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So, you (think you) want a PhD in Social Work?


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Let me start by saying that I am so glad I took this path. I love my job. I love being a professor. And when I hate being a professor I love being a researcher. And when I hate being a researcher I love university-supported travel. There's always something new and good. I am so happy that I am no longer working on "the line" (although I miss it some days and romanticize the brilliant work I did with clients).  I love working with and inspiring students (most of them at least, on most days).

 

Here are some things to know.

 

1. Money: PhD-level positions make about the same as MSW positions. PhD work may come with more perks, status, and flexibility. But don't do it for a fat raise. Most faculty positions start in the 50-60k range (9 month contracts, but you typically will not make your regular salary during summer months). Think about the salary climbing you would have done if you stayed in the field instead of going back to school.

 

2. Loans: Even if you get an awesome paid GRA and tuition waiver, if you take out a modest $20k a year for 5 years of grad school, you've got a $100k loan at graduation. Yes, you can do income-based repayment for most jobs with 10-year loan forgiveness. Remember that they consider your household/partner's income to calculate 10% salary for payments.

 

3. Time and commitment: Most programs say that you can graduate in 3 years. Technically, yes. Almost nobody does. As with most PhD programs, I started in a small cohort of students (about 12) and 25% of us graduated after five years. The others did not graduate at all. The average time to PhD (all fields, and social sciences) is 7 years (http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/infbrief/nsf06312/).  Half of people leave PhD programs before graduating (http://chronicle.com/article/PhD-Attrition-How-Much-Is/140045/).

 

4. Independence: Dissertation writing is independent, lonely, frustrating work. You're sent off to go do this thing. It's a big thing and you're the leader of it. Lots drop out at this point, after the two years of classroom work, because they can't do it. (This is where ABD comes from... all but dissertation. Because dissertating is tough.)  Post-PhD life is like this too, lots of times- you're doing independent research, you may have no peers that know, understand, or care about what you do. Can you work in that kind of independent bubble? 

 

5. Mobility: You'll probably have to move when you're done. The school you graduated from is unlikely to hire you and it's complicated even if they are. (Other faculty will not stop seeing you as a student.) You will probably have to do a national job search. There are lots of jobs in the midwest. There is high competition for jobs on the coasts.

 

Honestly, I didn't even realize that my PhD would be so focused on quantitative research methods- I went on to a PhD because I loved social work and wanted to be a professor and teach other people how to do the things I loved. I did not do it because I loved research. I came to love research, mostly after finishing the PhD when I could do it on my terms- but it took a while. And the PhD IS about research- it's NOT about advanced generalist social work skills. So make sure you're clear about that. (PhD programs often do not even teach you how to be a professor- they teach you how to do research. A graduate teaching assistantship, and sometimes a teaching seminar, are an option.)

 

Here's some advice.

 

1. If you want to teach (or if you don't, IMO) get two years post-MSW experience before you go get your PhD. (a) This is a CSWE directive- to teach practice, they want you to have it- and schools are less likely to hire you if you cannot teach across the curriculum. (a )  It is grounding- that is, it grounds you in understanding what you're learning about- from policy to research to practice. © it improves your credibility. People will have a harder time taking you seriously- from research to social policy- if you have no experience in the field.

 

Yes, get the MSW. Yes, go work in the field- ideally direct practice if you're going to teach- even if you mostly care about policy. The MSW is a terminal degree and we train practitioners. Would you want to learn how to be a general practitioner (MD) from someone who had never been a GP? (People ask me this, and it's my opinion. It's also my observation.)

 

2. If you've got the PhD on the horizon, find a research experience. Contact past professors. Consider outlets for writing. There are several journals out there that accept writing from practitioners. Ask a professor if you can help with a journal article. Have a past professor read your personal statement. Make sure you've stated a clear and specific area of research interest. You don't have to live and die by it once you get in, but you need to have focus. And the focus has to align with something that they can do for you (match a professor's area of interest).

