Is a PhD in Social Work Worth It?

Jan 13, 2021

Pursuing a Ph.D. in social work opens up many career options and can significantly increase your earning potential. However, it's important to balance the costs of continuing your education with the potential returns. Below is information related to social work career paths, salaries, and the cost of investing in a Ph.D. program.

Common Social Work Careers and Their Salaries

Occupation Median Yearly Salary (2019)* Job Growth (2019-2029)*
Social Services Manager $67,150 (social and community service managers) 17% (social and community service managers)
Health Services Manager $100,980 (medical and health services managers) 32% (medical and health services managers)
Clinical Social Worker $61,230 (social workers, all other) 5% (social workers, all other)
Nonprofit Executive $104,690 (top executives) 4% (top executives)
University Professor $72,070 (postsecondary teachers, social work) 6% (postsecondary teachers, social work)

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Kind of Jobs Can I Get With a Ph.D. in Social Work?

Social Services Manager

A social services manager's job is mainly administrative. They take an active role in their employee's work lives, including hiring, training, supervising, and evaluating them. It's also common for them to work directly with clients as well as handle complaints. Additionally, social services managers conduct surveys and needs assessments, mediate conflicts, disseminate information, and make sure time and resources are used wisely.

It's not uncommon for social services managers to have a bachelor's degree. However, those with a master's or Ph.D. generally make a significantly higher salary.

Health Services Manager

Health services managers hold an important administrative role in healthcare organizations such as hospitals. They are responsible for training, supervising, and evaluating employees, as well as making sure they are kept up-to-date on policies and procedures. Additionally, they are also responsible for organizing and maintaining records and making sure their organization's activities comply with regulations.

Health services managers can have a bachelor's degree, but having a master's or Ph.D. makes a prospective employee much more competitive and often results in higher pay.

Clinical Social Worker

Clinical social workers perform similar activities to regular social workers, such as helping people deal with substance abuse, poverty, job loss, abuse, illness, etc. However, unlike non-clinical social workers, they are also able to diagnose and treat mental illness. Clinical social workers are usually in close contact with their clients and monitor their progress carefully as they take steps to improve their lives. Often, they consult with other mental and physical health professionals about current cases.

Clinical social workers need a master's degree or higher, plus supervised experience in the field in order to practice.

Nonprofit Executive

Nonprofit executives are the top decision-makers in their organization. They have a wide range of responsibilities, including overseeing operations and finances, developing programs and policies, hiring department heads, encouraging productivity and efficiency, disseminating important information, and representing the organization to clients, the public, and other businesses.

Most nonprofit executive positions require the applicant to have at least a master's degree in order to be considered. Having a Ph.D. can make a job candidate for this position even more competitive as a potential hire. On average, annual compensation (including benefits) for nonprofit executives is only slightly less than that of for-profit executives.

University Professor

Professors are in charge of developing lesson plans, teaching and leading discussions, and assisting students who need help. Many professors teach at both an undergraduate and a graduate level and are often involved in research at their institution. Their research obligations include creating hypotheses, planning and carrying out studies, directing a research team, and publishing their findings.

Positions as a professor almost always require at least a master's degree, and most universities require the candidate to have a doctorate to even be considered as a potential hire.

Social Work Ph.D. Programs At a Glance

Investing in a college education is not a cheap proposition, and going on to earn a Ph.D. in social work is no different. However, the career options that it opens up can give you a much higher earning potential than a master's or bachelor's degree. Here, we will discuss both the time and financial costs of obtaining a Ph.D. in social work, as well as give you an overview of what a typical program looks like.

There are some classes that you will take regardless of which Ph.D. program you choose to attend. Usually, core courses include subjects like the philosophy of social science, learning how to teach others about social work, and the theories used in social work practice. In addition, you can expect to take several intensive research methods courses, as well as seminars that are designed to help you think critically about issues you may face as a researcher and educator.

Most Ph.D. programs will encourage you to specialize in an area of interest. Many offer specializations in subjects like mental health, clinical science, public health and social welfare, family and child issues, socioeconomics, and poverty. Ph.D. programs are rigorous, and the shorter the time frame you want to complete your degree in the truer that becomes.

In most cases, programs require that the applicant have a master's degree in social work or a relevant field before applying to a Ph.D. program. Once accepted, the program can take anywhere from two to seven years to complete, depending on the school. The cost of attending a Ph.D. program can be quite high, with some schools' tuition reaching up to $48,852 per year (2020). However, earning your Ph.D. in social work grants exclusive access to several lucrative careers, including scholarly positions at universities. This level of education will also make you much more competitive as you search for high-level jobs in social work and its related fields, and can help you earn a significantly higher salary.

A career in social work can be very fulfilling, and earning a Ph.D. in the field can open up virtually any related job option available. Though furthering your education can be costly, the career opportunities an advanced degree provides are numerous, and many of them pay well enough to help you recoup educational costs in just a few years.

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