PhD in Social Work Degree Guide | Salary & Programs 2023

Written by Beth Hering
Published on March 10, 2023 · Updated on March 23, 2023

PhD in Social Work Degree Guide | Salary & Programs 2023

Written by Beth Hering
Published on March 10, 2023 · Updated on March 23, 2023

A PhD in Social Work is a mark of distinction as an expert in the discipline. Graduates of social work PhD programs often use their knowledge and training to conduct groundbreaking research on critical issues facing society. Their discoveries shape policy and assist countless people. As respected leaders, they hold top positions at various social services organizations. As professors, they mold new generations of social workers.

In addition to increased ability to help others, PhDs in social work can expect something else following graduation – good job prospects. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects employment in the community and social service occupations to grow a hearty 12% between 2020 to 2030.1

What is a PhD in Social Work?

A PhD in Social Work is a Doctor of Philosophy in Social Work. It is one of the two highest degrees that someone can earn in the field, the other being a DSW (Doctor of Social Work). PhD programs in social work focus heavily on research methods and pedagogy. DSW programs emphasize advanced training for practicing social workers.

Outstanding Schools with PhD in Social Work Degrees in U.S.

The road to a PhD in Social Work begins with admittance to a school that meets an aspiring student’s needs. While the “perfect” school varies by an individual’s interests and circumstances, here’s a sample of some noteworthy institutions:

  • University of Southern California – Through its Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, USC offers a PhD program that prides itself on promoting independent inquiry. Students gain competence in research methodology and communicating results. They learn skills vital to their future, such as how to submit grant proposals, how to write articles for publication, and how to present findings at conferences.
  • New York University – From day one, each PhD student in NYU’s Silver School of Social Work gets paired with a faculty mentor who helps develop research, scholarships, and teaching skills. Areas of staff expertise include racial and social justice, behavioral health services, child welfare, and aging. The school’s location in New York City provides a dynamic, diverse setting for studying important social work issues.
  • Wayne State University – Opportunities for professional and intellectual growth abound in the PhD program at this public institution in Michigan. The school encourages students to take coursework outside of the School of Social Work to support their individual interests. This interdisciplinary approach can lead to special degrees in areas such as infant mental health, gerontology, or social work and anthropology.
  • Baylor University – No need to live in Waco, Texas, to attend this institution. After a required five-day session on campus, social work PhD students can live elsewhere while pursuing their degree through an online classroom. Online PhD in Social Work courses meet via videoconferencing at specific times each week. The program focuses on the integration of religion and faith with practices of the social work profession. Graduates leave ready to address complex social issues as leaders, educators, and researchers.
  • The University of Utah – Other than a week on campus at the start of each semester, this institution’s “distance-delivered doctoral program” allows students to pursue an online PhD in Social Work from any location. Individuals attend classes remotely at the same time as their on-campus cohorts. All students possess equal access to research opportunities and financial support.

If you’re looking for other schools that offer PhD’s in social work, check out the Find Your Perfect “U” tool. You can search over 6,000 colleges and universities with 11 different filters to find the perfect school for you!

What Can I Do with a PhD in Social Work?

Many who pursue a PhD in Social Work do so in hopes of securing a faculty position at a university or junior college. They wish to continue conducting research in their area of interest within the field or teach up-and-coming social work students. Others may find employment at think tanks, non-profits, or governmental agencies.

PhD in Social Work Salary and Career Outlook

The U.S. Department of Labor includes postsecondary social work teachers on its list of Bright Outlook Occupations because of the job’s rapid growth prospects (9%) over the next decade (2020-2030).9 Projections are not a guarantee, but the information is encouraging to PhDs looking to go in that direction.

While the mean annual wage for social work professors is $71,570, possibilities exist to earn substantially more. In California, for instance, the mean annual wage stands at $110,020. New York, the state with the highest concentration of postsecondary social work teachers, posts a mean annual wage of $91,680.7

Some PhDs find employment as social service consultants. They train social service staff members and help organizations implement improvements in procedures and policies. According to PayScale, this type of position brings in an average hourly rate of $32.50.8

PhD in Social Work Career Paths

Students in PhD programs usually enter possessing an MSW (Master’s of Social Work) and a social work license. After earning their doctorate, some individuals decide to return to careers in applied social work rather than enter academia. Their increased knowledge and training oftentimes set them up for higher-level positions in occupations such as:

  • Median Salary: $51,760 
  • Career Outlook: +12% (2020-2030)

Social workers identify and assist individuals, families, and groups within a community that need help with various life challenges.

