Social workers provide important services to their communities. These professionals furnish access to emotional support and resources for people in distress. Earning a Ph.D. in social work helps professionals advance in this growing field: The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects positions in social work to grow 16% by 2026, a rate much faster than the national average for all occupations. A doctoral degree in social work can lead to job advancement opportunities and can help individuals pursue clinical and advanced practice careers.
A doctoral degree in social work (DSW) prepares students for advanced clinical practice, while a Ph.D. in social work emphasizes scholarship.
This guide includes information on earning a doctorate in social work, including how to choose the right program for you and potential job prospects for graduates.
Should I Get a Doctorate in Social Work?
Doctoral degree programs are ideal for master’s degree holders who want to pursue advanced positions in their field. A doctoral degree in social work (DSW) prepares students for advanced clinical practice, while a Ph.D. in social work emphasizes scholarship. A Ph.D. in social work is ideal for those who plan to pursue careers in higher education or research.
Students can earn a doctorate in social work online or on campus. Online degrees are a great option for working professionals, while on-campus programs typically appeal to recent graduates of master’s programs. Doctorate in social work programs emphasize research and scholarship. Coursework typically covers policy, current issues, and clinical practice. Students often network with professionals in the field, work closely with mentor professors, and receive job placement assistance. Professionals with a doctoral degree in social work are more competitive for jobs and qualify for advanced, higher-paying positions.
What Can I Do With a Doctorate in Social Work?
Social work professionals are typically passionate about helping people and bettering their communities. An advanced degree in social work often leads to career opportunities in clinical social work, research, and education. Doctoral studies require a strong academic drive and excellent time-management and organizational skills. After earning a doctorate in social work, graduates can pursue many careers, including those below.
- Social Workers
Social workers identify and help people in need, assisting and supporting them with daily issues. Students earning a doctorate in social work may be current social workers; however, a doctoral degree in the field can lead to advanced clinical practice opportunities.
Median Annual Salary: $47,980
Projected Growth Rate: 16%
- Postsecondary Teachers
Social work Ph.D. programs prepare graduates for positions as professors at colleges and universities. These professionals generally teach courses within their department. They may also serve in administrative roles, such as department chair or advisory board member.
Median Annual Salary: $76,000
Projected Growth Rate: 15%
- Marriage and Family Therapists
Marriage and family therapists help clients overcome and cope with issues in their families and/or personal relationships. These therapists typically hold at least a master’s degree in social work, but a doctor of social work degree can lead to higher clinical practice positions and increased salary potential.
Median Annual Salary: $48,790
Projected Growth Rate: 23%
- Rehabilitation Counselors
These counselors support people with disabilities or injuries as they transition back into everyday life following rehabilitation. These professionals also help clients undergoing rehabilitation develop healthy coping mechanisms.
Median Annual Salary: $34,860
Projected Growth Rate: 13%
- School and Career Counselors
School and career counselors work in settings such as elementary, middle, and high schools; college campuses; and organizational workplaces. They may help students establish positive academic habits and set academic goals. Others help working professionals create emotionally healthy and supportive work environments.
Median Annual Salary: $55,410
Projected Growth Rate: 13%
How to Choose a Doctoral Program in Social Work
Students should consider several factors when selecting a program. Earning a Ph.D. in social work typically takes three to five years, depending on the program and the student. Some online programs offer accelerated options, allowing students to complete courses more quickly and reduce completion time. On-campus programs require in-person interaction in traditional classroom settings and may provide opportunities such as graduate internships and assistantships.
To determine cost, students should consider the number of required credits and the anticipated degree completion time. Along with tuition and fees, learners should consider the area’s cost of living, transportation to and from campus, textbooks, and missed work hours.
Students should also consider the type of culminating project each program requires. Most Ph.D. in social work programs include a formal dissertation, which is a long-form written project that often requires significant research and field experience. Other programs also require clinical work or another type of field experience. Learners should consider how each prospective program fits into their current lifestyle and whether it will help them meet their academic goals.
