Best Online PhD Degrees in Social Work: 2016

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Advanced Programs, Careers and Salaries in Social Work

Social workers are on the front lines of helping others. They specialize in everything from crisis management to child welfare to public policy, and can move into a wide variety of jobs, focused on making the world a better place. Those who pursue the PhD in social work are not only prepared to engage in advanced clinical work, but also well-trained to work in research or teaching. Some social workers earn the PhD to better influence public policy through government positions at the state or federal level. Online programs are designed to allow the already-working professional the opportunity to continue in their careers while attaining the degree. Find out what programs and concentrations are out there, and the career and salary possibilities that become available with a PhD in social work.

Timeline to a PhD

Applying to Doctorate Programs

Whether the student chooses an online PhD in social work or the DWS, the application process is typically the same: Students must meet a minimum amount of education and experience before applying, and then must submit the proper materials in a timely manner. Below are some examples of what might be required in order to enter a doctoral program.

  • Transcripts.

    Most programs require that students hold a master’s degree in social work, as well as having earned a minimum GPA overall, or in certain classes. Transcripts of all previous academic work will prove to the admissions committee that the master’s degree was earned, with the required classes and GPA.

  • Resume.

    Students can expect to meet a minimum work requirement before being considered for admission; for most programs, two years of experience in a social work environment is required in order to apply. A resume detailing work experience as well as volunteer work can help the admissions panel verify that this requirement has been met.

  • Licensure.

    The vast majority of both campus and online social work PhD programs require that students are licensed clinical social workers, and that the license is continuously in good standing from the time of admission, as well as throughout the program.

  • GRE scores.

    Students who want to enter the PhD program must often present scores from the Graduate Record Examination. These scores must be no more than five years old. Though it is usually not required, some schools look favorably upon those who have also scored well on the Subject Test in Psychology.

  • Professional statement.

    An essay detailing why an applicant is a great fit for the competitive PhD program is a must for most colleges and universities. The statement might also serve as a writing sample, though some schools do require a professional writing sample in addition to the statement.

  • Letters of recommendation.

    Students are often required to submit at least three letters of recommendation; in some cases, the school simply asks for contact information, and then contacts the references on the student’s behalf. These letters of recommendation should come from those who are quite familiar with the student’s abilities such as former professors and work colleagues.

  • Experience.

    Those who wish to pursue advanced practice, such as administrative roles in mental health clinics or agencies, may be required to have up to two years of post-master’s hands-on experience.

Year 1

During the first year, students can expect to take courses that further build on the foundation of knowledge and skills they earned during the master’s program, as well as the experience they have gained during their time in the field. Courses in clinical practice and methods, research methods, behavioral therapy, psychotherapy, and neuroscience are typical for either doctoral degree path.

Year 2

The second year focuses strongly on either research or enhanced clinical work. Those in the PhD program can expect to take further courses in research, public policy, applied statistics, translational research, and the first courses dedicated to the capstone or dissertation. Those in the DWS program will focus more on the clinical side with courses in psychopharmacology, intervention methods, clinical leadership, and advanced diagnosis and treatment, as well as those courses dedicated to the capstone or dissertation.

Year 3

The third year of the online PhD in social work program is reserved for the dissertation or capstone project. This year allows the student to work independently on research and writing that fulfills the requirements for their particular dissertation plan or capstone project. This year is a highly individualized one where students will work closely with advisors to flesh out this final graduation requirement.

Testing and Graduation Requirements

Getting through the classes over the span of two years is a significant achievement; but once the classes are done, it’s time to complete the graduation requirements. Most schools require either a dissertation or a capstone project, and some also require a comprehensive exam.

  • Dissertation and defense.

    The dissertation is a well-researched, original work that focuses on topics pertinent to the world of social work. The dissertation must contribute to the breadth of knowledge in the field, as well as show a mastery of the subject the student has chosen. The dissertation is often a publishable work that takes the better part of a year or more to complete. It must then be defended before a committee, where the student will be required to answer questions and further explain certain points of the dissertation.

  • Capstone project.

    The capstone project is heavily focused on research in a particular area of social work. Some schools consider the capstone to be the same as a dissertation, while others view it as a more comprehensive paper that does not require a defense. The project should focus on a specific problem found in the social work field, ways to possibly solve it, evidence that upholds the theory of the solutions, and a final wrap-up that demonstrates potential outcomes.

  • Comprehensive exam.

