Earning a Ph.D. in Special Education Online

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September 7, 2021

Special education fields continue to make important innovations in pedagogy, from implementation of new classroom technologies to research into how children with physical or developmental disabilities best learn. Many special education teachers return to school to earn an advanced degree and may go on to research at higher education institutions or organizations, such as the National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER). Others use their advanced degree to rise to administrative positions, receiving higher pay and greater responsibility.

Online doctoral programs tailor to the needs of working professionals seeking career advancement and recent undergraduates heading toward administrative or research roles. Read on for a comprehensive overview of what to expect from pursuing a doctorate in special education online in terms of career prospects, salary expectations, and academic requirements.

What Can You Do With an Online Ph.D. in Special Education?

Earning a Ph.D. in special education online presents opportunities to pursue exciting field research and bolster your skill set as an educational administrator. Ph.D. in special education professionals often work in research positions in higher education. Since most of these positions only require a master’s degree, earning a Ph.D. or Ed.D. can indicate a specific specialization and enhanced knowledge that stands out to employers. The following list compiles some special education jobs typically held by Ph.D. in special education professionals.

Special Education Teacher

Annual Median Salary: $58,980
Projected Growth Rate: 8%

A special education teacher educates students with a variety of physical, mental, learning, and emotional disabilities. Teachers may need to hold specific endorsements to work with target groups. A Ph.D. can position a special education teacher to rise to an administrative role or pursue separate ventures in research or postsecondary education.

Instructional Coordinator

Annual Median Salary: $63,750
Projected Growth Rate: 11%

Instructional coordinators develop curriculum, coordinate its implementation, and evaluate its efficacy. These educators hold at least a master’s degree and teaching or educator administrator licensure, depending on requirements established by the state's Board of Educators. A Ph.D. can lead to a teaching, administrative, or research position at a higher education institution and increase earning potential.

Director of Special Education

Annual Median Salary: $73,695
Projected Growth Rate: 15%

A director of special education oversees the development of special education programs, the training and hiring of teachers, and the academic progress of students within a district. Directors need a master’s degree and teaching or educator administrator licensure in most states, including previous classroom experience.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics / PayScale

The Top-Paying Industries for Special Education Teachers

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Traits of a Successful Special Education Teacher

Successful special education teachers and researchers draw on a variety of skills that require emotional and social intelligence. Because they work with a population that may experience barriers to communication, these teachers must be patient listeners and possess the abilities to fill in the gaps by using different teaching approaches. Special education teachers monitor students and situations with safety in mind, demonstrating strong critical thinking skills to accurately evaluate the efficacy of the teaching approaches they use.

Special education teachers draw on a variety of learning strategies to effectively help convey concepts to students. Teachers must use these creative methods when barriers to understanding complicate a student's learning ability.
To monitor students’ progress and behavior and accurately assess their emotional needs, teachers need strong active listening skills. Understanding the complex needs of their students requires them to cultivate patience.
Teachers develop instructional skills by utilizing different styles of reinforcing information with students. For example, instructors may assign independent or limited supervision exercises to ensure students understand course concepts.

Salary by Experience Level

A special education professional’s earnings can increase with experience and by obtaining higher education. Entry-level earnings increase dramatically as these teachers advance in their career to administrative positions. For the first five years, a special education director can anticipate a salary of $63,000. By late career, this figure climbs to $84,000. The specialized skill sets that educators in this field draw on make them valuable assets to K-12 school districts and higher education institutions.

Pay by Experience Level for Special Education Directors

Source: PayScale

Certifications and Licenses a Ph.D. in Special Education Prepares For

Steps to Earning a Ph.D. in Special Education Online

Online Ph.D. or Ed.D. in special education programs vary in terms of requirements and format, so evaluate each program carefully to ensure it meets your specific needs.

Find the Right Program for You

When considering online doctoral programs in special education, take note of whether or not the program’s format fits your needs as a learner. Working professionals with busy schedules may only be able to accommodate fully online programs with no in-person meetings. Some programs may come in a hybrid format with both online and in-person elements. You might also prefer an online Ed.D. in special education that culminates in a specific endorsement.


In addition to completing an application and paying required fees (usually around $100), you may need to include a statement of purpose, usually one or two pages in length. Some application processes also require three letters of recommendation, academic transcripts, and GRE test scores. Ph.D. programs may admit candidates with bachelor’s degrees, while others only admit master’s degree holders.

Capstone, Dissertation, or Thesis

Ph.D. programs culminate with either a capstone project or dissertation. A capstone project gives Ph.D. candidates more format leeway in the form of a written paper, portfolio, or product that explores a practical issue in special education. Students present this research project in two parts: the deliverable and the report summarizing and justifying evidence. A dissertation presents an original thesis to uncover new knowledge in the field.

Fellowship or Internship

Many online doctoral programs in special education provide candidates with opportunities for fellowships and internships. Fellowships award learners money to pursue a research project for a period of months or years. Internships give learners an opportunity to gain practical experience through a working position, both paid and unpaid. Though the intern does not receive monetary compensation, a positive internship experience can potentially lead to a future job offer.

Curriculum for an Online Ph.D. in Special Education

  1. Critical Issues in Special Education: Students investigate new topics in special education, including changing classroom demographics, implementation of technology, and classroom discipline. Ph.D. in special education students learn how to plan for and adapt to discipline issues, curriculum design, and student evaluation.

  2. Acquisition and Development of Language and Literacy: In this course, students explore theory, research, policy, cultural influences, and social context to help develop language and literacy curriculum. Topics may include social interactionism, aspects of adult-child conversations, and language or processing deficiencies.

  3. Qualitative Methods in Educational Research: Students investigate qualitative methods of educational research, such as case studies, ethnography, and action research as they apply to the special education field. A Ph.D. in special education candidate depends on these methods to complete their dissertation and succeed in a professional environment.

  4. Multicultural Issues in Special Education: In this course, students explore how cultural concerns complicate the aims of special education, which normally assumes a culturally-homogenous classroom. A future administrator may draw on knowledge gained in this course when attempting to understand a behavioral issue from a student with a different cultural background.

  5. Special Education Internship: An online Ed.D. or Ph.D. in special education may require the completion of a teaching or research focused internship. Some programs may demand both a teaching and research internship, while others offer a choice. Teaching internships usually focus on higher education, while research internships tackle contemporary issues in special education through fieldwork.

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