There are many roles to play with a PhD in Social Work outside of academia – too many to list here, but I’ll offer a few examples. Some of these roles require a PhD, many do not. For positions that do not require a PhD, Jennifer Polk and L. Maren Wood in an article in Inside Higher Ed offer the following advice: “To build a successful, meaningful career beyond the professoriate, every Ph.D. must learn how to leverage their own distinct combination of knowledge, skills and abilities”. Put differently, think of how a PhD can help you build upon, not replace, your skills and experience.
Advocacy Groups: statewide nonprofit organizations focus on changing systems and public policies affecting populations helped by social workers, such as NC Child and the NC Justice Center. At the national level, there are many advocacy organizations, based primarily in Washington, DC such as Prosperity Now, National Coalition for the Homeless, and the headquarters of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Roles with advocacy groups for someone with a PhD in Social Work include policy analyst and research director.
Corporations: surprised to see this? Consider the recent trend of companies hiring Chief Diversity Officers, large managed care companies like Centene that need experts in mental health, chronic disease, and under-served populations, large behavioral health providers like Magellan Healthcare, and jobs in Corporate Social Responsibility and Public Relations.
Government: admittedly, I know the least about public sector jobs for PhD social workers. Yet state and especially federal government agencies employ PhD social workers in research, program evaluation, technical assistance, quality assurance, and administrative roles. Like foundations, public agencies benefit from staff who have a combination of relevant substantive knowledge about issues like child maltreatment and domestic violence and research and program evaluation skills.
Philanthropy: foundations like Z. Smith Reynolds in North Carolina or foundations with a national presence like Kresge and W. K. Kellogg fund programs and projects well-aligned with social work practice and need program officers with expertise regarding issues such as mental health and homelessness, and relevant research knowledge and skills.
Professional Associations: state and national organizations also exist to promote the interests of social workers and other related professions: Council on Social Work Education, National Association for Social Workers, National Association for the Education of Young Children. Staff with PhDs in Social Work might work in roles providing technical assistance, developing professional standards, and/or advocating for the profession with policy makers.
Research Firms: these are organizations that conduct applied research on a wide range of topics related to social work, usually through federal government contracts and large foundation grants. North Carolina firms include RTI International and FHI360. Outside of the state, examples include RAND Corporation, Abt Associates, and Westat. These firms emphasize offering objective analysis and perspectives and do not engage in advocacy. Roles include project manager (PhD not required), and roles requiring a PhD such as Research Associate and Statistician, for which quantitative and research design skills are very important.
Think Tanks: think tanks are organizations that conduct applied research and policy analysis to inform public policies. Those that focus on issues of concern to social workers include the Urban Institute, New America, Center for American Progress, and MDC in Durham, NC. They bear some resemblance to Advocacy Groups in focusing on policy, yet tend not to have explicit advocacy agendas. They, like MDC, may also act in advisory roles for local and state governments.