    Before moving on to the capstone or dissertation, some schools require a passing grade on a comprehensive exam. This exam ensures that students have learned the pertinent skills and knowledge that was taught during the course of their first two years of study.

Search Online Doctorate Degrees in Social Work

Finding the right doctoral program takes a great deal of time— that’s where a search tool can help. This handy tool allows aspiring students to search through schools and programs based on school type, tuition, geographical location and rating.

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Routes to a Doctorate in Social Work

Most schools offer two distinct options for social workers: The Doctorate of Social Work, or DSW, and the PhD in Social Work. Each social work doctoral path takes approximately three years of study to complete, and most are designed to allow students to continue working while they earn their PhD or DSW.

The PhD in Social Work

The PhD traditionally focuses strongly on research, with the idea that those who complete the degree will go on to conduct research, change or influence public policy, move into teaching positions, or supervise on an advanced clinical level. To that end, courses will focus strongly on research methods, former and current public policy standards, educational methods in social work, advanced clinical study, and related studies. Students must typically hold a master’s degree to be admitted into a program, and some programs require that students have at least some real-world work experience beyond that required for licensure or internships.

The Doctor of Social Work (DSW)

This degree is typically for those who want to more into a supervisory position in the field, including overseeing and conducting more extensive clinical work, supervising workers in government agencies, and moving into education, either at the postsecondary level or through private agencies that focus on training social workers. Courses usually include those in clinical practice, clinical research, advanced practice leadership, and collaborative leadership. Those who apply must typically have a master’s degree, and have completed a minimum amount of work as a licensed clinical social worker.

The Impact of a PhD on Salary & Career Potential

Those who choose to earn an online PhD in social work can enjoy increased possibilities in their career, including higher salaries, better job opportunities, excellent job security and the ability to move into related careers with ease. Students in the PhD or DSW program can choose certain concentrations, which might then lead to a variety of positions. Below is a list of the concentrations available to those in doctoral programs, as well as potential career paths for graduates.

Concentrations
Families and Children

This concentration focuses on either the clinical or research side of the unique needs of families and children. Many choose to target their efforts on child welfare, but there are other important paths as well, such as domestic violence prevention, effective family therapies, and interventions. This concentration also prepares students to work with families through private and government welfare agencies.

Career:
Child and family social worker
Child and family social worker

Child welfare and family service workers often work in government agencies that provide aid and assistance to families facing difficulties; those who have earned the doctoral degree might be eligible to move into supervisory or management positions.

Social services specialist
Social services specialist

These workers oversee social services offered by the government. They often work in offices that focus on domestic abuse, child welfare, aging, low-income individuals, those classified as minorities, and other populations who seek out the help of social services agencies.

Clinical Social Work

Though many who earn the PhD choose to go into research, some go back to clinical work with a much broader view and expertise. This concentration focuses on advanced methods in social work, including behavioral systems, family dynamics, physical and mental interventions, assessment, and diagnosis of a wide variety of disorders and potential treatments. Those who reach the doctoral level in clinical social work often specialize further by choosing to work with families, couples, individuals, children, the elderly, and other populations.

Career:
Substance abuse social worker
Substance abuse social worker

These social workers need a deep understanding of addiction, abuse of substances, interventions, the ripple-effect of addiction on the family and larger community, and be able to use that understanding to work with those who are suffering from the physical, mental and emotional effects of substance abuse.

Mental health social worker
Mental health social worker

These experts often work in psychiatric hospitals, assessing patients and working closely with physicians to form a treatment plan for those under their care.

Postsecondary teacher
Postsecondary teacher

These individuals work at colleges and universities to bring their knowledge and skills to those who want to become social workers, psychologists, counselors and related professionals.

Community Planning

Those who want to work with such areas as social services, administration, and public policy think-tanks can benefit from this concentration, which offers courses in policy analysis, marketing, financial management, leadership, research methods, presentation and the like. Graduates will be well-versed in researching public policy, effecting change in a particular social work arena and moving into leadership positions, whether in government or private organizations.

Career:
Social services specialist
Social services specialist

These workers oversee social services offered by the government. They often work in offices that focus on domestic abuse, child welfare, aging, low-income individuals, those classified as minorities, and other populations who seek out the help of social services agencies.

Researcher
Researcher

These individuals dive into in-depth research on a wide variety of topics, often those that pertain to social services in some form. Researchers present their findings to companies, organizations, government entities or publications, where those reports can influence everything from public policy to how a company chooses to expand or change.