Programmatic Accreditation for Doctoral Programs in Social Work
Institutional accreditation means a regional or national accrediting agency has verified that the institution meets set academic standards. Attending an accredited school ensures that other institutions and future employers will recognize a student’s earned credits and degrees.
Programs can also hold field-specific accreditation. Many states require candidates for social work licensure to hold a degree from a program with accreditation from the Council on Social Work Education. Graduates of social work Ph.D. programs without accreditation from the Council on Social Work Education cannot earn licensure in certain states.
Doctorate in Social Work Program Admissions
Doctoral degrees are terminal, so professionals with these credentials are experts in their field. Ph.D. in social work programs are typically more selective than undergraduate or master’s programs. Applying to on-campus Ph.D. programs often requires letters of recommendation, GRE scores, a detailed resume or curriculum vitae, and a certain amount of previous field experience. Online Ph.D. programs often have additional admissions requirements. Because admission to social work Ph.D. programs is so competitive, students should consider applying to at least five or six programs.
- Degree: Applicants to Ph.D. in social work programs typically need a master’s degree. Some programs require a master’s in social work, while others accept applicants with degrees in related fields.
- Professional Experience: Some programs require applicants to have a certain amount of professional experience. Other programs only require students to complete field experience during the Ph.D. program.
- Minimum GPA: A high cumulative GPA in previous coursework typically helps applicants gain entrance to doctoral programs. Many programs require a minimum 3.0 GPA. Professional experience may make up for a low GPA.
- License: Practicing social workers likely already have a license. Some Ph.D. programs require applicants to hold licensure, but others allow students to obtain licensure while earning their degree.
- Application: Applications to doctoral programs vary significantly by school, and there is no equivalent to the Common App.
- Transcripts: Applicants must submit official undergraduate and graduate transcripts. These transcripts come directly from the applicant’s previous schools and typically require a small fee.
- Letters of Recommendation: Letters of recommendation should come from mentors, supervisors, and/or professors who can speak to the applicant’s strengths. Students should allow recommenders a few weeks to write and submit letters before the deadline.
- Test Scores: Applicants to Ph.D. in social work programs must typically submit GRE scores. Minimum GRE score requirements vary by program, and other qualifications may outweigh standardized test scores.
- Application Fee: Graduate application fees are often higher than those for undergraduate programs, typically about $30-70. Some schools offer fee waivers for applicants who demonstrate financial hardship.
What Else Can I Expect From a Doctoral Program in Social Work?
Because every social work department is shaped by the faculty who teach there, each program will be different, so students should consider their professional goals and academic interests when exploring program options.
|Advanced Practice||Many professionals who pursue a Ph.D. in social work aspire to advanced practice positions. This concentration prepares students to obtain state licensure required for advanced practice.||Advanced practice social worker, clinician|
|Social Work Policy||This concentration emphasizes the various policies that affect social work professionals and clients. Students prepare to advocate for the field and to understand and influence legislation that affects practice.||Advanced practice social worker, policymaker|
|Social Work Administration||Students in this concentration gain skills necessary to run social work departments and systems. This concentration often covers policies affecting social work systems, ethics, and values.||Social work supervisor/administrator, policymaker, educator|
|Children and Youth||This concentration prepares students for advanced practice positions working with children and young people. Coursework often explores learning and mental disabilities, dealing with the effects of abuse, and other issues common among at-risk kids and young clients.||Advanced practice social worker, child and family services professional|
|Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies||Students prepare to work with marginalized and at-risk populations, including women and members of the LGBTQ+ community. Students train to assist and support these clients while fostering a respectful and safe environment.||Advanced practice social worker, clinician, educator|
Courses in a Doctoral Program in Social Work
Most Ph.D. in social work programs require coursework that builds scholarship and research skills. Although the curricula vary by school, Ph.D. students can expect to take classes similar to the sample courses below.
