Whether you're already a practicing social worker and looking to transition into a leadership role or just beginning to explore the profession, deciding whether to pursue a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Social Work or a Doctor of Social Work (DSW) can be an exciting and daunting proposition. Both a DSW and a PhD are doctoral degrees, but these doctoral programs differ in significant ways.
So, how should you compare the two paths? Which degree is the best fit for your desired career path? This article can inform your decision by exploring these questions:
A PhD in Social Work leads primarily to a career in academia and/or advanced research. A research-intensive degree, the PhD prepares social workers for scholarly research and the tools to teach social work practice. A PhD program typically culminates in a dissertation, a multiyear research project producing a long scholarly paper on an original subject. A PhD candidate must defend their dissertation in front of a committee of scholars. They must also pass a comprehensive oral examination.
PhD in Social Work programs focus on developing and strengthening research skills and preparing future Doctor of Philosophy students to pursue a career in higher education and/or advanced research.
In order to "promote rigor in doctoral education in social work" and develop "researchers and educators who function as stewards of the discipline," The Group for the Advancement of Doctoral Education (GADE) stresses the importance of in-depth research training for PhD students resulting in multiple published journal articles and conference presentations.
Most PhD in Social Work programs are research-focused, stressing intensive research training and mentoring alongside opportunities to develop teaching skills. PhD in Social Work students typically must take a final examination at the end of their course studies. After this exam, students work with a mentor to establish a dissertation plan and then defend their dissertation.
In almost all PhD in Social Work programs, students gain exposure into:
Social work PhD admission requirements tend to be similar from program to program. Generally, requirements include the following:
In addition to a formal application, additional material may include:
A PhD in Social Work usually takes between five and seven years to complete. PhD candidates typically complete the coursework portion of the degree in two to three years.
Social work PhD students usually pursue one of two fields:
Depending on both personal preference and one’s hiring institution, a professor of social work may spend more time in the classroom than in the research field. If you enjoy a student-facing role while also juggling collaborative research and preparing publications, becoming a professor of social work might be the right track for you. The average salary for a professor of social work is $101,628.
Alternatively, as a field researcher, social work professionals have the opportunity to conduct research for a wide array of organizations. From public health nonprofits to government agencies focused on mental health, social work field researchers meet the challenge of evaluating the effectiveness of different programs and identifying new and innovative ways to help vulnerable populations and make real social change.
In contrast to a PhD in social work program, a Doctor of Social Work program (DSW) is focused on strengthening a student’s advanced clinical social work skills and managerial expertise. A DSW is a "practice doctorate," putting a special emphasis on real-world social work experience at both an individual and a leadership/management level.
A DSW program focuses on bolstering prospective students' professional practice abilities through advanced clinical practice training. Students take the preliminary skills they were taught in their master’s degree programs and expand on those skills to become leaders in the field.
DSW programs prepare practitioners for managerial-level positions in the nonprofit, public health, and social services realm. In Tulane University’s online DSW program, students take such courses as:
A DSW will help you take your Master of Social Work (MSW) degree to the next level. DSW programs test your critical thinking, crisis coordination, and leadership skills, all imperative to develop as a successful social work leader.
The admissions requirements for a DSW and a PhD in Social Work are similar. You'll need to show you've earned a Master of Social Work from a school with CSWE accreditation and provide GRE scores, letters of recommendation, a personal statement, and official transcripts for all previous postsecondary academic work.
Since a DSW program places a stronger emphasis on advanced clinical programs, admission to a DSW program requires extensive hands-on experience in social work. Since candidates have completed an MSW program, they typically meet this criterion without difficulty.
Unlike PhD in Social Work programs, full-time DSW programs move quite quickly. A typical DSW program takes around three years to finish. DSW programs are more likely than PhD programs to offer a part-time study option.
Depending on the program, students typically spend the first three or four semesters covering general coursework, followed by elective work and a capstone project. The capstone project requires students to use their learned research methods to present a final presentation directly related to their course experience and future career goals.
A DSW program focuses on preparing future practitioners for leadership positions in a multitude of roles within the social work arena. A DSW can qualify you for high-level administrative leadership positions, leading to some of the highest-paying jobs in the field. According to ZipRecruiter, a director of social work earns an average salary of over $82,000 (top earners bring in over $115,000).
A DSW can also open the door to policy leadership, research development, social justice advocacy, health care and teaching roles. While a PhD is better suited for individuals on a direct path to academia, a DSW provides the opportunity to bring your knowledge and skills learned from prior clinical or leadership careers into the classroom.
It depends on your career goals. Are you interested in academics and research? The PhD is the degree for you. Are you looking to advance to leadership positions in clinical social work, policy advocacy, or social work administration? If so, the DSW is the better fit.
Professor Bruce Thyer, initially a DSW skeptic who received his PhD in Social Work from the University of Michigan, emphasized that as a PhD in Social Work, you are almost guaranteed to have strong research skills. However, he notes, many PhDs lack post-MSW work experience or licensure to practice clinical social work. The benefit of a DSW is that one acquires hands-on experience as a clinical social worker, which they can subsequently bring to the classroom.
If you are feeling inspired to move up the social work ladder and become a leader in your field, a DSW degree might be the way to go. Terrific schools such as Tulane University offer you the opportunity to start your DSW path from the comfort of your own home. At Tulane University, the DSW Online Degree Program helps students prepare for executive-level positions through coursework that fosters critical thinking and collaborative skills. The program environment is flexible, adaptable, and individually focused, and takes only three-years to complete.
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