Study Special Education: Masters Degree, PhD & Online Course Info

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Master's and Ph.D. programs in special education can lead to careers in teaching or research. Get the truth about requirements, courses and career options, and find out what you can do with your degree.
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Special Education Master's and Ph.D.: Degrees at a Glance

Special education offers many different career opportunities, including teaching and instruction, as well as curriculum development for special needs children and adults. However, it's not a wise career choice for everyone. This field can be both physically and emotionally demanding, since teachers must be able to work with a wide range of emotionally, mentally and physically disabled individuals.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projected 17% employment growth for special education teachers from 2010-2020. Teachers with specializations in preschool, elementary or middle school instruction were expected to see a higher rate of employment. As governments enact new rules and regulations during this time period regarding the education of individuals with disabilities, special education teachers should be in high demand, particularly in rural and inner-city school districts. However, keep in mind that government budget shortfalls may temper this growth in certain localities.

Master's Doctorate
Who is this degree for? - Aspiring special education teachers
- Licensed teachers seeking career advancement
Aspiring postsecondary teachers or researchers
Common Career Paths (with approximate median annual salary) - Special education teacher ($53,000)*
- Instructional coordinator ($59,000 - experience may be required)*
- University education teachers ($59,000)*
Time to Completion 2 years full-time 4-5 years full-time
Common Graduation Requirements - About 4-6 core courses in special education
- About 7-9 courses for specialty of choice
- Master's thesis or comprehensive master's exam
- Field work and student teaching
- Most (if not all) master's degree requirements
- Core coursework in education and applied research methods
- Seminars, applied field work and research
- Doctoral exam
- Dissertation
Prerequisites - Bachelor's degree in special education or related field - Bachelor's or master's degree in special education or related field
Online Availability Yes Some classes available online

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures).

Master's in Special Education

Master's degree programs in special education prepare students for teaching and research positions. Some programs are designed for licensed teachers, while others can prepare you for initial licensure. When selecting a master's program in special education, you should consider if your area of interest is offered as a specialization. Common areas of interest include autism spectrum disorders, high- or low-incidence disabilities, early childhood and special education in high school.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • The ability to specialize in a particular field of interest in special education
  • Field-based training is a central component of many programs
  • A master's degree is required in order to maintain licensure in some states
  • Some master's programs include licensure exam preparation

Cons

  • Teaching experience is required for some programs
  • K-12 special education teachers often only need a bachelor's degree
  • Some programs require foreign language proficiency

Courses and Requirements

Core courses in special education master's programs include educational psychology, classroom management and research methods. All specializations require the same basic core classes with additional topics tailored to your focus area. For example, if you choose an early childhood specialization, you can learn how to assess learning disabilities and work with families of special needs children. If you specialize in autism spectrum disorders, you study behavior analysis and alternative communication techniques.

In addition to required coursework, you need to complete an internship or field experience. Most programs culminate in either a thesis, final project or comprehensive exam.

Online Course Info

Master's degree programs in special education are offered in fully online and hybrid formats. These programs often cover the same material as their campus-based counterparts, and specializations are available. Keep in mind that not all online programs prepare you for teaching certification; those that do usually require in-person teaching experiences.

Stand Out with This Degree

It's important to make the most of your special education master's degree. Here's how:

  • Take courses in specific areas of study, such as advanced methodology in assisting students with significant motor and sensory difficulties, to gain additional experience
  • Consider programs that offer concentrations or courses in technology applications for the special education classroom
  • Look for programs that prepare you for additional certifications or endorsements, such as behavior analysis or learning disabilities, to gain a competitive edge when seeking a job

Degree Alternatives

Working as a teacher in special education isn't for everybody. An attractive alternative career may be that of an occupational therapist (OT). These professionals help individuals with disabilities or illnesses perform everyday tasks; some OTs even work with children in school.

Enrolling in a professional Master of Occupational Therapy program can lead to work as an OT. Courses in these programs usually cover basics in physical therapy, prosthetics, kinesiology, psychology and neuroscience. Hands-on clinical sessions are included in the curriculum as well.

The BLS reported that as of May 2011, the median salary of occupational therapists was about $74,000, which is higher than that of special education teachers or professors. In addition, the number of employed occupational therapists was expected to grow 33% from 2010-2020.

