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Social Work Education: Doctoral

Abstract and Keywords

Social work doctoral education in the U.S. commenced almost 100 years ago. Although initial growth was slow, the number of universities offering doctoral degrees in social work has rapidly grown over the last 25 years. During this time, the Group to Advance Doctoral Education (GADE) in social work has fostered excellence. There is considerable variation in program emphasis. Financial support for doctoral education in social work appears to be growing along with employment opportunities for graduates. Emerging trends and issues will pose major challenges for doctoral education in social work.

Keywords: doctoral education, GADE, research doctorates, practice doctorates


The first PhD in social work was awarded by Bryn Mawr College in 1920 (Thyer & Arnold 2003). Four years later, the University of Chicago awarded its first doctorate in social work. However the severe economic conditions of the Great Depression followed by those associated with World War II greatly slowed the development of new doctoral programs in all fields of study and social work was no exception. At the start of the 1950s, there were only eight social work doctoral programs in the U.S. The greatest growth in doctoral education in most disciplines took place in the 1960s and 1970s, largely due to new national policies that were in reaction to the Soviet Union's early lead in the race for outer space (NSF, 2006). This brought a large infusion of federal investment designed to increase the number of research universities and subsequently a large increase in the production of research scholars in all scientific disciplines.

The increase in social work doctoral programs echoed these national trends. Seven new doctoral programs in social work were added in the 1960s and another 13 were added in the 1970s. There were 14 more programs developed in the 1980s and 15 in the1990s (Thyer & Arnold 2003). Presently, there are 73 social work doctoral programs in the United States, listed on the Group to Advance Doctoral Education (GADE) in the social work website. The National Opinion Research Center's annual survey of recipients of doctorates in the United States reported that there were 325 doctorates awarded in social work in 2005 (Hoffer et al., 2006). This represents a 27% increase over the number reported a decade earlier, suggesting that the growth in the number of doctoral programs is generating a corresponding increase in the number of degrees awarded.

Social work doctoral programs are not evenly distributed across the country. Many more programs are located in the eastern part of the United States than in the west. There are over 30 social work programs located on the East Coast, whereas there are only 5 on the West Coast. Looking at the two most populated states on both coasts further illustrates differences in geographic distribution. Whereas there are 10 social work doctoral programs in New York, there are only 3 in California, despite great similarities between these two large states regarding the need for social work.

Historically, social work doctoral education has primarily been housed in research universities and emphasizes the acquisition of advanced research skills. In keeping with this emphasis, the doctoral degree that is presently awarded by all social work doctoral programs is the PhD As recently as 25 years ago, a number of social work doctoral programs awarded a DSW (Doctor of Social Work) instead of the PhD In the last 15 years, however, there has been a significant increase in the proportion of social work doctoral programs located in non-research universities. This can be illustrated using the 2005 Carnegie Foundation classification system for institutions of higher education. This classification system also distinguishes among research universities rated as Very High Research (VHR) universities and those rated as High Research (HR) universities (McCormick & Zhao 2005). As shown in Table 1, only one out of eight doctoral programs was located in a non-research university prior to 1990. This proportion more than doubled after 1990, while the proportion of social work doctoral programs housed in a VHR university dropped from 67% to 52%.

Table 1 Doctoral Program Establishment Date by University Type


VHR University

HR University


Prior to 1990





1990 or later











The 2005 NORC survey showed differences between social work doctoral recipients and the national averages for all fields of study. Women constituted a large majority (73%) of social work doctorate recipients, whereas women comprised less than half (45%) of recipients of doctorates awarded in all fields of study in 2005. Social work also differed from overall norms in terms of foreign students. A larger proportion of social work degree recipients (91%) were U.S. citizens compared to the averages for all fields of study (82%).

