Pursuing a PhD in Social Work: make it count

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 often, money. 

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 luck! 

Inside Academia

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 academic roles:

  1. Faculty or staff?
  2. Research or teaching focused faculty role, or a combination?
  3. Tenure track or non-tenure track faculty?
  4. 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 enjoy. 

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 do.

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 programs.

Outside Academia

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 state governments.

One Reply to “Pursuing a PhD in Social Work: make it count”

  1. This is a great post for us JPhD students who are exploring (and wondering about) the array of options available to us professionally upon graduation.

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