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Evolving Education: Which Behavioral Health PhD Is Right for You?
By Katherine Segal, PhD, LCSW
Social Work Today
Vol. 22 No. 3 P. 30

Congratulations on deciding to pursue a doctoral degree. However, you may have already found that identifying the right program can quickly become an overwhelming process. For the past few years, I have been speaking with PhD hopefuls to help them find the program that best fits their goals, values, and budget. I hope sharing this brief guide will support others in their search as well.

For the most part, there are three main groups that reach out to learn more about earning their PhD:

• MSW students who want to earn a master’s degree in social work on their way to earning a PhD in psychology;

• MSW students who became interested in pursuing a PhD program after attending one of my classes; and

• individuals who find me on LinkedIn as part of their active search for a PhD program.

While these discussions are driven by a desire to select the right PhD program, the first questions candidates should be asking themselves are: “Why do I want a doctorate?” and “What will the degree allow me to do that I otherwise could not?”

At the beginning, earning a PhD for the sake of learning or for the achievement can seem like enough of a motivation, but frequently it is not enough to keep individuals motivated throughout the program and over the finish line. Understanding the reasons for seeking the degree will help answer the following questions and aid in selecting the doctoral program that best fits.

Do you want to focus more on research or clinical preparation?
In general, DSW (Doctor of Social Work) and PsyD (Doctor of Psychology) programs are going to be more clinically focused than PhD programs. These programs typically concentrate on a particular population (eg, youth, gerontology, substance abuse) or prepare candidates for a specific level of service delivery (eg, supervision, administration, community engagement, teaching). Some of these programs have a traditional dissertation, while others may focus on a smaller thesis or a capstone/applied project rather than conducting original research.

Regardless of field (social work, marriage and family therapy, psychology, counseling), PhD programs have a strong focus on learning to conduct research. By the end of these programs, students should have completed at least one research study (for their dissertation). Depending on the program, students will have a varying degree of autonomy and ownership over the creation and completion of the dissertation study.

In general, larger programs grant students less autonomy over their study, but will provide candidates with more opportunity to serve a supporting role on several projects. Conversely, smaller programs generally allow for more student autonomy but have fewer resources and fewer chances to work on other projects.

The ability to work on other projects, whether with professors or with classmates, can impact how many publications students have under their belt prior to graduating.

Are you partial to one theoretical approach?
Social workers, marriage and family therapists, psychologists, and counselors generally have access to the same types of jobs, particularly as clinicians. However, salaries may vary greatly, even within a company, based on the clinician’s license. As much as I would like to recommend basing a decision on values and not future compensation, income projections cannot be overlooked.

That said, what hopefully drives the selection of one branch of behavioral health over another are the values and history of that field. Read the code of ethics for each professional association and learn about what makes these seemingly similar fields different. For example, when thinking about human behavior, do you gravitate toward acknowledging the influence of society within the person-in-environment stance (social work), or the role of the family (marriage and family therapy), or the responsibility of the individual (psychology)? Depending on the program, you may still learn elements of each of these perspectives, but one position will stand out as an overarching framework.

Some schools offer specializations either within the main program or as standalone programs, such as integrative social work, medical family therapy, humanistic psychology, and transpersonal psychology. For students already drawn to a specialization, selecting one of these programs could offer the ideal academic environment. Students with mild interest in a specialization, who don’t want to make it a career, should determine whether that particular focus needs to be represented in research and dissertations.

Do you want to work with a specific professor because of their research or their published work?
Students with strong interest in a particular topic should research articles on the subject and look up the authors on LinkedIn, ResearchGate, and Academia. What is their training, and what type of program do they teach? Even if you don’t want to pursue working with any of them specifically, this process should give you an idea of who is researching your chosen topic.

Keep in mind that some fields have more research power. For example, there are a lot more PhDs in psychology conducting research compared with social workers, marriage and family therapists, and counselors (even at the doctoral level), who are generally more focused on working with clients and teaching. As a result, the values of your preferred branch or subfield may not be represented as much at the research level because those professions aren’t out there creating as many studies. You may find that relevant studies are being conducted by social psychologists, but before committing to that focus, consider how your interest in social work, humanistic psychology, or integrative mental health may influence your understanding of, experience with, and approach to the topic. Does this perspective matter, and will it be accepted in a doctoral program that doesn’t explicitly focus on that perspective?

Does school location matter? Is online an option?
Considering that the commitment for a doctoral program can vary from three to nine years, it’s important for students to think about where they want to live during that time. Are you open to moving cross-country, or is a local program more appealing?

What about online or reduced residency/hybrid (mainly online with some in-person requirements) programs? Your willingness to move or learn online will greatly impact your options and may lead to postponing the search or compromising on some of the other factors identified as important.

How do you plan to finance the cost of the program?
First and foremost, don’t assume that tuition will be covered. I received several scholarships, but I needed to continue working and adding to my student loan debt. Plus, because it took longer to complete the program than anticipated—mostly due to not understanding the dissertation timeline prior to beginning the program—the total cost was more than originally budgeted.

Make sure to review projected costs and funding options offered by the school and others, such as grants, scholarships, and relevant jobs (eg, teaching, clinical work, and research).

Katherine Segal, PhD, LCSW, is adjunct faculty at Columbia University School of Social Work and Saybrook University and has a mind-body medicine coaching private practice. She has practiced social work in a variety of settings, including school, medical, forensic, residential, and community mental health.