Special education is one of the most challenging and fulfilling careers you can pursue, but your job prospects in the field will be limited without an advanced degree. Most graduates with a bachelor's or master's degree in special education teach in elementary or secondary schools. With a doctorate degree, graduates can secure high-level research jobs, college and university positions, and careers as school administrators.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects jobs in academia will increase 15% in the next several years. Highly qualified special education experts ensure that children with special needs receive the educational opportunities they deserve.

Should I Get a Doctorate in Special Education?

If you have recently received a bachelor's or master's degree and want to continue your education or secure a faculty or research position at a university, a doctoral degree in special education may be right for you.

Doctoral programs in special education build on the fundamental teaching and research skills students learn in master's and undergraduate programs. In addition to the coursework on advanced research and critical thinking, students also learn to write grants and influence educational policy. An advanced research and critical-thinking curriculum prepares students to create, implement, and manage educational programs. Professors also introduce students to advocacy work, which teaches them how to shape and advocate for special education legislation.

Research is the core focus of any doctorate in special education program. Students may be required to teach under the supervision of faculty members and write grant proposals to secure funding for research. At the doctorate level, students are expected to publish and present their research.

On-campus classes offer students the opportunity to network and interact in person with other Ph.D. students and faculty, while online and hybrid programs appeal more to working professionals or students with families who need a flexible learning schedule. All programs offer specialized concentrations, such as early childhood education, autism, or severe disabilities.

What Can I Do With a Doctorate in Special Education?

A doctoral degree in special education prepares graduates for research and teaching careers in academia. All special education graduates are passionate about promoting education and learning. Special education majors should be dedicated, patient, caring, and creative individuals.

Graduates with a Ph.D. in special education also develop strong leadership skills, which qualifies them to work as policy makers and school administrators. There are a number of career opportunities available to graduates with a doctorate degree in special education.

Provosts and Academic Deans

Provosts and academic deans oversee faculty research at colleges and universities. They make important tenure decisions and shape academic policy. Most deans and provosts possess a strong background working in postsecondary education as administrators and professors. Deans also help coordinate student activities on campus. A doctorate degree is needed to become a dean or provost.

Median Annual Salary: $92,360*

Elementary, Middle, and High School Principals

Elementary, middle, and high school principals are responsible for the day-to-day operations and safety of children at their schools. On a daily basis, principals supervise teachers, staff, and students. They oversee the development of the curriculum and monitor test scores and academic progress. Generally, principals are former teachers who earned a doctorate.

Median Annual Salary: $94,390*

Public Policy Researcher

Public policy researchers raise awareness about educational issues and help shape legislation. Their duties include collecting and analyzing the implications of current educational policies. They work in colleges, government, and think tanks. Public policy researchers need a master's, doctorate, or law degree. Most have a background working in academic research.

Median Annual Salary: $115,110*

Instructional Coordinators

Instructional coordinators, or curriculum specialists, travel within school districts to host workshops and conferences to train teachers. They mainly work in elementary, middle, and high schools, but also in colleges and the government. Instructional coordinators help develop and implement curriculum standards. To work as an instructional coordinator, you need a master's degree and experience working as a teacher or administrator.

Median Annual Salary: $63,750*


Professors with a background in special education teach education in community colleges or universities. Professors also conduct their own research and publish their work. A master's degree is sufficient to teach at a community college, but a doctorate is needed to teach at four-year schools.

Median Annual Salary: $76,000*

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

How to Choose a Doctorate in Special Education Program

Several factors will help you find the right school for your needs, including the program's cost, length, curriculum, and location. Ultimately, the program you choose should prepare you for your career aspirations.

The cost of a program remains a primary concern for students. Attending a private college will cost more than a public institution; students can also expect to pay double, or more, for out-of-state tuition versus in-state tuition. Of course, scholarship, grant money, and stipends could offset the higher costs of attending private or out-of-state college.

Your status as a student also influences the total cost of college. Generally Ph.D. programs are full-time, though part-time status is offered by some institutions. Typically it takes three or four years to graduate from a doctorate program.

Doctorate degrees in special education help students hone their research skills, which train students for leadership positions in specialized fields. Each program offers different specializations in autism, early childhood, equity and diversity, and learning disabilities. Beyond the coursework, students must complete a dissertation. Many also teach undergraduate classes, publish research, and present at conferences.

