Social work and sociology are often confused. While they are similar, the difference lies in the application of knowledge. Sociologists study human behavior and the influences that drive our actions. Social work, on the other hand, uses these theories and principles to directly impact society.

A doctoral degree in social work explores the fundamentals of sociopyschology and group dynamics, and in turn prepares graduates to affect positive change for populations who need help. Graduates of social work Ph.D. programs are also trained to conduct research that further illustrates solutions to society’s ills.

Why a Ph.D. in Social Work?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), a master’s degree in social work is the basic requirement for practicing clinicians. Holding a Ph.D. in social work, however, qualifies graduates for leadership positions, advanced clinical practice and the opportunity to perform individual research. The interdisciplinary curriculum of a doctoral-level program delves more deeply into the study of social sciences and encourages candidates to specialize in a chosen concentration, such as clinical management, addiction services, cognitive development, or trauma recovery.

The career outlook for graduates of Ph.D. social work programs is especially bright, also according to the BLS. These highly trained professionals can expect a 25% increase in available jobs throughout 2020. Social workers who specialize in healthcare, mental health, and substance abuse are projected to have even more job opportunities, due to the growing U.S. population and societal shifts in treating this patient population.

Getting into a Social Work Ph.D. Program

The stellar job prospects for Ph.D. holders in social work create a competitive atmosphere in most top Ph.D. social work programs. Entrance requirements can be quite strict. Applicants to a program such as this should expect to demonstrate:

  • A master’s degree in social work from an accredited educational institution
  • Complete graduate and undergraduate transcripts
  • Cumulative GPA of 3.0, and frequently 3.2 or higher within graduate work
  • Competitive GRE score
  • Two years of clinical practice experience outside of graduate work
  • Resume or curriculum vitae
  • Three letters of recommendation from academic and professional sources
  • Goal statement that outlines career aspirations
  • At least two samples of scholarly papers

Inside a Social Work Ph.D. Program

A social work Ph.D. degree title is commonly referred to as a Doctor of Social Work, or DSW. Candidates for a DSW are groomed for the practical application of knowledge and are trained to work with subsets of the population who may need assistance. This program is designed for working professionals and often can be completed in three years. Graduation requirements include intensive coursework, a field residency, and submission of a research project in the form of a capstone paper.

Classes commonly found in these online degree programs include coverage of cognitive and behavioral therapy, clinical leadership, neuroscience, psychopathology and psychopharmacology, personality theory, and group behaviors. Additionally, some programs allow students to further specialize research and study within the field. Typical course work that would lead to specialization might include:

  • Trauma and Intervention
  • Ethnicity, Diversity and Cultural Implications
  • Addiction Assessment and Treatment
  • Translational Research Methods and Analysis
  • Disasters and Catastrophic Events
  • Client Outcomes and Interventions
  • Political Science and Human Services

Fieldwork may also be conducted in an area that supports a PhD candidate’s research or future specialization. Typically an on-site residency is required; students may arrange local internships that are approved by the school or choose from offerings the school has prearranged. At the culmination of a supervised research project, data is analyzed and presented in a written capstone thesis that must be orally defended.

What’s Next for Social Work Ph.D. Holders?

Graduates of a doctoral-level program in social work gain a competitive edge over clinicians with a master’s degree in social work or counseling. States require a Ph.D. for counseling licensure, so these graduates are eligible to establish a private practice or join a group counseling firm. Ph.D. in social work holders are also qualified for upper-level management positions in human services organizations, community health facilities, the criminal justice system, and healthcare. Some choose to become school practitioners at local school districts or on a post-secondary campus. Still others work for the government as lobbyists for special interests, community developers or social services policy-makers.

Social workers who hold a doctoral degree can expect to be compensated for this additional education through salaries. The BLS reported in 2010 that the median annual salary for a social worker was $42,480. It is important to note that this number only includes social workers who hold a master’s degree; the highest 10% of practicing social workers reported salaries exceeding $70,000 per year. Hospitals and elementary/secondary school districts employed the most social workers, followed by the government.