Doctorates for Social Work – DSW, PhD or PsyD?

Social work psychologists are rare, but they’re out there. They help social workers dealing with clients who have issues that are beyond the scope of normal social services. And they work to advocate for psychology as part of the field of social work, training and advising social workers to make their jobs easier.

Social psychology and social work psychology are closely related, but aren’t entirely the same field. While social psychologists study society and social issues in ways that can influence policy and law, they don’t do anything that we actually call human services and social work.

In the midst of the Roaring 20’s, as physically and mentally damaged soldiers were coming home from the First World War, Sigmund Freud’s revolutionary concepts of psychodynamics were sweeping all fields of scientific thought and social behavior. Even as they were completely changing the field of psychology, many social workers latched on to the theories as well. In society’s ills, they saw evidence of mental phenomena. The new theories seemed to explain it, and offer hope for a treatment.

They called it the Psychoanalytical Deluge.

It’s not a period that is much loved in social work historical circles today. It’s seen as diverting attention from real, and larger, social issues and placing blame on the individuals rather than the system. If psychological treatments helped some of the poor and unemployed, they did nothing to head off the great wave of misery that was coming around the corner with the Great Depression.

Fortunately, social workers and psychologists today have come together more productively, using broader social psychological concepts to address larger cultural and social problems, as well as treating individuals when needed.

Social workers are as often engaged in advocacy for their clients as in direct clinical treatment. A doctorate in psychology won’t help you master bureaucracy any faster or fight any harder for your patients. But it can give you specialized expertise in treating mental health issues that can put people in a better position to help and support them through even the worst crises. To provide counseling and support in the community as a licensed social worker, a Master of Social Work is all you need. The most ambitious, though, don’t stop till they have earned a DSW – Doctor of Social Work

That additional two years or so of training beyond what the average licensed social worker has, together with the added research and clinical expertise, makes them a shoe-in for leadership roles.



What is Social Work – and What Do Doctorate-Prepared Social Workers Do?

Social work is an easy role to recognize but a hard one to pin down. Almost any kind of position or agency that works to aid society through providing assistance to those in need is engaged in social work. That can be anything from the Red Cross, spanning borders and responding to natural disasters and manmade crises, right down to the neighborhood group raising funds for athletic equipment to keep disadvantaged kids occupied with pick-up games after school.

Government agencies are big in the social work arena. Traditional social work functions like distributing nutrition assistance, monitoring child welfare, and offering shelter placement assistance to the homeless are all big roles for government spanning the federal, state, and local levels.

While both psychologists and social workers try to improve the lives of people in their communities, the training they get is oriented a bit differently.

While social work, in general, is rooted in social advocacy and community support, on the clinical counseling side of the social work game, it isn’t too dissimilar from what psychologists do. The focus is on individuals and addressing clinical problems in their lives. Psychologists and DSW-prepared social workers both find value in recognizing the larger social issues that drive those problems, offering treatment oriented toward developing evidence-based treatment for individuals and groups.

Their work can also go beyond individual and group counseling sessions, pushing out into a broader sphere, informing social work agencies and services about the complexities of psychological challenges in the community. With expertise in diagnosing mental health issues, and training in social psychology, they can advise on the best policies and interventions for a particular community.

PhD/PsyD or DSW? … Both Psychologists and Social Workers Can Hold Doctorates

Doctorate in Psychology – Many people come to the point of looking at psychology doctorates after having already worked in the field of social work. After spending your days working with people with clear mental health issues and other psychological disadvantages, it’s only natural to want to expand your toolset so you can better help them. Your experience gives you a clear idea of what you want out of a psychology doctorate, and your background will give you a boost in getting it. The path to becoming a licensed clinical psychologist in any capacity, social work or otherwise, always requires a PsyD or PhD…

Doctorate of Social Work – Now, all that same experience and all those same conclusions could just as easily lead you to a Doctor of Social Work, or Doctor of Clinical Social Work, both generally referred to a DSW. The degree will still provide some level of advanced training in direct clinical interventions with at-need individuals, but with a narrower focus on the sort of issues that social workers more often tackle – issues of poverty and inequity, domestic problems, and of course, substance abuse issues.

