Best PhD Programs in Special Education

Oct 20, 2021

Special Education Doctorate Overview

Special education doctoral degrees are typically offered as a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Special Education. These programs are usually geared toward current teachers and other professionals working in the field of special education or another closely related area. Students who attend a doctoral program in special education gain the skills needed to contribute to research efforts and to move into higher-level careers within the field. Graduates can find work in curriculum and instruction, administration, academic instruction, and much more. Keep reading to find out more details about special education doctoral programs.

Admissions Requirements for Special Education Doctoral Programs

Admissions requirements for special education doctorate programs can vary between colleges and universities. However, there are some requirements that could be common among each school. Some requirements could include:

  • Submitting GRE scores
  • Transcripts
  • A specific GPA (usually a 3.0 or more)
  • Letters of recommendation
  • A personal statement, goal statement, or statement of purpose
  • Resume
  • Writing sample

Some programs could also require an interview.

Educational & Professional Prerequisites for Special Education Doctorate Students

One of the biggest educational prerequisites for special education doctoral programs is having a master's degree in special education or a closely related area such as school counseling or psychology, elementary education, or communication disorders. Candidates with a teaching or administrative license could be preferred. For professional prerequisites, some schools require applicants to have around 3 years of work experience in community-focused work, teaching, or administration.

Accreditation for Special Education Doctorate Programs

Special education doctorate programs are usually regionally accredited. Regional accreditation is granted to an entire college or university. This type of accreditation means that schools have met the high-quality standards of an accrediting agency. Depending on the location, colleges and universities can be accredited by agencies like the Higher Learning Commission, New England Commission of Higher Education, Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, or the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. Some programs also have program-specific accreditation. This type of accreditation is offered by agencies in specific fields. In the case of special education programs, the Council for Exceptional Education, the National Council of Accreditation for Teacher Education (NCATE), and the National Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation are program-specific accrediting agencies.

How Long Does It Take to Earn a Doctorate in Special Education?

The amount of time that it takes to complete a doctorate in special education can vary depending on course load and format. For example, online doctorate programs in special education can take 3 years to complete if students attend full-time or 5 years at part-time status. Students in on-campus programs can complete their degree in 4 to 5 years, depending on attendance status. However, some programs give students up to 10 years to complete their degree.

Special Education Doctoral Coursework

The amount of coursework required for a special education doctorate can vary from one institution to the next. However, the total amount of credit hours typically ranges from 46 to 72 credits. Coursework is usually broken into the following components:

  • Special education core courses: These are courses that every special education doctoral student must take. Courses can include research seminars, special education seminars, and research mentoring.
  • Specialization courses (if applicable): These courses are for students who have chosen a concentration or emphasis area. Some examples of specialization courses include special education policy and procedures, learning disability issues and trends, the brain and language, and developmental delay trends and issues.
  • Research courses: These courses could cover quantitative and qualitative research, statistics, intervention research, reading research, and statistics.
  • Dissertation: As the name implies, these courses or course credits are dedicated to completing dissertation research.

Some programs also include an apprenticeship that students must complete.

Preparing Your Special Education Dissertation

Most special education doctoral programs require students to complete a dissertation, and there are certain steps that students must take before they can complete their dissertation. While specific requirements might vary from one school to the next, most programs share some similarities. Leading up to the dissertation, students usually complete several seminars followed by research methodology courses. A preliminary exam is usually given during the first year to see how well students are doing. Some programs also require students to complete an annual report to record their progress. Students might also have to complete intensive reading and reading research courses. Some programs then require students to participate in reading and university-level teaching apprenticeships.

Around the third year of study, students might have to submit a pre-dissertation research manuscript. Coursework usually ends in the third year, and at this time, students will complete a written and oral comprehensive exam. During the last year of the program, students devote all of their time to the dissertation. They must submit a dissertation proposal and gain approval before moving forward. Once approved, students will then conduct research to write their dissertation. Once completed, students must defend their dissertation in front of a committee.

Special Education Doctorate Concentrations

While most special education doctoral programs may provide a general overview of the field, there are some programs that allow students to choose from specific concentrations, specializations, or emphasis areas. Choosing a specialization might be ideal for students who are interested in focusing their work and engaging with a specific population of exceptional children. Concentrations can include early childhood, autism, high incidence disabilities, and more. Here we will go over these concentrations in more detail.


