Are There Career Opportunities for Ph.D.’s in Special Education? YES!

Education Faculty Positions Are Usually Available Each Year.  Teacher education programs across the country have substantial difficulty filling faculty vacancies due to increased student enrollment and faculty retirement.  Twombly et al. (2006) found that approximately 35 percent of all teacher education positions remain consistently unfilled.  In addition, the total number of unfilled positions in teacher education continues to grow from 25 percent in 1998 to 36 percent in 2006 (Twombly).  Of the 6,124 doctorate degrees granted in the field of education in 2006, only a third directly concentrated on education research or teacher education (i.e., higher education), whereas the majority concentrated on educational administration (National Opinion Research Center; NORC, 2006).

Special Education Faculty Are Especially in Demand.  Special education programs are in even greater need of new faculty, as the proportion of special education positions among the available teacher education jobs is even higher (Twombly et al., 2006).  More specifically, Reyes, 2002 found that up to 50 percent of searches in special education were unable to fill faculty positions.  Eighty-four percent of all IHE teacher education positions require an earned doctorate; however, according to the Survey of Earned Doctorates the pool of individuals with earned doctorates in special education is simply not large enough to fill the vacancies (NORC, 2006).  For example, in 2006, 257 special education positions were advertised.  Although 259 doctorates in special education were granted that year, only 105 were seeking higher education faculty positions, which left more than half the available positions unfilled (NORC, 2006).  In addition to the overall need for individuals with earned doctorates to fill special education faculty positions, there is a particular need to increase the number of minority doctoral students to fill faculty positions.  The majority of special education faculty members are Caucasian. (i.e., over 70 percent, Wolf-Wendel et al., 2006).  This is unlikely to change as 83 percent of special education doctoral recipients in 2005 were also Caucasian (Washburn-Moses, 2007).

The Need for More Teachers Creates the Need for More Faculty. Rising numbers of students in need of special education services leads directly to the need for more special educators to teach these students.  Cook and Boe (2007) found that the demand for special education teachers has steadily grown at a higher rate than general education teachers over a 12 year period (1988-2000).  General education positions grew at a 26% rate while special education positions grew at a 38% rate.  In addition, Cook and Boe also found that the majority of special education teacher positions are filled by newly-graduated first-time teachers (i.e., from undergraduate teacher education programs) and that there has been higher enrollment in special education teacher education programs in the last 12 years.  The need for more special education teachers leads directly to the need for more teacher educators. 

Not only is there a need for sheer numbers of special educators to fill PK-12 positions, there is perhaps an even greater need for high quality teacher preparation.  Despite rising numbers of special education positions, Cook and Boe’s data suggest that the supply of first-time special educators will meet the demand.  However, there is still a marked need for improvements in the quality of teacher preparation. Specifically, Cook and Boe (2007) found that only 46% of first year special education teachers had completed “extensive teacher preparation specifically with degree majors in special education” (p. 227).  These data suggest that nearly half of all first-year special education teachers may be unprepared to structure instruction in a way that works for students with disabilities.  It is likely the 46% of special education teachers without degree majors are individuals who were hired to fill critical needs positions although their undergraduate training did not directly relate to special education.  In order to keep a teaching position, individuals who transfer from other fields will need to fulfill special education licensure requirements offered through university programs.  More special education faculty are clearly needed to provide high quality teacher education to fill PK-12 teacher vacancies with highly qualified individuals.

UNC Charlotte’s Response to the Need for More Doctoral Graduates to Fill Faculty Positions.  UNC Charlotte has established a relatively large program and plans to continue to maintain this in order to fill the urgent and increasing need for more doctoral graduates to fill faculty and school leadership vacancies.  At the program’s inception, the proposed capacity was 20-26 students with the goal of graduating at least 5 students per year.  We have met and exceeded this goal for the past decade.  At UNC Charlotte, doctoral students learn how to prepare highly qualified teachers through applications of evidence-based practice.  UNC Charlotte has become a nationally recognized institution of higher education.  Since the inception of the Special Education Ph.D. program in 2000, UNC Charlotte has been designated a Doctoral/Research Intensive University by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.  This classification is the foundation’s second highest classification.  In addition, UNC Charlotte’s College of Education programs are nationally recognized and accredited.  In particular, the university’s special education graduate programs have been nationally recognized for high quality graduate level education.  In 2007, UNC Charlotte’s special education graduate programs were ranked 8th in a report of the best graduate programs for special education in the country by U.S. News and World Report.  Our alumni are now special education faculty in universities in several states and across North Carolina.  

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