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If you're considering pursuing a PhD in social science with a specialization in Social Work or Human Services, you may find yourself faced with a wide array of options. Identifying campus-based or online PhD programs that are the best fit for you may be the key to a successful education. But given the number of graduate schools and the diversity of programs, how do you sort through the myriad possibilities to identify the best one for you?

The answer is twofold: know what you're looking for, and take the time to research.

The guide below can help you navigate your way through the process and assist you in identifying the schools that best meet your needs and interests. Use the following tools and tips to guide your research, and you should be well on your way toward launching your new educational endeavor.

A PhD in Social Work: Education Rooted in Compassion

In 1898, the New York Charity Organization Society established a summer school for volunteers who wanted to deepen their understanding of the poor people they were dedicated to helping. This initiative marked the beginning of formal education in social work.

Since then, educational opportunities in the field have grown apace with the increasing needs of populations for social services. Two doctorate degree programs emerged mid-century: the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) and the Doctor of Social Work (DSW). The DSW is the less common of the two degrees, but there is no substantive difference between the two. A doctorate degree in social work typically takes three to six years to complete.

Career Options

A PhD in Social Work is designed primarily to produce scholars who can make contributions to the field through teaching, research, policy development and analysis, and administration. Students in PhD programs leave school to become professors, researchers, policy-makers in governmental and non-profit organizations, and top administrators for human services organizations.

For the Working Professional: Online PhD in Human Services

If you're exploring online doctoral programs in social work, the degree most likely to meet your needs is a PhD in Human Services. Like many online PhD programs, the online PhD in Human Services is tailored to practicing professionals who are seeking to apply current research and a deeper knowledge base to their work.

For example, if you are a clinical social worker who would like to remain practicing in a clinical setting but simultaneously build your expertise in the field, an online PhD in Human Services may be the best match for you. Online PhD programs tends to be multi-faceted, combining faculty-guided research based on your professional interests and background with face-to-face residencies and online courses.

WorldWideLearn.com provides a useful overview of PhD and doctorate degree programs through its description of Campus Doctorate Degree Programs and Online PhD Degree Programs. Read its Online Education Guide for more detail about online PhD degrees.

Finding the Right Doctorate Degree Program: The Research and Application Process

The following steps can help you create a short list of schools that meet your needs.

Step 1: Identify Core Criteria for a PhD in Social Work or PhD in Human Services

As you consider a doctorate in social work or doctorate in human services, you're likely to have a few criteria in mind right off the bat. Start by identifying the "must-haves" for your campus-based or online graduate degree program of choice.

  • Accreditation: Accreditation means that a school has established a set of standards that meet criteria set by a regulating body. Read more about accreditation through WorldWideLearn.com's Education Resources.
  • Time commitment: Do you intend to continue working while you're pursuing a doctorate degree? If so, you should narrow your search to part-time or online PhD programs.
  • Format: Is your career goal to become a professor and researcher, or are you a working professional who would like to build your expertise while you continue your practice? The answer to that question can help you determine whether campus-based doctorate programs (i.e. professor and researcher career track) or online human services programs (i.e. practicing professional career track) can best meet your needs.
  • Location: Are you willing to move for a campus-based program? If not, you may limit your options to schools within a particular geographic area or to online human services programs.
  • Entry requirements: Do you already have a masters-level degree? If not, you may want to limit your search to combined masters/PhD programs.

Step 2: Assess Your Options for a PhD in Social Work or Human Services

Now that you have your core criteria in hand, you're ready to begin your research.

Survey the Field

There are many sources for information about graduate schools in social work and human services. The following list can give you starting points as you begin your research.

  • Accredited programs. The Council on Social Work Education maintains a database of accredited programs. You can also learn more about accreditation at WorldWideLearn.com.
  • Online directory sites. WorldWideLearn.com offers a wide range of information about graduate schools and programs. You can search online degrees by level, online degrees by subject, online degrees by school, or search for campus-based programs, organized by location, level, and subject.
  • Rankings.Several sites rank graduate schools in social work, enabling you to identify top programs in the field. The Social Psychology Network ranks the top 31 U.S. social work and welfare programs. U.S. News & World Report ranks nearly 100 social work graduate schools.
  • Books and Resource Guides. WorldWideLearn.com's downloadable guide to college education, The Insider's College Guide for Working Adults, can walk you through the college research and application process.

Use the results of your search to keep a running list of programs that meet your criteria. Once you have your list in hand, it's time to move on to the next step.

Step 3: Narrow the Field of Campus-Based or Online PhD Programs

Now it's time to narrow your search and explore programs in depth. This is a time-consuming process, but one that should result in a short list of schools that will fulfill your criteria. Get ready: you may want to have your master list and plenty of room to take notes.

There are several factors you should consider.

