Online Ph.D. in Special Education

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Special education practitioners seeking professional advancement often pursue doctoral studies. Students in this field can earn a doctor of education (Ed.D.) or a doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.). Both programs provide excellent opportunities for practitioners to teach and perform scholarly research to address issues in special education.

Several U.S. colleges and universities that offer onsite doctoral programs also offer online programs, allowing you to earn your Ed.D. or Ph.D. in special education online or on campus. Special education professionals with doctoral degrees face a healthy job market when they complete their program. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a 10% increase in jobs for special educators through 2026.

Reasons to Pursue an Online Doctorate in Special Education

Online doctoral programs in special education prepare students for leadership positions, including jobs as school principals or program directors, heads of research in government agencies or nonprofit institutions, and postsecondary professors in colleges and universities. Both on-campus and online doctoral programs in special education provide students with ample opportunities to deepen their knowledge and improve their research skills so they can contribute to the advancement of the field.

What Can I Do With an Online Doctorate in Special Education?

Special education professionals with doctoral degrees often teach at colleges and universities, but these professionals also enjoy a variety of other career paths.

Graduates can become program administrators who oversee special education programs for a school district. These professionals evaluate the quality of services and resources available to students and teachers; set objectives for special education programs within their area; and develop supportive services for staff, teachers, and parents.

Some doctoral degree holders focus on the research aspect of special education. They conduct studies, surveys, and research to advance the field of special education. They may also examine the latest theories on student learning, memory, and cognition for learners with special education needs.

Common Career Paths and Salaries

Career paths for special education practitioners with an Ed.D. or a Ph.D. vary by specialization. However, the job outlook for most special education professionals with doctorates remains healthy. Below are potential positions for graduates with a doctorate in special education online.

Postsecondary Education Administrator

A postsecondary education administrator manages and directs student services, faculty development, and research initiatives in higher learning institutions. They can work in admissions or the registrar's office, or coordinate student co-curricular activities.

University Professor

University professors teach courses in their specialization, develop course outlines, work with peers to improve and update curricula, and assess student learning outcomes.

Salary Progression

Several factors impact the professional opportunities and potential salaries for professionals who earn a doctorate in special education online, such as location, employer, and experience. According to the BLS, the District of Columbia boasts the largest share of employment requiring a doctoral degree (8%). Although only 3.5% of New York employees need a doctorate for their job, because of New York's size, the state boasts the highest number of professionals with a doctorate (306,360). Colleges and universities are the primary employers of professionals with doctorates.

Special Education Doctoral Program Requirements and Outcomes

Admission requirements for online doctoral programs in special education differ by school. However, there are several admission requirements many programs have in common, such as requiring at least a 3.5 GPA on previous graduate coursework, a valid teaching license, a minimum of two years of experience, a master's degree, and competitive scores on a graduate admission test.

For increased flexibility and accessibility, many schools offer online programs with asynchronous courses. However, online doctoral programs in special education often require some on-campus visits, such as weekend seminars.

Many Ph.D. in special education online degrees comprise 60-90 credits and take three to five years of full-time study to complete.

Common Courses

  • Assessment Methods in Special Education

    Doctoral students learn to interpret educational assessments and how to use the data to design educational programs and determine a student's eligibility for a program. Students also study compliance issues related to special education.

  • Components of Education Reform

    This course examines the roles that family, school, and community play in special education practice and reform. Students explore several factors that impact special education, including socioeconomic and cultural conditions, family types, and political forces.

  • Instructional Design

    Students learn to assess instructional design and how to use it to develop effective teaching strategies. Students also review and evaluate case studies and learn how to apply case study insights to practice.

  • Legal Issues in Special Education

    Students examine the statutory provisions and judicial decisions that impact special education. They study concepts such as equal protection and due process regarding the education of students with disabilities.

  • Political and Community Leadership

    This course introduces students to the ethical implications of political actions, regulatory standards, and policy initiatives for special education. Students learn how to collaborate with stakeholders, service agencies, and community organizations to further special education objectives.

  • Program Development for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder

    This course provides students with a survey of research-based strategies for teaching students with ASD. Students also learn to develop and assess educational programs and to apply modern instructional and program development tools to learning environments.

