This comprehensive guide breaks down what it takes to get a PhD in social work and compares PhD programs to doctor of social work (DSW) programs.In this guide
Higher education opportunities in social work
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 (meaning one can independently practice with that degree) there are two additional degree options for those seeking additional career advancement and opportunities at the top of the profession: a doctor of social work (DSW) or a PhD in social work.
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Featured Online DSW Programs
|School Name||Program||More Info|
|University of Southern California (USC)||USC Offers a DSW Online||website|
|University of Kentucky||Online Doctorate of Social Work (DSW)||website|
|Simmons University||Social Justice–Focused DSW Online||website|
Both DSW and PhD in social work degrees are excellent credentials that provide further specialization and advanced knowledge in social work 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.
The primary difference between the degrees is the desired career trajectory: a DSW is considered an advanced clinical practice degree and is best suited for those who want to work directly with clients or lead social service agencies. A PhD is an academic degree and is best suited for those interested in teaching and research at the undergraduate and graduate level.
Doctor of social work (DSW) degree overview
A DSW degree is ideal if you want additional expertise in order to continue working with clients, as the DSW is considered to be an advanced professional practice degree. Clients can be individuals as in those seeking individual therapy (micro level practice), community groups and organizations (mezzo level practice), or even government officials or others creating, influencing and implementing policies and laws (macro level practice). The DSW degree prepares graduates for management and other leadership roles and advanced clinical practice in a specific area of social work, such as medical social work, addictions, or juvenile justice.
Social work PhD overview
If you are interested in designing and conducting research, a PhD is an excellent option to consider. You’ll concentrate your studies and research to become an expert in one particular area of interest. Similarly, if you are excited by the prospect of teaching and training the next generation of social workers, a PhD program prepares you to teach at the undergraduate and graduate levels.
While most PhD’s work in academia, this is not a requirement. Some may open consulting or research firms, others work in think tanks or international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), while others become speakers or authors. The PhD provides a rigorous academic background to prepare graduates for researching, writing and teaching about their area of expertise. This may be promoting resilience in foster care youth, assessing and improving telehealth/virtual therapy interventions for adolescents with substance use disorder, or Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in female veterans.
Similarities and differences between social work DSW and social work PhD programs
Both PhD and DSW programs have similar admissions requirements. You must have a master’s degree, preferably in social work. Sometimes programs will accept applicants with other graduate degrees but may require additional social work foundation courses as a requirement prior to graduation.
You’ll need a GPA of at least 3.0 in order to be considered for admission to either type of program. Letters of recommendation are needed from previous employers and/or graduate school professors who can attest to your ability to handle the level of rigorous coursework a doctoral program requires. At least one written essay is required, describing your area of interest, your career goals and how the selected degree program will help you achieve those goals. Some schools require graduate record examination (GRE) scores as well. 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.
While both degree programs prefer that applicants have post-master’s work experience, this is not always a requirement. Some schools have joint MSW/PhD program tracks, wherein a student immediately enters the PhD program upon completion of the MSW courses. However, many DSW programs require that applicants have at least three or more years of social work experience before returning to school for the doctoral degree. Indeed, a number of students have a decade or more of experience in the field before pursuing their DSW.
The tuition you can expect for a campus-based social work doctoral degree depends 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.
Furthermore, you have to consider the time it’ll take you to complete your Ph.D. program. Certain costs, like general technology fees or 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.
US News and World Report indicates that doctoral programs in social work usually range between $915 per credit hour to $1730 per credit hour. Thus, most students can expect to pay between $38,000 and $90,000 in total tuition for their doctoral degrees.
Time to completion
Both DSW and PhD programs have an average of two years of coursework to complete. The final research project for each program can take anywhere from one to four additional years, though this is dependent on a number of factors. On average, most DSW and PhD students complete their degrees within four years.
Both types of programs can offer similar foundational courses covering social work theory, research methods and policy. DSW programs then offer specialized courses depending on the track or concentration that the student has selected. For example, if you’re in an advanced clinical practice track you may study psychopathology, pharmacology, and trauma-informed therapeutic interventions. If you are focusing on leadership and administration, you may study program evaluation, financial management of nonprofit organizations and trauma-informed leadership practices.
In contrast, PhD students will have additional courses in statistical analysis, research study design, writing for publication and teaching methods. Within the courses, you can tailor papers and projects to the area of specialization that you have selected and around which your dissertation research will be based.
As previously mentioned, some DSW programs require applicants to have a certain number of years of experience in the field prior to entering the degree program. Some even insist that applicants are Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSWs) meaning they have completed the examination and practice hours required to be licensed by their state. PhD programs do not have this requirement.
The structure of the program is another big difference in DSW and PhD programs. Most DSW programs are designed to be completed by working professionals, so classes are offered in the evenings, on weekends or online. This allows students to continue gaining valuable practice experience while also applying topics taught in classes to real world scenarios they are facing in their daily work. Conversely, the majority of PhD courses are offered during the workday and are taught in-person. While this may be slowly changing, few courses are offered online, and relatively few students work full time while completing a PhD program.
