Social Work

How to Get a PhD in Social Work (And Qualify for Macro-Level Positions)

How to Get a PhD in Social Work (And Qualify for Macro-Level Positions)
There are few social work careers outside of academia in which having a PhD is a requirement for advancement, but job growth in social work as a whole is happening much faster than average—and having a doctorate-level degree may end up being one of the best ways to differentiate yourself in a changing job market. Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry October 22, 2019

If your dream career is teaching and researching social work, a PhD in Social Work is the degree for you. For other advanced social work positions, consider also the MSW or DSW.

Article continues here

Social workers seeking doctorates have two basic choices. They can pursue a Doctor of Social Work (DSW) degree, which prepares students for careers in advanced social work practice, leadership, and applied research. Or, they can pursue a PhD in Social Work, which typically leads to a career as a professor and/or a theoretical researcher. In short: if you want to stay in the field, the DSW is probably the degree for you. If you aspire to the ivied walls of academe, the PhD will more likely serve your purposes.

Most social work PhD programs focus on research methods, the theoretical nature of social work, public policy evaluation, and statistics. It’s pretty wonky stuff focused on the 30,000 macro level of social work.

In this guide to a PhD in Social Work, we’ll cover:

  • What is social work?
  • Possible fields and career paths for social work PhDs
  • PhD versus DSW
  • Prerequisites for a PhD in Social Work
  • What you’ll study in a PhD in Social Work program
  • Commitment required for a PhD in Social Work
  • Is this the right degree for me?

What is social work?

The term ‘social work‘ applies to a broad range of activities focused on serving people in need. Social workers focus on a variety of specializations addressing problems associated with lack of housing or health care, abuse and neglect, mental illness, family issues, and disability issues.

Social work tends to be divided into three overlapping practice categories: micro, mezzo, and macro social work.

Micro social work

In micro-level social work, clinicians work one-on-one with individuals and families to solve their issues. Micro-level social work is the most common subset of social work. You’ll find micro-level social workers in:

  • Food pantries
  • Homeless shelters
  • Hospitals
  • Law enforcement agencies
  • Organizations that work with vulnerable populations
  • Prisons
  • Schools
  • Social services offices

Mezzo social work

Mezzo-level social workers interface with groups on a small scale, working with:

  • Community groups
  • Community housing project initiatives
  • Local substance abuse programs
  • Neighborhood groups
  • Shelter programs
  • Support groups

Social workers may help connect these groups to resources, advocate for them in the political arena, or oversee programs.

Macro social work

Macro-level social workers are concerned with entire populations; they tend to work with systems to create sweeping changes. They typically spend their time interfacing with legislators, city officials, or large institutions to shape and implement broad policy. Macro-level social workers typically hold titles like administrator and director. These are the roles most likely to require a doctoral degree (more often a DSW than a PhD, but it could be either).


“I Want to Be A Social Worker!”

University and Program Name Learn More

Possible fields and career paths for social work PhDs

The PhD in Social Work is primarily a research degree. Social work PhDs most often work in one of the following two roles:

Professor of social work

In this role, you’ll probably do a mix of teaching and research, though you may spend more time in the classroom than in the field. How often you’re expected to do the latter will depend on the hiring institution. You’ll need to balance the needs of your students and your publishing schedule with your service-oriented responsibilities. You may be required to serve on various committees and develop new programs. Social work faculty earn, on average, around $95,856 annually, according to

Field researcher

Large organizations and governments looking to create or optimize initiatives need research to demonstrate the effectiveness, feasibility, and sustainability of those initiatives. Sometimes it’s unclear whether a social service agency is helping its target population, and researchers are needed to evaluate agency effectiveness. Research may also involve identifying new problems or vulnerable populations or developing new theories.

Field researchers across disciplines can earn about $62,000 annually, according to CareerBuilder, but how much you can earn in this role will be determined by your employer. A large corporation almost invariably pays more than a medium-size non-profit.

As a PhD, your degree plus your clinical social work experience may also qualify you to become a:

  • Child welfare administrator
  • Clinical practice director in a mental health facility
  • Director of corporate social responsibility
  • Director of social services
  • Executive director of a non-profit
  • International development administrator
  • Program evaluator
  • Social services consultant

Contrary to what some people think, not all social work PhDs work in academia, social services, law enforcement, and the non-profit sphere. Many big companies have realized that social workers can help them create better work environments, more equitable corporate policies, and more diverse workplaces. Once you earn a PhD in Social Work, you may be able to find well-paying work in the corporate sector.

PhD versus DSW

There are two types of doctoral degrees in social work: the Doctor of Philosophy in Social Work (PhD) and the Doctor of Social Work (DSW).

The DSW is an applied degree; the PhD, an academic degree. Students in both degree programs are likely to study administration, research, policy analysis, and program development, but DSW students spend more time studying advanced clinical practice methods while PhD students learn quantitative analysis, survey and research methods, policy issue integration, and teaching methodologies.