1. Specializations

In campus-based social work and online PhD programs, students become specialists. Each program should offer a range of specializations and topic areas. Be sure to familiarize yourself with these to best assess which program fits your interests. Common specializations for graduate studies in social work include:

  • Aging
  • Alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs
  • Children, adolescents, and young adults
  • Disaster relief
  • Family or child welfare
  • Mental health
  • Private practice
  • Public policy
  • School social work
  • Social administration
  • Social and economic development
  • Special populations
  • Social and economic justice and peace

Common specializations for an online PhD in Human Services include:

  • Clinical social work
  • Counseling
  • Criminal justice
  • Family studies and intervention strategies
  • Human services administration
  • Social policy analysis and planning

2. Quality of the Program

There are several factors that influence the quality of campus-based social work programs and online human services programs. Consider some of the following criteria:

  • Faculty. What are their academic degrees and areas of expertise? What is the student/faculty ratio?
  • History. How long has the program been in existence? If it's new, is it organized well and does it have quality faculty to guide it?
  • Reputation. Rankings can give you an idea of a school's reputation, but be sure to talk to faculty members and graduate students in the field to get informed opinions.
  • Philosophy and orientation of the program. Each program typically varies in its approach. Make sure that the program is going to point you in the direction that best meets your career goals.
  • Graduation rate. Once you start your doctorate degree, you traditionally want the support and guidance to be able to finish it. Look for schools with high graduation rates.
  • Academic requirements. Stringent admission requirements mean that a program is attracting the best and brightest in the field.
  • Placement of graduates. Are doctorate graduates teaching at top universities? Are they applying knowledge they've gained to building innovative and successful professional practices?

3. Program Cost

For most of us, cost is a significant factor. Find out whether programs in social work or human services offer financial aid or teaching assistantships. Be sure to do your research on scholarships and other options for financial aid.

4. Admission Requirements

Do you have what it takes to get into the program? Some programs require masters-level degrees and a certain number of years working in the field. Make sure you can meet the admission requirements--they are rarely negotiable.

5. Facilities

How large is the campus? What are the library facilities like? Does the campus have computer and other facilities?

Where to Get Information

Gathering the information described above is no small task, but thanks to the Internet, it's relatively easy. Two sources you'll want to make sure to include are the individual schools' websites, and WorldWideLearn.com's Education Advisor resource. This online tool includes an interactive Ask the Professor feature, and you can even submit a request to be contacted directly by representatives of your PhD in Social Work and Human Services programs.

When you've completed your online research, visit campuses and talk to social work and human services faculty and students--whether for campus-based or distance learning programs. They often can provide you with the best information that can help steer you in the direction of good programs.

Step 4: Get Ready to Apply to a PhD in Social Work or PhD in Human Services Program

At this stage, you've identified your top programs. Now it's time to begin the application process. Carefully review each school's application requirements, and begin to gather your information. Following are some common requirements.

  • Transcripts. Many schools enable you to order transcripts online to be sent directly to the schools of your choice.
  • Prerequisite courses and degrees. If you're applying for PhD programs in social work that require you to have an MSW and licensure to practice, you typically need to send appropriate documentation.
  • Letters of recommendation. People writing letters of recommendation should be able to attest to your ability to perform quality work and/or scholarship in the field.
  • Qualifying exams. Most campus-based and online PhD programs require the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). If you haven't previously taken the test, make sure you take it with sufficient time for the test results to be processed and mailed to your school. International students are usually required to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) exam, in addition to the GRE. Learn more about these qualifying exams and what you can do to prepare for them.
  • Application fees. Most schools require an application fee to cover processing costs.
  • Other requirements. Some top schools offering doctorate degrees in social work may require evidence of original research or samples of academic writing.

Be sure to submit your application materials well in advance of the application deadline. Now you can take a moment to breathe, and hope for the best.

Step 5: Connect with Other Social Work and Human Services Professionals

Regardless of where you are in the process, it may be useful for you to become familiar with your academic community and audience. Keep current in your field and learn who's who by:

  • Subscribing to social work and human services publications
  • Joining professional organizations and associations
  • Attending academic conferences

Step 6: Think About Your Future Career in Social Work or Human Services

You've made it through the research and application process, and you've started down the path toward the pinnacle of achievement: a doctorate. Remember, you can get the most out of your PhD in social work or doctorate in human services if you have a clear career path in mind.

Whatever career path you choose, remember that your work is invaluable to our society: Social work and human services professionals play vital roles in ensuring that people in need of assistance receive the social services that can change their lives--for the better.



  • Columbia University School of Social Work, PhD Program
  • National Association of Social Workers, Specialty Practice Sections
  • NYU Silver School of Social Work, PhD in Clinical Social Work
  • Simmons School of Social Work, PhD in Social Work
  • Socialworkschool.tripod.com, Social Work Graduate School: How to Get In
  • UC Berkeley Career Center, How Do I Choose a School?
  • UC Berkeley School of Social Welfare, PhD Program Description
  • University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration, The Doctoral Program
  • University of Maryland School of Social Work, UMB Social Work's PhD Program
  • The University of Texas at Austin Career Exploration Center, Graduate Study in Social Work
  • U.S. News & World Report University Directory, Rankings: Social Work
  • Walden University, PhD in Human Services

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