Education is not one-size-fits-all. With one of the following 10 Best PhDs in Special Education, graduates can learn how to serve the educational needs of diverse groups of students.
Special education is structured around the methodologies, practices, and pacing that best serves the learning needs of individuals with disabilities. But beyond the ability to develop mathematical equations and spelling skills, special education requires a clear understanding of the unique issues that affect individuals with learning, behavioral, and developmental disabilities and their families.
The following 10 Best PhDs in Special Education equip graduates to lead in school and public service settings. As with most doctoral degrees, the following programs are heavily research-based, though many also require practical teaching or administrative experiences with individuals with disabilities. This differs from the Master's in Special Education. The program coursework covers academic, multicultural, and social issues in special education.
Doctoral graduates may go on to teach from early education to university level. Alternatively, they may take administrative or supervisory roles offering public services to individuals with disabilities and their families. They may work in government agencies, nonprofit organizations, or community centers. Degree holders may also become professional researchers in the field, finding the most effective teaching methodologies in special education. According to the most recent report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, special education teachers reported an average salary of $59,780 in 2018.
Explore these promoted online degree programs.
These top, accredited schools offer a variety of online graduate degree programs.
Figuring out where to apply? Consider one of these online Master’s or PhD programs.
Best PhDs in Special Education
Michigan State University
East Lansing, MI
Michigan State University offers a Ph.D. in Special Education through its College of Education. The research-based degree program involves mentorship from former special education teachers and service providers. Students may choose to pursue a research and coursework cognate, or area of interest such as applied behavior analysis, language and literacy, and technology. The core curriculum consists of three courses: Academic Issues in Special Education, Multicultural Issues in Special Education, and Special Topics in Special Education – Applied Research Methods. The program also requires a comprehensive and preliminary exam, mentored teaching experiences, annual reviews, and a doctoral dissertation. Students complete a minimum of six full-time credits per semester on the MSU campus.
Founded as an agricultural school in 1855, MSU has evolved into a public research university and one of the nation's largest universities in terms of student enrollment. A land- and sea-grant institution, MSU is a member of the Association of American Universities. Located in East Lansing, Michigan, the campus includes the Abrams Planetarium, the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, and more. U.S. News & World Report ranks MSU at No. 85 in National Universities and No. 35 in Top Public Schools. The university also ranks at No. 23 in Best Education Schools at the graduate level.
New York University
New York City, NY
New York University offers a Doctor of Philosophy in Teaching and Learning with a focus on Special Education. The degree program can be completed on a full- or part-time basis. It combines theory and research in its approach to disability rights advocacy and teaching for diverse populations. The degree requires 48 to 60 credits of study, though students without a Master of Arts degree may be required to complete up to 72 credits. The curriculum includes seminars in Curriculum and Instruction, Multilingual Issues, and Reading and Teaching Literature. In addition, students must complete an independent doctoral research experience, a written candidacy paper or exam, an oral comprehensive exam, and a dissertation with proposal and defense.
Founded in 1831, NYU is now a global private research university. Along with its historic main campus in Greenwich Village, New York City, the university operates schools in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai and 12 additional learning locations worldwide. With one of the largest collegiate research budgets in the nation, NYU maintains research relationships with the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, Google, and more. U.S. News & World Report ranks NYU at No. 37 in Most Innovative Schools and No. 30 in National Universities. The Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development is ranked No. 7 in the nation for its graduate studies.
The Ohio State University offers a Ph.D. in Educational Studies with a major in Special Education. Applicants should hold a master's degree from an accredited institution. The full-time degree program builds students' experiences in applied research, advanced behavior analysis, college teaching, community service, and writing for publication. Faculty research areas include autism, ADHD, and behavioral disorders. The degree requires a minimum of 63 credit hours, including coursework in behavioral research methods, contemporary and urban issues, and professional writing. Students must also complete a field experience. Students have opportunities to complete achieve associateships or work with organizations including the Association for Positive Behavior Support and the Council for Exceptional Children.
OSU was established in 1870 as a land-grant agricultural and mechanical college. Today, it is a public research university with land, sea, and space grants. It has the third-largest on-campus student enrollment in the United States. The school's research facilities include the Byrd Polar Research Center, Chadwick Arboretum, and the Center for Urban and Regional Analysis. U.S. News & World Report ranks OSU at No. 56 in National Universities, No. 18 in Most Innovative Schools, and No. 17 in Top Public Schools. The university's College of Education and Human Ecology ranks at No. 26 in Best Education Schools.
