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Special Education: Ph.D. - Doctor of Philosophy in Education

The Ph.D. in education with a concentration in special education program provides students a unique opportunity to develop skills needed for success as teacher educators, researchers, and scholars in the field of education.

At a Glance

Program Results

Ph.D. - Doctor of Philosophy in Education

Special Education

Career Objective

Students who pursue advanced studies in Special Education generally have one of two settings in mind for employment, one a university or college setting, the other a research-and-development center, agency, or organization.

Best Suited To

Individuals with at least three years of experience teaching students with disabilities, seeking to contribute to the knowledge base in special education and to teacher education in general.

Program Type

  • Full Time


  • In-Person

Estimated Length

4 years

Application Deadline

December 1



About This Program

Doctoral study in special education at the University of Virginia School of Education and Human Development provides students a unique opportunity to develop skills needed for success as teacher educators, researchers, and scholars in the field of education.

In addition to the usual coursework, doctoral students work closely with faculty members on research projects, college teaching, support of professional organizations, and other activities that will be important parts of their subsequent professional careers.

Graduates of the Ph.D. in education with a concentration in special education program have become eminent scholars and leaders of professional organizations.

Goals of the Ph.D. in education with a concentration in special education program:

Students who pursue advanced studies in special education generally have one of two settings in mind for employment– one in a university or college setting, the other in a research-and-development center, agency, or organization. The Ph.D. program includes coursework, a research apprenticeship, and practical experiences to prepare graduates to produce original research that contributes to the knowledge base in special education and to teacher education in general; it also prepares graduates to provide effective leadership in this area. For those who plan to work in colleges and universities, the Ph.D. program additionally prepares graduates to educate special education professionals with evidence-based practice as the base.

Program Overview

Admission Requirements

Admission requirements that apply specifically to this program are listed below:

  • Admission to this Ph.D. program requires a relevant master’s degree (e.g., special education or closely aligned field).
  • Applicants must have a minimum of three years of experience teaching students with disabilities.
  • Applicants must provide a goals statement as part of the online application. The goal statement should include (a) why you want to pursue a doctoral degree in the selected area (e.g., high-incidence disabilities), (b) with whom you want to study and why, and (c) your goals for work after graduation.
  • Applicants must provide a writing sample as part of the online application. The writing sample requirement may be met by submitting one of the following:
  1.  A paper written for a graduate-level course completed within the past 5 years;
  2.  A published journal article;
  3.  A newsletter article published by a professional organization;
  4.  A grant proposal submitted for funding (must have been written independently); or
  5.  A 3-5 page topical essay on a current issue in special education of interest to you.

Visit our Graduate Admission page for the full admission process.

Graduate Admission

Application for admission is made to the School of Education and Human Development Office of Admission & Enrollment. For more information about the graduate admission process, please visit our Graduate Admission page.


To learn more about specific courses taken as part of the completion of this degree, visit the graduate record website. These webpages represent the official repository for academic program requirements. A link to these publications can be found in the Curriculum Information section at the bottom of this page.

The Ph.D. program requires a minimum of 72 credits, at least 54 of which must be coursework. This coursework requirement includes concentration area courses, research methodology courses, and up to 3 credits of research apprenticeship per semester, but does not include internship and dissertation credits. At least 36 course and apprenticeship credits must be completed after admission to the program. Students may apply up to 12 credits of dissertation work towards the total of 72.

Research Methodology Coursework: Ph.D. students will take Research Foundations, an introductory course in educational research common to all UVA School of Education and Human Development doctoral students. Additionally, students are required to take a minimum of three courses in quantitative methods (generally Stats I, II, and III) and two courses in qualitative research methodology (generally Qual I and Qual II). Advisors may suggest additional research methodology courses, depending on the focus of a student’s individual program and research, e.g., single subject research. Students with advanced knowledge in methodology may petition to enroll in courses appropriate to their knowledge.

Research Apprenticeship: Ph.D. students will participate in a research apprenticeship with their research mentors. Mentors will be assigned based on the student’s research interests. This apprenticeship will occupy approximately 10 hours of each student’s week during the first and second years of study and may increase during the third and fourth years, depending on the student’s specific duties. During this apprenticeship, the student will assist with the mentor’s research and scholarship, which may include data collection, data analysis, library research, presentations, writing for publication, and other related activities.