- Statistics and Data Analysis
To conduct quality research, professionals need skills in data analysis and statistics. This course prepares students to analyze collected research data and may include an ongoing research project.
- Social Welfare Policy
This course prepares students to advocate for legislation and policies related to social work. The course may include an overview of existing policies that affect clinicians and clients and prepares students to participate in the creation and implementation of strong, beneficial policy.
- Doctoral Seminars
During doctoral seminars, students generally work closely with professors to create a course that aligns with their specific research and career interests. Seminars may focus on different topics each semester, or students may work toward completion of a project.
- Ethics in Social Work
This course typically involves a graduate-level overview of ethics, both in the workplace and in social work environments. Topics often include client-clinician relationships, confidentiality, and mandated reporting policies.
- Teaching in Higher Education
Because a Ph.D. prepares students to teach at the university level, most doctoral programs include related coursework. These courses often emphasize pedagogy, lesson planning, and course and syllabi creation.
How Long Does It Take to Get a Doctorate in Social Work?
Most Ph.D. programs require 50 to 60 credits and take about four years to complete, though several factors impact an individual student’s completion time. Some programs allow students to take more credits simultaneously to reduce degree completion time. Learners in online programs often have opportunities to graduate more quickly. Part-time students generally require longer to graduate than full-time students. Additionally, the time necessary to graduate can affect the cost of the degree.
How Much Is a Doctorate in Social Work?
Graduate education often requires some large expenses. Graduate tuition typically costs more per credit than undergraduate tuition. In addition to tuition costs, students should consider fees, housing costs, textbook expenses, and the cost of new devices. All these costs contribute to the overall cost of the degree.
On-campus students often have opportunities to pursue graduate or teaching assistantships. These positions often include a tuition waiver and a stipend. However, those who already work full time often finance their degree through grants, scholarships, and student loans.
Certifications and Licenses a Doctorate in Social Work Prepares For
- Licensed Master Social Worker-Advanced Generalist
Candidates for this license must hold at least a master’s in social work. A Ph.D. program helps prepare learners for the advanced generalist exam. This license allows professionals to practice social work at an advanced level, but some states may not offer this specific license.
- Licensed Clinical Social Worker
Professionals in any state who wish to practice social work clinically must obtain this license. Candidates must hold at least an MSW from a program with accreditation from the Association of Social Work Boards, pass the clinical examination, and complete supervised clinical practice hours.
- Licensed Advanced Practice Social Worker
A doctorate in social work prepares students to earn this credential. Candidates must hold an MSW or doctorate in social work from an accredited program, pass the clinical exam, and complete at least 3,000 face-to-face supervised clinical hours.
Resources for Social Work Doctoral Students
ASWB offers social work licensure exams and provides social work resources for professionals and the general social work community, including a license look-up tool.
This free online magazine offers articles for practicing social workers. The organization also provides a newsletter, continuing education and professional development programs, and a community forum.
Housed at Boston University, this research network provides information on funding opportunities, calls for papers, published research, and news and updates in the field.
This website provides resources to help visitors stay updated on social justice issues. The website includes a social work category with articles directly related to the field.
This organization provides resources that are especially useful for students who aspire to careers in social work policy. CRISP advocates for the involvement of social work professionals and clinicians in social work policymaking.
Professional Organizations in Social Work
Professional organizations offer resources and benefits for students in social work programs. These organizations often provide access to networking opportunities, continuing education programs, annual conferences, and career services. The organizations below cater to students and professionals in social work.
In addition to serving as the primary accrediting body for social work programs, CSWE offers resources including an annual conference and a scholarly journal.
This organization provides resources for students and professionals, including special events, advocacy, information on practice, a career center, and a news archive.
The CSWA supports current and aspiring clinical social workers. Members have access to information on legislation and policy issues, as well as a job board.
The International Federation of Social Workers is a global network for social workers. IFSW emphasizes work in social justice, advocates for the profession, and models best practices.
Members interested in conducting research in social work benefit from the awards, grants, journal publications, and doctoral student resources.