The Role of GADE in Promoting Excellence

The Group to Advance Doctoral Education (GADE) in social work is the primary external organization that attempts to foster quality in doctoral education. GADE is essentially a self-help organization consisting of the chairs of all social work doctoral programs in the United States and Canada, along with those from a few other international programs. GADE has no paid staff and it does not conduct reviews of individual programs. Its influence over the quality of doctoral education is through a listserv directed at doctoral chairs; a website, where it publishes relevant information on doctoral education in social work; and an annual meeting, where key topics relevant to doctoral education are addressed. An orientation for new doctoral chairs is also provided at the annual GADE meeting.

Some key publications have also been developed by GADE. One is a compendium of descriptions of individual doctoral programs facilitating a side by side comparison (Thyer & Arnold 2003). Another is a set of guidelines designed to promote excellence in social work doctoral programs. This document was updated in 2003 and is available for downloading on the GADE website. The guidelines provide suggestions for governance and structure of a social work doctoral program within the institutional context of a given university. The guidelines also recommend that a minimum of two years be spent on course work prior to dissertation research. Suggested courses include social behavioral theory, social welfare policy, research methods, statistics, and philosophy of science. The GADE guidelines also recommend that students should be given individualized opportunities to hone the writing and analytic skills essential for high quality scholarship.

The capstone experience of a research-orientated doctoral program is the dissertation in which the student demonstrates a capacity for independent scholarship. The GADE guidelines define a dissertation as “a student generated work of independent research and scholarship addressing significant, professionally relevant, theoretically grounded questions or hypotheses.” The dissertation is supervised by a faculty committee. The size of this committee generally ranges from three to five members. The chair of the committee is most often chosen from the ranks of social work tenure-track faculty at the student's chosen university. In most universities there is a requirement that at least one of the dissertation committee members come from outside the school or department of social work.

The GADE guidelines call for periodic reviews of the doctoral program ensuring that the curriculum remains relevant to emerging needs and that the graduates secure a high quality doctoral education. GADE offers the following set of indicators to measure program quality:

  • Number, range, rigor, depth, and currency of courses

  • Opportunities for students to participate in research, teaching, and other practicum experiences with faculty mentorship

  • Quality of dissertation proposals and completed dissertations

  • Student publications and conference presentations

  • Records of accomplishments of doctoral graduates.

 Unlike BSW and MSW programs, social work doctoral education is not accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) or any other national organization. Formal external reviews of any given social work doctoral program are generally limited to evaluations conducted by the university at which the program resides. There is considerable variation among the universities regarding the nature of such reviews and how often they are conducted. In general, these programmatic reviews reflect the cultural norms of a given university and generally compare the merits of the social work doctoral program with those of comparable doctoral programs across that campus. In some cases, national experts may be hired as consultants to facilitate the campus evaluation of its social work doctoral program. Through this periodic review process the university's academic culture necessarily shapes the general content and quality of social work doctoral education on that particular campus.

Variations in Program Emphasis

An examination of the websites for the 73 GADE programs suggests considerable variation in program emphasis. One of the major differences among social work doctoral programs concerns the extent to which other disciplines are involved. Some programs appear relatively insular from other academic units on their campus whereas others have interdisciplinary exposure built into the program. The most common forms of interdisciplinary involvement are requirements for students to take part of their formal coursework from other academic units and to include members from other academic disciplines on dissertation committees. Some social work doctoral programs offer a joint degree with another academic discipline, such as the University of Michigan School of Social Work.

The curriculum offered by social work doctoral programs is greatly influenced by the academic environment in which the program is housed. Those programs housed in more research intensive universities tend to place a greater emphasis on research training, capitalizing on a rich array of research resources available throughout their campuses. Although it is possible to identify many exemplars of social work doctoral programs situated in research intensive universities, UCLA's PhD program in particular illustrates how a program might wish to leverage the vast array of resources available at a major research university. Those programs housed at a university not considered to be research intensive by the Carnegie classification often construct very different types of research experiences for students. These programs tend to place greater emphasis on advanced practice skills than programs housed in research intensive universities. Smith College is an example of this type of program.