University of California, Berkeley
GSH's No. 1 doctoral program in Special Education is awarded in conjunction with the University of California, Berkeley, and San Francisco State University. Students can expect to take courses at both institutions. The degree program combines theory and practice, preparing graduates to lead in administration, research, supervision, and teaching services for individuals with disabilities. Qualified applicants should have a background in a discipline relating to the social, behavioral, and health sciences. Students in the program can specialize in areas such as early childhood, language, and literacy; human development; and mathematics, science, and technology. In addition to the general and specialized coursework, students must complete three papers with an empirical study, an internship, an oral exam, and a dissertation with proposal and defense.
Founded in 1868, UC Berkeley serves as the flagship institution of the University of California system. The public research university is a founding member of the Association of American Universities. It is also counted among the nation's "Public Ivies." The university is particularly noted for its developments in chemistry and its 1960s student-led Free Speech and Anti-Vietnam War Movements. U.S. News & World Report ranks Berkeley at No. 22 in National Universities, No. 2 in Top Public Schools, and No. 18 in graduate Education programs. Also located in California's Bay Area, San Francisco State is a public university and member of the California State University system.
The University of Kansas awards a Ph.D. in Special Education through its School of Education. The interdisciplinary degree program combines theory and applied methodology practice in special education. Qualified applicants should have undergraduate and graduate degrees in education or a related field, along with three years of professional experience working with individuals with disabilities. Scholars of the program examine aspects of caregiving, education, public service, research, and social policy. Students may specialize in areas such as disability and diversity; early childhood education; and instructional design, technology, and innovation. The curriculum includes core, specialization, and research courses; seminars; internships and scholarly experiences; comprehensive exams; and the doctoral dissertation.
Established in 1865, KU is the flagship university in the state of Kansas. In addition to its main campus in Lawrence, the public research university operates learning facilities throughout the state. The university is home to the Beach Center on Disability, the Kenneth Spencer Research Library, and the University of Kansas National History Museum. KU is a member institution of the Association of American Universities. U.S. News & World Report ranks the University at No. 98 in Best Value Schools and No. 61 in Top Public Schools. The university's Graduate School of Education ranks at No. 18 in Best Education Schools and second in Special Education.
University of Minnesota, Twin Cities
The University of Minnesota, Twin Cities grants a Ph.D. in Special Education. The degree program is administered by the Department of Educational Psychology within the College of Education and Human Development. It combines research-intensive coursework and supervised practical experiences to provide graduates for leadership positions in special education. Students can specialize in autism spectrum disorder, deaf/hard-of-hearing individuals, developmental disabilities, early childhood special education, emotional behavior disorders, or learning disabilities. Course offerings include Emotion & Childhood Psychopathology, Intelligence and Creativity, and Psychology of Human Learning and Memory. The curriculum totals 66 credits, including 24 thesis credits.
Founded in 1851, UMN is the oldest, largest, and flagship campus in the University of Minnesota system. The public university also operates sister campuses in the Minnesota towns of Crookston, Duluth, Morris, and Rochester. A land- and space-grant institution, UMN is a member of the Association of American Universities and a Carnegie-classified-top tier research university. U.S. News & World Report ranks UMN at No. 86 in Best Value Schools, No. 76 in National Universities, and No. 30 in Top Public Schools. The university's graduate education programs rank at No. 21 overall and No. 9 in Special Education.
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill offers a Ph.D. in Education in Applied Developmental Sciences and Special Education. All applicants should hold a bachelor's degree. The interdisciplinary degree program is rooted in theory and research. Students in the program learn about human development from early childhood through adolescence, paying special attention to studying families and young people at risk of developing educational challenges. Students will choose to focus on Applied Developmental Sciences or Special Education and to further concentrate their studies in an area such as Adolescence or Struggling Readers and Writers. In addition to selected coursework, students must complete a dissertation and an internship in College Teaching or Teaching and Professional Development.
