Doctorate in Social Work Salary and Career Outlook

Social workers practice in various settings. Typically, a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree is required to start a career as a practicing clinical social worker. However, pursuing a postgraduate degree may lead to a better salary and more career options, such as a role in leadership or education. With numerous online degree programs available, it may be more convenient than it used to be to fit a postgraduate degree program into your busy schedule.

In this article, we discuss two options to consider when it comes to doctoral social work programs: a Doctor of Social Work (DSW) degree or a Doctor of Philosophy in Social Work (PhD). Both of these educational paths may help you further your career, but they each have a different professional focus. One degree may be a better choice for you than the other, depending on your professional aspirations.

Social Justice-Infused Online DSW. MSW Required.

Simmons University offers an online Doctorate of Social Work (DSW) — MSW required; no GRE required. The program prepares you to become a well-rounded scholar-practitioner through a curriculum focused on three key areas: inclusive leadership, advanced clinical practice, and teaching and education.

  • Complete in less than two years full time or less than three years part time 
  • MSW required; three years post-MSW work experience required
  • No GRE scores required


What Does Someone With a Doctor of Social Work Degree Do?

A PhD is a common terminal degree, a term used to describe the highest degree in an academic discipline.

A PhD in social work is a type of social work degree that prepares candidates to become researchers and educators in the field of social work, according to the Group for the Advancement of Doctoral Education in Social Work (GADE Social Work). Are you interested in a career in academia? You could spend your time “behind the scenes” of the social work world, training the next generation of social workers and performing social work research. Your job duties may also involve leading research efforts for a government agency or independent research center. If these career paths sound appealing, obtaining a PhD in social work may be the right path for you.

Would you rather get a postgraduate degree that’s designed to improve your clinical and leadership skills? GADE Social Work indicates that a DSW degree emphasizes advanced clinical training. With this doctoral degree, your job duties may revolve around providing advanced clinical services. But what does a Doctor of Social Work graduate do? Similar to the PhD option, a DSW degree may also prepare candidates to take on leadership positions within their organizations. Additionally, a DSW may be beneficial for those looking to expand their clinical knowledge beyond what’s offered through continuing education classes. If you’re an experienced social worker who wants to advance their skills and stay in a clinical practice setting, a DSW may be a beneficial choice. Even if you want to transition to a social work career, doctoral programs may be worth considering.

Where Does a Doctor of Social Work Graduate Work?

social worker with a postgraduate degree can work in many environments, including clinical settings, educational organizations, nonprofits, governmental departments and more, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It’s worth noting that many of these career paths, such as working as a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), are available to those without a doctoral degree. For example, if you’re considering an LMFT vs. LCSW, a master’s degree is the minimum degree requirement.

However, a DSW graduate may take on leadership roles in their Doctor of Social Work careers at organizations. They may coach, manage and lead other social workers at the organization. They may also develop and steer the organization’s programs.

Possible work settings for Doctor of Social Work jobs may include:

  • Child welfare agencies
  • Community development organizations
  • Community health clinics
  • Hospitals
  • Human services agencies
  • Mental health clinics
  • Private counseling practices
  • Public or private K–12 schools
  • Substance abuse treatment facilities
  • Universities and colleges

What Career Paths Are Possible With a Doctorate in Social Work?

A doctorate in social work doesn’t mean you have to leave your practice behind. In fact, some may pursue a postgraduate degree to improve their clinical social work skills. There are numerous online social worker resources to help you find inspiration and explore all your career opportunities.

What can you do with a doctorate in social work? If your future ambitions include moving into a leadership position, a DSW may help you do so in a clinical setting. Depending on your interests, you may pursue a clinical social work career path in one of the below areas noted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

  • Child and family social work: Protect vulnerable children and families by locating housing services, applying for benefits or arranging adoptions.
  • School social work: Develop strategies alongside parents, teachers and administration to improve students’ social development and academic performance.
  • Healthcare social work: Assist patients with their healthcare needs in a geriatric, hospice or medical setting.
  • Mental health and substance abuse social work: Help patients cope with mental illnesses or additions by connecting them with support resources and groups.

In addition, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) notes multiple other specialty areas of social work, such as:

  • Administration and supervision
  • Aging
  • Alcohol, tobacco and other drugs
  • Child welfare
  • Children, adolescents and young adults
  • Mental health
  • Private practice
  • Social and economic justice

PhD in Social Work Career Paths

In comparison to DSW graduates, those with a PhD in social work may focus more on research and academic careers. Below are two types of PhD in social work careers listed by GADE Social Work:

  • Academic professor: Teaching and research positions may be available in settings such as universities. As a professor, you may also train future professors.
  • Professional researcher: You may conduct research and analyze data that supports the work of government agencies, the military and research centers.

To prepare students for these work settings, PhD curriculum may focus on social work research methods and preparing students for research careers.

Doctorate in Clinical Social Work Job Outlook

Social worker employment is expected to grow 13% from 2019 to 2029, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is much faster than the average of all occupations. While the need for social workers may vary by location and specialization, the BLS reports that some types of social workers are more in demand than others. For example, consider the following breakdown of projected job growth by social work specialization, as noted by the BLS.

