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The New Social Worker is the quarterly magazine for social work students and recent graduates, focusing on social work careers for those new to the profession. This blog is a companion to the free online magazine at http://www.socialworker.com.

Friday, August 5, 2011


I don't know if it's my insatiable love of learning or some level of insanity, but I've been researching PhD and DSW programs. I love the idea of learning more, the structured environment with deadlines and such speaks to the side of my "type a personality," and I feel like it might be wiser to pursue now, before I'm too busy with the rest of life to have the time.

But here's where I've discovered is the difficulty... programs seem to only want students with at least 3 years post-MSW, some require an LCSW, and few offer coursework that doesn't require you to leave your paying job in order to attend classes.

Some argue that they're both unnecessary in the field of social work, that there's no real benefit in earning either unless you plan to become a tenured professor. They say that it doesn't take a doctorate to be a therapist, a case manager, or the other often-common positions in our field. They say the salary boost doesn't make up for the extra student loans and that programs seldom offer scholarships or grants to cover the costs.

After hearing so many nay-sayers, I wonder what you all think... does a social worker with a doctorate earn more or have more clout where YOU work? Do YOU have a doctorate? Have YOU considered it?


  1. I have a MSW but have no plans to get my PhD, but I do want to become more specialized because the job market is so competitive.
    Does anyone have info on training for:
    Case Management
    Hospice or Geriatric Case Management
    or any other specialized certifications, etc.?
    I live in the Sacramento, CA. area but am willing to travel within a 100 miles.  
    I'm not sure a PhD would be necessary unless you plan on teaching.  (I hope there are younger social workers who have a conservative/Judeo-Christian background that want to teach.  We need you!  The social work program I went through was very liberal and critical of anyone with conservative views).
    I am older and have plenty of student loans and can't afford anymore of them.  My emphasis is on specialized training/certifications and an applicable volunteer position where I can learn job skills.
    Any suggestions would be appreciated.  
    Thank you and I wish you the best in your endeavors.

  2. Cheap Social WorkerAugust 6, 2011 at 1:12 AM

    While getting my MSW, I thought long and hard about getting a PhD.  At the time, I had some interest in possibly teaching.  In the back of my mind, I also wanted to be a "doctor" so my family would stop seeing me as a failure for only having a masters degree.  In the end, I decided to just stick with my MSW.

    There are a few things you have to look at when getting a PhD.  The first is time commitment.  Contrary to what my family says, a PhD does not take 2 years.  In most cases, it takes 4-6 years full time. 

    The second thing is job availability.  In order to be considered for a tenure track job, you'll probably need to complete a post-doc, which is another 2-4 years of study and research AFTER getting a PhD.  Once you land a tenure track job AFTER getting a post-doc, you work 4-8 years at whatever university decides to take you.  After that time, the university can choose to keep you as a tenured professor or let you go.  For those who don't want to be a professor, I suppose there are industry jobs and think tank positions and whatnot.

    Whether the the time you spend in school is worth the pay raise leads me to my third point - finances.  Fortunately, most PhD programs are grant funded so you won't be paying tuition.  Many PhD students work as teaching assistants for extra money, but they do not make much.  Essentially, you're losing 4-10 years worth of income by getting a PhD/post-doc.  I would definitely consider whether you would be able to make up this loss with any salary increase afforded by a PhD. In the end, you'll probably end up with more money by working those 4-10 years as an MSW, even if the salary is lower.

    Here's a little anecdote:  One of my friends just finished a PhD and is working as a post-doc making around $30k a year.  My MSW salary is significantly higher than what my friend is making.  It doesn't make sense that someone with more education can make less, but I know that MSWs can empathize given the number of professions with bachelors degrees (nurses, engineers, etc) that earn higher salaries.

    I hate to be another nay-sayer, but that's my stance on PhDs.  Similar to social workers, PhD students are not in it for the money.  I feel that PhDs are designed for individuals who are truly passionate about social work academia and want to devote their lives doing research.  If you want to do therapy or even teach (since MSWs can be lecturers), it may be more practical to stick with the masters degree.

  3. Cheap Social WorkerAugust 6, 2011 at 12:37 PM

    From my experience as a California social worker who has worked at several hospitals, you typically have to have an RN to be a case manager in a medical setting.  While you can do case management type tasks like discharge planning as a social worker, the case managers I know that do utilization review are all nurses.  This is because case managers focus as much on the medical aspects of patient case as the psychosocial, and hence need extensive medical knowledge.  
    I did come across this in a google search:  http://www.acmaweb.org/section.asp?sID=16.  However, I'm skeptical to think this will help social workers get case managements positions over nurses.  My opinion may change, however, if I do meet case managers who are MSWs in my career.  Best of luck!</span>

  4. Gabriele, you make a very interesting comment about social workers being predominantly liberal and the desire for there to be more conservative and Judeo-Christian social workers.  With the exception of working in churches or other religious institutions, our NASW Code of Ethics seems to be pretty against using one's own belief system to judge or guide a client.  Our Code dictates that we accept all people where they are, that we do not judge them, that we help them to reach their own healthy goals regardless of whether they're what we'd do in their shoes.  Our Code also dictates that we treat all people the same, regardless of race, gender identity, sexual orientation, etc.  The APA and DSM are becoming increasingly clear about sexual orientation not being a disorder and that those with gender identity issues be encouraged to be who they are.  Laws throughout the world continue to change in favor of non-discrimination and the legalization of same sex marriages. 

