Those who seek to improve the lives of others and inspire social change in their communities often pursue careers in social work. But while a master’s in social work is often considered a terminal degree, there are two further stepping stones to pursue: a doctorate of social work or a social work Ph.D.
A Ph.D. in social work is an excellent credential that further specializes you in the social work discipline and which provides you with advanced knowledge that can benefit your career and personal growth. These degrees are also often accompanied by wage increases to reflect your enhanced expertise and work experience.
Seven steps for choosing the right social work Ph.D. degree program
Picking out the right campus-based social work program can be tricky unless you remember the following steps.
- Consider your timescale
Most Ph.D.s in social work and other doctorate programs require you to complete the degree over the course of several years. Campus-based programs will need you to show up to school and attend class or research labs much more frequently than online programs. Because of this, heavily consider your current work experience and schedule before committing to a university. You’ll need to fully commit to your doctorate in many cases, whereas many online social work programs allow you to complete the required classes on a more piecemeal schedule. Make sure that your workplace understands you may need to take some time off or only work part-time to finish your Ph.D., as well.
- Think about any university or degree requirements
Ph.D. programs in social work often have several requirements that you need to complete before you can even think about applying to the program in question. The most obvious of these is a master’s degree in social work, but you should also check out their specific GRE requirements or any GPA requirements they need from your prior schooling. Additionally, it’ll help to get these materials together with plenty of time to spare, so you aren’t scrambling to get your portfolio in order to meet a narrow application window.
- What’s the program focus?
Remember that there are two main Ph.D.’s in social work available. You should double-check to see which one the program is offering. Full Ph.D.’s in social work are better suited if you want to continue researching at a university or teach social work to future generations. But you can get a full doctor of social work program under your belt if you want to lead a social work clinic or become an even better therapist. The difference is mainly theoretical or academic versus practical application. Some schools offer both types of programs but most only focus on one.
Another smaller factor to consider is whether the program is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education. This is a national association that represents social work education in the United States. A school that is accredited by them has an excellent program with plenty of rigor and one that is supported by accepted standards within the social work community. Some schools may still be worthwhile without this accreditation, but it’ll be difficult to figure out which are worth your time.
- Think about your budget
There’s no doubt that doctoral-level education can be quite expensive. You’ll need to create or maintain a sustainable budget in order to both paper schooling and maintain a campus presence over much of your program. You should look at total degree costs and consider whether you will live at the university or somewhere else; some universities require you to stay there for the duration of your studies. Furthermore, it’ll help to look into any student financing options available and see if they have a teaching assistantship or internship. These often come with small stipends that you can use to help pay for your education as well as the main advantage: the reduction or elimination of your tuition.
- Apply once you have everything in order
This involves double-checking the application window that a university may have. Some schools allow you to start a Ph.D. in social work program multiple times per year while others will follow a stricter format and only have a single application window each year.
- Think of and act on networking opportunities
Arguably one of the biggest benefits of attending doctoral level college classes is the opportunity for networking you’ll get both from your fellow classmates in your faculty. In addition, you may need to heavily network in order to secure employment after graduation and make sure you have a place where you can showcase your new talents. If you plan on teaching, getting a teaching assistantship is a great way to jumpstart the process and make sure you have a foot in the door with your home university.
Like the vast majority of doctoral-level programs, a DSW or Ph.D. in social work program requires that you have a master’s degree in the same discipline. There are a few programs that may allow you to have a master’s degree in a similar or related field, though these are few and far between.
In addition, you’ll likely need a high GPA of around 3.0 or more from your prior schooling in order to be considered for admission. You’ll need to take the GRE and reach certain score thresholds as well; the Graduate Record Examinations measure your critical thinking across three distinct exams. Thankfully, you can take the GRE up to five times within a single 12 month period if you need better scores. Furthermore, if you’re an international student, you’ll need to take and submit your scores for the TOEFL, or Test of English as a Foreign Language.
For a Ph.D. in social work, you may also be asked to provide various examples of your prior work experience in the social work field. Most of these programs only take applicants who have clear goals or reasons for which they’re attending the program in the first place. To that end, most admissions teams will also request several letters of recommendation from your former faculty or your bosses at your current employer.
Social work Ph.D. program curriculum
The exact curriculum you’ll get from a social work Ph.D. depends on whether you are pursuing a practical DSW or a more theoretical Ph.D. However, both curriculum types will be devoted to teaching you advanced social work concepts and theories.
A DSW curriculum will include courses that emphasize advanced clinical practice treatment methods as well as practice leadership. In essence, they’ll train you to become a leader for a social work clinic or nonprofit organization. This necessarily involves courses that are more interdisciplinary than pure social work ideas: some courses may emphasize management or communication.
On the other hand, a Ph.D. in social work’s curriculum will have more courses that are devoted to teaching you more research methods and the theories behind leading ideas about behavioral science and policy. You may be expected to do more laboratory work or research papers with a Ph.D. in social work as opposed to a DSW.
Either way, you can expect to spend around two years completing the coursework in your Ph.D. program along with an additional 2 to 4 years researching and writing your thesis. Some programs will only have you complete a project rather than write a thesis (these are normally DSW programs), but either way, you’ll need to defend your thesis and project several times.
Only the most advanced students with extra time on their hands can complete Ph.D. programs in less than four years.
The tuition you can expect for a campus-based social work Ph.D. will depend greatly on several factors. For instance, the cost per credit will affect your overall tuition expenses more than any other factor and can vary both from school to school and whether or not you are attending from out of state. Out-of-state credits usually cost more than in-state credits.