Programmatic Accreditation for Doctorate in Special Education Programs

Specialized departments and programs at colleges often receive programmatic accreditation. The Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation, which reviews programs that train teachers, often provides accreditation for education and special education programs. Programs voluntary seek accreditation from independent accrediting services. Accreditation signals that the program and its instructors have met certain quality standards. Prospective employers also favor graduates from accredited programs because they know these candidates received a quality education.

Doctorate degrees in special education receive accreditation the same way colleges and universities receive national or regional accreditation. An independent body reviews the program's curriculum, teachers, and academic outcomes. Regional accreditation carries more prestige than national accreditation. In general, colleges and universities are regionally accredited, while vocational schools and for-profit schools are nationally accredited. To find out more information about the accreditation of your school or program, check the college website or ask the admissions department.

Doctorate in Special Education Program Admissions

All applicants for doctorate degrees in special education participate in a rigorous application process. The admissions office requires common prerequisites for all doctorate candidates; however, every college has different admission requirements. First, students must possess a master's degree with a minimum GPA of 3.0. Students must also have taught for at least two years. Second, students should be prepared to submit numerous supplemental materials, including a writing sample, resume, personal essay, letters of recommendation, and transcripts. Finally, test scores from the GRE or Miller Analogies Test (MAT) may be required.

Online classes, especially at the doctorate level, require self-discipline and independence. At the doctorate level, applicants should apply to as many as five programs. Considering the cost of applications, and the time needed to compile materials, you should only apply to programs when you meet the eligibility requirements.


  • Master's Degree: Most colleges require Ph.D. applicants to have a master's degree. Schools prefer that students hold a graduate degree in a related field.
  • Professional Experience: Most Ph.D. applicants have worked in special education for a few years. Schools often require that students have up to three years of work experience.
  • Minimum GPA: Most schools only take applicants with a 3.0 GPA or better. Schools may overlook a low GPA if an applicant has an extensive work history and completed research work.
  • Standardized Test: Most colleges require applicants of doctorate degree programs in special education to take the GRE. Some programs also require the MAT.

Admission Materials

  • Application: The application for a doctorate degree in special education takes about three months to complete. Applicants submit their applications through the college website. Students cannot use the Common App for doctorate degree applications.
  • Transcripts: Applicants must submit official transcripts. You can request official transcripts from your college for a nominal fee.
  • Letters of Recommendation: Applicants may be asked to submit up to three letters of recommendation. Most college applications have built-in alerts, which notify your references to email recommendations letters directly to the college after submitting your application. Be sure to give your references a few months notice before the deadline.
  • Test Scores: Most doctorate degrees in special education require that students take the GRE. Minimum test scores vary, depending on the college. Students on average score 150 to 152 on the verbal section and 3.5 on the analytical writing section.
  • Application Fee: Ph.D. application fees run from $50 to $110. Fees are due online when the application is submitted. Some colleges waive application fees for veterans and service members.

What Else Can I Expect From a Doctorate in Special Education Program?

Doctorate degrees in special education provide students with the opportunity for specialized coursework. Program specifics vary from college to college. These differences allow students to choose programs tailored toward their personal or career interests.

Courses in a Doctorate in Special Education Program

Every doctorate program has varying specializations and core courses. Programs generally post their curriculum online to give students an idea of what to expect. Below are five sample courses which are commonly offered in doctorate of special education programs.

Learning Theory and Research

In this class, students examine scholarly research on classroom management, teaching, and learning. Professors teach students how to analyze research and apply educational theories to improve learning outcomes and classrooms. The course may include research projects, written papers, and quizzes. It prepares students to work as academic researchers, professors, or school administrators.

Writing Grant Proposals in Special Education

Students learn how to research and write grant proposals to receive federal, state, and local funding for projects in grant writing classes. Grant funding is needed throughout a student's academic and professional career to conduct research.

Special Education Law and Policy

Students study and analyze federal policies and laws concerning special education students and their families. The course covers how administrators and teachers provide inclusion and make accommodations for students with disabilities. The course prepares students for careers as policymakers, administrators, and consultants.

Advanced Statistics

Ph.D. students must have a strong understanding of statistics. Students learn how to apply statistical evidence to inform their decisions. The IBM SPSS statistical software program may be used in class.

