How to Get a PhD or EdD in Special Education

A PhD in Special Education may lead you into a career working with gifted children. Or a PhD in Special Education may form the basis for a career working with children who have Down’s syndrome.

Special education has multiple meanings and is differently defined by different people. Graduate school and career options reflect this multiplicity. Important changes to special education practices and needs–the trend towards “mainstreaming” and the autism epidemic being two examples–show how your choice of PhD programs in special education must also take into account current events related to your field.

The arrival of effective online PhD programs in special education has added another yet another choice to your growing list, and opens up the doctorate degree choice to working professionals.

The EdD: An Alternative to the PhD in Special Education

A PhD in Special Education is not the only doctoral degree in special education available. You may decide that an EdD in Special Education is better for you. Typically, PhD in Education programs are designed for those who wish to work in the field, teaching, supervising teachers, or designing curricula, while PhD programs are geared more towards research. However, each school designs and defines its own program, and today’s advanced degrees in special education tend to overlap a bit. In fact, many consider them interchangeable. Once you decide how you want to work in special education, peruse each school’s program and decide if it can take you where you want to go.

With so many choices available, smart research and careful planning is the only choice that’s right for everyone when choosing a doctorate degree in special education.

Narrow Down Special Education Doctoral Programs by Picturing Your Goal

Consider simplifying the initial round of investigation into doctorate degrees in special education by asking yourself sharp questions about where you want to be after you graduate:

  • Do you want to teach in the classroom every day?
  • Do you want to work in academe as a researcher?
  • What about developing and then implementing your own special education curriculum as a special education administrator or school principal?
  • Is there a certain group of children that you want to work with, such as blind, physically disabled, or autistic children? Or would you prefer to work with adults?
  • Do you aspire to attain a special education leadership position?
  • Would an online PhD in Special Education qualify you for your desired position?
  • Would an online doctoral degree fit with your learning style?

Asking these vital “end game” questions may be more important for special education doctorate degree programs than other more fields of study because career paths in special education are so varied.

If you want to work in the classroom, for example, an EdD in Special Education may be the right mix of theory and real world experience to help you become a superlative teacher.

If you are interested in studying the causes of autism scientifically, by contrast, a PhD in Special Education may be a drastically better choice.

No matter what your ultimate goal is, picturing it concretely can be a great first step in choosing a special education degree program that takes you where you want to go.

How to Apply for a Doctorate-Level Degree Program in Special Education

Once you’re clear on your ultimate goal, you can delve with full force into the intricacies of choosing the right special education doctorate degree program for you.

Ask the right questions and consult the best sources to make the right decision. Though the steps below are for a PhD, they are just as applicable to the EdD degree.

How to Choose a Phd Degree Program in Special Education maintains a database of both on campus and online PhD programs at schools across the nation. You can also use to search for schools by degree type and location.

Meanwhile, here are some important considerations as you conduct your research about on campus and online PhD degrees in special education:


Accreditation is of paramount concern in the field of special education. Beyond the demands of working in the field day to day, which rule out unprepared people, special education is regulated by laws both at the federal and state levels. Schools only hire candidates with proper credentials.

If you are planning to pursue an online PhD in Special Education, make sure that you are attending a doctoral degree program at an accredited institution. The U.S. Department of Education maintains a database of accredited schools that you can access online.

You can learn more about accreditation through

Explore your financial aid options while you’re at it–and understand that attending an accredited institution is the only way to ensure that you have all the financial aid options anyone else does. Special education financial aid sources for accredited doctorate programs are surprisingly numerous.

Quality Faculty

Faculty is another major issue to consider when choosing a PhD program in special education.

Part of the appeal of choosing an on campus PhD degree in special education is the chance to work face-to-face with leading educators in the field, but don’t discount the quality of online PhD program faculty. Online PhD degree programs sometimes allow professors to be more responsive to students than a traditional classroom environment.

Online PhD programs in special education are often augmented with real world experience such as a classroom or research internship.

Program History and Performance

When contacting schools, inquire into the graduation rate and job placement history for the doctoral degree program you’re considering. For new programs with a limited track record, get these figures for the school’s closely-related programs, like the PhD in Education. It’s a fairly safe bet that the new program will perform similarly.


You’ll also want to know the prerequisites of admission to a doctoral program in special education. All doctoral degree programs, both on campus or online, require a bachelor’s degree, but beyond that, the prerequisites for one school can be quite different from those required for another.

Some PhD programs in special education, for instance, do not require a master’s degree. The overwhelming need for special education services means that graduates are in demand and welcomed warmly.


Licensure is mandatory in all 50 states when teaching special education. However, PhD programs in special education are not normally used as qualification for licensure. Rather, state licensure is customarily gained through a combination of experience working in special education and passing an assessment test administered by the state.

Relatively few states automatically accept licenses from other states. If you know you want to work in a certain state, contact the board of education of your desired work state.

Choosing a PhD Program in Special Education: Almost There

If you’ve pictured your ultimate goal, verified accreditation, asked about faculty, and secured important facts such as graduation rate and prerequisites for admission, you’re well on your way towards choosing the best PhD program in special education for you.

But there are still other factors you would be wise to consider.

On Campus or Online PhD in Special Education?