 

3. Call your target school and ask to talk to some students. They'll give it to you straight.

 

4. Expect a bit of a roller-coaster ride- so shore up your supports. I don't know anyone who didn't wonder why the hell they were back in school at some point. There will be bad days. You'll go from being on top of your game (that's why you're getting a PhD, right??) to being a doctoral-student-peon. People won't treat you like the experienced, smart, knowledgeable person you are. It will feel like you're an intern again... mostly because you are, but certainly you'll feel run over at some point.

 

5. Reach out early and often. Try to find a like-minded faculty person right out of the gate. Try to build all your assignments around your area of interest. Develop your research question early- if you want to get out quickly, plan your dissertation in year 1.

 

6. Qualitative research takes longer than quantitative. Don't do qual because you hate math- qual research takes superior analytic, reading, and writing skills. That said, the majority of folks give more credibility to quantitative research findings. Collecting data takes longer than using secondary data sources. Plan accordingly.

 

7. Make sure your kids/partner/mother/best friend know you still love them, even when you have to crawl in to a hole and write for weeks at a time. Warn them of your impending breakdowns. Know that they won't understand.

 

8. Teach, but not too much. It's great to have 2 classes under your belt before graduation. More will just slow you down in getting done and out.

 

9. Get your name on every publication you can. It does matter. Ideally they're in your area of research. But pubs are important at this point- it's one of the things you'll be judged against in your job search.

 

10. Go to a school equivalent or better to the type where you want to work. If you want to teach at an R1 you need to go to an R1. Unlike at the MSW-level, your school matters. 

 

I am speaking mostly from my experience as a tenure-track faculty person. There are jobs for social work professors- unlike many of the fields out there. I have been on hiring committees, and we always dump the people without practice experience first. (Some of these are foreign students who could not work due to no work visa- a difficult situation.)  After that, it's almost all about fit- are you a person that can get along with other people, who will bring new ideas to our students, who will publish and stay on the tenure track? Are you going to stick around for a while?  Are you likable? Will you carry your weight in service responsibilities? If so, you're hired!

 

I will try to answer questions and will edit/add to this post if I think of anything else important. Hope current PhD students and/or other grads will also chime in about their experiences.

 

Here's some additional information from CSWE's 2012 report on doctoral information (http://www.cswe.org/File.aspx?id=689

 

As reported by 58 programs, first-time, degree-seeking, newly enrolled students primarily came from a background in social work, with most (81.2%) holding a master’s degree in social work; 16.2% held graduate degrees from other fields. Very few (2.6%) newly enrolled students did not have a graduate degree. Total admission rate about 40%.  Underrepresented groups about 40% of admissions, foreign students about 15%. Of 2,400 students enrolled in doctoral programs, about 300 graduated in the 11-12 year.  Fewer students of color graduated than enrolled. 6% graduated in 3 years, 14% in 4 years, 80% in five years or more (of those who graduated at all). 30% of grads entered tenure track lines, 8% academic research positions, 5% non-academic research positions (table on page 43). 
Edited by socialworkphd
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Let me start by saying that I am so glad I took this path. I love my job. I love being a professor. And when I hate being a professor I love being a researcher. And when I hate being a researcher I lo

Here are some Sunday-afternoon ramblings in response to your question...   Def a third author on a better journal. It's much better for you to be an author on a well-cited article and know the hoop

Congrats, briefinterviews, on finishing your MSW!   There are lots of great free stats/methods classes on corsera, and if you can manage that self-directed learning, I highly recomend that you check

You may also want to look at this article:

 

 Liechty, J. M., Liao, M., & Schull, C. P. (2009). Facilitating dissertation completion and success among doctoral students in social work. Journal of Social Work Education45(3), 481-497.

 

It is available online in full text if you search for the title.

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Quick question: what does it mean to be on a 9 month contract. Does it mean you make a prorated salary or that you make 50-75k in 9 months? This has always confused me.