  • Research Methods

    This course focuses on aspects relevant to graduate-level research. Students learn how to develop a research topic; formulate a hypothesis; perform data collection, analysis, and interpretation; and conduct literature reviews.

  • Transitional Planning for Students with Disabilities

    In this course, students study legislation and community systems that help adolescents and young adults with special needs transition to independent living. Students explore how factors such as employment, community participation, and postsecondary special education support the transitional process.

Other Requirements

Comprehensive Exam

Doctoral programs that require students to pass a comprehensive examination usually schedule it after students complete their coursework and before they begin their dissertation. Comps, as they are often called, may entail an oral exam, informal meeting, or a series of supervised written tests.

Dissertation

A dissertation is a research paper that is typically a final requirement for a doctoral degree. Students research a topic and present their findings to a dissertation committee for approval. While developing a dissertation is an individual endeavor, students may receive support from faculty and subject matter experts.

Internship

Students earning a doctorate in special education online or on campus typically take an internship as part of the program. Internships allow students to connect doctoral studies with professional practice and often take place in a setting that supports the student's educational and professional goals.

Residency

Many on-campus and online doctoral programs in special education require students to complete a residency before graduation. Most residencies take place during the summer and last from a few days to one week.

Skills and Competencies

Graduates of a special education doctoral programs gain skills and competencies that help them carry out the demands of the profession. Below, are several skills gained in a special education doctoral program.

  • Stakeholder Collaboration:

    Graduates know how to work with and manage the expectations of education partners, parents, and community agencies to benefit students with special education needs.

  • Assessment:

    Graduates can assess learning problems; develop, implement, and adapt instructional programs; and evaluate research-based teaching strategies for efficacy.

  • Cultural Competence:

    Graduates know how to provide supportive educational settings that reflect and address cultural diversity in the classroom and community.

  • Teaching:

    Special education doctoral program graduates can craft syllabi, assess student learning outcomes, direct classroom discussions, and deliver lectures.

  • Research:

    Doctoral degree holders can summarize and evaluate research findings and design studies that meet industry standards.

  • Leadership:

    Ph.D. and Ed.D. degree holders understand special education legislation. They often collaborate with stakeholders through advocacy efforts and policy planning.

Special Education Licensure

Begin your search for the best online doctoral program in special education by researching accreditation status. Accreditation expands financial aid, employment, and educational opportunities. Although licensure requirements vary by state, all states require degrees from an accredited institution for licensure. Additionally, the Department of Education only grants federal financial aid to students at accredited institutions. The Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation is the main accrediting body for special education programs.

You must obtain a teaching license if you want to use your doctorate in special education to become a postsecondary teacher. Completing a teacher preparation program (TPP) is often the first step to earning licensure. A TPP is a nondegree certification program for undergraduate and graduate students seeking to work as teachers. Once you complete a TPP and meet state licensure requirements you can apply for your initial teaching license. After teaching for at least three years, teachers become eligible to sit for the optional National Board Certification exam.

Most states do not require doctoral degree holders to be licensed if they focus on research or the administrative side of special education.

Special Education Professional Organizations

Professional organizations provide special education doctoral students and graduates a variety of support services. Members of these organizations enjoy benefits such as employment and continuing education resources, networking opportunities, advocacy, and discounts on professional resources. Many professional organizations are open to teachers, administrators, and support staff, while others cater to a specific group.

  • Council for Exceptional Children

    The CEC provides professional development opportunities, organizes policy and advocacy initiatives, and publishes material for special education professionals to address career-relevant challenges.

  • Council of Administrators of Special Education

    The CASE provides crisis intervention resources for members, maintains an active career center on its website, and advocates for meaningful changes in special education policy.

  • National Association of Special Education Teachers

    The NASET supports special education teachers with free professional development courses, certification information, IEP tools, and several publications on the state of special education throughout the country.

  • National Association of State Directors of Special Education, Inc.

    This association collaborates with state education agencies to develop and implement policies and initiatives that improve the prospects of students with disabilities.

  • National Center for Learning Disabilities

    The NCLD advocates for equality for students with learning disabilities and funds research projects that explore innovative teaching practices. The organization also administers a scholarship program for graduating high school seniors with learning disabilities who are accepted to college.