Earning an Online Doctorate in Special Education

Earning your Ph.D. in special education online opens up a variety of career paths. For example, some states require special education teachers to hold an advanced degree, and a doctorate can give you an edge over other qualified candidates. Rather than working in a classroom, you may want to serve as an instructional coordinator, designing curricula for students with special needs. You can also take on leadership roles, applying your expertise to jobs such as principal, superintendent, or education policymaker.

This page offers an overview of online doctoral programs in special education, including information on admissions, earnings potential for graduates, and financial aid opportunities.

Student Profile: Who Earns an Online Doctorate in Special Education?

Many students seek an online Ed.D. in special education immediately after completing a master's program in a related field. Some schools cater to students with just a bachelor's degree, allowing them to earn a master's as they work toward their doctorate.

Other students may return to doctoral studies after working as a teacher or education administrator. An Ed.D. or Ph.D. may help you negotiate a higher salary at your current organization or qualify you for more advanced roles.

Why Get a Doctorate in Special Education?

Pursuing Specialization

A doctorate in special education allows you to specialize in a particular area. For example, you may take coursework in curriculum design and evaluation to create instructional experiences that serve the needs of diverse learners. You may instead study subjects in special education law to ensure all students receive the protections and resources guaranteed by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Career Advancement Opportunities

A doctorate can lead to a higher salary or promotion. Many public school districts offer significantly higher pay to teachers with an advanced degree. In addition, many positions in education, such as principal and superintendent, require a graduate degree. A doctorate in special education also qualifies you to teach at colleges and universities.

Online Learning Technology

Online programs introduce you to technologies that can help you support your students. For example, children with dyslexia benefit from text-to-speech technologies, a common feature of online learning platforms. By incorporating technologies and best practices from your doctoral program into your teaching and program design, you can help students with unique needs meet their full potential.

Prerequisites for Online Special Education Programs

Admission requirements for online doctoral programs in special education vary. Below, are the most common prerequisites for earning your doctorate at a distance.

  • Work Experience: While some schools may admit students without professional experience in education, many programs require prospective students to teach or serve as an education administrator for at least two years before applying. Relevant experience can also improve your chances of admission and provide context to your graduate studies.
  • Exams and Test Scores: If you do not already hold a master's degree, you may need to submit results from the graduate record examination (GRE) as part of your application. Although, programs rarely establish a minimum GRE score, they may prefer to admit applicants who score 150 or higher on the verbal and quantitative sections.
  • Coursework: Completing undergraduate and graduate coursework in areas like universal design for learning and policy analysis can improve your odds of acceptance into a doctoral program. Most schools require or recommend that students maintain at least a 3.0 GPA while pursuing their bachelor's or master's degree in special education.
  • Recommendations: You should plan to submit up to three letters of recommendation. Ask former professors and employers to discuss your academic qualifications and your passion for working with special needs children. Give your recommenders at least two months to write and submit your letter.
  • Essays: You may need to submit a personal essay outlining your professional goals or your plan for doctoral research. Other programs may ask applicants to submit an academic paper to demonstrate that they possess the knowledge and skills necessary to complete a dissertation. A master's thesis usually satisfies this requirement.
  • Interviews: Prepare to interview with an admissions officer, a special education faculty member, or both. These interviews allow you to highlight your strengths and provide context to weaknesses in your application materials. They also help programs match doctoral students with appropriate faculty advisers.
  • International Students: International students must meet the same requirements as students from the United States. In addition, you may need to demonstrate language proficiency by submitting results from the Test of English as a Foreign Language exam. If you attended a foreign undergraduate or master's program, make sure your school recognizes its accreditation status.

How Much Can I Make with a Doctorate in Special Education?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median wage for the education industry approached $49,000 in May of 2017. Educators working with special needs children can earn considerably more given they need additional expertise.

The BLS reports that the median special education teacher earned $58,980 in 2017. The top 10% of special education teachers, typically those with the most experience and highest levels of education, earned more than $95,320 that year.

Traditional Careers for Special Education Doctoral Degree Graduates

Career Stats Description

Postsecondary Education Administrators

Median Pay: $92,360

Job Growth: 10.1%

Postsecondary education administrators oversee student and faculty services at colleges and universities. For example, an administrator with a Ph.D. in special education may lead a department that helps students with disabilities make the most of their educational experience, whether by connecting them with resources or working with faculty to provide appropriate accommodations.

Ideal for: Individuals passionate about supporting the mission of higher education organizations.

College or University Professor

Median Pay: $76,000

Job Growth: 15%

College and university professors instruct students and conduct research. They also typically advise students and complete certain administrative functions, such as chairing a department or helping with the admissions process. Most schools prefer to hire candidates with a doctoral degree, especially for positions that offer tenure.

Ideal for: Professionals who want to train the next generation of special education teachers and administrators or conduct research to help those professionals better serve their students.