  • Median Salary: $48,140 
  • Career Outlook: 17% (2020-2030)

These professionals promote wellness and serve as a liaison between individuals/groups and health care systems.

  • Median Salary: $58,120 
  • Career Outlook: +11% (2020-2030)

These counselors help individuals with social and academic issues in order to succeed in school and forge an employment plan.

Source: BLS

Earning a PhD in Social Work

Individuals generally go into social work because they want to make a difference in the lives of others. Earning a PhD in Social Work certainly advances that objective. The decision to undertake something so rigorous, however, should not be made lightly.

Pros and Cons of PhD in Social Work Degrees

Completing a PhD program in social work takes time, money, and effort. Only you can decide if such an endeavor is in your best interest.

  • Expanded job opportunities, especially in academia, consulting, and research
  • Recognition as an expert in the field
  • Good job growth predictions from the BLS
  • The potential for increases in income, responsibility, and influence
  • A chance to study specific areas of interest and learn advanced knowledge about them
  • The cost of pursuing a degree
  • The stress of staying on track and finishing this academic challenge
  • Taking away time from other endeavors in order to focus on studies
  • Possibly moving to a new location to be closer to campus

PhD in Social Work Program Prerequisites

Most students enter social work PhD programs already possessing an MSW and a history of social work employment. People with a background in a similar field, such as psychology, may also be eligible for consideration. Some institutions conduct dual-degree programs where participants earn both an MSW and a PhD upon completion of studies.

Courses in PhD in Social Work Programs

While specific courses vary by program, the following are some of the courses frequently encountered in social work PhD programs:

  • Quantitative research
  • Qualitative research
  • Statistics
  • Data analysis
  • Social policy analysis
  • Scholarly writing
  • Grant writing
  • Teaching and pedagogy

Coursework helps students prepare for two important components of a social work PhD program: the qualifying exam and the dissertation.

Passing an oral and/or written qualifying exam demonstrates a solid base of knowledge and readiness to engage in independent research. The dissertation focuses on a topic or research question of the student’s choice. In addition to writing the dissertation, the student must orally defend the ideas presented at a meeting with other scholars.

Skills Learned in a PhD in Social Work Degree Program

PhD programs promote scholarly development. Students hone their critical-thinking skills. They learn how to ask important questions about social work issues and how to go about seeking possible answers. They graduate knowing how to construct research studies and evaluate results.

How Long Does It Take to Get a PhD in Social Work?

Programs generally require 36 credit hours. In terms of time, this translates to 3-5 years.

Students pursuing accelerated studies may be able to shave off time from this range. On the flipside, students enrolled in a dual MSW/PhD program take longer to finish because they need to fulfill more requirements.

A substantial determinant of program length is progress on one’s dissertation. Some students develop a clear idea early on of what they wish to focus on and make steady progress toward completion. Others require more time to figure out what they want to do and how to do it.

Social Work Degree Specializations

Social work is a large discipline with many niches. Some areas PhD candidates may concentrate on include:

  • Mental health
  • Healthcare
  • Substance abuse
  • Addictions
  • School social work
  • Military social work
  • Children and families
  • Gerontology
  • Terminal illness
  • Migration studies
  • Trauma
  • Disaster relief
  • LGBTQIA+ community
  • Public welfare
  • Justice and corrections

Social Work Certification and Licensure

Many social work positions require a license and/or certification. People should look into the requirements for jobs of interest as well as for the geographical region in which they seek employment. A good place to start is the Association for Social Work Boards.


Selecting a school with regional accreditation ensures the institution has met certain educational standards. Choose one approved by the U.S. Department of Education or the nonprofit Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).

While the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) accredits BSW and MSW programs, it does not do so at the doctoral level. However, the Group for the Advancement of Doctoral Education in Social Work (GADE) can provide prospective social work PhD students with information on its member schools.

Online PhD Social Work Programs

Opportunities exist to pursue doctoral studies in social work online. The majority of such programs lead to a DSW, but some result in a PhD.

Online vs. On Campus Degrees

Earning an online PhD in Social Work degree through has a variety of potential benefits.

  • Remote learning removes geographical barriers.
  • Students gain greater choice in selecting an institution
  • Students do not need to upend their lives to move to campus housing.
  • Online programs generally offer more flexibility in terms of when and where work gets completed.
  • Sometimes, ambitious students can accelerate their progress.

Some students prefer regular, campus-based programs. They enjoy the social aspect of physically attending class alongside others, focus better in an academic environment, or prefer a consistent schedule.

How Long Do Online Courses Take to Complete?