In the autism concentration, students usually gain academic and professional insight into the techniques and strategies that are used to educate children who have autism. Students might also expand their research skills, gain an understanding of ethical practices, and learn about treatment methods that are used with children who have autism. This concentration could require students to take around 12 to 18 credit hours' worth of coursework in this subfield of special education. Courses could cover the following:

  • Autism spectrum disorder interventions
  • Developmental Research
  • Challenging behaviors in students
  • Special education policies and procedures

Early Childhood Special Education

While some students might opt to enroll in an early childhood doctoral degree program or a doctorate in reading and literacy, those who would like to major in special education can choose an early childhood special education concentration. The early childhood special education concentration focuses on children from infancy to around 6 years old. Students in these programs might learn about different developmental delays as they pertain to this age group. Research could be a big component of these types of programs, and students might receive mentoring from various scholars in the field. This concentration could require students to take at least 12 credits specifically in the subfield of early childhood special education. Some topics that students might encounter include:

  • Developmental psychology
  • Cognitive delays
  • Adaptive behavior
  • Language disorders
  • Communication acquisition skills
  • Motor skills
  • The brain and language
  • Introduction to early childhood special education

High Incidence Disabilities

Students who choose the high incidence disabilities concentration learn the skills and teaching methods that are needed to work with children who have varying behavioral disorders, mild intellectual disorders, attention deficit disorder, learning disabilities, and more. Some programs also prepare students to work with adults who have these disabilities. Course topics in this concentration could include:

  • Behavior difficulties and assessment
  • Classroom management for students with mild or moderate disabilities
  • Intensive interventions
  • Supporting students who have behavioral and educational challenges
  • Instructional methods
  • Assessing students who have educational and behavioral challenges
  • Treatment and classification of behavioral disorders
  • Identification of learning disabilities

What Other Types of Special Education Degrees Are There?

Special education degrees are available at every level and prepare graduates for various careers, including becoming a special education assistant, a general special education teacher, or a middle school special education teacher. Here we will take a look at some of the different types of degrees that are available.

Special Education Associate Degrees

Special education degrees at the associate level are usually offered as Associate of Arts in Special Education degrees. These programs usually require around 60 to 62 credits worth of coursework. Students take general education courses in areas like social science, math, English composition, and science. Special education coursework could cover educational psychology, an introduction to special education, and instructional strategies. These programs usually take around 2 years to complete.

Special Education Bachelor's Degrees

Bachelor's degrees in special education can be offered as the following:

  • Bachelor of Science (BS) in Special Education
  • Bachelor of Science in Education (BSEd) in Special Education and Teaching
  • Bachelor of Arts in Special Education

These programs usually require between 120 and 133 credits and take around 4 years to complete. However, students who have completed an associate degree program could finish faster.

Students might take courses that cover:

  • Assessing students with developmental disabilities
  • Positive behavior support
  • The exceptional child
  • Teaching exceptional children
  • Special education legal issues
  • Adapting curriculum for exceptional students
  • Special education behavioral management

Students in these programs usually need to complete student teaching experiences. Some programs also require students to complete a portfolio or capstone project.

Special Education Master's Degrees

Master's degrees in special education are offered as Master of Science in Education (MSEd), Master of Arts (MA), and Master of Science (MS) in Special Education. These programs could require between 30 and 42 credits worth of coursework and take around 2 years to complete. At this level, students might be able to concentrate in a specific area of special education, like early childhood, severe disabilities, autism, or general education. Programs could require an externship and practicum, an internship, or a field experience.

Course topics in these programs could include:

  • Disability studies
  • Research methods
  • Inclusive education
  • Understanding the learning and development of exceptional learners
  • Instructional methods for students with disabilities
  • Interventions for students with severe disabilities

Special Education Graduate Certificates

Special education graduate certificates can be broad or in specific areas of special education, including:

  • Dyslexia
  • Low incidence disabilities
  • Disabilities in society
  • High incidence disabilities
  • Special education for culturally and linguistically diverse learners

Programs usually require between 12 and 18 credits. Coursework can vary across these unique programs, but students could encounter topics that include literacy intervention, disability policies, inclusion strategies, teaching strategies for students with high incidence and severe disabilities, systematic instruction, assessments, and positive behavioral supports.

