Ph.D. in Special Education at KU

A view of Joseph R. Pearson Hall from the west entrance to the top of the building. Signage states "JOSEPH R. PEARSON HALL EDUCATION & HUMAN SCIENCES"

Program Overview

The Ph.D. in special education at the University of Kansas is built on a mission to prepare civically committed scholars who, through rigorous and relevant research and transformational interventions, address significant educational and social problems in ways that advance education, social policy, research, care giving and public service to enhance the quality of life of persons of all ages with disabilities and their families. Program students and graduates rely on interdisciplinary theoretical knowledge and the full range of methodological approaches to engage, influence, and transform educational and social institutions and their practices to promote learning, equitable opportunity, full participation, inclusiveness, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency.

Career Outcomes in Special Education

Graduates of the special education Ph.D. program are scholars who steward the profession, working across disciplinary boundaries to address the educational and social challenges of the 21st century. Moreover, as civic professionals, they also engage in stewardship with their communities. Our graduates are scholars who recognize that resolving the great social and education challenges requires a sense of collective social purpose among the professions and inclusive of people with disabilities, and that the professions' greatest responsibility is to the people most affected.

Doctoral graduates are prepared to hold leadership positions in diverse sectors and organizations, including:

  • Top-tier research universities
  • Teacher preparation institutions
  • Private and university affiliated research centers, foundations, research and development companies
  • State and federal education agencies and legislative bodies.

Thus, the KU Doctoral program prepares graduates to take a variety of leadership positions. Doctoral graduates can hold faculty positions in comprehensive and research universities and leadership positions in state and national agencies. Accordingly, the doctoral program educates students to become a researcher and scholar who will then prepare prospective teachers and administrators to work in the profession. The career paths of recent graduates reflect the program's emphasis on reciprocal research to practice, civic professionalism, and stewardship of the field and discipline.

While the primary aim of the program is to prepare such scholars for tenure-line faculty positions in top tier research universities, program graduates’ knowledge and skill attainment prepare them for positions throughout the education enterprise and beyond. Graduates hold leadership positions around the country and the globe at top research universities, teacher preparation institutions, private and university affiliated research centers, foundations, research and development companies, and in various state and federal education agencies and legislative bodies.

Program Specializations

Every year the Ph.D. in special education program admits a cohort of students from around the world. Each doctoral student chooses an area of specialization and potentially a secondary area of interest as a cognate or minor (e.g., research methodology). Program applicants are asked to identify the specialization area and faculty of interest (i.e., potential academic advisor).

Currently, our program has the following areas of specialization:


This specialization focuses on the intersecting oppressions of disability, race, ethnicity, social class, language, gender, and sexuality in education and society. It will prepare students to evaluate, synthesize, and conduct research on and teach about two lines of social injustice. The first line is the historic oppression of people with disabilities in education and other social institutions, the primary sites where difference is constructed as disability and disability is excluded or segregated and controlled. Here, we are concerned with interdisciplinary theory and research that illuminates institutional and political processes, including those of disability oppression and prejudice, the social construction of disability and normalcy, the role of social movements in advancing disability rights and equity, the politics of actualizing rights in the offending institutions, and the application of interdisciplinary theoretical and empirical knowledge of disability oppression, construction, and movements to the identification and resolution of moral and ethical disability dilemmas. The second line of oppression is at the intersection of the social categories of disability, race, ethnicity, social class, language, gender, and sexuality. Students’ research and teaching focuses on educational and social injustices that result from these intersections. Additionally, the focus is on how such oppressions are perpetrated by the biased use of disability and special education, including educational policies and practices that produce persistent patterns of racial/ethnic, class, language, and gender in special education referral and identification, disability classification, instructional placement, teaching, behavior management, and transition practices.

Specialization faculty

This specialization focuses on advancing equitable, inclusive, and effective intervention/instruction in early childhood/early childhood special education. Specialization priorities also include the importance of families; strengths-based perspectives, theoretical and methodological pluralism; diversity and cultural/linguistic responsiveness; and addressing persistent, complex educational and social problems in early childhood/early childhood special education. This specialization will assist doctoral students in acquiring foundational knowledge of the current evidence and trends in the field for providing effective early intervention (birth-3 years old) and education (3-8 years old) for each and every young child and their families including those with developmental delays and identified disabilities. Doctoral students are prepared to effectively and successfully serve as Early Childhood/Early Childhood Special Education leaders in the field including faculty in institutions of higher education engaged in research (conducted through a variety of methodologies; disseminated through various outlets), personnel preparation and teaching (implemented through various instructional approaches and modalities), and service (performed at organization and institution, local, national, and international levels).

Specialization faculty

This specialization focuses on evidenced-based practices and strategies in tiered systems of support – specifically Comprehensive, Integrated, Three-tiered (Ci3T) models of prevention – for students with intensive, academic, behavior, and social needs, especially those with emotional and behavioral disorders, autism, and severe learning disabilities, and those without identified disabilities. This specialization will develop the foundational knowledge and skills necessary to (a) carry out an active and innovative research agenda; (b) use systematic screening tools to detect and assist students for whom Tier 1 practices are insufficient ; (c) design, implement, and evaluate strategies and practices to prevent and respond to academic, behavior, and social challenges with attention to procedural fidelity and intervention adaptation; (d) support collaborative partnerships between general and special educators within the context of tiered systems of support; and (e) serve as recognized leaders with expertise in school-based inquiry to improve academic, behavioral, and social outcomes for students with and at risk for learning, behavior, and/or social support needs. Doctoral students in this program will be prepared to teach in higher education and conduct research in areas such as systematic screening, test construction, and/or intervention studies (using group and single case design methodology) in academic, behavioral, and social domains for students with and without disabilities.

