Online PhD in Social and Community Services

An online PhD in social and community services prepares students for leadership positions with community service or human services organizations. It is often offered as a specialization in a broader human services or social work program. Students take courses that immerse them in the current social issues that impact society, and take in-depth courses in social work theory and social science theory. Students also have their choice of a number of electives focused on the area of social and community services that is of the most interest to them or most relevant to their career path or current line of work.

Online doctoral programs in social and community services typically take a minimum of four years to complete, but could take as many as seven years, depending on how long it takes a student to complete his/her dissertation. Upon completion of online doctoral coursework, students take a comprehensive exam that qualifies them for their doctoral research. Student then must write, submit and defend a book-length doctoral dissertation, a document detailing their original research that aims to answer a significant research question. To aid in the completion of this dissertation, students participate in several multi-day colloquia, where they meet face to face with faculty mentors on a college campus to get focused guidance on the finer points of their dissertation.

About Online PhD Programs in Social and Community Services

Online PhD programs in social and community service differ greatly from traditional, campus-based programs because they do not require a student's routine presence on campus for lectures. Instead, students access their lectures—and everything else they need for their doctoral-level courses—entirely online through the university's course management system. Students communicate with faculty and cohorts via e-mail, live chat and phone, and engage in lively debates and conversations via online message boards, where students discuss course material and issues relevant to social and community services. Group projects require small groups of students to be able to collaborate online, using tools such as video conferencing and software that allows the group to work on a single document from various locations.

While the majority of work in online doctorate programs in social and community services is conducted online, students still must report to a college campus for a variety of reasons. Multi-day colloquia require the student's presence on campus for four-day to week-long stints of intense dissertation development work with faculty. Individual courses may require students to conduct research on campus with peers. Also, some online PhD social and community services programs require teaching practicum that may require one's presence on campus to teach students.

To give you an idea of the course sequence you might encounter in an online social and community services PhD, here is an example of some courses from the Doctor of Philosophy in Human Services, Social and Community Services Specialization from Capella University. The following course descriptions are listed on

Year One:

  • Advanced Research in Adult Human Development and Behavior. In this course, students are introduced to current research into adult development from a variety of perspectives, and learn how to evaluate such research critically.
  • Diversity in the Workplace. In this course, students take a focused look at theories behind cultivating diversity in the workplace, and conduct research into best practices promoting diversity.
  • Fundamentals of Social Science Research. This course introduces students to the major themes in social science research—human services in particular. Students apply advanced research methods to topics within social science, and learn to evaluate existing research critically.

Year Two:

  • Quantitative Research Methods in the Human Services. This course teaches students how to collect and analyze hard data using quantitative methodology to conduct research related to human services.
  • Advanced Qualitative Research Methods.. This course teaches students how to collect and analyze non-quantitative data using qualitative methodology, and emphasizes ethical concerns with qualitative research.
  • Advanced Professional Scientific Ethics. This course explores ethical concerns as they pertain to human services, and the role of ethics in decision making, policy development and social systems.

Year Three:

  • Epistemology of Practice Knowledge. This course exposes students to methodologies researchers use to gain information in the realm of human services, and how to evaluate those methodologies critically.
  • Advanced Study in Research Methods. This course directly prepares students for the work they will be doing on their dissertation by helping them to become well-versed in advanced research methods from the formation of a research question to the end of a research project, as well as helping them choose the most appropriate methodologies.
  • Principles and Practice of Social Work . This course exposes students to theories pertaining to the modern practice of social work at the individual, family and organizational levels.

Year Four:

  • Methods of Family Research. This course teaches students techniques for research design, data collection and analysis as they pertain to the complex family unit.
  • The Family in Social Context. This course explores the many outside factors that affect the family structure and what this means from a human services standpoint.
  • Dissertation Research. Students work exclusively on research and writing for their dissertation.

