PhD in Education or Computer Science?

I’ve been thinking about pursuing a Ph.D. after I’m done with undergrad. I want to pursue a Ph.D. for no reason other than I really enjoy learning and doing research. During undergrad, I will be majoring in computer science with two minors in data science and education at UNC-Chapel Hill. I want to do research in the realm of edtech (creating software to help students learn, creating analysis tools to track student learning, etc). My question is, should I pursue a Ph.D. in Education or Computer Science? I heard that you can “concentrate” your research on a sub-topic, so I guess a different way of putting the question would be, should I do my Ph.D. in Computer science and concentrate my research in Education or the other way around? Any help would be greatly appreciated!

Are you in college now? It’s not clear from how you worded this. If not, you are thinking about this way too early.


I honestly think this is a no-brainer. If you’re up for the work and can get into a good PhD program, pursue the Computer Science PhD. First, it will open so many more doors for you if you decide to switch paths away from education. Second, with your stated goal (actually creating software and analysis tools), it would seem that CompuSci with a machine learning or other data-driven focus would be the way to go for you.

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I also strongly recommend that you make early contact with the computer science professors at UNC and seek opportunities to work with them on their projects. There’s no better way to break into conferences and publishing opportunities, which you’ll need in order to get into a good PhD program.

Yes, a PhD in CS would open more doors, but there’s no reputable PhD program that remotely focuses on “creating software and analysis tools”, which isn’t research. BTW, a good PhD program in machine learning is harder to be admitted even with publications and research experiences which OP doesn’t have (some of these programs have less than 1% acceptance rates). What OP really wants to do is in education (even though I’m not sure a PhD is necessary). Some CS skills are certainly helpful in OP’s stated objective as they are in so many other fields.

first: OP is in HS or is just beginning college. Stated goal is to create analytics tools to track complex data. Application is at this point flexible. Machine learning fits best which is why I said it.

Second: addressing the difficulty of getting into a good CS PhD program (which I agree with) is a non-sequitur to the question of what OP should shoot for. Again, early in college. Of course no publications or research. That’s why college and working with CS profs.

I actually do have some research, none published as of this time. I am trying to publish one of my projects soon, and am seeking help from a local professor.

I’m a senior in high school. I understand that this is a really early time to be thinking about this, but I don’t think it does any harm. I like thinking ahead, but I make sure not to bind myself to any one option. It’s just something I’ve been considering!

Around your junior year in college, it is useful to start talking to profs with the expertise you are interested in and they will give you good advice on what PhD programs might be a fit.

This is great, thanks for sharing.

I would actually go farther than @CheddarcheeseMN: talk to your advisor when you get to college about research opportunities, aiming to have one in place by the summer. It will not be “your” research- you need to do supervised research, which initially may be less interesting to you. As you go on, get more experience, learn more about who is doing what research, learn more about the field you will be able to home in on ‘your’ area of interest.

Our current PhDkid spent every summer of college doing full-time research, as well as in-term research for 3 of the 4 years. The LoRs and some specific research expertise from that work were a big part of why she was successful in her PhD applications, and (just as importantly) they laid the base for a happy PhD experience.

bwahahahaahaa…you not only ‘can’ but you have to! But waaaaaayyyyyy more than I think you are thinking- more like a sub-sub-Subtopic. That’s why you have to be sure that you are really, truly interested in your Subtopic- you will spend years (sometimes an entire career) marinating in it. Happily, you have some ideas as to what you think you are interested in, so start there & be prepared to have your interests morph- sometimes in increments, sometimes in big turns.

This was a super helpful response. Thank you so much for taking the time to help me out! I will try my best to do everything that you mentioned.

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Here is a list of faculty at a school well known for CS: CS Faculty List | EECS at UC Berkeley

Note that some have titles like “Teaching Professor” and have research interests in CS education. The current ones (non-emeritus) all have PhD in CS.

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When it’s time for you to apply for a PhD, you will have a very clear idea of what you want to get a PhD in. If you don’t, you probably won’t pursue it.

Having recently seen first hand the process that someone takes to apply for a PhD, no one would pursue it if they weren’t very serious about the effort it takes to get into a program.

Many people wait a few years out of college before applying to PhD programs. Without ticking several boxes, you’re wasting your time, tbh. I do know a couple of students who were accepted to PhD’s right out of college, but I also know more who applied and never got an interview. One of the latter group applied while a college senior and got no bites. She got a job in something related to her field, worked for a couple of years, and is headed to the top PhD program in the country.

I can say that if it’s in your future, ensure that your experiences leading in to that point are relevant to the PhD you want to pursue. I’m no expert in the process, but I am certain that it’s mostly a case of getting to a point in your life when you realize you have what it takes to be competitive for a PhD.

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PhD programs can be highly individualized, and you can theoretically pursue this from any program with the right advisors and resources in place. That said, what you want sounds more like a degree in computer science with a focus on educational technology.

But let’s set all that aside, because you absolutely do not need a PhD in computer science to develop educational technology. What you need is a computer science degree and some internships, hopefully at edtech companies.

Having a research internship the summer after your freshman year isn’t super common; freshman usually haven’t completed enough classes to be helpful in the lab. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, though.