 

This means that you make 50-75k in 9 months, and then spend the other three months doing the research and course preparation (necessary to keep your job, gain tenure, or be promoted) that you invariably didn't have time for during the school year--except you don't get paid for it. =P

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TheCrow is pretty much right. There are typically summer employment opportunities at schools- but they don't measure up to pay of contract year. For instance, you may be offered to teach a summer course at a rate of 2500-4000 for the course (depending on the school) that lasts through the summer- so if you teach two of those, maybe you'll make $6000 over the 3-month summer. Some positions, such as administrative, are also often on extended contracts. For instance, field directors (this is not a position that requires a PhD at most schools) are often on a 12-month contract. Program directors (chairs, BSW Director, MSW Director, etc) are often on either 10, 11, or 12 month contracts depending on the size of the school and workload required during summer months. However, faculty often travel and write/do unfunded research during the summers. Many universities offer small university-funded grants during the summer. For instance, at my school you can apply (via small grant) to redesign a course during the summer and be paid a modest sum for it ($2500). This allows you to add a grant award to your CV, which helps with external funding, and also offers some summer income.

 

Many people get their 9-month contract rate spread out over 12 months to help with the money management.  Those of us with funded research often reserve some of that funding to pay for fte during summer months- if you do that, you can typically make up to your contract monthly rate during summer months by doing funded research- but you've got to have a larger grant that pays for your time, and be able to justify summer salary, to pull this off.

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Socialworkphd, I'll be starting a phd program in social work in the fall.  I'm coming straight out of my MSW and am going to one of the top schools.  Will I never get hired without those two years of post-MSW experience?  I'm doing policy research.

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Lynne, what do you want to do with a PhD? If you want to work for a policy institute the PhD MAY be enough- you are always more marketable with practice experience. You'll likely have a hard time moving in to an academic position if that's your goal. And- as I've said lots of times around here- the PhD studies are better grounded by practice experience. I feel strongly that it's an important piece, and that those without it are taken less seriously by peers, instructors, and on the job market later.

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As a current student, I completely agree Socialworkphd. I can't imagine not getting field experience (outside of field) before a PhD. Social work is an area that can't be fully understood with just Master's level field placements and research. I can't imagine many academic institutions wanting to hire someone to their Social Work department who has not worked in the field.

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I want to do poverty/health disparities research, it doesn't matter where.  

 

Well, one of the best places to do research is in a tenure track position at a university. There's good infrastructure and support at a good research school and you can set your own research agenda. To get one of these tenure track jobs you probably need the experience. I suggest you look at the websites of a few of the places you could see yourself working and look at the researcher profiles/backgrounds of the people they hire. I suspect you'll find that people who are doing independent research typically either have a significant background in practice or have done a lot of research. The type of research jobs I see people get with no experience are things such as research analysts for counties or states- that typically involves reporting federal data up the line- little creative analysis, typically no publishing or dissemination- just meeting federal reporting requirements.

 

 

Here are the first few health research jobs I pulled from Indeed that are not university tenure track positions:

http://careers.boozallen.com/job/McLean-Healthcare-Analyst-Job-VA-22101/77153000/?feedId=708&utm_source=Indeed (5 years health exp required)

http://umjobs.org/job_detail/98735/health_policy_and_data_analyst (Masters and 2 yrs experience)

https://www5.apply2jobs.com/WEATrust/ProfExt/index.cfm?fuseaction=mExternal.showJob&RID=1095&CurrentPage=1&sid=22 (5 years experience)

 

You'll also notice these jobs pay a similar range to tenure track positions, but typically do not enjoy the same kind of flexibility as faculty (these look more like standard 40-hour-a-week positions).

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Thanks for the info - I'm checking out UChicago's faculty pages and it looks like some professors gained post-msw experience while working on their doctorates.  Does anyone know how that typically works?

