee who advises and validates this scholarly work. Students first prepare a proposal that must be approved by the committee, after which the student conducts research and writes the dissertation, which must also be defended before the committee.

For more information about the doctoral program, contact Chrystal George Mwangi,