Do you want to go to school on campus or is an online PhD program in special education a more convenient choice for you? The two major issues that should imbue this part of your decision can be called lifestyle and learning style.

Lifestyle pertains to realities such as whether or not you have kids, an existing full-time job, or own your home. If you have any of those or all three in combination, picking up and moving to another state to pursue an on campus PhD degree may be difficult or even impossible.

An online PhD degree may provide the flexibility you need to reach your educational goals without upending every other part of your life.

Learning style can be just as important as lifestyle when choosing between on campus or online PhD degree programs in special education. There is no substitute, for some people, for the tactile interactivity offered by an on-campus degree program. For other learners, the ability to work independently and at their own pace makes online degree programs a better choice.

Knowing your own learning style and playing to your strengths is perfect preparation for working with special education students.

Online PhD in Special Education Programs Are Not All Exclusively Online

Also keep in mind that on-campus and online PhD degree programs are not mutually exclusive. Many colleges provide hybrid programs that include both on campus and online elements. Moreover, nearly all PhD in Special Education programs include some hands-on training.

Competition for Doctorate-Level Degree Programs in Special Education

Gaining admission to a doctoral degree program in special education, if you have a bachelor’s degree and experience in the special education field, doesn’t have to be hard. Job growth for special education teachers is projected as “excellent” and schools are working hard to meet that growing need.

Even if you have not previously worked in the field of special education, you may be able to find a PhD degree program in special education that will be happy to have you.

Special Funding for PhD in Special Education Programs

Certain states are actively and aggressively recruiting students interested in pursuing doctoral degrees in special education. The state of Maryland, for example, awards special education grants through its Higher Education Commission.

Arkansas, Delaware, and Indiana are three states that provide salary supplements to qualified special education teachers.

PhD Programs in Special Education and the Autism Epidemic

One area within the wider special education field that is experiencing particularly acute need is the work that’s being done with autistic children. The statistics can be alarming:

  • Autism is the fastest-growing developmental disability
  • 1 out of 150 children are born with some form of autism
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates the annual cost of autism at $90 billion, and growing by 10-17 percent per year

But this crisis can be viewed as an opportunity from the perspective of a special education expert who wants to make a positive difference for kids. For instance, the CDC study shows that the lifelong cost of autism can be cut by two-thirds with early diagnosis and intervention. With a PhD in Special Education, you could become that early intervener.

Five Great Sources for Education about PhD in Special Education Programs

Below are five terrific resources for not only choosing a PhD degree program in special education, but enjoying a successful career in this challenging and worthwhile field:


When you’re in the choosing stage, you need clear, comprehensive information about the choices before you. That’s exactly what provides. You can view featured online doctorate degree schools, learn career planning strategies, and consult the guide to majors.

Using as a tool in your search for PhD degree programs in special education can save you a tremendous amount of time. Complete the form and alerts schools that meet your criteria. A representative from each school contacts you directly and answers your questions.


Special Education Resources on the Internet (SERI) and acts as an indexed entry point to other special education Web sites categorized by area of study. If you’re interested in pursuing a PhD degree in special education because you want to work with gifted children, for instance, SERI can direct you to a page of more than 20 links that you can then explore in more detail.

Ditto for other special education topics such as behavioral problems, attention deficit disorder, and speech impairment. Just as with, the idea is to save time while not skimping on research quality.

3. U.S. News and World Report, Best Education Schools Specialty Ranking: Special Education

This well-researched list shows what schools excel in special education instruction, as well as outlining what exactly constitutes an excellent doctoral-level degree program in special education.

By collating sources, you can make your own chart according to cost, school size, and academic performance. You can get basic information for free. There is a charge for access to more comprehensive reports.

4. Individual School Web Sites

If you’re contemplating the pursuit of an online PhD or EdD in Special Education, the quality of your school’s Web site may be especially important. Visit it early and often.

5. The Special Education Bible: Exceptional Children: An Introduction to Special Education, by William L. Heward

Now in its ninth edition, this is a seminal text in the annals of special education literature that approaches the subject in a factual but also very human and inspiring fashion.

Choosing a PhD Degree Program in Special Education: The Super-Simplified Approach

If choosing the right PhD degree program in special education and going through the application process seems overwhelming, keep it as simple as one, two, three:

  1. Picture your end goal in terms of a career.
  2. Make a short list of “must-have” criteria for choosing a PhD degree program in special education. Consider and investigate crucial matters such as accreditation, faculty, history of the school, location of the school, and on campus versus online options.
  3. Use the database and tools to find PhD degree programs in special education that meet your criteria, or just complete the online form and the schools will call you.

PhD and EdD in Special Education programs are hungry for your application, while a society in need of special education services applauds your interest in pursuing this very special doctoral degree.


  • Autism Society of America, What is Autism: Facts and Stats
  • American Speech Language Hearing Association, State Recruitment Initiatives
  • Bureau of Labor Statistics, Teachers–Special Education
  • Council for Exceptional Children, Current Special Ed Topics
  • Department of Education, Individuals With Disabilities Education Act
  • The National Center to Improve the Recruitment and Retention of Qualified Personnel for Children with Disabilities, Personnel Improvement Center
  • Special Education Resources on the Internet (SERI), SERI Associations and Organizations Resources
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