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Online PhD in Social Work

Most online PhD programs in social work are designed to be completed on a part-time basis in 4-5 years, which allows students to maintain their careers while pursuing the highest degree in their field. However, it could take up to seven years to meet the program requirements depending on how long it takes students to complete their dissertation. The program focuses on interdisciplinary scholarly research, data analysis and statistics in the realm of social work and courses that emphasize advanced social work theory. Students often have their choice of electives, some of which may focus on teaching methods for those who wish to pursue academic careers. Requirements for this PhD program include a comprehensive examination upon completion of the primary coursework, a comprehensive paper preceding the dissertation, independent and collaborative research among faculty and peers, the completion of a dissertation and the defense of a thesis which speaks to a specific research question developed in collaboration with faculty advisors. The online PhD in social work is designed to prepare graduates for positions as college educators, researchers, consultants and policy analysts, although some go on to take up high-level positions in social work practice.

About Online PhD Programs in Social Work

Online doctorate programs in social work differ greatly from campus-based programs, as they do not require students to report to a campus to sit for weekly course lectures. Instead, students access course lectures through audio or video files from their home computers through an online course management system. This system allows students to conveniently access their lectures, syllabi and assignments 24/7. Students communicate with faculty and classmates via phone, e-mail, video conference or live chat. Group projects require students to be able to collaborate with one another online, and a variety of tools are available to facilitate group research and group papers—including tools that allow all group members to make changes to a single paper posted online. Online discussion forums facilitate lively discussions among students and faculty and allow everyone in the class to join in conversations on topics relevant to social work.

While coursework is completed online, students completing online doctoral degrees in social work still must report to campus for limited periods of time. Almost all online doctorate degrees in social work require one or more on-campus residencies. Face-to-face learning experiences might include intensive, week-long dissertation writing retreats where students have the opportunity to work directly with faculty mentors on the finer points of their dissertation. Individual courses in an online PhD program may require a student’s presence on a physical campus so he or she can take part in direct collaborative research with faculty and classmates. The lion’s share of lectures is delivered asynchronously, which allows students to choose their own class times. However, professors may arrange from time to time for the entire class to meet online all at the same time. Students will be alerted to this requirement ahead of time.

Year One:

  • Basic Research. This course is generally offered as a prerequisite for students entering PhD programs so they can brush up on essential research skills that may have gotten rusty over the years. For example, a similar course at Fordham University reviews master’s-level research skills, such as how to form a social work research question, different types of methodology, literature reviews, data collection and measurement techniques.
  • Social Work Theories of Human and Social Behavior. This course discusses how our knowledge of human behavior influences the theory and practice of social work, according to an Indiana University course description.
  • The History of Clinical Social Work Knowledge and Practice. This course takes students on a journey through the history of social work, explaining how it has evolved over the years to meet societal needs as they have arisen, according to an Aurora University course description.

Year Two:

  • Quantitative Research Methods. Students move beyond the basics of research methods and delve into quantitative social research methods, which rely on the collection and analysis of hard numbers and data, according to a University of Denver course description.
  • Social Welfare Policy Analysis. This course helps students develop techniques for drafting social welfare policy, from forming a policy hypothesis to drawing conclusions based on analyzing empirical evidence, according to a University of Denver course description.
  • Statistical Methods. This course gives students an overview of how to use and interpret statistics in educational and human services research, including how to use descriptive or inferential statistics, according to a University of Denver course description.

Year Three:

  • Multivariate Analysis. This course introduces students to common multivariate statistical techniques as they apply to social work research, according to the University of Denver course description.
  • Qualitative Research Methods. Students learn an alternative to quantitative research by learning how to effectively study subjective data. Qualitative research is a “value-laden, inductive approach to data gathering, analysis and theory building,” according to a University of Denver course description.
  • Research Methodology, Dissertation Planning. Students take what they have learned thus far about research methods and start applying them toward developing a research question for their dissertation. In this course, students arrange literature reviews, design their methodology, analyze data, and procure human subjects via consent forms, according to an Aurora University course description.

Year Four:

  • Teaching Practicum. This course is designed for doctoral students who wish to pursue a career teaching at the college level. A faculty mentor helps arrange for practice teaching time in the student’s chosen subject areas, according to a University of Denver course description.
  • Social Work Research Internship. This supervised field internship is often required or recommended for course credit, and gives students hands-on experience in conducting social work research, according to an Indiana University course description.
  • Dissertation Research. The focus of this course is on research specific to the student’s dissertation research question. Students enroll in this course over and over again each semester until their dissertation is complete, according to an Indiana University course description.

After students completing an online PhD in social work have completed all of their coursework prior to completing their dissertation, they must take a comprehensive exam specially put together by an examination committee. This exam covers a student’s knowledge of social work theory, processes of research and data analysis, and knowledge specific to a student’s declared concentration of study. After the comprehensive exam, a PhD student works almost exclusively on his or her dissertation. Students can choose from a broad array of dissertation topics, as long as they can address a very specific problem within that discipline. For instance a research question may deal with children’s mental health or how people with chronic illnesses are treated in the workplace.