Ph.D. in Special Education

Ph.D. programs in special education are designed to prep students for positions as researchers or postsecondary teachers of special education. Ph.D. candidates typically conduct research in an area of interest, including high-incidence disabilities, severe disabilities, early childhood special education or visual impairments. You may also work with school-affiliated research centers on specific conditions, like mental retardation or other maladaptive behaviors. Ph.D. programs culminate in a dissertation, which you must propose and defend to a doctoral committee.

In some doctoral programs, students receive tuition funding and monthly stipends. Additional funding options may include leadership training grants or federal research grants; many schools award fellowships or scholarships based on academic performance.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • There is a critical, nation-wide need for special education professors
  • Some federal grants fully cover tuition for special education doctoral students
  • Mentor relationships with professors can give you skills in research, teaching and grant writing
  • Some programs offer opportunities for students to pursue more than one specialization

Cons

  • The dissertation process can take a long time
  • Programs are research-centric, so full-time study may be required or at least strongly encouraged
  • Candidates who don't have teaching experience may have to meet extensive practicum or internship requirements in addition to completing a dissertation

Courses and Requirements

You may begin your path to a Ph.D. by choosing a specialization and developing a program plan with your advisor. You can study special education research, the history of special education and grant writing. While research is a central component of most programs, you may also teach some undergraduate classes. In most cases, comprehensive exams are required before you start writing your dissertation. Once you've completed your dissertation, you'll defend it before an approval committee.

Online Degree Options

Currently, there are no Ph.D. programs in special education offered online. However, graduate-level courses in special education are offered online, so you may be able to meet some of your course requirements that way. Check with your department to determine whether this is possible before you enroll.

Stand Out with This Degree

To stand out with your Ph.D., focus your efforts on areas that have seen increased interest in recent years. For example, there have been breakthroughs in the study and research of autism spectrum disorders. Another research area that's seen growth recently involves special education teacher retention, turnover and recruitment.

You may also consider joining an organization, such as the National Association of Special Education Teachers. Membership benefits include professional development courses, an e-journal and monthly education resources tailored to members of different levels, including students and college professors.

Degree Alternatives

If conducting research on topics in special education doesn't appeal to you, you can still pursue a doctoral degree. Consider earning a Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) in Special Education or Educational Leadership and Policy. In a special education Ed.D. program, you may take advanced courses in disability and social policy, research design and special education leadership issues. In a general educational leadership and policy Ed.D. program, you would learn administration techniques, how to lead educational organizations and how to act as a consultant in special education curricular design.

This degree typically leads to positions in research and teaching in higher education, school administration, research for private foundations and professional education consulting. According to the BLS, postsecondary education teachers could expect to see employment growth of 17% in the 2010-2020 decade, which is about as fast as the average for all occupations. Postsecondary teachers had a median annual wage of about $59,000 as of May 2011.

Popular Schools

  • Online Programs Available
    1. Grand Canyon University

    Program Options

    Doctorate
      • EdD in Organizational Leadership - Special Education
      • Ed.D. in Organizational Leadership - Behavioral Health
  • Online Programs Available
    2. Northcentral University

    Program Options

    Doctorate
      • PhD in Education - Special Education
      • Ed.D. - Special Education
      • Ed.D. - Curriculum and Teaching
      • Ed.D. - General Education
      • Ed.D. - Early Childhood Education
      • PhD in Education - Instructional Leadership
  • Online Programs Available
    3. University of the Rockies

    Program Options

    Doctorate
      • Doctor of Philosophy in Education
  • Online Programs Available
    4. Concordia University Portland

    Program Options

    Doctorate
      • Ed.D. Professional Leadership, Inquiry, and Transformation
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  • Atlanta, GA

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  • Toledo, OH

    University of Toledo

  • Greensboro, NC

    University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Featured Schools

Grand Canyon University

  • EdD in Organizational Leadership - Special Education
  • Ed.D. in Organizational Leadership - Behavioral Health

What is your highest level of education?

Northcentral University

  • PhD in Education - Special Education
  • Ed.D. - Special Education
  • Ed.D. - Curriculum and Teaching

What is your highest level of education?

University of the Rockies

  • Doctor of Philosophy in Education

What is your highest level of education?

Concordia University Portland

  • Ed.D. Professional Leadership, Inquiry, and Transformation

What is your highest level of education?

University of Toledo

University of North Carolina at Greensboro