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“Connection is why we’re here; it is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives,” author, storyteller, social worker, and proud University of Houston grad (and current professor) Dr. Brené Brown writes in the bestseller The Gifts of Imperfection.
For those captivated by connection, like Brown is, there’s no better way to explore it than by getting a doctoral degree in social work. Social work Ph.D. students study human behavior, psychology, social welfare, and more in an attempt to better understand what makes us tick, then use that information to create change. Some go on to teach and work in higher education, others continue to perform research, while some continue on to create policy and work for the government, think tanks, and corporations.
Brown’s star turn may have added a dash of glamour to the social work profession, but there’s a lot to consider before seeking out a Ph.D. Here’s what you should know.
In this article, we’ll cover:
Social workers aspiring to the doctorate level may find information on two specific degree type. Here’s how they compare:
Some MSWs and licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs) teach in university social work programs, but most tenured social work professors have a doctoral degree. Those extra years of school and research give social work PhDs a better understanding of the field, and, typically, a specialization. Brown, for example, specializes in and teaches classes on shame and vulnerability—just one of many options for a social work Ph.D.
There are a couple of significant practical considerations:
- A Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in social work
- A license to practice or required social work certification
Credentials vary among careers, states, and territories. Licenses include:
- Certified Social Worker (CSW)
- Clinical Social Work Associate (CSWA)
- Licensed Advanced Practice Social Worker (LAPSW)
- Licensed Advanced Social Worker (LASW)
- Licensed Baccalaureate Social Worker (LBSW)
- Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
- Licensed Graduate Social Worker (LGSW)
- Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW)
- Licensed Mental Health Professional (LMHP)
- Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW)
Most of these licenses require a Master’s or Doctorate, along with additional coursework or clinical internships. ( )
A survey of 2017 social work graduates by the National Social Work Workforce Study found that social workers with Master’s degrees and Doctorates made substantially more than those with no advanced degree. ( )
- People with MSW degrees made $13,000-plus more than those with only BSW degrees
- MSWs make more in large cities or urban clusters
- People with doctorates earned $20,000 to $25,000 more than people with only MSW degrees
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Leading social work research typically requires a Ph.D. as well. While some master’s students may assist with studies, those creating and spearheading the studies are usually Ph.D. students and social workers with a doctoral degree. If you dream of a career spent crunching data, like Brown, it’s worth considering a Ph.D.
While many with social work PhDs build careers centered around academia, that’s not always the case. Some go on to work for corporations, helping establish company culture and ensure employees’ health and well-being. Others might go on to a career in government, working to improve social work-informed policy. Some might go on to practice as therapists, with more education than their LCSW colleagues. Whatever the career path, a doctoral degree will help establish credibility and will certainly never hurt.
Master’s degree: While there’s no one path to a social work PhD, a Master’s in Social Work (MSW) is the most obvious foundation for students seeking possible fields and career paths for a doctorate in social work. It lays the social work education groundwork for a doctoral degree, teaching basic research skills, a policy background, as well as the tenets of social work practice. While some schools have joint MSW and Ph.D. programs, most schools require a master’s degree for admission. Other degrees that serve as a stepping stone include a master of psychology, a master of counseling, and a master of education.
GPA: Students are often required to provide transcripts showing academic performance, including an acceptable grade point average (GPA). Many schools, such as New York University, require a minimum master’s degree GPA of at least 3.0 on a 4-point scale.
GRE scores: Though some schools are bucking the trend, most programs require these scores for consideration. The test can give schools a better understanding of an applicant’s writing, analytical and qualitative skills, which all come into play during a Ph.D. program. Students for whom English is not their first language, or who earned a degree at a non-English school, will likely have to submit Test of English as a Foreign Language, or TOEFL, scores.
Hands-on experience: Applicants should have a solid grasp of the field through internships, practice, and research experience in social justice, social welfare, evidence-based practice, and mental health.
Specialty: Applicants should also have a practice area in mind, as well as a reason for pursuing a degree beyond the typical MSW. Ph.D. programs are incredibly competitive, and a convincing argument can set you apart.
There’s no “one size fits all guide” for choosing the right grad school, but there are resources that when combined, will help you create a list of the top schools for a doctorate in social work to best suit your interests and skills—and succeed throughout your program.
If you’re seeking a grad school with a killer reputation, there are a number of reputable doctorate programs to choose from here:
Despite the increasing number of MSW students establishing social welfare careers through online programs, major universities do not offer opportunities for PhD distance learning since programs require rigorous in-person research, teaching, and working closely with an advisor.
The good news: Many doctoral degrees are partly, if not fully, funded. The not-so-good news: Completing one can take nearly a decade. While a Ph.D. can be an incredible credential, it’s not a decision to be made lightly.
Many schools offer full funding for doctoral students, comprised of fellowships, teaching stipends and more. The University of Michigan, for example, offers five years of full tuition and a modest living stipend to its doctoral students, thanks to a mix of awards, assistantships, and instructorships. Funding only covers the essentials, but PhD students are often able to earn their degree without amassing student loan debt. Those with existing debt from bachelor’s and master’s degrees are often able to freeze the loans until graduating from an accredited program. That said, many schools do not offer full funding or only offer funding for a certain number of years. Students might consider working part-time as social workers while pursuing a Ph.D., taking out loans, or seeking out independent grants and fellowships.
Social work students should plan on completing a Ph.D. within 4 to 7 years, depending on previous degrees, course load, and dissertation time. College graduates hoping to speed up the process might look for dual MSW/Ph.D. programs, while MSW students should speak with their advisors about preparing for Ph.D. applications. A is a serious undertaking: Those planning on practicing clinical social work, working, say, with at-risk children rather than data points, might consider pursuing an MSW as their terminal degree
While completing a Ph.D. program, students will likely have to complete a qualifying exam— typically a published research paper—after completing core coursework. After passing the qualifying exam, doctoral students will go on to complete and defend a dissertation, a process that can take years and typically involves a high-stakes presentation before a committee.
Students seeking exams and certifications to complete a doctorate in social work will likely be familiar with the education, credentialing, and licensing required at the MSW and LCSW levels due to how they overlap. Because a Ph.D. in social work is not a clinical degree, there’s no doctorate-level licensure test that graduates must pass. Those with social work PhDs who wish to practice must take master’s level licensure tests, becoming LMSWs and potentially LCSWsafter a certain number of years. If a Ph.D. student is already licensed as a social worker, that same licensure carries over after earning a doctorate degree. Some Ph.D. grads continue to practice as clinical social workers, which typically requires licensure as an LCSW, but most go on to social service careers as researchers, scholars, and educators.
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