Value and Criticisms of a PhD in Social Work

Only students who are truly passionate about social work research should pursue an online PhD social work degree. If you only have a desire to teach as an adjunct while continuing clinical social work practice, you may be able to get by with a master’s degree, as many programs hire experienced, master’s-trained clinicians to teach part-time, and such positions generally do not have a research requirement. If, however, you desire a career shaping policy, researching issues in social work or teaching as a tenure-track professor, a PhD is an essential step in that direction. The value in an online social work PhD is the opportunity to contribute to the body of knowledge available in social work and preparing oneself to train up the next generation of social workers.

For many students, the PhD in social work may not be the best degree to pursue online. Students benefit greatly from face-to-face interaction with faculty and peers in the industry, and online students may not be required to participate in as much diverse hands-on opportunities. If you are certain you want to earn your social work PhD online, you should carefully select a top program that requires as much campus-based work as possible while providing the flexibility of online coursework.

Application & Admission Requirements

A candidate for an online PhD in social work must first and foremost have a sincere interest in helping others. He/she must be self-motivated and dedicated both to the online doctoral program in social work and to the population they are serving. To qualify for online PhD programs in social work, applicants must have a master’s degree in social work (MSW) from a CSWE-accredited program and often two years of post-MSW experience. Graduate applicants must submit a completed application and an official transcript from the highest degree conferred, along with any post-degree coursework. Students must also submit a resume detailing their work experience and achievements in social work, a statement of purpose explaining why you desire to enroll in the program and letters of recommendation that attest to your work ethic and aptitude for research. Your GPA from your master’s program should be 3.0 or higher, as only the best students are selected for PhD programs.

Career Options & Job Market

Some of the most common career fields for those who have earned online PhD degrees in social work include: college professors, researchers, clinical social workers and social scientists. They work in a wide variety of industries, but are often concentrated in government, nonprofit and university occupations. Job growth for post secondary teachers is projected to be faster than average through 2018, but competition is expected for tenure-track positions at universities, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Part-time or non-tenure-track positions will be easier to come by, the Bureau notes. Employment of social workers is also expected to grow faster than average, with 16 percent job growth projected between 2008 and 2018, the Bureau asserts. Two of the fastest-growth areas within clinical social work are mental health and substance abuse, a profession that is expected to experience 20 percent employment growth through 2018, and medical and public health, which is projected to experience 22 percent job growth, the Bureau notes.

Where to Find Information

  • National Association of Social Workers. The NASW is a great place to learn more about social work education, continuing education and news and events in the world of social work.
  • Council on Social Work Education. The CSWE is a national nonprofit association that represents graduate and undergraduate programs of professional social work education.
  • Journal of Social Work Values and Ethics. This journal focuses on the ethical issues faced by today’s social workers, and includes models for resolving ethical conflicts, research studies on ethics in social work practice and related articles.
  • The New Social Worker Online. This site provides a free online magazine, job search help, and links to books pertaining to social work.

How to Get Funding

Online doctoral programs in social work are not cheap. For example, the Doctor of Social Work (DSW) program at Capella University costs $3,990 per quarter for tuition, according to the Capella website. The good news is students have a number of options for paying for an online doctorate in social work. Scholarships, grants, fellowships, teaching assistantships and loans are among the most common means of paying for one’s PhD. Here we will explore a few fellowships you can explore as a PhD student.

  • Dissertation Proposal Development Fellowship. This fellowship is designed to fund graduate research that contributes to interdisciplinary fields in the humanities and social sciences. Fields are selected through annual competitions.
  • Melon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowships. This fellowship supports a year of research and writing for graduate students who are in their last year of work on their dissertation in the humanities or related social sciences.
  • The NASW’s Eileen Blackey Doctoral Fellowship. This fellowship provides support for students who are researching welfare policy and practice in their dissertation. Since the fellowship is based on donations to a foundation, the amount awarded each year varies.

Essential Advice

  • Two different types of social work programs can be pursued at the doctoral level—the Doctor of Social Work (DSW) and the PhD in Social Work. The DSW tends to be geared more for those looking to become advanced clinicians, while the PhD tends to be geared for those who wish to enter careers in research or academia. While the two programs are often similar, it’s still important to ask enrollment counselors plenty of questions about the type of career you would like to pursue so you know which doctoral degree is appropriate for your interests and career goals.
  • Talk to current graduate students enrolled in online doctoral programs in social work and ask what you can expect in a graduate program, and if they would recommend their program to you.
  • Make sure that any social work PhD programs online you are considering are accredited by a regional or national accreditation agency.
  • Before you begin seriously considering social work doctorate degrees online, make sure that the career you are pursuing actually requires such a high-level degree. A master’s will suffice in many instances.

Featured Programs

Click for course information:

  1. Capella University

    PhD - Social and Community Services
  2. Capella University

    DSW - General Social Work
  3. Walden University

    Ph.D. in Human Services - Course-based - Clinical Social Work
  4. Walden University

    Ph.D. in Counselor Education and Supervision - Counseling and Social Change

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