According to a 2017 workforce study from the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), PhD and DSW degrees lead to the highest earnings of any social work credential—between $20,000 and $25,000 more in median annual salary than a Master of Social Work (MSW). That differential represents a significant increase over the organization's 2015 findings, which concluded that doctoral-level social workers earned $12,000 more annually than those at the master's degree level and $23,000 more than those with just a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW).
The NASW reports that slightly more than 13 percent of social workers with a master's plan to earn a doctoral degree—that's just one percent of the social work labor force. In a field where so many of your peers hold a master's degree and practice clinical social work, a doctorate can deliver an advantage when you're competing for social work's top jobs.
This article discusses the top-paying jobs for doctors of social work. It looks into:
For many years, the PhD was the only social work doctorate worth having. It's only recently that DSW programs have become more popular.
The primary difference between these degrees is that PhD holders typically pursue social work careers in research or teaching, while a DSW is a professional degree characteristically leading to a career in social work management, administration, and leadership. PhD programs lean more on theoretical and pedagogical approaches to social work. DSW programs also teach theory but focus more on implementation, often in the form of applied research toward practical solutions. Still, DSW holders can become teachers or researchers, and PhD holders can have management or administrative positions.
The time required to complete these degrees constitutes another significant difference. DSW students may only need three years to finish, while PhD candidates may take between five and seven.
There is quite a bit of overlap in terms of degree content. Both offer coursework covering subjects like:
The main difference between these degrees is in how they apply the material. The Tulane University of Louisiana DSW, the only one in the state, "helps practitioners seeking a path toward leadership have the opportunity to continue their education and goal of creating a more equitable world." The Fordham University PhD program "empowers you to be a leader as a social work scholar who can contribute to social work education, research, social policy, and practice."
Specialization is common in social work—healthcare social worker and school social worker are just two of many examples of social work specialization. The NASW identifies 16 specializations for the field of social work, though few if any schools offer them all. They are:
Both degree formats offer multiple track options, each with different courses and fieldwork opportunities.
Even though DSW programs are becoming more popular, earning a PhD is still the most common way to go. According to the 2017 NASW study, only about one-third of MSWs pursuing a doctorate want to earn a DSW.
Whichever degree you choose, make sure it's from a Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) accredited program. The CSWE is the social work education governing body that sets education standards; it has approved over 600 programs. Many employers insist on accredited degrees.
The jobs listed below are open to DSWs but also to PhDs. We have not listed private clinical practice, even though that's a job some doctoral-level social workers do because clinical practice does not necessarily require a DSW or PhD.
Four of the top-paying jobs for those with a DSW include:
A DSW can qualify you for many high-level administrative leadership positions. Administrative leader is a macro-level job, meaning you won't be working with clients. Instead, you'll focus on managing those who provide human services. Be prepared to complete tasks like:
Administrative leaders can work in many settings, such as:
High-level administrators are among the best paid professionals in social work. According to Salary.com, social work managers earn a median salary of slightly over $93,000—the top ten percent earn more than $117,000 annually. PayScale lists the average social services administrator salary as just under $70,000 per year.
According to the NASW, "A doctoral degree in social work can also equip social workers with the skills necessary for public policy careers, either conducting policy analysis or developing public policy at the state or national level." They can focus on areas like budgeting or changing and creating laws.
Policy leaders often work for government agencies or at the community level, including social welfare agencies and justice organizations. This is another role where you won't directly interact with clients but will influence how clinical social workers do.
According to PayScale, the average director of public policy earns close to $85,000 annually—with the top ten percent earning nearly $150,000. Policy analysts earn less, close to $60,000—though the top ten percent of professionals earn $83,000.
While the PhD is considered a research degree, DSWs can certainly work in this field. Often, research becomes one aspect of their career. You may apply research techniques in a social work leadership position or focus on research in academics. One 2019 DSW graduate from New York University, Amy Lemen, took the position of Research Assistant Professor of Neurology and Medicine.
A graduate from the University of Pennsylvania program decided to earn her degree because it would help her "take what I was doing clinically and turn that into research, and then take the results I was getting from my dissertation work and put it into practice."
There are more readily available data about researchers with an MSW than those with a DSW. According to a 2018 NASW study, indirect social workers, which is a category that includes researchers, earned an average income of $46,500 in that year, which was the most of all social work specializations.
Still, that figure doesn't tell the whole story—even without adding the extra thousands you can expect to make with a DSW. Much depends on where you work. For instance, government researchers earn an average salary of $113,031 across all disciplines. According to Glassdoor, university researchers earn an average salary of $56,000, but top researchers can earn as much as $103,000.
What you'll earn in this position comes down to where you work and your education. Having a doctoral degree allows you to earn more and conduct more impactful research.
Educators teach the next batch of social workers and help them earn initial licensure. Teaching social work requires substantial professional experience, which is why an applied degree like a DSW can be useful. Many professionals decide to begin their teaching careers after completing clinical or leadership careers.
Because teaching social work is predicated on professional experience, you don't even need a doctorate, though it certainly helps. According to one DSW, quoted in the NASW's 2017 graduates survey, "I would recommend a DSW for those in academia that have taught for a few years and need the doctorate degree to elevate them to the next level."
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, social work educators earn a median annual wage of over $71,000, with the top ten percent earning nearly $130,000.
Earning a DSW can be a huge boon for your career, but remember, not many social workers pursue doctoral degrees, opting instead to stop after an MSW program. Be selective about the program you attend—even social work programs with the proper accreditation can differ in quality.
Determine what position you want before deciding to earn a DSW. You can easily start an entry-level social work career with just a bachelor's degree. Starting a private clinical social work practice requires a master's degree and a few years of experience. You don't necessarily need a doctorate, though it can help.
The best reason to earn a doctorate is to obtain teaching, management, leadership, or research positions, especially in local government, institutional leadership, or a related field like directing a nonprofit. For those who know what they want, a DSW can be an excellent way to advance their social work career.
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