Finishing an online PhD in Social Work program generally takes about the same amount of time as on-campus studies, which is 3-5 years. Choosing an accelerated program can reduce some of that time.

Schools offering online PhD in social work programs tend to have a hybrid set-up. They require brief periods of time on campus, such as the first week of each semester.

Also, remote PhD programs in social work tend to favor synchronous learning. Off-campus students use video technology to attend classes with their on-campus peers on specific days at set times.

Applying to PhD in Social Work Programs

Students interested in obtaining a PhD in Social Work must apply to individual schools offering this graduate study. Due to substantial competition for spots, students oftentimes apply to more than one program.

Admission Requirements for PhD in Social Work Programs

Each school has its own specific set of criteria for applicants to present in order to receive consideration for admission. Things often required include:

  • A master’s degree from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education
  • Transcripts of all collegiate work, including degree(s) earned and GPA
  • A resume of hands-on social work experience, including internships, employment, and volunteer experiences
  • Satisfactory performance on the Graduate Record Examination (GRE)
  • Personal statements/essays on the reason for pursuing a PhD
  • Interviews with faculty members
  • Letters of recommendation supporting the candidacy
  • A scholarly writing sample

Paying for a PhD in Social Work

Students rightly worry about paying for higher education. Fortunately, a good number of options exist to finance graduate studies, including grants, loans, and scholarships. Schools also often offer PhD candidates positions as research or teaching assistants, which can cover or reduce tuition and even provide a stipend.

PhD in Social Work Degree Costs

Many factors influence the cost of pursuing a PhD in Social Work. Choosing a public school in one’s state often proves more economical than tuition for private institutions. Programs partially or fully online can lower expenses by eliminating the cost of traveling to campus or residing in campus housing.

Any student looking for financial assistance should fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). It serves as the first step in determining eligibility for grants, loans, and school-specific monetary aid.

Scholarships for PhD in Social Work Students

Individuals looking for assistance in funding their PhD studies in social work may want to check out the following:

  • Davis-Putter Scholarship Fund – Students working for social change can apply for one of these need-based scholarships of up to $15,000 per year.

PhD in Social Work Career Resources

Along their educational journey and into their career, social work PhDs may find the following groups good sources of knowledge and support:

  • Council on Social Work Education – This national organization is dedicated to advancing excellence in social work education and research. PhD candidates may find the careers section on the group’s website particularly interesting. It contains job opportunities, career planning advice, and free resume review.
  • National Association of Social Workers – This well-established organization of professional social workers focuses on career development and advancing social policies. Its website contains resources on a variety of topics by interest, such as aging, child welfare, and LGBTQ issues. Networking opportunities and tips for landing a job prove useful to graduate students.
  • Clinical Social Work Association – This group focuses on meeting the practice needs of clinical social workers through support and advocacy. Members receive free consultative services for legal and ethical questions, reduced rates on liability insurance, and access to the association’s job board.
  • Society for Social Work and Research – For more than 25 years, this non-profit has supported faculty, students, and others interested in social work research. Funding, information sharing, and interdisciplinary networking are among its areas of concern.


  • What can I do with a PhD in Social Work?
    • People often pursue a PhD in Social Work to become a professor at a university, college, or junior college. Such a job involves teaching classes, managing internships and other hands-on student experiences, and conducting research. Other PhDs work for the government, military, non-profits, think tanks, schools, and other organizations as social workers, community managers, researchers, and policy shapers.
  • Is a PhD in Social Work worth it?
    • The answer depends on individual interests and career objectives. For someone hoping for a job in academia, a PhD is usually necessary. Individuals interested in positions such as social worker or community service manager oftentimes get hired with a lesser degree. A doctorate, though, can put someone in a better position for greater responsibility, leadership, decision-making, and pay.
  • What is the best degree for social work?
    • Examine your career goals. A bachelor’s degree can be enough for entry-level positions. A master’s will qualify you to perform more extensive duties and is a must for those interested in clinical social work. Future social work instructors and social work executives generally hold a doctorate, which can be a PhD in Social Work or a DSW (Doctor of Social Work).
  • How is a PhD in Social Work different than a Master’s in Social Work?
    • An MSW (Master of Social Work) helps individuals secure higher-level positions within the field of social work. Obtaining one signifies greater education and training than just a bachelor’s degree. A PhD in Social Work demonstrates exceptional knowledge and commitment. PhDs often remain in academia to teach others and to continue advancing the discipline through original research.

Get all the's college news, advice, updates, financial aid, and more straight to your inbox.