by Dr. Mathieu Despard
I have only one hope for anyone pursuing a PhD in Social Work: make it
count. The number of people in the U.S. who have a doctoral degree has doubled
since 2000, yet this represents less than 2% of the adult population. The
reason is simple: getting a PhD is a major commitment of time, effort, and
What I mean by make it count is do something with your PhD
that you couldn’t do with your MSW whether or not the position itself
requires a PhD.
What can you do with a PhD in Social Work? I’ve worked in tenure-track
and non-tenure track, teaching vs. research focused, staff and faculty roles. I
have several colleagues with PhDs in professional roles outside of
academia. Informed by these experiences and connections, here are some
ideas and considerations. My goal here is to encourage you to think
broadly and creatively about what you can do with your PhD in Social Work. Good
Working in the academy comes with
distinct advantages – a great deal of scheduling flexibility, autonomy, and
yes, time in the summer to unwind or write a book or big research proposal!
There are 4 key considerations for
- Faculty or staff?
- Research or teaching focused faculty role, or a combination?
- Tenure track or non-tenure track faculty?
- Type of institution: R1, R2, or other? Public or private?
Faculty or staff?
Most PhD graduates will naturally
want to consider a faculty position to focus on teaching and/or research (see
below). Yet colleges and universities also employ staff with PhDs in roles such
as research associates and administrators of research centers, and in various
leadership roles related to student affairs, advising, continuing education,
and community programs. When you examine a college or university’s job
listings, include both faculty and staff classifications. Pay close attention,
however, to whether the position is hard (e.g., part of an academic unit
budget) or soft (e.g., part of a time limited grant or contract) funded.
Research or teaching focused faculty
role, or a combination?
How do you want to spend most of
your day as a faculty member? Preparing lesson plans and grading or collecting
and analyzing data and writing manuscript drafts? Have you taught before? Do
you find it exhausting or energizing? I spent 9 years in a teaching-focused
role, teaching 8 or 9 courses per year (including summers) and was highly
motivated to earn my PhD so I could conduct research and teach less. I still
teach and enjoy it greatly, but I am heavily involved in research, which I also
Tenure track or non-tenure track?
Tenure track = more pressure but greater (potential) stability. The degree of pressure, particularly to publish, depends on the type of institution. Whatever the requirements to secure tenure, it’s hard work. If you finish your PhD and are looking forward to working less, a tenure track faculty position is probably not for you. Generally speaking, anticipate that the amount of effort you had to expend getting your PhD will remain unchanged until you get tenure. However, the upside is that many colleges and universities “protect” your time by giving you reduced teaching and service responsibilities during your first couple of years so you can focus on getting your research off the ground (publishing dissertation papers, launching projects). You may also receive discretionary funds to support your research!
Many faculty members not on a tenure
track enjoy stability and feel every bit a part of the faculty as tenure track
faculty. In 9 years in this role, most years I worked under a single year
contract, but I never felt my job was in jeopardy. Still, if a college or
university runs into financial problems, tenure track jobs are better
protected. And at some colleges and universities, non-tenure track faculty feel
very under-appreciated and have little power. That wasn’t the case for me, but
it’s a possibility. Also, non-tenure track faculty are expected to do more
teaching and advising and have less time for research than tenure track
faculty. But you don’t have the pressure to publish that tenure track faculty
Another type of non-tenure track
faculty position is adjunct. This means you teach just 1 or 2 courses per year
or semester. This could be a good option if you really enjoy teaching but want
to maintain a full-time social work position as an administrator, therapist,
organizer, etc. In other words, it’s better to think of being an adjunct
faculty member as a sort of side gig, not your main livelihood.
Type of Institution
The Carnegie Commission on Higher Education classifies colleges and universities based on their level of research productivity. R1 universities such as UNC-Chapel Hill and NC State are considered “very high research activity”. R2 universities such as UNC-Greensboro and N.C. A & T are considered “high research activity”. R1s place greater emphasis and resources on research and have higher research expectations (# of publications, high impact journals, grants secured) for tenure-track faculty than R2s, though pay and academic prestige tends to be higher in R1s. Teaching loads (the # of courses faculty are required to teach) may be higher at R2s, but not dramatically so. Teaching-focused colleges and universities, such as Western Carolina University and Bennett College, will have, not surprisingly, higher teaching loads – perhaps 4 courses a semester compared to 2 or 3 at R1s and R2s .
