Special Education Ph.D.

The Ph.D. in Special Education is an academic degree designed to prepare special educators for leadership roles in research and graduate education. We provide doctoral candidates with the critical skills needed to be successful in higher education. Like most doctoral programs, our program requires coursework that provides knowledge about the field of special education, about theoretical models, and about research and statistical methods. Unlike most traditional doctoral programs, the Penn State program does not presume that day-to-day professional skills are learned incidentally during doctoral study or the first years on the job. Instead, the faculty provides models, mentoring, shaping, and response opportunities to help you acquire and practice the professional skills expected of professionals in the settings encountered subsequent to graduation. Our students learn by doing.

How to Apply

For admission to the Graduate School, an applicant must hold either (1) a baccalaureate degree from a regionally accredited U.S. institution or (2) a tertiary (postsecondary) degree that is deemed comparable to a four-year bachelor's degree from a regionally accredited U.S. institution. This degree must be from an officially recognized degree-granting institution in the country in which it operates.

All applicants are expected to have a GPA of 3.0 or higher from prior coursework.

All applicants are expected to have a minimum of three years professional experience working with individuals with disabilities.

The process of applying for graduate admission at Penn State requires the following application materials, all of which are submitted via The Graduate School's online application.

  • Graduate Application and application fee – Applications are submitted electronically and include a nonrefundable application fee. You will need to upload the following items as part of your online application.

  • Résumé or curriculum vitae

  • Personal statement – A one to two page statement addressing your purpose and objectives in enrolling in a graduate program in Special Education.

  • Transcripts – A copy of an official transcript from each institution attended, regardless of the number of credits or semesters completed. Transcripts not in English must be accompanied by a certified translation. Penn State alumni do not need to request transcripts for credits earned at Penn State, but must list Penn State as part of your academic history. Upon admission and your acceptance of admission, you will be asked to send an additional official transcript. You will receive instructions at that time.

  • Three references – Reference forms will be uploaded directly to the Graduate School application by the reference writer who will receive an email from the Graduate School after the applicant enters reference contact information into the application.

  • GRE Scores (PSU Institution Code: 2660) – Suspended for 2023-24 application cycle. Official test results from the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) must be submitted electronically by ETS directly to Graduate Enrollment Services at Penn State. Advanced subject results are optional. The GRE website provides information about testing centers and dates. To insure that the scores will reach us in time for consideration of your application, please schedule your exam no later than two (2) months in advance of the semester deadline. Test scores that are more than five (5) years old will not be accepted.

  • Proof of English Proficiency (PSU Institution Code: 2660)– The language of instruction at Penn State is English. All international applicants must take and submit scores for the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or International English Language Testing System (IELTS), with some exceptions. For detailed information please visit the Graduate School's Requirements for Graduate Admissions page. Applicants should request that TOEFL scores be sent to Penn State electronically. Applicants should request that IELTS scores be mailed directly to Penn State's Graduate School at the following address:

    The Pennsylvania State University
    Graduate Enrollment Services
    114 Kern Building
    University Park, PA 16802

How To Apply

  • Create a Penn State account or log into your existing account.

  • Choose “DEGREE ADMISSION” as your enrollment type.

  • Choose "UNIVERSITY PARK" as your campus.

  • Choose “SPECIAL EDUCATION” as your major.

  • Choose “PH D” as your degree.


Applications deadlines for each semester are noted below. It is strongly recommended, however, that applications be submitted by December 1 of the prior academic year in order to receive full consideration for financial funding.


  • April 1 for Fall semester admission

  • November 1 for Spring semester admission

  • April 1 for Summer semester admission

Degree Requirements

Each student's program is guided by an academic adviser and committee of graduate faculty members. Student programs are structured according to students' past experiences and career objectives. Differentiation in preparation is reflected in different programs of study, cognate areas or minors, and areas of emphasis within special education. However, all Ph.D. candidates must pass a Qualifying Examination, meet specified English competencies, complete a series of Competency Activities, pass Ph.D. Comprehensive examinations (including the final oral examination), and complete a doctoral dissertation demonstrating the ability to use theory to develop and evaluate educational practice. In addition, all candidates must meet the minimum course requirements for the degree. These requirements include 24 credits of research methods, 9 credits in a minor or related field, and 36 credits in education. Up to 30 credits earned in a master's degree program may be applied with the approval of the student's committee. The specific courses used to meet these general requirements may vary considerably from student to student.

The professional requirements are designed to help students meet the criteria of the next environment (CONE). When developing the CONE model, our faculty performed several steps, two were critical: (a) identifying the major roles and responsibilities of the successful professional, and (b) organizing the program to prepare students to meet these expected demands. The major roles were, for the most part, taken from university promotion and tenure guidelines and an analysis of the day-to-day responsibilities of university faculty. While some of the information and skills are presented in graduate seminars, the majority of the competencies are learned through one-to-one interactions with individual faculty.

Cone Competencies

Doctoral students are expected to be effective college teachers. Typically, doctoral candidates take a course, then assist in that course (frequently giving two to three lectures). Then, the doctoral candidate enrolls in SPLED 602 and takes major responsibility for teaching that course. This sequence allows the student to become familiar with the content and structure of the course before taking over major responsibilities. Students are provided with guidance and feedback by the professor in charge of the course throughout the entire process. Additionally, students will have an opportunity to deliver guest lectures in other classes. Along with college teaching, doctoral students will have opportunities to supervise undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in student teaching or other practicum experiences. Faculty work closely with doctoral students during supervision to develop supervisory competency.

A variety of closely supervised writing experiences, using feedback systems common to professional publishing, are also part of the program. Students learn to write and submit grant proposals and several kinds of scholarly papers (including literature reviews and data- based studies). Because of these experiences, students are amply prepared to complete their dissertations and have at least one published manuscript before graduation. Furthermore, as a result of the grant writing experience, many students have received funding to conduct their dissertation research.

With faculty guidance and support, students design and conduct in service training, submit proposals for presenting at state and national conferences, and provide consultation to local and state agencies. Because most of our faculty are on the editorial boards of major special education journals, students also have opportunities to review manuscripts submitted to these journals

All students will be able to attend faculty meetings at the departmental, college, and university levels. These experiences allow students to see first-hand the types of decision making processes taking place in higher education. Additionally, doctoral students take part in interviewing new special education faculty and learn what it will be like when they seek their first college position.

A variety of other skills are included as part of the CONE program. While these skills do not fall under areas typically included in promotion and tenure guidelines, they are nonetheless important. Topics include interviewing for jobs, vita preparation, academic freedom, professional ethics (especially when working with students), negotiating publishing contracts, and working with support staff. The majority of these topics are covered in the context of a professional seminar.