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How do I Earn a Social Work PhD?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 17, 2024
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The social work PhD is a degree that emphasizes research over clinical practice. It is not a necessary degree to become a social worker, and those merely interested in working in social work are better off earning the Master’s in Social Work (MSW), which emphasizes practical work to a much greater degree. There are certainly good reasons to obtain a social work PhD, including working as tenured university professor in this field or contributing to leading research agencies and private companies. The degree should merely be understood in its most practical applications. Those desirous of earning this doctorate will have different requirements to fill, depending on individual program.

One of the main considerations when entering a social work PhD program is what undergraduate or graduate studies it may require. Some programs accept only those students who have earned an MSW. Others take students with a bachelor’s degree in social work or in related fields like sociology or public health. This requirement really depends on the program, and it’s important to research programs to find out which ones are the best fit with present education.

There are other differing demands on applicants to a social work PhD program. Some schools require students to take the general Graduate Record Examination (GRE), and may ask foreign-born students to prove language competency with tests like the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL®), or tests in other languages in the country of the university. Most schools additionally look at transcripts closely, and they’ll want to see strong grades, though schools may vary in their minimum grade point average requirements.

Applications usually include requests for well-thought out personal statements that demonstrate very strong writing skills. Some universities request example research papers from students. Most programs require two to three letters of recommendation, which might come from the private sector or from academic studies. A number of programs do want to see that people earning a social work PhD have some experience working in the field.

Once students are accepted to a social work PhD program, it can take up to seven years to complete studies. The average full-time student gets a degree in about four to six years. Programs have a mix of required and elective coursework, which then prepares students to begin working on a dissertation. Many social work doctoral programs don’t emphasize practicum and may not even include it. Students looking for more practical programs should either consider the master’s or find one of the few PhDs where clinical practice is emphasized.

Principally, each program has coursework and dissertation requirements. Students usually have three years of classes and then must develop a dissertation topic, get it approved, perform the necessary research and writing, and present their topic to the faculty. When faculty members approve the completed dissertation, students have earned their PhD.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
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Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia...
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