Specialization faculty

This specialization develops leaders focused on supporting learner variability in modern learning environments through instructional design and technology innovations. This specialization develops foundational knowledge and skills necessary to (a) carry out an active and innovative research and development agenda; (b) support the design and implementation of modern learning environments, especially in the area of teacher preparation and k-12 classroom application; and (c) serve as recognized leaders in instructional design and technology as it relates to individuals with disabilities and other diverse learning needs in modern learning environments. Doctoral students in this program study prepare to teach in higher education, and conduct research in areas such as Universal Design for Learning (UDL), innovation and adoption technology in learning environments, online and blended learning, gaming and gamification, mobile learning, personalization, augmented and virtual reality, and technology enhanced performance.

Specialization faculty

The Special Education Policy and Systems Studies specialization has an emancipatory focus that questions and seeks to reform oppressive aspects of education and disability policy and practice. Emancipation, through critical theoretical and empirical analysis and democratic participation of those who experience impairment and associated disabilities and those who care for, serve, and advocate for them, is essential because, like all professions, special education can be self-serving in advancing its policy agenda, failing to embrace changes in policies that affect practice, even when they are shown to be inadequate or damaging. With a critical policy perspective, special education can better address interests of those it exists to serve. Further, because special education has been enacted in federal law, it has resulted in a complex web of regulation and performativity that operate alongside but not necessarily as part of the general education system. A policy vantage point allows scholars to explore the justice narratives within education and special education while systems theories help to explain how injustice and oppression are embedded within everyday practice.

Specialization faculty

This specialization develops leaders focused on supporting learners with disabilities—including intellectual disability, autism, and multiple disabilities—who need extensive and pervasive supports to be fully included in school, home, work, and community. The specialization focuses on the intersection of positive psychology and strengths-based approaches to disability, inclusive education, and students with extensive and pervasive support needs. The underlying conceptual elements of the specialization incorporate research and teaching to ensure that learners with extensive and pervasive support needs are provided the supports and experiences in school and the community to promote positive, self-determined, and inclusive experiences. Key areas of the doctoral research and teaching experience include: strengths-based approaches to the education of learners with extensive and pervasive support needs, particularly in the domains of inclusive practices; evidence-based practices that promote high levels of academic achievement; predictors of inclusive education and promoting access to the general education curriculum for learners with extensive and pervasive support needs; and measuring and promoting student self-determination and self-determined learning.

Specialization faculty

Thinking about special education?

Let us know you’re interested in the program. We would love to connect with you to discuss the program’s curriculum, steps necessary for admission to KU, and what to expect during the professional program admission process one you have become a Jayhawk.


Top ranked Special Education program
Public School of Education & Human Sciences
Average number of students admitted per cohort

At a glance

Individuals are conversing at a conference with visual displays in background


Program graduates are highly-competent, socially-committed educational researchers, leaders, and teacher educators engaged in the design, development, and/or use of educational and social interventions that result in transformational outcomes.
A student is giving a presentation in front of a classroom


The specific principles that define how students will be engaged in learning build upon the idea that doctoral education is a complex process of formation emphasizing development of scholars’ professional identity in all its dimensions, including their recognition of the role the discipline and its scholars are to play in academe and in society.
three students sitting and having conversation outside

Doctoral funding opportunities

Doctoral students are nationally and internationally recruited and are fully-funded (to the maximum extent practicable) for the duration of their program.

Doctoral Student Life

a ruler with KU Research the University of Kansas printed on it along with

Research Opportunities

Graduate students at KU support faculty and research staff in conducting adding new information to the body of knowledge in a variety of fields.
Two individuals in 1-on-1 Academics session at Edwards Campus in class doing project with a laptop

Graduate Student Funding

The Office of Graduate Studies at KU provides both internal and external funding resources to support doctoral students.
a diverse group of students outside of KU Lawrence Campus Learned Hall in a small group

Vibrant Campus Environment

In the heart of the United States, the city of Lawrence revolves around the University and its students.
Undergraduate researchers from the Lawrence and Medical Center campuses presented their research projects

Professional Development

Graduate students will leave KU with a professional and academic network of fellow faculty and staff.

more doctoral student life

Students visit Kaole ruins, Bagamoyo Stone Town. with ColLAB an international, interdisciplinary, experiential-learning, research program that provides a framework for a diverse group of KU researchers

Study & Teach Abroad

Program supports unique opportunities for students to acquire the knowledge, skills, & dispositions needed for culturally-responsive teaching.
Three students are sitting and chatting

Student Organizations & Engagement

Students can actively participate in educational, social and community-building programs at KU.

Joseph R. Pearson Hall
Department of Special Education
University of Kansas
School of Education and Human Sciences
Joseph R. Pearson Hall , Room 521
1122 West Campus Rd.
Lawrence , Kansas 66045-3101