It has been more than 10 years since I walked across the graduation stage to receive my PhD degree. During that time, I have had the pleasure of discussing doctoral education with colleagues, mentees, and students alike. Among those in the social work discipline, I have known a number of colleagues with MSW degrees who have earned a PhD degree who end up not enjoying research or academia. I have also known terrific practitioners with decades of experience who lament that they never took the step to earn a doctorate degree. Similarly, many MSW students and early career social workers ask me for career advice by asking,
Should I go on to get a doctorate degree?
Too often, they ask this question before researching doctorate degree programs or what careers are like for doctorate-level social workers. If you are asking yourself whether you should return to graduate school, here are some things to think about:
The Decision to Move from Practice to Research
If you are considering a PhD program, the first thing to ask yourself is, "Am I interested in research?" In my years serving on a Social Work PhD Committee, I cannot count the number of applications we reviewed that included personal statements that did not address the topic of research at all. The applicant may be a great writer and/or highlight to no end their passion for their social work area or population they serve. However, that may not be enough.
PhD programs mostly prepare you to become a researcher. You will take class after class on theory, statistics, and research methodology. By the end of the program, you will have to demonstrate your ability to conduct research by completing a dissertation study. I have witnesses many students enroll in a PhD program, only to fall short in their research courses or dissertation work. Great clinicians do not necessarily make great researchers. If you are not sure if research is right for you, you should talk with social work researchers in your area of interest and learn more about what that part of social work is like.
The Realities of Academia
Most social work doctoral students (especially those in PhD programs) will aspire to find jobs in academia. Some are more prepared for this journey than others. Currently, tenure-track positions are not as easy to get as they have been in the past. The competition is fierce. When I last chaired a faculty search committee for a tenure-track social work position, we received 60 applications. So, getting the job you want in the geographic location you want may not be feasible.
Once you get a tenure-track position, you immediately start working to beat the tenure clock by achieving your research, teaching, and service goals each year. There is tremendous pressure to meet your publication goals each year. You may work in a program that urges faculty to obtain federal research funding, which is challenging. Balancing the many roles of faculty life can also be difficult for some.
Another challenging part of academia is that most of your career achievements are the result of peer review, meaning that you must be able to accept ongoing criticism (and praise, but more often criticism) of your work by others within and external of your institution. More about the challenges of peer review in academia can be found in a prior post.
What happens if you cannot keep your productivity or successfully navigate peer review? You may not be awarded tenure. If you are not familiar with the tenure process in academia, this means that you are fired and must look for a new position elsewhere (there's a reason they say, Publish or Perish!).
Of course, you may love teaching more than research and aim to work at a university that is more teaching focus. Such positions can be extremely rewarding and offer better work/life balance. However, these positions may pay less money.
If my description of academia culture sounds terrible...it may not be for you. There are many people who love working in academia (like myself!).
The Value of Your Degree Outside of Academia
While most doctorate-level social workers will move onto careers in academia, not all do. You can definitely work in the public sector or in the private human service sector. However, you should make sure that your degree will be valued by the institution you work at. Will achieving a doctorate degree result in more promotion opportunities or greater salary? If not, you may end up working the same job as an MSW-level social worker, earn the same salary as him or her, but have additional student loan debt. Find out first if a doctorate will get you ahead.
I have known doctoral students who had leadership-type positions in human services and they continued to do the same work after graduating than they did before entering the doctorate program. Some may view their new degree as giving them additional credibility or attract more clients or funding as Executive Directors. Some may view the degree as giving them skills to operate their programs better. So, the decision about whether their degree will have a positive impact on their career may vary from situation to situation.
PhD or DSW?
While the PhD degree has been the primary doctorate degree for social workers during the past several decades, the Doctor of Social Work (DSW) degree has gained popularity in recent years. The earliest doctorate programs in social work were DSW programs and they more or less were similar to today's PhD in social work. Later, schools adopted the PhD as the social work doctoral degree, following suit with other professions.
However, recent trends have moved towards offering the DSW as a practice doctorate - similar to trends in other professions, such as the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree and the Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) degree. This degree may be attractive to social workers who are interested in advancing their practice skills beyond the MSW, but are not necessarily interested in making a transition to being a researcher.
A DSW program offers advanced education in theory and interventions used in clinical (and in some programs) macro practice. Some require a dissertation or other type of research-based project for graduating, such as a published academic paper. DSW programs are for social workers who have interest in becoming leaders in their field and/or work with very high levels of independence, similar to other professional doctorates. Some DSW programs may also offer coursework in teaching and pedagogy that may prepare you for clinical faculty positions within higher education settings. There, you may find yourself teaching in a non-tenure track position with less focus on research. If these career options are related to your own aspirations, a DSW program may be worth learning more about.
It should be noted that there is controversy in the field about the re-emergence of the DSW degree. I will be writing a future post that focuses on the PhD versus DSW discourse that may answer more questions you have about this degree option. However, if this sounds like an attractive option for you, revisit the section above, The Value of Your Degree Outside of Academia. If researching DSW programs, make sure tho assess the curriculum to make sure that the course offerings focus on topics that will advance your own knowledge and skill-set. The DSW shouldn't be viewed as additional electives for an MSW program.
The Take Away
Getting a doctorate degree sounds prestigious to many in the general public. Many prospective doctoral students with whom I've talked to have given me the impression that the excitement and intrigue of having a doctorate degree have overshadowed their research on the realities of this career move. My ultimate response to students is almost always:
Get the degree you need for the job you need.
It's simple advice. If you like what you are doing in the field with an MSW, you can advance your education without the commitment of an entire degree program. As a social worker, don't ask yourself, Should I get my doctorate? Ask yourself, Do I need a doctorate to get dream job XYZ?
Nicole Ruggiano is an Associate Professor and Interim Director of the DSW Program within the School of Social Work at the University of Alabama. She provides advice and support to graduate students and junior faculty who want to advance their academic careers. Read more advice about academia and PhD life at the academiccareerclinic.com .