Earning a Doctorate Degree in Special Education

Lead special education teacher with student

Are you a licensed special education teacher considering enhancing your career qualifications to pursue higher-level opportunities? If so, it’s time to explore the process of earning a doctorate degree in special education. A doctorate degree could open the door to numerous careers in education. 

A doctorate degree in special education is certainly an investment of time and financial resources; however, it offers the potential for considerable rewards, both in your career advancement and your ability to effect positive change in your community.

Why Earn a Doctorate Degree in Special Education?

The decision to pursue a doctorate degree in special education isn’t one to be made lightly. After all, doing so will require a great deal of time and resources. However, the rewards can be immense. Consider the following benefits of pursuing a terminal degree as you make your decision.

  • Career Enhancement: Individuals with doctorate degrees are widely recognized for their advanced knowledge and skills that make a positive difference in the field. With a doctorate in special education, you could pursue a high-level position within your current organization or another that you’re interested in working with.
  • Positive Change: With greater knowledge and skills in your field, you would be more able to generate positive change in your community. Students with disabilities rely on dedicated, knowledgeable professionals to help them achieve their full potential.
  • Expert Credentials: People who possess a doctorate degree are typically recognized as being among the top experts in their fields.
  • Personal Accomplishment: Earning a doctorate degree is no easy accomplishment; when you graduate with your new degree, you’ll experience an incredible sense of personal accomplishment as you celebrate your work.
  • Professional Contribution: The original research you do while earning your degree will expand the current body of knowledge in the special education field. This can then benefit other special education teachers as they seek to empower their students.

Another compelling reason to consider earning a doctorate degree in special education is the pressing need within the field for qualified professionals. The percentage of students who need special education services is rising, but 98% of the school districts in the U.S. have reported a shortage of qualified professionals to serve them.1 Enhancing your ability to serve special education students would help meet this critical need.

How Long Does It Take to Earn a Doctorate Degree in Special Education?

Each student’s timeline will vary depending on factors that are unique to them. This includes the course load they take, the specific degree program selected and whether the student intends to continue working while pursuing their advanced education.

Along with their coursework, students need to complete a dissertation. This involves conducting original research that adds to the body of knowledge in the special education field. A full-time doctorate degree student may reasonably expect to complete the program, including the dissertation, in three to five years. Those who plan to continue working while going to school part-time can expect to take longer to graduate.

Careers in Education to Consider

A doctorate degree in special education can allow you to pursue higher-level careers. This is the primary motivation for most EdD students. Not only do these higher-level positions typically offer higher salaries but they also enable professionals to make a greater impact on the lives of the students who depend on special education services. There are many careers in education you might consider pursuing. Some are listed below.

Lead Special Education Teacher

If you want a higher-level position but still want to directly inspire and empower students, you might consider becoming a lead special education teacher. The lead special education teacher is responsible for coordinating the department’s special education services, supervising staff members and developing program policies and procedures.

It would be your primary responsibility to ensure that every child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) is administered properly and that the students are on track to meet their individual goals. You’ll lend your expertise to troubleshoot problems in collaboration with other teachers and parents, as well as related professionals such as social workers and school psychologists. You’ll also spend some time working directly with students, to implement their IEPs and help them reach their full potential.

Special Education Professor

Some special education teachers decide that their talents would be best utilized by guiding the next generation of teachers. If you enjoy the thought of influencing and inspiring future special education teachers, you might consider becoming a professor. As a professor, your job duties would include:

  • Developing a syllabus for each course you will teach that aligns with the curriculum standards
  • Developing lesson plans and assignments
  • Giving lectures and leading intellectually stimulating classroom discussions
  • Working one-on-one with future special education teachers during office hours, helping them shape their career goals and excel in their coursework
  • Evaluating students’ assignments and providing needed guidance
  • Serving on collegiate committees within the department or the college

You’ll also be expected to stay abreast of the latest trends, legislative initiatives and scientific research in the special education field. Since professors are also expected to periodically publish research in journals and books, this is an ideal career for those who want to continue making original contributions to the special education field.

Special Education Director

The role of a special education director is another option for doctoral graduates. These professionals are responsible for planning, implementing and overseeing all of the activities of the special education services department within a school. Some directors may even oversee all special education departments for the entire school district.

Most special education directors are former special education teachers who earned an advanced degree and moved into administration. Their years of classroom experience, coupled with a doctoral degree in special education, give these professionals broad perspectives on shaping the lives of students. A special education director’s duties may include:

  • Developing departmental budgets, tracking expenditures and verifying that services billed by external providers were properly delivered
  • Supporting and mentoring special education teachers and other administrators and offering guidance on implementing IEPs according to each child’s best interests
  • Developing annual benchmarks and compliance goals, forecasting student enrollment and developing new programs as needed
  • Planning professional development opportunities for staff members to enhance their effectiveness in the classroom
  • Analyzing the latest research and scientific findings in the special education field to optimize students’ progress

Special Education Consultant

Special education consultants are highly educated individuals who have extensive experience in this field. They also have considerable expertise with the many complex regulations of special education services. Their role is primarily to assess students and their needs and ensure that each student’s IEP will allow them to achieve their full potential.

A special education consultant may work for a school board or a governmental agency that supports the school board. Alternatively, consultants may be employed privately by families to advocate for their children with special needs.

Consultants who work as advocates for families will collaborate closely with them, answering their questions and guiding them through the complicated process of obtaining special education services and developing an IEP.

In contrast, special education consultants who work for school boards will, in addition to assessing students, focus on working with teachers and other staff members. In this capacity, a consultant may provide teacher training and guidance on developing IEPs.

Deciding Whether to Pursue a PhD or an EdD Special Education Degree

Both the PhD and EdD degrees are terminal degrees. In other words, they represent the highest level of academic accomplishment within the field. However, there are significant differences you should be aware of before you choose a degree program.

A PhD program typically focuses on theoretical knowledge. This is ideal for individuals who wish to pursue a career in academia. In contrast, the EdD program is practice-based and is appropriate for professionals who want to apply what they’ve learned in the field to effect meaningful change within their organizations.

Choosing Between a Qualitative and a Quantitative Doctorate Degree

While selecting a doctorate degree program, you’ll also need to decide whether to focus on qualitative or quantitative research. Quantitative research involves analyzing data that can be classified and used to generate statistical models. In short, it involves numerical computations, hence the root word “quantity.”

In contrast, qualitative research explores data through a narrative to develop a greater understanding of an individual’s or a group’s experiences, thoughts and motivations. Researchers who use this methodology generally conduct their research through focus groups, verbal interviews, behavioral observations and open-ended questionnaires.

Grand Canyon University aims to provide an exceptional academic experience for every student. If you would like more information on GCU’s doctoral programs, including a Doctor of Education in Organizational Leadership with a Special Education Emphasis in both qualitative research and quantitative research, visit GCU’s College of Doctoral Studies or click on the Request More Information button at the top of this page.

1Retrieved from Council for Exceptional Children, The Special Education Teacher Shortage: A Policy Analysis in August 2021

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.