Two of the most challenging portions of your work toward your online social and community services doctorate will be the comprehensive exam and the dissertation. The comprehensive exam is developed by a faculty examination committee. This exam covers a student's knowledge of human services and social and community services theory, knowledge of research and data analysis, and knowledge specific to a student's further concentration of study. After the comprehensive exam, students completing online doctoral degrees in social and community services work almost exclusively on his or her dissertation. Students can choose from a broad array of dissertation topics, as long as they address a very specific problem within social and community services. For instance a research question may deal with early intervention for children with emotional disorders or best practices for combating domestic violence. Once the student has submitted their dissertation, they must orally defend it in front of a team of faculty.

Value and Criticisms of a PhD in Social and Community Services

Only students who are truly passionate about research and who thrive on independent learning should pursue an online doctorate in social and community services. If you only wish to teach as an adjunct while continuing work in the field, a master's degree may be all you need, as many colleges and universities hire experienced, master's-trained individuals to teach part-time. Such positions generally do not have a research requirement. If, however, you desire a career teaching as a tenure-track professor, shaping policy or researching issues in social and community services, a PhD is a vital step in that direction. The value in an online social and community services PhD is the opportunity to contribute to the body of knowledge available in social and community services and preparing oneself to train up the next generation of human and social services workers.

For many students, a PhD in social and community services is not the best degree to pursue online. Campus-based doctoral students benefit greatly from consistent, face-to-face interaction with faculty and peers from a variety of social services backgrounds, and online students may not be have as many opportunities for hands-on work or practicums. If you are certain you want to earn your social and community services 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

To qualify for the best social and community services PhD programs online, applicants must have a minimum of a master's degree from an accredited college or university. Applicants must submit a resume; online doctoral programs in social and community services prefer applicants with significant experience in volunteer and/or professional public service, and human services experience is a plus. Graduate applicants must submit a completed application and official transcripts showing the highest degree conferred, along with transcripts showing any post-master's coursework. Your GPA from your master's program should be high, as only the best students are selected for doctoral programs. Applicants must also submit a statement of purpose or essay explaining why they desire to enroll in the program and outlining their personal and career goals. Finally, three letters of recommendation that attest to the applicant's work ethic and aptitude for research are typically required; these letters are often from past professors or current colleagues.

Career Options & Job Market

Some common careers for those who complete online PhD degrees in social and community services include: college professors, researchers, social scientists, consultants, policy analysts and scholarly authors. Other careers might include public health administrators, community outreach directors, and social services managers. A large number work in government or the nonprofit sector. 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 scientists is also projected to grow much faster than average between 2008 and 2018, the Bureau asserts. Job opportunities in the social assistance industry are projected to be plentiful, as there is high turnover in the industry, according to the Bureau. The individual and family services sector in particular is projected to be one of the fastest-growing industries in the economy, the Bureau notes.

Where to Find Information

  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. This website is a useful resource for learning about the U.S. government's role in delivering essential human services to Americans and also provides a link to careers for college-educated job-seekers.
  • The National Organization for Human Services. This website is a great place to learn more about the role of human services in society, ethical standards for human services workers, awards and scholarships, and the Tau Upsilon Alpha National Organization for Human Services Honor Society.
  • National Conference of State Legislatures. For those who are interested in human services policy, here you can find news highlights pertaining to human services and browse hot topics and legislation concerning human services.
  • Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Social Services. This journal is a great resource for reading up on topics relevant to social services written by practitioners and scholars in various social services fields.

How to Get Funding

Online doctorate degrees in social and community services can be very expensive. Tuition per quarter with up to three courses per quarter is $4,485 for Capella University's PhD in human services with a specialization in social and community services, according to the Capella website. The good news is students have a number of options for paying for social and community services doctorate degrees online. 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 grants you can explore as a PhD student.

Essential Advice

  • As you browse social and community services PhD programs online, verify that the university offering the program is accredited. This is the first and most important step to making sure you aren't earning a degree from a diploma mill.
  • If you are a busy career professional, find out as much as you can about what courses will require your presence on campus so you can plan ahead for those occasions with your employer.
  • Not everyone is suited for online learning. Do a self-evaluation and ask if you are cut out for independent learning and are self-disciplined enough to keep yourself on task from a distance before seriously considering online PhD programs in social and community services.
  • Speak with an enrollment advisor about your past educational experience to see if you can transfer in any credits from another school. Doing so can help you complete an online doctorate in social and community services more quickly and at a lower cost.