PhD programs are more likely to have fellowships, research assistantships and teaching assistantships for their students. As social work faculty are awarded grant monies, they will often hire doctoral students as assistants to help reduce their workload while also providing valuable hands-on research experience for the student. PhD students can also offset some of their tuition costs if hired as a teaching assistant. This provides the opportunity to build critical teaching skills while being mentored by a more experienced professor. Some DSW programs do offer scholarships and other financial assistance packages, but this is much more common in PhD programs.
Capstone versus dissertation
Finally, the required final project often differs between PhD and DSW degree programs, though this is not always the case. A dissertation is required by PhD programs. The dissertation is the culmination of a unique research project designed by the student, implemented, the data analyzed, and a report written in a standardized format. This may be in the form of one large report or broken down into three articles that are ready to submit to academic journals for publication depending on the program requirements.
In contrast, DSW programs typically have students complete a capstone project as their final project. This too, is a research project or program evaluation, but on a smaller scale. The capstone project is much shorter, similar to a thesis. A capstone paper runs approximately 30 pages long and while it still has some of the same sections as a dissertation, including a literature review/ statement of the problem, a research component, data analysis and summary, it is not as detailed nor as in depth as a dissertation.
Career outlook for doctoral level social work graduates
Your potential earnings with a social work PhD can vary dramatically depending on your profession, especially as most social work professions don’t require a PhD.
Master’s level social workers earn an average salary of around $52,000 per year according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, with a Ph.D. or DSW, you’ll be able to command a higher salary. According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), PhD and DSW degree holders earn $20,000 to $25,000 more per year than MSW level social workers, and may earn well over $100,000 per year. In fact, some tenured professors with a PhD can earn well over $175,000 a year.
In addition, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates there will be a 13 percent job growth rate over the next 10 years, meaning there should be plenty of jobs available for future graduates.
Selecting a program
How do you decide what degree program is best for you? Below are some items to consider:
- What are your career goals? Do you want to open up your own nonprofit organization or become a director of a large agency? Then a DSW is a better fit for you. If you want to conduct research and teach social work students, then consider a PhD program.
- What areas of concentration or specialization does the program offer? This may be of more importance when selecting a PhD program. Does the program have faculty studying a similar or closely related area of interest that you’d like to focus on? If so, this means more opportunities for mentorship and guidance. If you select a program and want to study a specific topic or population that no one on the faculty has experience with, it may be a frustrating or less rewarding experience for you, by not having a closely aligned mentor. This may also limit your networking opportunities with similarly inclined colleagues.
- Finally, practical considerations are also necessary. Is the program local or would it require you to move, and how does that impact the total costs involved with completing the program? How would a move impact your family? Do you have the time and energy available to devote to doctoral studies? Do you have a strong support system to assist you? Do you have the financial resources to pursue full time education if you are unable to continue working?
A recap of a PhD in social work
PhD and DSW degrees provide specialized education and training for social workers wanting to reach the pinnacle of their fields. Programs are rigorous but create opportunities for incredible career growth and increased financial rewards that can far outweigh the tuition costs for these programs. If you want to work in social work leadership or higher education, consider pursuing a DSW or PhD degree, as it can be well worth it!
Anastas, J.W. (2015). Clinical social work, science and doctoral education: Schisms or synergy? Journal of Clinical Social Work, 43, 304-312.
Coyle, S. (2018). Evolving education: The DSW and Ph.D. degrees – goals and choices. Social Work Today, 18(2), 8.
Drisko, J., Hunnicutt, C., & Berenson, L. (2015). A national content analysis of PhD program objectives, structures and curricula: Do programs address the full range of social work’s needs? Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 35(1-2), 14-28.
Howard, T. (2016). PhD versus DSW: A critique of trends in social work doctoral education. Journal of Social Work Education, 52(s1), S148-S153.
Johnson-Motoyama, M., Petr, C.G., & Mitchell, F.M. (2014). Factors associated with success in doctoral social work education. Journal of Social Work Education, 50(3), 548-558.
National Association of Social Workers. Social Work Salaries. https://www.socialworkers.org/Careers/Career-Center/Kickstart-Your-Job-Hunt/Social-Work-Salaries
Petr, C.G., Harrington, D., Kim, K., Black, B., Cunningham-Williams, R.M., & Bentley, K.J. (2015). Quality indicators and expected outcomes for social work PhD programs: Perceptions of social work students, faculty and administrators. Journal of Social Work Education, 51(4), 648-667.
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Occupational Outlook: Social Workers. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/social-workers.htm
Expert Advice – for PhD/DSW in social work
Find the latest interviews with subject matter experts and people working at the forefront of their field and get advice on PhD/DSW in social work directly from some of the world’s leading authorities. Learn more about all the different pathways and opportunities available in social work today.
- 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?
- 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?