Career Options & Salary Outlook for Special Education Doctoral Graduates

Graduates of special education doctoral programs have a variety of career options available to them. Some graduates might choose to follow traditional career paths in areas like teaching, administration, or program coordination, while others might choose to seek out alternative careers for special education, such as becoming a special education counselor. Explore some of the available career options below.

Become an Instructional Coordinator

Instructional coordinators work to develop curriculum in various school settings, including elementary, middle, and high schools, technical schools, colleges, and universities. Some job duties could include:

  • Evaluating curriculum to ensure that it meets standards
  • Instructing teachers when a new curriculum is implemented
  • Examining students' test scores and other data
  • Creating conferences, trainings, and workshops

To become an instructional coordinator, a minimum of a master's degree in curriculum and instruction or education is required. However, a doctorate in instructional technology, a doctoral degree in education, or a doctorate in instructional design could better prepare you for this career. If you would like to become an instructional coordinator in a specific area, a more focused doctoral degree could be helpful. For example, a doctorate in special education would be useful if you would like to work specifically with special education curriculum.

The job outlook for instructional coordinators looks bright, with a growth rate of 6% from 2019 to 2029. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), this is faster than the average growth expected for all occupations within the United States. Per the BLS, instructional coordinators made a median annual salary of $66,970 as of May 2020.

Become a Postsecondary Special Education Teacher

Postsecondary special education teachers or professors work at colleges, universities, and other postsecondary institutions. Some of their job duties include:

  • Teaching classes in their content area
  • Advising future educators
  • Creating syllabi, lessons, and assignments
  • Taking part in research

Special education professors need to have a PhD in Special Education to work at a 4-year college or university. The job outlook for education professors is 5% from 2019 to 2029, per the BLS. This growth is faster than the average for all occupations, which is 4%. According to, the median annual salary for special education professors was $97,563 as of May 2021.

Become a Postsecondary Education Administrator

Postsecondary education administrators typically work at public and private colleges and universities. They usually manage an entire department. Some of their duties include:

  • Overseeing the department budget
  • Creating policies
  • Assisting with choosing faculty members and creating policies

These professionals usually need at least a master's degree. However, a doctoral degree in special education could provide you with advanced knowledge to direct the education department of a school. A doctorate in education administration or a doctoral degree in higher education administration could also be helpful. According to data from the BLS, the job outlook for postsecondary education administrators matches the national average, which is 4% from 2019 to 2029. As of May 2020, these administrators had a median annual salary of $97,500, per the BLS.

Special Education Professional Organizations

There are numerous professional organizations that special education professionals can be a part of, including:

Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA): This organization offers support, resources, and membership to educators, parents, adults, and professionals. Some of the benefits of membership include:

  • Discounts on an annual conference and a journal subscription
  • State and local chapters
  • Free webinars
  • Newsletters

Council of Administrators of Special Education (CASE): This organization is specifically for administrators in the field of special education. Membership provides a number of benefits, including:

  • Networking
  • A journal and newsletter
  • Discounts and free resources
  • Conferences and symposiums

How Much Does a Doctorate in Special Education Cost?

The cost of a special education doctorate program can vary greatly from one school to the next. Factors that could influence degree cost include whether students are attending a public or private school, in-state vs. out-of-state tuition, as well as what year students are in for their degree program (e.g., students in year one of their programs might pay more than students in their third year). Some schools charge a per credit fee, while others charge a flat fee for full-time programs. Some schools also charge a service fee and health fee. Programs could cost around $5,510 to $35,772 per year.

Scholarships & Funding Opportunities for a Special Education Doctorate

Paying for a special education doctoral program can be costly. However, most special education doctorate programs provide students with some type of funding. This funding can be offered in the form of a stipend, by completing a fellowship, or participating in a teaching assistantship. Students can also apply for federal financial aid by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to see what types of federal grants and loans are available to them. Scholarships are another option that students can look into to help pay for school. Scholarships can be offered through a variety of avenues, including non-profit organizations, universities, and private organizations. For example, the University of Wyoming offers special education scholarships to students enrolled in special education graduate programs.

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