Chartered in 1789, UNC is one of three universities allowed to claim the title of the oldest public university in the United States. The public research university is the flagship institution of the University of North Carolina system. Located in Chapel Hill, the university anchors the region's Research Triangle, along with Duke University and North Carolina State. U.S. News & World Report ranks the University at No. 30 in National Universities, No. 8 in Best Value Schools, and No. 5 in Top Public Schools. The university also ranks at No. 27 in Best Education Schools and No. 11 in Special Education at the graduate level.
University of Virginia
The University of Virginia offers a Ph.D. in Special Education through its Curry School of Education and Human Development. The degree program must be completed on a full-time, largely face-to-face basis. Students must be prepared to engage in rigorous, often collaborative research and regular, often impromptu discussions. Students can choose to focus on either high-incidence disabilities or gifted education. Students can expect to work closely with faculty members on college teaching, research projects, and supporting professional organizations. The degree requires a minimum of 72 credits, including research and teaching apprenticeships, annual reports, preliminary and comprehensive exams, and the doctoral dissertation.
UVA was founded in 1819 by Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence. Located in Charlottesville, it is the flagship university of Virginia. The public research university is known for its history, secret societies, and student-run honor code. It was the first university in the American South to be elected to the Association of American Universities. A leading research university, UVA receives 60 percent of the nation's federal research and development funding. It is globally recognized for its research in astrophysics, hypersonic flight, mechanical engineering, and the relationship between the brain and the lymphatic system. U.S. News & World Report ranks UVA at No. 28 in Best Value Schools, No. 25 in National Universities, and No. 3 in Top Public Schools. The university's Curry School ranks at No. 17 in overall education programs in No. 4 in Special Education at the graduate level.
The University of Washington offers a Ph.D. in Special Education through its College of Education. The degree program consists of continuous research, comprehensive courses in education and complementary fields, and teaching experiences tailored to individuals' goals. Students may choose to train in areas such as applied behavior analysis; reading and math; or secondary education. The program includes a research and inquiry conference, which involves the completion of a written paper and presentation on research progress. The curriculum culminates in the doctoral dissertation. Timelines may vary, but students must complete all Ph.D. requirements within ten years.
Founded in 1861, UW is the flagship university of the state of Washington. The public research university is located in the University District of Seattle, Washington. It also operates campuses in the Washington towns of Bothell and Tacoma. The university's 26 libraries comprise one of the largest university library systems. A sea- and space grant university, UW is a member of the Association of American Universities. U.S. News & World Report ranks the University at No. 59 in National Universities, No. 37 in Most Innovative Schools, and No. 20 in Top Public Schools. The UW College of Education ranks at No. 14 in Best Education Schools and No. 6 in Special Education at the graduate level.
University of Wisconsin-Madison
The University of Wisconsin – Madison offers a doctoral program in Special Education. The degree program aims to improve school and community systems that serve young people with disabilities. Applicants should have at least an undergraduate degree in a field relating to special education, and at least two years of professional experience providing services to individuals with disabilities. Students in the program are encouraged to examine issues in equity and diversity, post-school outcomes, and effective teacher methodologies relating to special education. The 56-credit curriculum encompasses conceptual theory, communication skills, research skills, teaching skills, professionalism, ethics, and public service. The degree program can be completed in an average timeframe of four to five years.
Founded in 1848, UW – Madison is the oldest and largest public university in the state of Wisconsin. It is the state's official university and the flagship institution of the University of Wisconsin System. The main campus is located on the shores of Lake Mendota in Madison, Wisconsin. The university's major research areas include stem cell research, internal combustion engines, and human viruses. U.S. News & World Report ranks UW at No. 49 in National Universities and No. 15 in Top Public Schools. The university also ranks at No. 3 in Best Education Schools and No. 8 in Special Education at the graduate level.
Grad School Hub compiles rankings based on public data released from educational, commercial, and government databases. Sources such as the National Center for Education Statistics and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics play a significant role in how we source our educational data. After collecting insight for each institution, we organize information into five weighted categories.
A more comprehensive evaluation of how each category is determined and scored is accessible on our Ranking Methodology page.
||Full-time faculty percentage, student-to-faculty ratio, student retention and graduation rates
||Tuition rates, median student debt, and financial aid
||Admission and enrollment rates
||Number of program options
|Online Enrollment Score
||Portion of learners taking at least one online course