Larger schools also tend to be more expensive on average compared to smaller schools. This is offset by the fact that larger schools usually have more diverse program and class lists, though this isn’t a strict rule.
Furthermore, you have to consider the time it’ll take you to complete your Ph.D. program. Certain costs, like general technology fees or your student housing expenses, will continue to accumulate the longer you take to finish the program. Programs that can be completed more quickly will necessarily be cheaper in the long run unless the savings are offset by extremely high costs per credit.
U.S. News and World Report indicates that doctorates in social work usually range between $915 per credit to $1730 per credit. Thus, most students can expect to pay between $38,000 and $90,000 in total tuition for their doctoral degrees.
Many Ph.D. students will want to fill out the FAFSA, or Federal Application for Student Aid. Not only does this give you access to government-subsidized loans and certain grants, but it also is a starting line that most universities require you to cross before pursuing other financial aid options.
Scholarships and assistantships
After the FAFSA, check out the CSWE scholarship page, which also includes contests and fellowships. They provide broad funding opportunities for social work students at every level of education, but there are plenty of excellent opportunities for those at the graduate level and beyond.
Finally, you should also look into fully funded social work Ph.D. opportunities. These are represented by fellowships and are extremely competitive that they come with several benefits, like waived tuition and excellent networking opportunities with your peers and professors. These fellowship opportunities are usually only offered to those with outstanding social work experience or excellent grades from their prior schooling.
Career outlook for social work Ph.D. graduates
Your potential earnings with a social work Ph.D. can vary dramatically depending on your profession, especially as most social work professions don’t require a Ph.D.
Regular social workers earn an average salary of around $49,000 per year according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, with a Ph.D. in the field, you’ll be able to command a higher salary and will likely earn closer to the upper 10% of social work wages at around $81,000 per year. Social workers in general are also set to enjoy an 11% job growth rate over the next 10 years, meaning there should be plenty of jobs available for future graduates.
You can alternatively take up a job as a social and community service manager. In this profession, you’ll coordinate and supervise various community organizations and social service programs; it’s particularly well-suited for a DSW graduate. These individuals can expect an average salary of around $65,000 per year, but you may be able to go higher with a Ph.D. up to around $111,000 per year.
Becoming a marriage or family therapist is another alternative, particularly if you have a relevant master’s degree. In this profession, you’ll help couples and families overcome trauma and interpersonal problems to bolster their quality of life. You can expect an average salary of $50,000 per year or potentially skyrocket up to $82,000 per year.
Finally, those with a more academic Ph.D. in social work could become a social work professor or another postsecondary teacher. These professionals can expect an average salary of $78,000 per year, though the highest 10% earn more than $175,000 per year. When you consider tenure and other earnings from research positions, these graduates may have the best career prospects of all possible outcomes!
- What are the most important factors for students deciding between a PhD and a DSW program?
- How can students best prepare for a PhD/doctorate program?
- Can students take electives, or customize their PhD/DSW experience?
- What does it take to be successful as a PhD/Doctorate student?
- What types of jobs are PhD/Doctorate graduates finding?
What are the most important factors for students deciding between a PhD and a DSW program?
The DSW is a practice degree. It prepares people to engage in advanced, autonomous practice that may entail clinical work, leadership, or teaching in higher education. An important aspect of that work for the DSW graduate is the development of evidence-based practices. For a practitioner who wants to learn how to evaluate programs, develop curricula, and/or engage in evidence-based practice and leadership, the DSW can be a perfect fit. In addition, being called “Dr.” can allow a social worker a seat in decision-making meetings. A DSW program may or may not include a dissertation requirement.
On the other hand, a PhD program will have a focus on research with a narrow area of expertise. While many graduates will go on to teach in social work programs at universities, the PhD may or may not include curriculum related to curriculum development or teaching.
At the Kutztown University of Pennsylvania DSW (a joint program with Millersville University of PA), we use a cohort model. Students spend two, part-time years in classes, engage in a praxis experience at an agency or in higher education, and then spend a year being supported in the process of writing a dissertation. Many students graduate in three years.
How can students best prepare for a PhD/doctorate program?
Students who wish to pursue a doctoral degree in social work should have an MSW and, at the very least, two years of practice experience.
Can students take electives, or customize their PhD/DSW experience?
Students can usually take electives in doctoral programs. These electives are likely to be related to the subject matter or research methods that are applicable to their dissertation.
What does it take to be successful as a PhD/Doctorate student?
Students have to persevere in their studies for an extended period of time. For adult learners, this means spending some time organizing and prioritizing aspects of “real life” prior to beginning their studies so that the inevitable neglect that will happen in work and personal relationships can be mediated. When I taught DSW classes, I had students write down what they did in an average week in terms of time spent and then asked them to somehow find 20 additional hours (for a part-time program). Many had serious conversations with partners and family members about how they will not be as available for the next three years.
Students also have to arrange their finances. People should consider programs in public institutions where tuition is often more reasonable, especially if they must continue working while in school.
What types of jobs are PhD/Doctorate graduates finding?
Doctoral graduates often teach in academia (especially in programs where teaching mastery is a priority), but they are also agency directors and advanced clinicians.
If you had to choose one or two books, articles, documentaries, podcasts, etc. to be included on a required reading list for social work students, what would it be?
All social workers should understand the generalist practice principles that undergird even the most advanced practice:
Gasker, J. (2019). Generalist social work practice. Sage.