Public colleges and universities are
larger and tend not to pay faculty as well as private ones due to lower tuition
revenue and less in endowed assets. But this is probably true just among R1s
and R2s; teaching-intensive
private institutions may pay no more and or even less than public ones. Public
institutions, which are subsidized by taxpayers (though state funding has been
declining for several years now), also tend to be more public service oriented.
However, the distinctions between public and private appear to be fading
due to changes in state funding, tuition increases, and private institutions
incorporating more public service oriented missions.
Whether R1, R2, or teaching-focused,
public or private, another consideration is whether you want to teach
undergraduate or graduate students (or both). In North
Carolina, there are 23 BSW and 12 MSW
There are many roles to play with a PhD in Social Work outside of academia –
too many to list here, but I’ll offer a few examples. Some of these roles
require a PhD, many do not. For positions that do not require a PhD, Jennifer
Polk and L. Maren Wood in an
article in Inside Higher Ed offer the following advice:
“To build a successful, meaningful career beyond the professoriate, every
Ph.D. must learn how to leverage their own distinct combination of knowledge,
skills and abilities”. Put differently, think of how a PhD can help you build
upon, not replace, your skills and experience.
Advocacy Groups: statewide nonprofit organizations focus on changing
systems and public policies affecting populations helped by social workers,
such as NC Child and the NC Justice Center. At the national level,
there are many advocacy organizations, based primarily in Washington, DC such
as Prosperity Now, National Coalition for the Homeless,
and the headquarters of the National Alliance on
Mental Illness (NAMI). Roles with advocacy groups for someone with a PhD in
Social Work include policy analyst and research director.
Corporations: surprised to see this? Consider the recent
trend of companies hiring Chief Diversity Officers, large managed care
companies like Centene that need experts
in mental health, chronic disease, and under-served populations, large
behavioral health providers like Magellan
Healthcare, and jobs in Corporate
Social Responsibility and Public Relations.
Government: admittedly, I know the least about public sector jobs for
PhD social workers. Yet state and especially federal government agencies employ
PhD social workers in research, program evaluation, technical assistance,
quality assurance, and administrative roles. Like foundations, public agencies
benefit from staff who have a combination of relevant substantive knowledge
about issues like child maltreatment and domestic violence and research and
program evaluation skills.
Philanthropy: foundations like Z.
Smith Reynolds in North Carolina or foundations with a national presence
like Kresge and W. K. Kellogg fund programs and projects
well-aligned with social work practice and need program officers with expertise
regarding issues such as mental health and homelessness, and relevant research
knowledge and skills.
Professional Associations: state and national organizations also
exist to promote the interests of social workers and other related
professions: Council on Social Work
Education, National Association
for Social Workers, National Association
for the Education of Young Children. Staff with PhDs in Social Work might
work in roles providing technical assistance, developing professional
standards, and/or advocating for the profession with policy makers.
Research Firms: these are organizations that conduct applied research
on a wide range of topics related to social work, usually through federal
government contracts and large foundation grants. North Carolina firms include RTI International and FHI360. Outside of the state, examples
include RAND Corporation, Abt Associates, and Westat. These firms emphasize offering
objective analysis and perspectives and do not engage in advocacy. Roles
include project manager (PhD not required), and roles requiring a PhD such as
Research Associate and Statistician, for which quantitative and research design
skills are very important.
Think Tanks: think tanks are organizations that conduct applied
research and policy analysis to inform public policies. Those that focus on
issues of concern to social workers include the Urban
Institute, New America, Center for American Progress, and MDC in Durham, NC. They bear some resemblance
to Advocacy Groups in focusing on policy, yet tend not to have explicit
advocacy agendas. They, like MDC, may also act in advisory roles for local and