SpecializationProjected Employment Growth From 2019 to 2029
Child, family and school social workers
Healthcare social workers
Mental health and substance abuse social workers

What Can Affect Doctor of Social Work Salary?

Many factors may affect your doctorate in social work salary. Some of these factors include your geographic location, years of experience in the field and education level. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, those with a doctoral degree had higher weekly earnings than those with a master’s or bachelor’s degree in 2019.

Another influence on doctorate in social work salary may be your specialization. Below is an overview of 2019 median salaries for social workers by specialization, as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Specialization2019 Median Salary
Healthcare social workers
Child, family and school social workers
Mental health and substance abuse social workers

What Is the Typical Salary Outlook for a DSW Degree?

The median annual salary for social workers was $50,470 in 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there is not a specific salary range for an MSW vs a DSW holder. The top 10% of earners made more than $82,540. Your doctorate in social work salary depends on multiple factors, however, some factors influencing social worker salaries may be the industry in which you work and your years of experience.

Here’s a breakdown of social worker salary by industry, provided by the BLS:

Industry2019 Median Salary
Local government
Ambulatory healthcare services
State government
Individual and family services

According to a 2017 workforce study conducted by the National Association of Social Workers, those with a DSW had a mean income of $69,464. Those with a DSW or PhD earned over $20,000 more than those with an MSW or BSW. Here’s the full breakdown:

DegreeMean Income

Try These Cities for Doctor of Social Work Jobs

There are many cities to pursue Doctor of Social Work jobs in. Some areas have a higher concentration of jobs than others. If you’re looking for DSW degree careers, here are the 10 metropolitan areas with the highest highest concentration of social worker jobs, as noted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

Metropolitan AreaEmploymentEmployment per Thousand JobsAnnual Mean Wage
Columbia, SC
Yuba City, CA
Merced, CA
Estimate not released
El Centro, CA
Redding, CA
Bakersfield, CA
Salem, OR
Watertown-Fort Drum, NY
Great Falls, MT
Iowa City, IA

You may be interested in DSW degree jobs in non-urban areas. Here are the five nonmetropolitan areas with the highest highest concentration of social worker jobs, as reported by the BLS:

Nonmetropolitan AreaEmploymentEmployment per Thousand JobsAnnual Mean Wage

North Valley–Northern Mountains Region of California
Eastern Oregon
Coast Oregon
North Coast Region of California
East-Central Montana

The employment and salary information above reflects all social workers, not just those in Doctor of Social Work careers.

Explore These States for Social Worker Jobs

If you’re looking for doctorate in social work jobs in a specific state, you may approach your career search in several different ways. One way to pursue DSW degree jobs is to see which states have a high concentration of social worker jobs.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the states with the highest concentration of social worker jobs are South Carolina, Montana, Oregon, Maine and California. More details on each of these states are below.

StateEmploymentEmployment per Thousand JobsAnnual Mean Wage
South Carolina

If you’re looking for well-paying doctorate in social work careers, consider these top-paying states for social workers, as reported by the BLS: Hawaii, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Georgia.

StateEmploymentEmployment per Thousand JobsAnnual Mean Wage
Rhode Island
New Hampshire
Estimate not released
Estimate not released

Not sure if Doctor of Social Work careers are right for you? There are many other related subjects such as psychology degrees and counseling degrees to explore. Below are some related degree programs you may consider.

  • Master of Social Work (MSW): A master’s in social work may be a good choice if you’re looking to get started in the social work field. Having an MSW degree is generally a requirement for earning state licensure.
  • Master of Mental Health Counseling: A master’s in mental health counseling may prepare you to become a mental health counselor. As a mental health counselor, your duties may range from helping a person grieve the loss of a loved one or cope with bipolar disorder.
  • Master’s in Psychology: This psychology degree is a beneficial way to enter the psychology field or take a step toward earning your doctorate. With a psychology degree, you may specialize in educational, forensic or counseling psychology.
  • Master of Clinical Psychology: A master’s in clinical psychology may prepare you for various therapy and psychology careers. These programs may train you to diagnose and treat mental, emotional and behavioral disorders.
  • Master of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA): A master’s in ABA focuses on studying behavior to solve learning, behavioral and social problems. Autism is a common specialization within the ABA field.
  • Master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT): An MFT program may focus on preparing you to provide relationship and family advice to your clients. Courses may cover topics such as multicultural counseling, ethics and human sexuality.

Is a Doctoral-Level Social Worker Career Right For You?

If you’re still not sure if a doctoral degree in social work is right for you, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I want to broaden and deepen my skills as a clinician?
  • Do I want to take on a leadership role within my organization?
  • Can I see myself as a director or administrator at another agency?
  • Do I have a passion for helping others improve their lives?
  • Would I like to research social work to develop new or better clinical programs or practices?
  • Would I like to work in an academic setting, teaching the next generation of social workers?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then Doctor of Social Work jobs and education may be worth considering.

Last Updated November 2020