How to Advance Your Career with a Doctorate in Special Education

James Paterson
James Paterson
MS in School Counseling , Johns Hopkins University, Maryland

As the field of education continues to identify more students who could be eligible for special education services and provides expanded and more effective programs for them, graduate degrees in the field grow in popularity – including a special education doctorate.

The National Education Association (NEA) notes that the number of students receiving special education services has grown dramatically, and it is among a number of key education institutions calling for better services and more educational opportunities for them. Meanwhile, a chronic shortage of educators in the field seems to be getting worse, according to federal data.

A special education doctorate can lead graduates into one of the more than two dozen positions that the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) identifies in the special education field, ranging from a teacher in Pre-K to college to a speech and language pathologist, occupational therapist or specialist in assistive technology.

Become an Administrator

With experience in special education, a doctorate can also lead to positions as the director or administrator of an exceptional student program.

US News reports that more than half of the teachers in the field obtain graduate degrees, especially if they want to become instructional coordinators or program directors. CEC also notes that in many cases to move into a position as a director of a special education program will require a doctorate.

“Special education administrators oversee school district special education programs,” CEC explains. “They assist with program administration, ensure the quality of special education services, and work with teachers and parents in the education process.” But it notes they must also be familiar with compliance monitoring, overseeing assistive technology programs, planning district-wide professional development, and working with families and legal advocates.

With a doctorate, students also could be involved in the wide variety of research in the growing field, most likely from a position with a non-profit or at a university, where they could also teach undergraduates.

In any of the pathways, a doctorate leads to an increased salary, higher level positions and more engaging work in the field, experts say.


Prerequisites include completion of a master’s degree, typically with a GPA of at least 3.0 and acceptable graduate record exam scores. Some programs will require professional experience in an education setting.

The specific courses required may vary, but Concordia University Chicago lists these goals for its students during their studies:

  • Develop the abilities for research and critical thinking in the field of special education, with a theoretical and practical knowledge.
  • Develop competency in special education leadership, curriculum modification and program evaluation.
  • Improve understanding of the needs of families as it relates to special services.
  • Understand the role of advocacy in supporting key stakeholders.
  • Support and lead reform and change efforts related to teacher development in special education.
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