Child and family social worker
Child and family social worker

Child welfare and family service workers often work in government agencies that provide aid and assistance to families facing difficulties; those who have earned the doctoral degree might be eligible to move into supervisory or management positions.

Health and Medical

The world of healthcare is booming and constantly changing, and with that growth come exceptional challenges. The medical and health concentration focuses on the unique needs of those who are in healthcare professions, from administrators to aides, as well as patients who are facing serious health situations. Courses focus on public policy, research methods, clinical work in the context of medical or hospice care, and other topics.

Career:
Healthcare social worker
Healthcare social worker

These social workers focus on helping those who work in healthcare fields, such as nurses or doctors, and they might also specialize in working with patients, particularly those who are dealing with serious illnesses, or hospice care.

Mental health social worker
Mental health social worker

These experts often work in psychiatric hospitals, assessing patients and working closely with physicians to form a treatment plan for those under their care.

Researcher
Researcher

These individuals dive into in-depth research on a wide variety of topics, often those that pertain to social services in some form. Researchers present their findings to companies, organizations, government entities or publications, where those reports can influence everything from public policy to how a company chooses to expand or change.

Policy Practice

Students in this concentration will learn about how public policy is made, influencing factors, the concepts of change and how they are actually put into motion, scope of social problems, needs assessments, and long-term research and analysis of social issues. Those who graduate from this concentration are prepared to work in leadership positions in the social work field or move into other industries, working in areas such as marketing, human resources, and actuarial accounting.

Career:
Administrator
Administrator

These supervisors can be found in a great number of industries and fields, but often work in areas that pertain to social work, such as nursing homes, child and family services, child protective services, hospitals, and social service facilities.

Human resources expert
Human resources expert

Those in human resources are trained to understand the interactions between those in the workforce including incentives for employees and employers, and how businesses and organizations stay competitive when hiring and retaining workers.

Marketing specialist
Marketing specialist

A marketing specialist might work in a variety of industries to bring products, goods and services to the masses. They research and study the interactions and opinions that the population has in regard to certain products or services and advises the company or business accordingly.

Potential Salary Increases with a Doctoral Degree

Those who pursue the online PhD in social work are likely looking forward to the many perks that come with the terminal degree, including better job security and higher pay. The pay for a particular position can vary widely, depending upon the years of experience, geographical location, and particular area of focus. The following social work careers can bring in big bucks, however, keep in mind that those at the upper end of the spectrum (the upper 10%) are likely those who have earned their doctoral degree or have a great deal of experience in their field.

Career Lower 10% Median Salary Upper 10%
Mental Health Social Worker $25,770 $41,380 $70,300
Social Service Manager $38,260 $62,740 $104,540
Healthcare Social Worker $32,060 $51,930 $76,940
Child and Family Social Worker $27,500 $42,120 $72,510
Marketing Specialist $33,460 $61,290 $116,740

Additional Resources & Links

  • Association of Oncology Social Work

    This organization is designed for those who work in the healthcare field, particularly with patients who are diagnosed with cancer. The site offers information for patients and caregivers, as well as resources, research, and publications and the like for social workers.

  • Association of Social Work Boards

    This site has detailed information on licensure in various states, as well as specialized tabs for members, exam candidates, educators and the public.

  • Clinical Social Work Association

    This popular site for clinical social workers offers a great deal of information for aspiring doctoral students, including information on legislation and an active job board.

  • National Association of Social Workers

    The NASW is the definitive association for social workers in the United States and covers advocacy, practice and professional development, publications and pertinent resources.

  • Society for Social Work and Research

    This site provides in-depth information for those in social work, particularly in research, including publications, resources, awards, as well as job postings and more.

  • Society for Social Work Leadership in Healthcare

    Those who are in the healthcare world, especially in administration, can benefit from the information found here, including resources, mentorship, continuing education, and offerings from local chapters.

Best Online PhD in Social Work Degrees

There are numerous options for social work professionals who want to pursue further education in the field. Narrowing all those possible schools and programs down to a short list can be tough. Fortunately, our rankings can help. We have compiled a list of the best online PhD in social work programs, designed to help aspiring students find their perfect fit.

Curious as to how we chose these top online social work PhD programs? Use this link to check out our methodologies.

RANK COLLEGE SCORE TEACHER/STUDENT RATIO COST GRADUATION RATE
1 Fordham University 100.00 14:1 80%
2 Baylor University 99.00 15:1 72%
3 Jacksonville State University 98.00 19:1 30%