    I am curious if these are what lead you to find social workers to be overly liberal?  Otherwise, please expound!

  5. <span>

    I didn't think that Social Work being a notoriously liberal profession would be a surprise to anyone anymore. I'm actually glad to know that it is a surprise, becuase maybe that means that it is becoming more balanced.    
    The BSW program I went through was very critical of those with conservative views as well. I think fewer and fewer people believe that homosexuality is a diagnosable disorder, but that is not what typically defines a liberal or a conservative either. Where social work policy was concerned, my program was very critical of political conservatives. I was in school during the 2008 presidential elections and I had professors who made it very clear that they felt any good social worker would and should vote for Obama, and that those who chose to vote for anyone else should seriously consider whether or not they had chosen the appropriate profession. When budget issues came up during the state's legislative session, my professors (and most of my classmates) all expressed financially liberal opinions. People with Republican leanings either did not exist in my program, or they were so much in the minority that they were afraid to speak up. Because I hate the idea that my BSW program was was an unsafe environment for anyone due to their group affiliation, I sincerely hope that they simply didn't exist that year.  I finish my MSW this year at a different university and it has proven to be a much more balanced experience.
    <span>And while I wouldn't put on the Judeo-Christian caveat (good social workers exist regardless of religion), I do wish that there were more social workers with politically conservative values workingin the field, or that they were more outspoken in their personal beliefs and opinions. Over 40% of people in the United States self-identify as "Conservative" </span><span>(according to http://bit.ly/onchzp), and it would be helpful if they had access to (or the ability to choose if they so want) social workers who share that particular commonality.   </span>

  6. Kryss, I think the question to ask yourself is WHY you want to get a PhD/DSW.  And will a doctorate allow you to reach your goal?  And if so, WHICH program will help you reach that goal.  Most people I know who have PhD/DSWs are educators or researchers.  There are some social work doctoral programs that focus on clinical social work.  However, most are research-oriented.  There are also post-master's certificate programs that focus on various specializations within social work.  So, there are various options to consider, depending on your goals.  I wouldn't assume that a PhD/DSW will translate into a higher salary.

  7. Hi!  Excellent question.  I fully support the response posted above by LindaGrobman because those are important points to consider that I myself considered a few years ago.  I am an LMSW who is currently completing her first year in a doctoral program.  I had 4 years of practice experience before deciding to enroll in the program. 

    Here's my story:
    When I graduated with my MSW at 24, I felt the pang of missing school (because it was all I knew) but I was so excited to finally be able to do clinical work.  And I did for the next four years.  All my life I felt that the best way to make a difference in people's lives would be through one-on-one work.  It was tremendously gratifying and amazing.  I was a strong employee and before I knew it, I was taking on additional responsibilities at my job- doing QA, supervising staff, supervising programs and, before I knew it, I was interim director of my department!  At age 28!  And I was going crazy.  I hated being "a boss/supervisor" (and honestly, i didn't think I was very good at it) and I felt like that would be the inevitability for me as an LMSW in the non-profit world- eventually becoming a clinical supervisor or overseeing a program.  I did NOT want to do that for the next 40 yrs of my life!

    I did, however, feel like I had some very unique views about my population (people living with HIV/AIDS who were homeless and using drugs) and I felt like my thoughts and experience could be turned into research and publications to share the stories of my clients.  I also supervised a few BSW students and LOVED teaching them about my work.

    So here I am now, a content first year doctoral student at age 29 and ready to break out!

    Hope this helps!


  8. Bear in mind that the politics of academia only increase at the PhD level, not decrease!

  9. Cheap Social WorkerAugust 10, 2011 at 3:23 AM


    The MSW program you described was similar to mine.  The liberal bias was quite apparently with my professors and textbooks.  While what was taught was consistent with my own beliefs, I began to play devil's advocate in my classes as I have a number of  conservative libertarian non-social work friends who would bring up interesting arguments during debates outside of class.  The majority of my classmates were liberal biased, with those having alternate opinions being called "closed-minded" when they voiced their opinions.  What made me particularly sad was that I had a few classmates confide to me that they had conservative views (pro-life, fiscal conservative, small government) and felt as if they couldn't speak up at all in class.  To give my program credit, it seems as if professors picked up on this and made their teachings more balanced as the year went on.

    I think it makes sense that social work has a liberal bias, considering the values social work represent. However, it is possible to have a conservative view on social work.  This particular article was very enlightening and certainly gave me a better perspective on where conservatives come from:  http://www.intellectualconservative.com/article4778.html

    I think in the end, social workers of different political affiliations strive for the same endpoint.  How we get there is where the differences occur.

  10.   I am an undergraduate who  isa very interested in pursuing my phd.however taking a phd is proving to be a nightmare becuse of the reasons that I have stated below in my blog.It is an interesting read for those pursuing a  phd.http://www.tusijisunde.com/2011/why-has-it-become-so-hard-to-attain-a-doctorates-phd-in-kenya/

  11. What would be your concentration if you pursued your Phd. I think the community of a higher ed environment is great, but I find myself drawn to creative projects that aren't bound by a particular curiculum. For example, as a MSW I've gotten the opportunity to work on a documentary on working poor americans, interview african american factory workers on on occupational health, and do social media for my company, if I was in grad school right now many of those things would be impossible. It really comes down to what kind of structure and concentration you want.

    As for the liberal vs. conservative debate, it is an issue in many schools and I hope we can be an inclusive profession to each other as much as we are for our clients and communities.