Edited by LynneP
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Thank you for the info -its really helpful. I am planning on applying to the only social work PhD in my city as my family is not in a position to relocate yet, its an ok school and a tier 1 university, but by no means is it a top school. Does this mean I have no chance of being hired at a top university? Other options in my city I have looked at are sociology and public health, offered by much higher ranking universities, but I am a social worker and I can't see myself teaching sociology or pubic health. I like the flexibility of social work and have been practicing for almost seven years, so I want that to count for something. 

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Thanks for the info - I'm checking out UChicago's faculty pages and it looks like some professors gained post-msw experience while working on their doctorates.  Does anyone know how that typically works?

Technically possible. Professors will dissuade you from working in practice during your studies because they'll want you to focus on academics or GRA/research positions which are more pertinent to your course of study, and of course it will spread out the length of time to degree. I did engage in practice work during my PhD (although I had pre-PhD practice experience as well) because I enjoyed practice and it paid bills. If you go this route it will not help with the piece of being grounded in practice before beginning studies, but will help with the piece of having practice experience once you go on the market. Remember that most places will pro-rate your experience- if you're doing practice half time, it will take 4 years of that to have 2 years of practice experience.

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Thank you for the info -its really helpful. I am planning on applying to the only social work PhD in my city as my family is not in a position to relocate yet, its an ok school and a tier 1 university, but by no means is it a top school. Does this mean I have no chance of being hired at a top university? Other options in my city I have looked at are sociology and public health, offered by much higher ranking universities, but I am a social worker and I can't see myself teaching sociology or pubic health. I like the flexibility of social work and have been practicing for almost seven years, so I want that to count for something. 

It's not a "no chance" situation but in my experience people from top schools are most likely to be hired by top schools. Look at some of your target schools (where you might like to teach some day) and look to see where their newer Assistant Professors come from. This will give you an indication. (Don't look at where their more tenured people have come from, because the market has changed and experience may also help you buy your way in to a better school if you have a good record.)  A top school helps prepare you for the culture of being at a top school as well- research universities have unique cultures and will better prepare you to publish during school so you are more competitive when ready to go on the market. I am not sure about the field of public health, but there are many more academic jobs (vs applicants) for social workers right now than sociologists. 

 

If you don't get a job at a top school you can go prove yourself for a few years by winning grants and publishing a lot and then go back on the market and try to work your way up to a better school, but this comes with its own set of challenges (like trying to transfer tenure credit, searching while employed, etc.)

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Thanks socialworkphd, that is good to know. I guess I will have to do my best to make myself marketable during the program and see what happens (at this stage I still need to get admitted!). I can't imagine convincing my family relocate more than once.

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to everyone concerned about the two years post MSW experience. Several professors that I have spoken to and PhD directors at R1 institutions have insisted that research is WAYYYY more important than two years post MSW experience at R1 institutes. Check out the faculty at these schools- most at UChicago, Columbia, Michigan. WashU dont even have MSWs. They often hire adjuncts and others to help teach the practice courses. But at the end of the day-tenure is based on research not work experience at these institutions.

 

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Technically this is true- at research-intensive schools where you are hired for your research, they place less emphasis on practice experience. But it's sort of like saying you don't need to save money for your future if you play football because you'll be drafted by the NFL. Look at how many jobs are offered by R1s this year, and look at the profiles of their Assistant Professors. I went to school with two grads who are now at top schools named below- they had impressive experience, including years of practice experience, a Fulbright, a nationally-profiled research project, and many pubs- and they are working breakneck and competing against others for tenure now. If you think this is your route, start working now like you're trying to be drafted by the NFL.

 

Also, being at an R1 does not mean you won't end up in the classroom- when you were a grad student, how did it feel to take classes from people were bright but had no practice experience?

 

 

to everyone concerned about the two years post MSW experience. Several professors that I have spoken to and PhD directors at R1 institutions have insisted that research is WAYYYY more important than two years post MSW experience at R1 institutes. Check out the faculty at these schools- most at UChicago, Columbia, Michigan. WashU dont even have MSWs. They often hire adjuncts and others to help teach the practice courses. But at the end of the day-tenure is based on research not work experience at these institutions.

