Doctorate in special education program guide

HomeTeaching and educationDoctorate degree in special education

Introduction to special education

Choosing to work in special education can be a career path that is filled with lots of challenge and personal fulfilment. Those who wish to enter this track will find plenty of opportunities to pursue, and completing a doctorate in special education might help a candidate rise to the highest level possible.

Special education teachers are trained to help students with a variety of disabilities and impairments. These can provide tutoring in core subjects to help students with severe impairments with literary and communication skills. It is a highly rewarding subject area that many people find extremely fulfilling.

Those who have already undertaken an undergraduate and postgraduate degree in special education may wish to refine their skills and expertise with a doctorate degree. Pursuing a doctorate may benefit individuals who wish to work beyond this field, as they could find many doors opening to them in the wider world of education.


To enter into a program for a doctorate degree in special education, you need to meet the entry requirements of the college you wish to apply to. These requirements will always be set by the colleges themselves, so you may see some variations amongst the schools that you apply for. However, there will also be some universal requirements that will apply no matter the program you consider.

Applicants require a master’s degree in special education or a related field, and a GPA of 3.0. They generally need to provide academic transcripts for their master’s, and possibly for their undergraduate degree too, in addition to details for at least two professional or academic references.

Most colleges also require a short essay or personal statement outlining why the applicant wishes to study the course, and what their goals for the future might be. This will then be backed up by an interview that could take place either in-person or over the phone.

Finally, many doctorates of education require an applicant to hold a valid teaching license and to have a set minimum of years of teaching experience.

Online, hybrid or offline

When studying for a doctorate in education, many applicants are faced with 3 program options. They can choose to study online, offline at the college’s campus, or they can engage in a hybrid course that takes on elements of both tracks. Each of these has its own advantages and disadvantages.

Online courses are the most flexible by far. Many who choose to undertake an online doctorate do so as it allows them to fit their study around other commitments. An online course allows them to continue to work around their degree. If a special education teacher already has a position they like, and a group of students that they wish to continue to help, studying online will allow them to do so.

Hybrid courses are a mixture of both. You might have online lectures and coursework to undertake, but might be required to attend certain sessions on-campus.

On campus

Offline courses are ones that are held at the university’s campus, and are not as flexible as online programs. Opting for an offline course might require you to relocate if you have chosen a college that is not local to you.

Many colleges that offer doctorates in special education recognize that their applicants are at a certain point in their career. They are not wishing to enter the workforce but instead are searching for the tools needed to climb to the next level. Therefore, it is not uncommon to find that many colleges offer online courses, as these allow a student to continue to work instead of taking time out of the field.


Accreditation is incredibly important when engaging in any degree related to the world of education. States and school districts will only want to hire teachers with legitimate credentials. When working with students with complex needs, as is often the case in special education, accredited qualifications are vital as they prove that the candidate has acquired the expertise they need for the role.

There are several bodies that can provide accreditation to both institutions and individual courses. Colleges should clearly state their accreditations on their website, though you can also search for individual institutions on the websites of the accrediting bodies. Accrediting bodies for universities vary on a state-to-state basis, and a full list can be found on the U.S. Department of Education website.

When it comes to accreditations for individual courses, candidates must search for programs that will provide accreditation from the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation, referred to as either the NCATE or the CAEP for short. The NCATE is the abbreviation from the previous body which merged with another to form the CAEP in 2013, but many courses and school districts still make use of it.


A doctorate in special education typically takes at least 2-5 years to complete, but many universities will allow their doctoral candidates to take up to 8 years to complete their studies. These courses typically equate to around 60-70 credits worth of study, but this is always set by the individual university and program. Students will study a variety of topics designed to help further their knowledge and understanding of the needs of special education students.

Courses studied are often grounded in realistic but hypothetical scenarios to prepare students for ones they might encounter in their careers. This often includes analysis and reflection on current teaching methods, in addition to the study of educational policy and law. They will also study the latest research in the field of special education to help prepare them for a career as a leader in this sector.

