Ph.D. in Social Work Degree Program Overview

You might wonder what you can do with a Ph.D. in Social Work. Holding a Ph.D. in Social Work opens doors to a range of impactful roles. Social workers, at their core, assess and address the needs of individuals and families within communities, often in hands-on, resource-providing capacities. A Ph.D. elevates this commitment, enabling professionals to assume leadership and management positions, where they oversee and coordinate services on an organizational scale. Additionally, this advanced degree qualifies individuals for roles in research and academia, contributing significantly to the field’s development and knowledge base.

Is a Ph.D. in Social Work Program Right for Me?

Social workers typically earn master’s degrees as their terminal degrees, so you might wonder whether a Ph.D. in Social Work program is right for you. While earning a doctorate won’t lead to higher licensure, a Ph.D. in social work program may open doors to more advanced positions in social work, such as administrator or director positions.

Is a Ph.D. in Social Work Worth It?

Most of us will wonder if investing in a field will advance our career and be “worth it” as we apply for future jobs and seek career fulfillment. What is “worth it” to one person may not be worth it to another, making the answer highly individualized. However, when examining a Ph.D. in Social Work from various perspectives, there is no question that there are many improvements to your career and lifestyle available through this degree program that would not be available otherwise.

Earning a Ph.D. in Social Work can increase your long-term career prospects. As a terminal degree, this Ph.D. can put you at the top of the academic food chain for social work, thus potentially qualifying you for virtually any career within this realm. A Ph.D. is time-consuming, but it also proves your commitment to the social work field, thus enabling you to demonstrate your passion for future employers. Finally, as we will discuss, earning a Ph.D. in Social Work can significantly increase your lifetime earning potential. As such, you might view obtaining this degree as an investment, not just an expense.

Ph.D. in Social Work Benefits

A Ph.D. in Social Work may not be required for your career, but it does offer some important benefits as you break into the field. Here are a few of the top benefits you’ll likely experience when you pursue a Ph.D. in Social Work.

Career Benefits

A Ph.D. in Social Work offers a range of career benefits, including opportunities to craft policy, work in administration, and conduct research. You can also pursue a career as a professor or teacher, which allows you to support the growth of new social workers as they choose their path forward in the field.

Pursue a Career You Care About

You’re likely passionate about helping people. With a Ph.D. in Social Work, you’ll gain the level of knowledge and understanding that will directly impact the communities you care about. In addition, you can conduct research and further contribute to your work with a level of skill and expertise that you may not otherwise attain.

Make an Impact

A Ph.D. in Social Work allows you to have a more significant impact on all levels of policy and decision-making. It can allow you to teach, publish books and articles, and contribute more fully to the debate and public discourse related to social work.

DSW and a Ph.D. in Social Work: What Is the Difference?

The Doctor of Social Work (DSW) and the PhD in Social Work represent two distinct paths in advanced social work education. The DSW is typically focused on applied practice and leadership within the field, aiming to prepare professionals for advanced clinical practice, policy advocacy, or administrative leadership. 

In contrast, the PhD in Social Work is more research-oriented, geared towards those interested in scholarly research, academia, and contributing to the theoretical foundations of social work. While both degrees offer advanced understanding in social work, the choice between a DSW and a PhD often depends on the individual’s career goals, whether they lean towards direct practice and leadership roles or academic research and teaching.

What Is the Difference Between a Ph.D. in Social Work vs. Psychology?

The Ph.D. in Social Work varies from the Ph.D. in Psychology in several fundamental ways. Social workers work directly with individuals, families, and communities to address illness, age, unemployment, poverty, and abuse. Psychologists study abnormal and normal behavior as part of their analysis of the mind. They treat patients or explore the psychological reasons individuals act in specific (sometimes violent) ways. So, Ph.D. in Social Work vs. Psychology programs take a different approach to studying the human condition.

If you think an advanced degree in psychology might be right, check out our APA Accredited PsyD Program page to learn more about the degree program and career outcomes.

What Can You Do With a Ph.D. in Social Work?

A Ph.D. in Social Work opens up a range of possibilities for employment. You can conduct research independently or collaboratively in nursing, public health, health sciences, and other social and racial justice issues. You can become a graduate teaching assistant after completing a Ph.D. in Social Work program. You develop a curriculum and better understand strategic approaches to matters covered in social work.

Ph.D. in Social Work Jobs

Furthermore, earning a Ph.D. in Social Work opens many career opportunities for you. In many cases, these Ph.D. in Social Work jobs are impossible without earning a doctorate. Alternatively, you may be able to get these jobs, but you can maximize your earning potential by earning your Ph.D. These jobs include:

College Professors

One of the more common careers for people who earn doctorates is to become a college professor. Doing so gives you the chance to teach undergraduate or graduate students about your field, making this career a deeply fulfilling one. Furthermore, earning a Ph.D. allows you to specialize in a specific subset of Social Work. These specialties can include mental health, substance abuse, family relationships, and more. Therefore, you can use your doctorate to teach college or graduate students about these fields. You can also fold in research with teaching classes, giving you a balanced approach to your future career.