Edited by socialworkphd
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Dear SocialWorkPhd,

Is it better to be sole author on a mediocre publication in a mediocre journal, or second or third on a professor's pub in a well-regarded journal? My plan was to have a mix of both, but if at some point I have to make a decision what would you suggest a new PhD grad student at a R1 university do? Thanks for all your support!

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Here are some Sunday-afternoon ramblings in response to your question...

 

Dear SocialWorkPhd,

Is it better to be sole author on a mediocre publication in a mediocre journal, or second or third on a professor's pub in a well-regarded journal? My plan was to have a mix of both, but if at some point I have to make a decision what would you suggest a new PhD grad student at a R1 university do? Thanks for all your support!

Def a third author on a better journal. It's much better for you to be an author on a well-cited article and know the hoops one must jump to prepare an article for a good publication.

 

However, if you want to head to an R1, you should try to get your name on as much of anything as you can. I recently had a paper accepted to a good journal and the anticipated publication date is 18 months out. It took 6 months to work through revisions with reviewers. Given these kind of timelines, you should be working on 2-3 articles at any given time. Write your sole-authored paper and then take it to a mentor and ask for help improving it and offer her second authorship so it's good enough to submit to a better  journal. Collaboration can be a bit of a pain but it (almost always) improves the quality of the work. And it will take more time up front but will save you time in the submission/rejection/peer review process. Published faculty should better understand how meet publishing standards. Read submission guidelines for fun. Choose a journal and write to their submission guidelines and mission before you start writing. Adjust appropriately if you have to resubmit somewhere else.

 

Get your GRAs lined up as soon as announcements come along, make yourself known to PIs, and advocate for a spot on the projects that align with your research interests. Don't be afraid to project-hop (unless you get a GRA in your research area) it may look better to have worked on several different kinds of projects vs being stuck on one project for three years. (If you are on a team that is publishing and including you in pubs, then stay.) Be an outgoing RA- if you are assigned boring work (copying and data entry) do them and then say (frequently enough that everyone knows, but don't be a pain) that you want to help with publications. It's easy to be a slacker RA and it will give you more time to do your homework but it won't score you pubs.  If nobody is moving on pubs offer to write a lit review or draft a pub. At that point someone will probably be willing to edit it to prepare it. They might want first authorship for doing so, depending on how much work the draft needs- and that's ok. Editing is as much work as writing, and jumping through the peer-review hoops may be more work.

 

Cultivate relationships with at least three faculty, you'll need 3 recommendation letters when you're on the job market and it's a big ask, especially if you are applying to many places. When you are applying, send your letter-writers a very brief summary of what the school is looking for and of the skills that you have that best meet those specific requirements. Have peers and an advisor read all your application materials. Rewrite. Academic writing is dense, take out all the words you don't need.

 

Go to brown bags on job prep and methodology. If the school doesn't have any, help organize some. Join the doctoral student org and participate in events. This will make you more viable, provide some peer support, and help you get what you need, start discussions. (For instance, you could organize a brown bag on student/faculty collaboration and ask faculty to discuss, on a panel, how students can get involved in faculty projects.) Volunteer to participate in orientation for incoming PhD students or to talk to interested students once you have a year under your belt.

 

University centers (women's center, provost office, etc) often host small essay competitions on social justice issues. These often have few submissions and are low-demand. Throw your hat in the ring- if you are selected, it's a feather in the hat, line on the cv, and looks good for your department. Apply for travel awards or other small student grants- it's great to be able to put something under the "grants and awards" section of your CV.

 

Ask for writing critique often and read the feedback and take it seriously and re-write. Many of us who were "great writers" at the MSW level are in a whole different game at the PhD level. It can be demoralizing to go from superstar to red ink. Academic writing is tough. Your teachers will be nicer to you than the journal peer-reviewers. Read feedback, set it aside for a few days, and then try again.It's not so bad on second read.