Doctoral programs also vary with respect to whether they require students to be full- or part-time. For most programs it is an issue of limited financial resources available for students. Some universities have deliberately chosen to offer a part time program to reach a different market than would be available if the program offered only a full time course study (Biegel, Singer, Hokenstad, & Guo 2006). Universities with limited resources organize their curriculum around an assumption that doctoral students will need to be employed off campus in order to self-finance their education.

Financing Doctoral Education

Doctoral programs are expensive to operate. GADE guidelines outline some of the institutional resources required for quality doctoral programs, most critically, the faculty resources both committed to and qualified to mentor doctoral students. Another key resource is an adequate base of financial support for students, particularly in the early stage of their doctoral programs. The strength of a doctoral program is often determined by how well it is able to exploit not only the resources of the academic unit in which it is housed, but also the resources of the whole university and the local community. Exploitation of external resources requires strong faculty and administrative leadership.

Financing doctoral education is also expensive from a student's perspective. The typical program requires a commitment of a minimum of 4 to 5 years of full time work. Those offering a joint degree require even higher time commitments. Thus, the opportunity costs are quite high given loss of earnings during this 4 to 5 year period. Part time employment is often used as a solution to the loss of income. However, this creates additional problems, given that the time to finish the degree is inevitably lengthened. The preferred solution is extensive financial assistance either directly from the student's university or from outside sources.

Many universities now offer multiyear financial aid packages to incoming students. Generally these packages cover tuition for the first 2 to 3 years of the doctoral program, along with a modest stipend to cover other costs. Those programs located in research universities often have the capacity to support doctoral students working on externally funded research grants. Some universities offer part time teaching opportunities to advanced doctoral students. Many programs also encourage students to apply to external sources to fund their dissertation research. The Institute for Social Work Research (IASWR) website publishes a roster of a vast array of funding opportunities for doctoral students. IASWR also sponsors a series of pre-conference workshops for doctoral students at the annual meeting of the Society for Social Work Research (SSWR), whose website also includes a roster of funding opportunities. The largest private source of dissertation support for social work doctoral work is funded by the John A. Hartford Foundation (Lubben & Harooytan 2002). The Hartford Doctoral Fellows program was established in 2000, and has so far awarded 68 dissertation grants to students whose research examines aspects of health and aging.

For more than 30 years CSWE has sponsored a Minority Fellows Program designed to help ethnic minorities complete their doctoral dissertations. Over the years, more than 500 individuals have received support from this program.

Employment Opportunities for Doctoral Graduates

Although the number of academic job openings is approximately equal to the number of new doctorates awarded in social work, it does not imply market equilibrium. While there are approximately 250 openings for junior faculty appointments in social work, and most of these require a doctorate (Anastas, 2006), many social work doctoral degrees awarded each year are to individuals who do not seek a full-time faculty appointment. As a result, there is a growing shortage of qualified candidates for junior faculty appointments in social work (Zastrow & Bremner 2004).

Those doctoral graduates who do not seek full time faculty appointments often pursue a clinical practice career path. A number also build upon the skills developed in their doctoral programs to pursue a career in social research, policy analysis, or administration. Some of these graduates eventually contribute to social work education through part time teaching or supervision of B.S.W and M.S.W. students in practice settings. Some also mentor social work doctoral students and create research opportunities for them.

Emerging Trends and Issues

Shanti Khinduka gave the keynote address at the annual GADE meeting in 2001 in which he identified five emerging issues in social work doctoral education (Khinduka, 2002). These were promoting interdisciplinary preparation; strengthening the quality of the social work faculty; balancing rigorous research with effective teaching; developing postdoctoral social work education; and fashioning an institutional culture supportive of excellence in social work education. All five of these issues remain vital for social work educators at all levels.

Another emerging issue concerns whether the M.S.W. should remain the terminal practice degree for social work or whether a practice doctorate should be created. This is being driven by the expansion of professional doctorates in other fields (Chronicle of Higher Education, 2007). Recently the University of Pennsylvania resurrected the D.S.W. as a practice doctorate to be offered in addition to a research-based PhD. Other GADE programs have also reported exploring the development of a professional doctorate. Obviously this emerging issue will receive considerable attention over the next decade.


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