Management of Schools

This course teaches students how to manage the everyday operations of a school, including disciplining and counseling students and training teachers. Students learn about ethical decision-making in leadership and different leadership models. They gain experience from this course to work as administrators, deans, and school principals.

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

The length of a doctorate in special education, on average, takes three to four years; however, some students take six years to complete the degree. To graduate, students must complete between 42 to 75 credits, depending on the program.

Online and hybrid programs have accelerated schedules with weekend virtual classes that let students graduate in three years. Students have the option to take classes part time or full time, but should know that part-time studies may delay their graduation and ultimately cost more. The exact length of a doctorate in special education hinges on how long it takes students to complete their dissertation. To finish sooner, students should begin their dissertation early in the program.

Unlike an undergraduate degree, you will not be able to double up on credits to graduate from a doctorate program quicker. Consult an adviser to help you stay on track.

How Much Is a Doctorate in Special Education?

Beyond tuition, students have a variety of expenses, including books and supplies, technology fees, parking and transportation, and room and board, if they attend on-campus classes. Additionally, parents and single-parent students must factor in childcare costs while in school. Doctoral students must also pay a dissertation filing fee.

On average, full-time doctorate students pay around $850 per credit. Exact tuition fees will differ, however, depending on the college.

Many students take out loans to pay for their doctorate degrees and pay interest on top of their principal loans. To avoid going into debt, students should research the total cost of their program and explore ways to reduce fees and tuition. For example, military personnel may receive discounted tuition.

Certifications and Licenses for Doctorate in Special Education Graduates

Board Certified Behavior Analyst

After receiving a master's or doctorate degree from an accredited college, graduates are eligible to apply for the board certified behavior analyst exam. Applicants must complete work experience in the field prior to taking the exam. This certification appeals to graduates who are pursuing jobs as deans, principals, and educators.

Principal Licensure

To become a principal or superintendent you will likely need to take the School Leadership Licensure exam. The four-hour exam, which can be completed online, tests an individual's ability to act ethically and fairly, collaborate with parents, and facilitate a safe learning environment.

Board Certification in Special Education

To obtain the board certification in special education, candidates must hold a master's or doctorate degree. Certification, which is offered through the National Association of Special Education Teachers, includes five courses and a 50-question final exam. The certification is voluntary, but beneficial for graduates pursuing a career as an educator or an administrator.

Resources for Special Education Graduate Students

American Educational Research Journal

Professionals in education keep up-to-date on the latest research findings by reading the American Education Research Journal, published by the American Education Research Association. The publication features scholarly research articles and accepts article submissions year round.


The Evernote app simplifies notetaking for busy Ph.D. students. The app allows users to consolidate notes, websites, photos, and recordings. Students can organize and share notes with other students. The app also features a recorder so students can record lectures. Evernote is free to use.

McNair Scholars Program

The McNair Scholars Program strives to increase the number of Ph.D. graduates from underrepresented groups. The program's website features grants, research conferences, and research opportunities.


The word processing app Scrivener helps Ph.D. students and other writers structure notes, organize writing, and format properly. Students can download a free trial, but must pay for the full program.

Professional Organizations in Special Education

Throughout their studies, doctoral candidates will conduct extensive research and present their findings at conferences and workshops. Joining a professional organization allows Ph.D. students to make lasting connections and access resources that benefit their academic and professional careers. Plus, being a member of a professional organization means discounted conference fees and career training. Many professional organizations also award scholarships or connect members with grant funding opportunities.

Association of American Educators

Founded in 1994, the AAE serves as a national organization for educators. Educators and education students are eligible for membership. Membership includes access to job postings, scholarships, grants, discounted liability insurance, and legal protection benefits.

National Association of Special Education Teachers

The NASET connects current and former special education teachers and professors. Members receive free professional development courses, access to paid continuing education credits, learning materials, research, and academic journals. Students receive a discounted NASET membership.

American Association of University Professors

Founded in 1915, the AAUP works to secure the freedoms and security of university faculty members and professors. AAUP members get access to educational experts, guidebooks, webinars, and educational toolkits.

Black Doctoral Network

The BDN supports and connects African American scholars across many disciplines. Members receive access to the BDN job board. The network also hosts doctoral meet and greets, writing camps, recruitment fairs, and a national conference.

American Education Research Association

Founded in 1916, the AERA promotes scholarly research on education and learning. Members receive journal subscriptions, discounts to conferences, professional development and training, and access to grant funding and career opportunities.