And, like any advanced degree in social work, it will also give lots of attention to policy-level concerns and social program design and development, equipping you with the general knowledge and research skills to lead non-profits or to help make important decisions in government social services agencies.

Are There Online DSW or PhD/PsyD Options?

Online learning for doctoral programs was starting to get popular even before the pandemic. When you are about to commit five years or more of your life to an advanced level of schooling, the sort of flexibility you can find through remote learning is a clear advantage.

By the time you get to the point in your career where you are considering a doctorate in any area, you probably have a lot of things going on in life you can’t just walk away from. Maybe you’re still working part-time; maybe you have a family. Maybe you want to attend a terrific program that’s halfway across the country and you don’t want to relocate.

With online options, you don’t have to. It’s true that psychology doctorates are really hybrids… there are face-to-face requirements, particularly in the later years of the program, that just can’t be done any other way, or part-time. But that’s a solve problem for online programs, which can usually arrange your practicum and clinical experiences to be somewhere close to home.

How To Get Into a PhD/PsyD Program in Psychology or Doctor of Social Work

You have likely gotten to the point you’re at right now – deciding between a DSW or doctorate in psychology – through earning degrees in related fields. That means you already know what to expect as you approach your doctorate program application process – and you likely already know that you can expect it to be tougher in a lot of ways than for a bachelor’s or even a master’s program.

An undergraduate degree in psychology is usually the best foundation for graduate work in the field. The same goes for social work, with an undergraduate degree in human services or social work providing the smoothest transition. No surprises there. But that doesn’t mean you are tracked for only one career path as soon as you earn your bachelor’s. As you likely already know, there is enough overlap from both areas that it’s still possible to change course pretty painlessly when going into your master’s, as long as you get the right prerequisite courses in.

The path tends to be a little trickier to navigate for social work undergrads going for a psychology master’s, but you’ll find most schools are willing to work with you to make sure you have the right foundational courses. That said, your master’s degree is where you make your final decision since the degree you hold will track you for either psychology or social work at the doctorate level.

You have one leg up if you have already been working in social work prior to applying for a DSW, because you have a CV that instantly offers street cred and shows your commitment to the profession.

Whether it’s a doctorate in psychology or DSW you’re going for, you’ll need some persuasive letters of recommendation. Most programs require at least three, and if you’ve been impressing people on the job or at school, you’ll easily meet that requirement.

Other requirements are that you hold at least a 3.0 GPA in your undergraduate program, and often that you take a standardized admission test like the GRE (Graduate Record Exam). You will also need to submit an essay, discussing both your previous experience and your goals after you obtain your doctorate.

Making Sure Your DSW or Doctorate in Psychology Holds Specialty Accreditation

If you’re coming from a social work background, you’ve already been through this dance. There, you sought out schools with accreditation from the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE)—all 50 states require that social workers hold an accredited degree to be eligible for licensure. The DSW, being relatively new on the scene in the tradition-honoring world of higher education, does not currently fall under CSWE accreditation – yet.

But CSWE has already developed doctoral level accreditation standards, making them public in June 2020. With a task force in place to review DSW programs and curriculum standards already drafted, CSWE is primed to move forward in launching the pilot program.

Between now and the time a start date is announced, a smart bet is to look for DSW programs offered at schools that already have accredited MSW programs on offer.

Similarly, if you want to become licensed as a psychologist, you need to graduate from a program that holds accreditation from the APA’s Commission on Accreditation (CoA). There are only around 400 accredited doctoral programs in psychology in the country according to the APA. Many of those only admit a handful of students each year. So you have your work cut out for you to get accepted, particularly into a program of your choice.