Curriculum Director

Median Pay: $73,000

Job Growth: N/A

Curriculum directors design educational experiences that meet the needs of diverse learners. They work with teachers and students to assess needs and conduct ongoing evaluations of their curricula to determine improvements. Curriculum directors that specialize in universal design benefit from a doctorate in special education.

Ideal for: Educators with a deep understanding of pedagogy, neuroscience, and special education laws and regulations.

Nontraditional Careers for Special Education Doctoral Degree Graduates

Career Stats Description

Educational Consultant

Median Pay: $62,460

Job Growth: N/A

Education consultants provide a variety of services to schools and other educational organizations. For example, they may offer advice to students on how to apply to college or work with a public school district to redesign facilities to better accommodate students with physical disabilities. Many education consultants work independently, and a doctoral degree signals expertise and professionalism to potential clients.

Ideal for: Individuals with education expertise and business acumen.

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, PayScale, 2017-2018

Paying for a Doctorate in Special Education Online

The cost of earning a doctorate in special education online varies by program. For example, some schools allow students to follow an accelerated course of study to graduate sooner and pay less in tuition. The availability of financial aid also varies. Some schools offer generous fellowships or paid teaching assistant positions, while students in other programs must rely on federal aid and private scholarships.

Tuition Timelines

Full-time students usually earn their doctorate in 4-7 years. Students in accelerated programs, or students in programs that do not require a dissertation, may graduate in as few as three years.

Part-Time Path

Part-time study appeals to working professionals and caregivers. Most schools require part-time students to earn their doctorate in no more than eight years.

Real-Life Example:

School Name: Capella University
Total Credits Required: 92
Online Tuition Cost: $790 per credit
Pace: 6 Credits / 2 Classes per Semester
Total Semesters: 15
Summary: Capella University, an online institution, caters to part-time learners. Students in this program usually meet their graduation requirements, including writing and defending their dissertation, in approximately 7-8years. Students who transfer credits from a master's program may graduate sooner.

Full-Time Path

Full-time students often enjoy more extracurricular activities during their doctoral studies than part-time students. They may also qualify for teaching or research assistant positions to defray the cost of their education.

Real-Life Example:

School Name: West Virginia University
Total Credits Required: 75 credits
Online Tuition Cost: $594 per credit hour
Pace: 12 Credits / 4 Classes per Semester
Total Semesters: 6
Summary: At West Virginia University, full-time students can graduate in as few as four years, though some students take longer to conduct research and write their dissertation. Tuition and fees at the university change from year to year.

Accelerated Path

Accelerated courses of study allow students with prior experience and expertise in special education to earn their doctorate relatively quickly. Students usually advance through their coursework as soon as they demonstrate mastery of the material.

Real-Life Example:

School Name: Grand Canyon University
Total Credits Required: 60 credits
Online Tuition Cost: $650 per credit
Pace: 18 Credits / 6 Classes per Semester
Total Semesters: 4
Summary: While you can complete required coursework in just two years at Grand Canyon University, you must develop a research proposal and write a dissertation. Students who take advantage of the university's accelerated offerings can graduate with their doctorate in three years.

Subject-Specific Financial Aid, Grants & Scholarships

Many doctoral programs offer fellowships or part-time jobs to their students. If you do not qualify for school-based financial aid, you can still apply for private scholarships.

What to Expect from an Online Doctorate in Special Education Program

Most full-time students earn their online doctorate in special education in 4-7 years. In research-oriented programs, you must write a dissertation after completing your coursework. In more practice-oriented programs, you may only need to complete a culminating capstone project. Online programs often feature asynchronous courses, meaning you can watch lectures, complete assignments, and take exams on your own schedule and from any location with an internet connection.

Major Milestones

  1. Enrollment

    After you earn admission into a program, contact your school's financial aid office to determine if you qualify for fellowships or paid assistantships. You should also contact your faculty adviser to plan a course of study.

  2. Completing Coursework

    In your first three years, expect to take courses in areas like special education, the psychological foundations of learning, and instructional strategies for diverse learners. If your program requires a dissertation, you must also take classes in research methods, analysis, and academic writing.

  3. Comprehensive Examination

    The comprehensive examination assesses your understanding of the core concepts and theories in special education. You must pass this examination to begin your dissertation. If you fail twice, you may not qualify to pursue a doctorate.

  4. Dissertation Research

    After choosing a research topic in collaboration with your faculty adviser, you must conduct original research or compile existing research from multiple sources. This process may take 1-2 years, depending on your research question.

  5. Dissertation Writing

    Most dissertations are between 100 and 200 pages. Writing a dissertation may take up to three years, especially if you need to shift your hypothesis based on closer analysis of your data.

  6. Dissertation Defense

    After completing your dissertation, you must defend your findings before a faculty committee. Once the committee approves your dissertation, you formally earn your doctorate in special education.