Both degree pathways provide a deeper understanding of social work, but PhD programs are usually the best choice for aspiring scholars, researchers, and educators. However, there can be significant overlap between PhD and DSW programs. Read curriculum and student guides carefully before applying to any advanced degree program at a graduate school.

Prerequisites for a PhD in Social Work

While it’s possible to get an associate’s degree in social work (ASW) and begin working in the field, you’ll need to earn a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW) from a Council on Social Work Education-accredited university before you can pursue a social work PhD.

Most on-campus BSW programs (like the one offered by the University of Wisconsin – Madison School of Social Work) take four years to complete, though there are also full-time online social work programs (like those offered by the University of Utah and the University of North Dakota) and part-time on-campus and online programs.

All BSW programs include coursework focused on:

  • Field work
  • Group practice methods
  • Psychology
  • Research
  • Social justice
  • Social welfare policy
  • Sociology and human behavior
  • Working with people and families

Most BSW programs are broad in their scope. They all prepare students to guide underserved or oppressed people, families, or communities toward the resources they need to have a brighter future.

From there, you may want to earn a Master of Social Work (MSW). Not every university requires applicants to possess an MSW degree before applying for PhD in Social Work programs—the University of Wisconsin–Madison doesn’t—but many, including University of California – Berkeley, do. In cases where applicants haven’t completed an MSW program, they may be required to complete additional coursework requirements.

What you’ll study in a PhD in Social Work program

Like other PhD programs, most social work PhD programs require students to complete one to two years of full-time coursework (along with qualifying examinations) before they commence work on their dissertations. Enola K. Proctor, of the Washington University in St Louis George Warren Brown School of Social Work, told The New Social Worker that in most programs, “Students focus their studies on advanced courses in a substantive area of specialization and on research and statistical methodology. This focus is consistent with the purpose of doctoral education: to prepare individuals to conduct research to advance the social work knowledge base.”

In some programs, like the one at Columbia University, students can choose a concentration such as advanced practice, social policy analysis, or social policy administration.

In all PhD in Social Work programs, students take classes like:

  • Research Methods
  • Multivariate Statistics
  • Social Science Theory
  • Social Welfare History
  • Social Policy Evaluation
  • Social Work Education
  • Social Work Methodology

You may be allowed to choose both social work-focused electives and general electives. At the end of your coursework, you’ll take a comprehensive examination. After passing the exam, you’ll submit a dissertation plan and then defend your dissertation overview. If your overview is accepted, you’ll begin the research and writing phase of your dissertation. After you submit your dissertation— a year or more later—you may have to complete substantial rewrites before it is approved.

Commitment required for a PhD in Social Work

Most PhD in social work programs can be completed in three to four years, with the first two years comprised of coursework and the third and possibly fourth years focused on the dissertation and dissertation defense. Because PhD programs are typically heavy on work, many schools allow candidates six or seven years to complete their degrees. That’s good, because most students do not complete their PhDs in the minimum possible time.

The average time to earn a PhD across all fields is seven years and 50 percent of all PhD candidates fail to complete this degree path.

Is this the right degree for me?

The only way to answer this question is to think about your short- and long-term career goals and your resources.

Ideally, you’ll find a PhD program that’s truly fully-funded and covers the cost of not only tuition and fees, but also books and supplies, living expenses, health insurance, and research. Even programs that are described as fully-funded may not cover all of your living expenses, and funding may only be available for a certain number of years. Are you in a place financially to make up the difference? Can you take on additional teaching or research assistantships?

Next, consider your career goals. If you love clinical work—whether that means providing therapy, working with vulnerable individuals, community organizing, or educating clients—an MSW is technically the terminal degree. Your MSW degree is sufficient to qualify you for many management degrees, if you are so inclined. You could also continue studying and earn your DSW (a degree that has become much less common than the PhD over time) to further broaden your practice options.

On the other hand, if you’re dreaming of doing your own research or of becoming a professor, the PhD is probably the degree for you. You won’t be limited to academia, either. Columbia University School of Social Work Assistant Professor Randy H. Magen told The New Social Worker that this degree “also opens doors for interdisciplinary collaboration and contact as well as with agencies interested in conducting research. I have known people to go into agency work (research positions or administrative positions) as well as positions in the government, both research and policy.”

The bottom line is that there are still few social work careers outside of academia in which having a PhD is a requirement for advancement. The precise outlook for social work PhDs is hard to determine. Job growth in social work as a whole is happening much faster than average, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and having a doctorate-level degree may end up being one of the best ways to differentiate yourself in a changing job market.

Questions or feedback? Email

About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

To learn more about our editorial standards, you can click here.


You May Also Like To Read

Categorized as: Social WorkSocial Work & Counseling & Psychology