Education of Teachers Internships-Apprenticeships: Ph.D. students are expected to complete experiences that enable them to understand the workings of university-level teacher preparation. These experiences may be met through apprenticeship assignments or internships for credit, and consist of, but are not limited to, the following: supervising student teachers, serving as a graduate teaching assistant, serving as the instructor for a preservice or master’s level course, assisting the Director of Teacher Education, working with the novice teachers network, designing and evaluating curricula for P-12 programs, working with clinical instructors and cooperating teachers, supervising early field experiences, serving as a connection between the university and local schools in developing early field experiences, and so forth. Internships will be determined in consultation with faculty advisors.

Assessment: Assessment of student progress through the Ph.D. program will be multifaceted, and it will include components conducted by faculty members and by students themselves. In general, assessment of progress in the special education doctoral program corresponds with the guidelines described in Ph.D. Doctoral Student Assessments by the Curriculum, Instruction, and Special Education Department (2010).

Student Annual Report: Annually, each Ph.D. student will complete a report describing his or her growth and accomplishments.

Preliminary Exam: In the first year of study, all Ph.D. students complete a preliminary exam, which is designed to determine the likelihood of the student’s continued success in Ph.D. studies and to help guide plans for future coursework. This exam consists of two parts. The first is a paper on a topic of significance in the field; the student submits the paper in advance to the members of the committee and then responds to questions about it during a face-to-face meeting with the committee. The second is a critique of a research article; students receive an article one week prior to the exam, prepare and present a review of it, and then answer questions about it and their review of it during the face-to-face meeting with the committee.

Pre-dissertation Research Manuscript: All Ph.D. students, prior to their third year of study, will complete a pre-dissertation research project that results in a manuscript submitted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal. There is no requirement that the paper be accepted for publication, but students are strongly encouraged to revise manuscripts if resubmission is likely to result in publication. Research mentors will work with students to shape these papers toward eventual publication; co-authored papers are acceptable, but the student should take primary responsibility for completing the work.

Comprehensive Examination: All students will complete a written comprehensive examination to demonstrate understanding of the knowledge base and methodology in a concentration area of special education and demonstrate readiness to undertake doctoral dissertation research. The examination will be graded independently by at least two faculty members. With approval of the special education graduate program, a research manuscript accepted for publication may be used to satisfy part of the qualifying examination.

Dissertation: Ph.D. students will complete a dissertation proposal and a dissertation following either the traditional model or the three-paper option described in the School of Education and Human Development Dissertation Manual.

Course Descriptions

Information on courses that are part of the Ph.D. in Education-Special Education curriculum can be found on the UVA graduate record website.

Additional Program Details

Departmental fellowships and assistantships are provided to a select number of applicants each year. A typical funding package includes funding for nine months in a combination of wages and stipends, tuition and all mandatory fees, and funds to cover student health insurance costs. The University also offers a limited number of competitive fellowships for which students enrolled in Ph.D. programs may apply.

Visit the Fellowships, Scholarships, and Awards page for additional funding opportunities.

In 2024, the UVA School of Education & Human Development is ranked #8 for best graduate schools of education in the country by U.S. News and World Report.

The school also ranked ranked #4 in special education for graduate schools of education.

Program Faculty

Bryan Cook headshot

Bryan Cook

  • Professor
Michael Kennedy

Michael J. Kennedy

  • Professor
Mandy Rispoli

Mandy Rispoli

  • Quantitative Foundation Bicentennial Professor
  • Director, STAR Global Programs
LaRon Scott

LaRon A. Scott

  • Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
  • Associate Professor
William J Therrien

William J. Therrien

  • Thomas G. Jewell Professor of Education
  • Director, STAR Research in Practice

Current Ph.D. Students

Below are some current students in this program. Prospective students are encouraged to reach out to current students via email to inquire about the program experience.

Susan Aigotti

  • Ph.D. Student
Francis Corr

Francis Corr

  • Ph.D. Student
Alisha Demchak

Alisha Demchak

  • Ph.D. Student
Danielle Waterfield headshot

Danielle A. Waterfield

  • Ph.D. Student
Nathan West headshot

Nathan Welker

  • Ph.D. Student
  • Teaching Assistant

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