The coursework you encounter while seeking your degree depends on the program and your professional interests. Below, are five common doctoral courses in special education.

Special Education Administration

This course provides an overview of the challenges and opportunities faced by administrators in creating effective learning environments for students with special needs. The course emphasizes the need for administrators to collaborate with teachers, parents, and community leaders.

Special Education Curriculum Design

In this class, students review research and best practices related to universal learning design. Students also learn how to use technology to support special needs students and how to use assessment tools to determine the effectiveness of curricular approaches.

Special Education Law

Through an examination of case law and government regulation, this course offers students an understanding of their responsibilities as educators and the resources available to learners with unique needs. The course also covers common ethical dilemmas encountered while working in special education jobs.

Special Education Finance

Students in this course review available funding streams in special education, as well as budgeting challenges and the future of special education finance. In particular, the course reviews the costs associated with providing individualized education to special needs students.

Quantitative Design and Analysis

As preparation for their dissertation, students often study quantitative methods. This course provides in-depth instruction in subjects like regression, covariance, and factor analysis. Students also develop skills related to data collection and statistical software.

Requirements to Practice

If you hope to become a special education teacher in a public school, you must hold a teaching certification from the state in which you reside. Special education teachers at private schools do not need a license, though employers may prefer to hire fully certified candidates.

Administrative roles at K-12 public schools also require special certification, though administrators at colleges and universities usually do not need a license. You may also seek an industry credential to demonstrate your expertise in an area of practice, such as working with students with physical disabilities.

  • Teaching Certification: All public school teachers must hold a state license. Typically, you must have a bachelor's degree and pass an exam to receive certification. The exam assesses your content knowledge in the subject you plan to teach. Teacher candidates must also pass a criminal background check.
  • School Administrator License: To become a principal, you must apply for a separate school administrator license. This level of licensure usually requires at least a master's degree. Candidates must also pass an exam that covers topics like budgeting, personnel management, and educational law.
  • District Administrator License: Some states require district-level leaders, like superintendents, to hold an additional license. To qualify for licensure, applicants typically need to complete an apprenticeship with another superintendent, pass a leadership skills exam, and have at least five years of experience as a school leader.
  • Board Certification in Special Education: Offered by the American Academy of Special Education Professionals, this credential helps special education teachers and administrators signal expertise and professional competency. Applicants must hold at least a master's and pass a 100-question exam. The certification process costs $675.

Professional Organizations & Resources

Professional organizations help members meet new colleagues and learn about new opportunities at local and national networking events. They may also provide professional development resources online and in person. Many organizations maintain career centers on their websites, advertising job openings and matching recent graduates with more established mentors. Below, are five of the largest and most influential professional organizations in special education.

  • National Association of Special Education Teachers: The NASET serves the interests of special education teachers and their students. The association provides a variety of classroom resources, gives awards for exemplary service, and hosts a job board.
  • American Academy of Special Education Professionals: The AASEP works to enhance the professions of special education teaching and administration. In addition to establishing a code of ethics, the AASEP publishes a scholarly journal, offers professional development courses, and facilitates connections between its members through an online forum.
  • Council for Exceptional Children: The CEC aims to advance the success of children with exceptionalities. It advocates on behalf of those children at the state and federal levels, creates and shares teaching standards for exceptional children, and administers professional development webinars and in-person workshops.
  • Council of Administrators of Special Education: The CASE represents special education administrators worldwide. It hosts an annual conference, provides resources on topics like crisis intervention, and recognizes outstanding administrators with distinguished service awards.
  • American Association of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities: The AAIDD offers a wealth of professional development resources, including webinars, network partner conferences, and international exchange programs. It educates its members on topics like positive behavior support, inclusive education, and the role technology plays in supporting independent living.
  • Federal Student Aid: Before applying for any other form of financial support, complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. While the federal government largely supports undergraduate students, doctoral students may qualify for certain grants, work-study opportunities, and low-interest student loans.
  • NAGPS Resources for Students: The National Association of Graduate and Professional Students offers a variety of resources for doctoral students. Its website covers subjects like applying to schools, securing financial aid, choosing a dissertation topic, and managing life as a graduate student.
  • Harvard Graduate School of Education Usable Knowledge: Harvard's Usable Knowledge resource portal features brief and research-informed policy overviews and practice guides. Use it to catch up on key topics as a student or to improve the effectiveness of your work as an education professional.
  • NASET Resources for Special Education Teachers: NASET collects resources for special education teachers. You can learn more about how to prevent bullying, the unique needs of students with certain physical disabilities, government funding opportunities, and psychological terminology.
  • Purdue Online Writing Lab: Whether you're working on a dissertation or an individualized education plan, the Purdue OWL offers invaluable guidance on writing clearly, concisely, and persuasively. You can also find advice on topics like writing a cover letter and properly citing sources.