Just like CSWE, they take apart and look at every piece of the programs they accredit to make sure they are delivering a suitable and appropriate education to prepare professional psychologists.

How the Curriculum Differs Between a DSW and PhD in Social Work

Even though social work psychology is a recognized specialty within the field of psychology, there are no psychology doctorates that are specific to social work. This often leads people interested in the human services field interested in earning a doctorate to opt for the DSW over a PsyD or PhD in psychology.

With a DSW concentrated in clinical practice, though, your curriculum will specifically prepare you for child and adolescent work, public safety, geriatric concerns, and couple and family psychology… all of which have specific applications within social work.

No surprise that a DSW, being the practice-focused doctorate that it is, orients a large portion of the curriculum to practice and applied methods. Even courses in clinical theory and research methods deal largely with how theoretical concepts and research findings are used to inform the work that gets done out in the field, featuring course titles like:

  • Behavioral and Cognitive Behavioral Theories and Integrative Practices
  • Trauma-Informed Theory and Interventions
  • Relational Theories and Social Work Practice
  • Substance Use Interventions
  • Applied Social Statistics

Of course, you can expect courses dealing with how to develop the skills and cross-cultural understanding to it takes to perform therapy and other interventions effectively:

  • Race, Culture and Identity
  • Family and Couples Therapy
  • Psychopharmacology
  • Group Therapy
  • Mindfulness in Psychotherapy

A PhD in Social Work being a classic doctorate at heart, you can expect the curriculum to revolve around theory and research as well as the practical application of knowledge. And as a degree that is designed for careers in leadership positions, it will also be heavy in policy and public administration.

That means you can expect to see courses in:

  • Statistics and advanced research methods covering problem formulation, research design, data collection, measurement and data analysis
  • Social and behavioral science courses in anthropology, economics, geography, history and organizational theory

Some feel that a doctorate in social psychology (either a Phd or PsyD) may be the best bet for social work studies on the research and theory level.

Some of the elective subjects you could find in a PhD or PsyD in social psychology that you might also find useful for a role in social work include courses in areas like:

  • Stereotypes and Prejudice
  • Ethnicity, Race, Culture, and Child Development
  • Disparities in Mental Healthcare
  • Social and Cultural Psychology in Personality Development

In any social work relevant program offered at the doctoral level, you’ll find your practicum ramped up throughout the program also, putting you in a room with patients in real-world settings more and more frequently to give you direct experience in assessment and treatment. These elements will be more practice-driven in PsyD programs, while the research coursework will be emphasized more in PhD programs, but you’ll get both kinds of classes either way.

Capping Off Your DSW or Other Doctorate With a Dissertation or Final Project

Another thing that every doctoral program has in common is the dissertation or doctoral project. This is an intense, research-heavy project that can occupy most of your time in the last couple years of the program. It represents a major part of what’s involved in earning a doctorate, though, and will result in a publication or presentation-worthy piece of original work to hang your hat on as you enter the workforce.

Doctoral students have the chance to work closely with faculty mentors on field of practice tutorials that relate to the dissertation they are planning, which in social work could cover topics as broad as:

  • Poverty and inequality
  • Immigrants and refugees
  • Alcoholism and substance abuse
  • Mental health
  • Gerontology and Aging
  • Women’s Health

As the capstone to a doctorate, your dissertation will reflect your own passions and the areas where you would like to make contributions, all laid out in a carefully-researched piece of written work expressing a synthesis of not only all your studies, but also your own unique ideas on a topic of interest to the field. You’ll design and pick that topic with the assistance of your advisor, and you’ll present and defend the dissertation in front of a tough, but fair, committee before it can be accepted.

The doctoral project is a newer way of accomplishing a similar goal. Rather than a theoretical paper, however, you’ll focus on practical application of your themes and ideas. The project still has to pass muster with a project committee, but the process of defending and revising it may be less rigorous than a classic dissertation.