 

I finished my dissertation using the buddy system. I went in and wrote every weekend with another student. It can help a lot to work as a team, peer edit, hold each other accountable.

 

A lot of writing books say you should write for publication 15 minutes a day. This has never worked out so well for me, but it is a very good habit to set protected writing time- a 3-hour block 2 days a week, or whatever works for you. You should work really hard to make that time sacred- pretend it's a medical appointment or something else you're unlikely to bail on. 

 

Attend (and submit to) APM and SSWR if you can, and regional conferences in your area. (If you are R1 bound SSWR is the better conference, but APM is more enjoyable.) The deadlines are way early and faculty may forget to tell you about submission dates- look them up. Volunteer student rates are low, but flights and accommodations are expensive. Apply for department travel grants, which probably exist but may not be advertised. The graduate school usually also offers student travel grants- ask.   Present, get feedback from the audience (you can say during your presentation that you are a doctoral student looking for feedback to move the presentation to publication, people will give helpful feedback), and write it up when you get home.  Go to the doctoral student events at the conferences. When you are a few years in, stick close to your faculty mentors at the conferences so they can introduce you to faculty at other schools.

 

Never send a faculty member an email longer than five sentences. (Ok, there may be exceptions, but really evaluate whether this situation fits in the exception category.) It's not that we don't want to read- we will read your rants (and laugh, and forward them to your advisor). But long emails are almost always: a student making a too-long excuse for not meeting a requirement; look needy or crazy; take too long to get to the point. Stick to an easy formula in your professional correspondence: What's this about, what do you need, when do you need it? Be polite and professional, use Dr or first name if that's your instructor's preference.

 

Don't take on too many TA positions. It's good to have one semester/quarter of TA where you work with another professor (so you see how it's done) and one or two semesters where you teach on your own. However, class prep takes a long time and if you do more it will detract from your writing time.

 

Don't complain about your program or curriculum- there's always a diplomatic way to get what you need. Be low-drama and roll with adversity.

 

Divide reading with your cohort when it's overwhelming and you can't do it on your own. Decide who will do a good job with reading the various articles- divide and conquer. Trade summaries, the main reader can help carry the classroom discussion. Make notes as you read. Highlight. Keep your readings well-organized.

 

See if you can get on a non-profit board (ideally in your area of research)  in the community and a university committee. University service is important. Relationships with community non-profits may help you get small evaluation gigs or access to data. 

 

Decide how you are going to organize your literature for your dissertation. Some people like paper, some like electronic files. There are many citation manager products.  I like Zotero. I don't like RefWorks. I like dropbox and pdfs now. However, as a student I used paper and put a post-it at the top of each article that listed a few key points including population, sample size, findings, recommendations.

 

Get good at one type of analysis.If qualitative, maybe it's grounded theory or phenonomenology or ethnography or whatever. If quantitative, maybe it is SEM. Or maybe you're really interested in PAR. Remember that qualitative usually takes longer than quant, and quant is generally more widely appreciated by journals and other stakeholders. (Often, qualitative is better at answering questions and is more interesting, and they have similar risks of biases in analysis of the data- although people assume that quantitative is more legit.)

 

Subscribe to google scholar alerts in your research area.

 

Join listservs for scholars/researchers in your research area.  Go to the special interest groups at the conferences. (They usually happen the day before the conference.)

 

If you want an article and your university does not subscribe, email the author (after checking Academia and ResearchGate and the web to see if the article is floating somewhere.) They'll usually send it to you.

 

Get good at Word and SPSS. There are many informative videos at YouTube if you learn better that way than via book. Get good at APA, know the basic rules. Develop other technology skills (a lot of schools are moving toward distance education, video conferencing, recording classes, etc.)

 

That's a long to-do list. Spread it over a few years.   ;)

Edited by socialworkphd
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Thanks for all the specific advice, socialworkphd.  This post is making me feel like I'll never get a job -- any advice for those of us without practice experience?  Besides get a refund

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