Ph.D. in Social Work

Social workers seek to improve the overall quality of life of individuals, families and even communities by working with them to assess their needs and serving as a resource to help them meet those needs.

If you want to become a social worker, you should know that a master’s degree is the traditional terminal degree for the field. A doctorate won’t lead to higher licensure, but with social worker employment projected to grow 13% from 2019 through 2029, earning your Doctor of Philosophy or Ph.D. may be a way to stand out and may open the door to more advanced positions such as director or administrator. Some people opt to complete their Ph.D. simply because the health care industry is becoming more complex and therefore calls for further education.

The Ph.D. is one of two doctorates you can earn in social work. The Ph.D. emphasizes research and advancements in the field concerning long-term clinical practices and overall industry betterment, while the Doctorate in Social Work (DSW) education focuses more on the clinical setting and physical practice of social work itself.

Should I Pursue a Ph.D. in Social Work?

This degree calls for a passion for research and education. If you want to present your findings at conferences, publish in scientific journals and help to lead and shape the community of social work itself, then a Ph.D. in social work may be a good fit for you. Earning a Ph.D. is also an opportunity for practitioners to specialize in an area that piques their interest. Your doctorate could make you a strong candidate for positions in your area of interest or places of power and influence including large organizations and nonprofits.

It’s also important to know that employment of social workers is expected to grow 13% from 2019 to 2029, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). With more individuals entering the field, there will also be significant growth in demand for those who can educate and lead within the industry.

Factors to Consider in Your Ph.D. in Social Work Program

There are a number of factors to keep in mind when making the decision to earn your Ph.D. in social work.

The cost of your education will most likely affect your decision to pursue a doctorate education. Find out how much your program costs and if you’re eligible for any scholarships, grants, and loans aimed at social work doctorate candidates. Because this degree is not a requirement for practice, it can be difficult to determine earning potential, but you will still want to do your best to research how much practitioners in your desired job position are making. Ask mentors and seek out salary data from authoritative sources instead of websites with self-reported earnings that haven’t been verified. This can help you figure out if the financial investment is worth it.

It’s a must to have completed your Master’s in Social Work (MSW) or affiliated equivalent prior to sending out your applications, and usually, a previously completed internship or practicum is required before you can enter a Ph.D. program and on-campus or online DSW programs.

Most people looking to earn their Ph.D. will already be practitioners in the field. Different states have different licensing requirements. Complying with your state’s licensure requirements ensures smooth entry into the field. Once you are licensed, you want to make sure that you are in good standing with your licensing board. This might seem obvious, but could be key in the admissions process.

Another factor to consider is what area you would like to specialize in. The options are many, from children and families, to education, to mental health and substance abuse.

Lastly, don’t forget that strong communication, organizational, problem-solving and interpersonal skills could help you be successful not only in the field, but in completing your degree.

Advantages of a Ph.D. in Social Work

Some of what makes a Ph.D. in social work worth it has been previously discussed. But it is important to note that the doctorate is only beneficial if it will help you reach your career goals, and of course, those goals will vary from person to person.

Generally, the knowledge, expertise and experience gained from your Ph.D. education should prepare you to impact and influence the future of social work on a local and national scale. That might mean ensuring that those who come after are better informed or striving to improve outcomes among the populations you work with through policy and the development of evidence-based practice models.

What Can I Expect from a Ph.D. Program

Now you have a list of factors to consider before deciding to pursue a Ph.D., but what should you know about the admissions process and the program itself? Learn more about both below.

Program Admission Requirements for a Ph.D. in Social Work

Social work Ph.D. programs are often competitive, especially if you’re considering a school with a good reputation and regional accreditation. You will need to know your chosen program’s admission criteria and do your best to make sure your application materials above par.

The minimum education requirement for Ph.D. in social work programs is a master’s degree in social work from an accredited college. Some programs will also accept a master’s in a related field, also from an accredited college.

Other application requirements may include transcripts, GRE scores, a resume, a personal statement, letters of recommendation and writing samples demonstrating your knowledge and expertise in the field of social work. Use your personal statement, letters of recommendation, writing samples or research-based projects as a way to stand out in the pool of competitive applicants.

Think about what makes you unique and be sure to highlight that in your writing. Contact mentors, professors from your alma mater, or supervisors and colleagues from your past or current job for their recommendation.

Ph.D. in Social Work Curriculum

The curriculum for a Ph.D. in social work focuses mostly on advanced research methods studies. Some examples of these types of courses are:

  • Quantitative Scientific Methods
  • Survey of Research Methods in Social and Behavioral Science
  • Integrating Public Policy Issues & Outcomes in Social Work Research
  • Doctoral Teaching Practicum

Theory, behavioral science, policy and teaching courses are also typical.

Ph.D. in Social Work Career Options

Upon completion of your Ph.D., you can look forward to a whole new set of opportunities when it comes to your career. One of the more common uses of a Ph.D. in social work is postsecondary education. If you decided to become an educator of future social workers, you’ll enjoy helping to shape and mold what the field will look like and how common issues are approached.

You may also find yourself at a research agency leading studies behind governing topics like reducing mental illness stigma, recommending best practices when it comes to group therapy, PTSD prevention strategies or even dismounting common myths about dyslexia.

Possible career paths include:

  • Clinical Director
  • Clinical Social Worker
  • Executive Director
  • Human Services Director
  • Nonprofit Executive
  • Researcher
  • Senior Social Worker
  • Director of Social Services
  • Clinical Services Director

You could also be petitioned for work nationwide presenting findings, speaking to important issues and advising how to shape public policy concerning the industry.

Ph.D. in Social Work Salary

Because of the many types of occupations in the field of social work it can be hard to gage the average salary of those who pursue a Ph.D.

But to get a better idea of what to expect, consider that the highest 10% of social workers earned more than $85,820 annually, according to April 2021 Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data. In contrast, the lowest 10% made less than $33,020, and the median annual salary of all social workers was $51,760.

Another way to look into earning potential is to find out how much professionals with your desired job title are making. For example, if you want to use your Ph.D. to become a postsecondary educator, it might be worth looking at the average annual earnings of that group of professionals. BLS data from 2020 shows that postsecondary teachers in the field of social work make a median salary of $71,570.

Social and community managers are key players in the field of social work, and you might be thinking of becoming one. The highest 10% of social and community managers earn more than $111,580, according to the BLS.

Salary information from reliable sources such as the BLS, not only gives you an idea of earning potential for your desired role, but it can also prepare you to negotiate with employers.

Ph.D. In Social Work FAQ

How long does it take to complete a Ph.D. program in social work?

It takes about four to six years to complete a Ph.D. in social work. Two years are typically spent doing coursework and the others are spent on research, writing and defending a thesis, dissertation or similar project.

What is the difference between a DSW and Ph.D. in Social Work?

A DSW is a Doctor of Social Work that focuses on the physical clinical practice of social work studies. The Doctor of Philosophy or Ph.D. in social work emphasizes the research and educational aspect concerning the general practices within the industry of social work.

Can I obtain a clinical Ph.D. Online?

Obtaining a Ph.D. in social work online is possible. Depending on your course load, this could lengthen the amount of time it takes to complete your Ph.D. There are plenty of accredited online programs worth looking into if this is your preferred path.