In both cases, you walk away with not only confidence in your own knowledge and skills, but also a piece of work that will define your experience in the doctoral program.

Licensure in Psychology or Social Work Ultimately Determines Your Scope of Practice

You probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn at this point that the clinical counseling and other work you do in a strictly social work context won’t necessarily be all that different as a licensed psychologist versus a licensed clinical social worker. Of course, each license comes with a clearly defined scope of practice established by your state that you are legally obligated to adhere to, but in practice, working with people face-to-face every day, the approach to solving the most common problems and the modalities of treatment you use to do it are largely the same.

If you’re trying to help a recovering addict or help families resolve conflicts and turmoil, the license you hold will have little bearing over how you go about doing that. The major break occurs in the severity of the issues that get addressed. Clearly, a clinical psychologist would have the toolset to deal with a person struggling with clinical depression or schizophrenia, while a social worker, even one with a doctorate, wouldn’t have that skillset or the authority under their license to tackle these kinds of severe problems.

Psychology Licensure – Psychologists working strictly in research or in social work policy might never encounter a patient face-to-face in a clinical setting. For those jobs, you are less likely to be required to be licensed.

But most people don’t go through the trouble of earning a PhD or PsyD unless they plan to go all the way, earning full authority licensure through their state psychology board.

Most states require that you pass some state-specific regulatory and ethical testing as well. And each will have some requirement for a certain number of post-doctoral, supervised practice hours also.

Social Work Licensure – Of course, social workers themselves working in the clinical context also require licensure – Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW). If you are already working in the field with a master’s, you have been through this process and likely currently hold an active LCSW license.

There is nothing preventing you from holding both a credential as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and licensed clinical psychologist, but in practice, if you’ve earned a doctorate in psychology, that’s going to be the license you practice under since the scope of practice is broader and more inclusive.

Salary Vs Educational Investment – Cost Benefit Analysis of Earning a DSW or Doctorate in Psychology

As a licensed psychologist, social work isn’t a field that you go into in order to get rich. But you might think you need to start out that way when you see the sticker price on the average psychology doctoral program.

According to a 2016 survey by the APA, that came out to annual costs of:

  • Public in-state university – $11,000 each year
  • Public out-of-state university – $24,000 each year
  • Private university – $34,000 each year

If you do the math, you can see that you’ll end up spending between $50,000 and over $200,000 on the degree, total. It’s no wonder that the same survey found that 90 percent of psychology PhD graduates had some form of student debt outstanding as they entered the workforce.

The National Center for Education Statistics also monitors graduate tuition rates, and for doctoral programs of all types, including DSW programs, they found similar numbers.

  • Public school – $12,171
  • Private school – $25,929

You’ll notice that private schools are consistently more expensive. On the other hand, they also tend to be more prestigious. In the private sector, that leads to higher salaries and more earnings later on in your career. But for social work, with many non-profit and government employers, that may not be the case—you’ll have to decide based on your own circumstances.

Jobs and Salary Prospects With a DSW or PsyD/PhD in Psychology

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average psychologist made $80,370 in 2019. That’s a lot better than the average social worker, who made only $50,470 over the same period. But social workers with a DSW aren’t average; they’re more likely to be in leadership roles.

And that general number includes all psychologists, many of whom may not even have doctorates.

There is a way to get a slightly more specific figure from BLS, though, since they also track employment by industry. And for the category of Social Assistance, where most other social workers are categorized, psychologists were found to earn an average of $85,950. For doctorate-prepared social workers holding the DSW, that number is likely to be very similar.

In addition to varying by the role, salaries can shift quite a bit from state to state or even city to city, for both psychologists and social workers. In general, salaries tend to be the highest in urban areas, but there are some real regional differences too.

But you don’t shop around for jobs in social work based on how much you are going to make—it’s not that kind of career. Instead, you’ll be looking where you can use your new clinical counseling skills to make the most difference to the most people. In the United States today, no matter where you are, you won’t have to look far.