Obtaining a research grant and having access to funds, equipment, and graduate students often requires a Ph.D. Earning your Ph.D. does more than just teach actual knowledge: It gives you the skills you need to conduct research and develop studies that can further advance your specific subset of social work.

Mental Health Clinicians

Many social workers move into clinical care, becoming experts in treating psychological problems, healing trauma, or helping people overcome addictions. With a Ph.D. in Social Work, you may be able to give individuals the clinical care that they need, helping them address personal problems and repair relationships. Mental health clinicians also often refer people to medical professionals, helping them address other physical or psychiatric problems.

Ph.D. in Social Work Salary and Job Outlook

Earning advanced degrees generally leads to higher salaries and lower unemployment rates. According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, individuals with higher levels of educational attainment, such as a master’s degree or doctoral degree, tend to earn more than those with only a bachelor’s degree or less. Additionally, the unemployment rates are typically lower for those with advanced degrees. This trend underscores the potential economic benefits of pursuing higher education, including in fields like social work. For more detailed information, please visit BLS Education Pays.

Social workers, including those with advanced degrees like a PhD in Social Work, have a promising job outlook and salary potential. As of the latest data, the median annual wage for social workers was $55,350. The highest ten percent of earners made a median annual salary of $87,300, according to the BLS.

Find Out More: Social Worker Salary with a Doctorate Degree

The field is projected to grow 7% from 2022 to 2032, faster than the average for all occupations, according to the BLS. This growth is partly due to an increased demand for healthcare and social services. For more specific information, please refer to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics page on Social Workers.

How Much Does a Ph.D. in Social Work Program Cost?

The average cost of a Ph.D. program is $150,000, although some degrees can range much higher. The more expensive programs typically involve extended time frames of up to eight years. The cost of a Ph.D. in social work programs at private universities is also higher than at public institutions.

Ph.D. in Social Work Scholarship Information

You can access various scholarship options while pursuing a Ph.D. in Social Work. You may be eligible for grants, financial aid, loans, and a range of savings programs if you meet the requirements based on your family, job, and active duty status. Each program offers a different level of scholarship funding, so you should check with the institution to find out more about what you’re eligible for.

Ph.D. in Social Work Program Requirements

While the requirements for a Ph.D. in Social Work programs from different institutions will vary, the basics are the same. You’ll likely need to have the following to meet the requirements for the program.

  • CSWE accredited Master of Social Work (MSW) degree or Master of Science in Social Work (MSSW) from an accredited school
  • Official transcripts from every institution you’ve attended
  • Completed application, including a personal statement or essay
  • Scholarly article or writing sample that proves you have critical thinking and analytical skills

Depending on the institution, the program, and your area of emphasis or specialization, you may need to fulfill other requirements before being admitted to the Ph.D. in Social work program.

Common Courses in Ph.D. in Social Work Program

The courses for a Ph.D. in Social Work often involve social change strategies, research practice, and methodology. The classes you might need to take, depending on your program and career goals, include the following:

  • Leadership and advocacy
  • Quantitative research in social work
  • Research practice and methodology
  • Social change
  • Social methods
  • Social work data analysis
  • Statistics and Social Sciences
  • Theories of social work

Each program will have different course types, but you’ll likely need to take coursework in leadership, social work theories, and other research-related classes.

Ph.D. in Social Work Program Accreditation

The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) extends institutional accreditation for those programs with a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) and a Master of Social Work (MSW). However, the CSWE does not currently offer accreditation for a Ph.D. in Social Work or a DSW in Social Work. While it may be possible that the CSWE will accredit doctoral programs in the future, no organization currently offers accreditation for social work doctoral programs.

How Long Does It Take to Complete a Ph.D. in Social Work Program?

A Ph.D. in Social Work typically takes three to five years to complete, depending on whether you’re a full-time or part-time student.

Can You Get a Ph.D. in Social Work Online?

Yes, you can get a Ph.D. in Social Work online. The increased popularity of Ph.D. in Social Work programs and technology advancements have made programs like this far more common.

Generally speaking, there are two types of online Ph.D. in Social Work programs: Programs that run with a school that also offers in-person classes or programs that run with online-exclusive schools. There is not necessarily one that is better than the other, but you must make sure either program is accredited.

Some programs allow you to earn your Ph.D. in Social Work exclusively online. This may include classes, lectures, study groups, research programs, independent studies, and more. In most cases, the only portion of your degree that you won’t be able to get online will be any fieldwork requirements.

Other times, you may decide it is beneficial to take some in-person classes while taking others online. In this case, hybrid programs are available as well.


Asking the question, “Is a Ph.D. in Social Work worth it?” is a totally fair one if you are interested in this field but have questions about the amount of time and money you’d be putting in. However, there is no question about it: Earning a Ph.D. in Social Work can expand your career opportunities, increase your earning potential, and achieve a degree that will prepare you for the future. Fortunately, there are many places to earn your Ph.D. in Social Work while still working or allowing you to do so online.

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