At a graduate level, students are also expected to be able to complete their own research projects and so will be encouraged to study various quantitative and qualitative methods, in addition to exploring the ethics and social implications of their research.

Program concentrations

Several colleges and programs give their candidates the opportunity to specialize further through their course selections. If an applicant has a clear goal in mind when undertaking their doctorate, this can help them to work towards it. For example, many doctorates offer courses in leadership. This would be a must for anyone who wishes to work towards a career as a lawmaker, or as an official in a schooling district.

If you intend to use this doctorate to further your understanding as an educator, you will find that a course such as this will build upon your existing knowledge in the field. You will be able to assess the needs of individual students with special needs on an individual basis more accurately. You will also gain the skills needed to support and provide services for their families.

Certificate opportunities

Many postgraduate degrees in special education offer 2 tracks – Ed.D. or Ph.D.  A doctor of education, an Ed.D., is the most commonly doctoral program in special education. It is typically pursued by practitioners who wish to enter leadership roles within the education sector. A Ph.D. is a doctor of philosophy and is preferred by individuals seeking high-level roles in teaching and research. Ph.D.’s will typically take longer to complete.

Costs of the degree

The costs of completing a doctorate in special education will vary from program to program. Private universities will be more expensive than public ones, and you can often find that more prestigious universities also have higher tuition costs.

Tuition costs are often calculated by credit and a doctorate in education can total somewhere between $21,000 and $55,000 for a 60 credit course.

Financial Aid

Some courses do offer scholarships or funding for certain candidates, so applicants should always check their chosen schools to see if there is such a scheme available that they are eligible to apply for. Many students also take out loans or financial aid to help meet the costs of their studies. More information about some of the financial aid options you could apply for can be found at Federal Student Aid.

Licensing or certification

As mentioned above, applicants for a doctorate in special education should already have a teacher’s license when they apply for the program. Licenses are state-specific, so if you are relocating for the course and plan to teach in a different state, you might have to apply for a new license.

Some states have an interstate reciprocity agreement. This is not a simple switch that allows you to acquire a license for your new state. Instead, the state will examine your credentials to see if they meet the standards set by their education board. If you wish to gain a license for your new state, you will have to apply for the license from scratch.

Career options

Those who complete a doctorate in special education will find plenty of careers open to them. First and foremost is the option to return to teaching. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, high school special education teachers earn an average of $61,710 annually, with the top 10% earning approximately $98,530. With a doctorate in hand, a teacher at this level might expect to earn within this upper bracket. Some individuals with doctorates might also look to become principals, and this would yield an average wage of approximately $97,850 if in the local systems.

For those wishing to work with school boards on an administrative level to help support special educational needs throughout a specific district, one could expect wages of approximately $100,000, but this can vary depending on the state you choose to work in.

These are just some of the pathways open to those who undergo a doctorate in special education. It can most definitely be considered a tool to help further your career and in this field. Though you may not want to remain in teaching, there will still be plenty of career options for you that could allow you to make a difference in the education of those with special needs.

Continuing education

Those who undertake an Ed.D. might consider a Ph.D. at some point in the future if they wish to continue their studies and specialize further. If not, there are plenty of places on research projects and various initiatives that seek to advance our knowledge and understanding of special education. Working on one of these projects could be ideal for those who wish to continue their own education and build more expertise in this academic area. A doctorate will first give a candidate research experience and the technical and critical skills needed to be of value in such an area.

National Association of Special Education Teachers (NASET)

NASET is the national body for teachers in special education.  The association offers continuing education, resources, networking and job listings.

International Conference on Special Education and Individual Needs

This international conference will bring together leading practitioners and academics in this field to discuss some of the innovations and issues in this sector in a wide and interdisciplinary manner. In 2021, the conference is scheduled to take place in NYC.