Social & Community Services Degrees: Master's, PhD & Online Class Info

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What will you learn in a social and community services degree program? Read about program requirements, the pros and cons of a master's and PhD and potential careers.
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Studying Social and Community Services: Degrees at a Glance

Graduates of social and community service degree programs work in a variety of educational and clinical settings, including nonprofit organizations, local governments and schools. Some careers, particularly those in social work, may require additional education beyond a bachelor's degree as well as state licensure. Management positions typically require at least a master's degree and relevant work experience, while careers in academia generally call for a PhD.

Employment of social and community service managers was expected to grow by 27% from 2010-2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). This growth was attributed to an increasing demand of services for the aging population as well as substance abuse treatment programs. Social services workers were projected to see a 25% increase in jobs between 2010 and 2020.

Social and community services studies are often found as a concentration within a master's degree program in social work. PhD programs specifically in social and community services can be rare. However, many schools offer a PhD program in social work that allows you to focus your research on social and community services.

Master's PhD
Who is this degree for? - Experienced professionals seeking mid-level careers in social work - Professionals with bachelor's or master's degrees who want to work in academia, social service policy or research
Common Career Paths (with approximate median salary) - Child, family and school social workers ($41,000)*
- Clinical social worker ($49,000)**
- Social services director ($97,000)**
- Postsecondary social sciences professor ($72,000)*
- Postsecondary social work professor ($63,000)*
Time to Completion 2 years, full-time 4-5 years, full-time
Common Graduation Requirements - Core courses in social work/community services
- Elective courses in social and community services
- Field work/internship
- Practicum
- Comprehensive exams
- About 15-17 advanced graduate courses
- Practicum/field research
- Dissertation
Prerequisites - Bachelor's degree (related field is preferred)
- GRE scores
- Bachelor's degree (master's may also be required by some schools)
- GRE scores
Online Availability Yes Yes

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures), **Salary.com figures (August 2012).

Master's in Social and Community Services

A social and community services master's program can lead to a career as an administrator, planner or community organizer. Students typically develop skills in management, finance, program development and evaluation and community organization. Students who wish to pursue careers as clinical social workers may need to complete additional requirements, such as state licensing or certification.

Depending on the academic institution, admission into a master's program may be competitive. Degrees are typically represented as a Master of Social Work (MSW) or as a Master of Science in Social Work with a concentration in community services.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • There are several social and community service careers that require a master's degree (school service directors, social workers)
  • A master's degree may qualify you for some jobs that require a bachelor's degree plus work experience
  • Most programs require a certain amount of field work, which can provide you with experience that employers are looking for

Cons

  • Admission into a master's program can be highly competitive (sometimes fewer than half of the applicants are admitted to a master's program)
  • Field work (up to 25 hours a week) coincides with classroom learning and could be very stressful
  • Does not qualify you for most academic or research careers in social and community services

Common Courses and Requirements

Each school may structure the master's program a bit differently, but you'll usually spend your first year building a foundation in social work concepts. After you finish some of the core courses, you'll move on to your concentration or specialty coursework. Some of your course options at the master's level may include social welfare policy, human behavior, domestic violence, ethics in social services, community theories and fundraising.

At least one practicum experience is usually required, and it allows students to apply their academic knowledge to real-life situations. Your field practice or internship during your second year may take more than 20 hours of your time each week, on top of the courses you're taking.

Online Course Options

Distance-learning programs are available; however, an online master's degree in social and community services often requires some offline components. You may need to complete a seminar or practicum on campus or at a lab in your local area. Sometimes schools require you to attend on-campus classes towards the end of the master's program.

If you plan to pursue a social work certification, consider that licensing requirements vary in every state. Do your research to ensure that your online credits can be accepted in your home state. Also, depending on your state, you may need to take continuing education courses throughout your career. Many of these courses are available online as well.

Getting Ahead with This Degree

You can gain valuable on-the-job experiences by volunteering at nonprofit and community organizations in your local area. In addition to the experience you'll gain, you get to try out working at different types of organizations, which can help you determine a future career path. For example, you may discover that you have a talent for working with children or that you enjoy working with the elderly.

Another option to consider is learning another language, such as American Sign Language or a foreign language. Becoming bilingual may help broaden your employment options after graduation because you will have the ability to work in communities with various cultural demographics.

PhD in Social and Community Services

Social and community service studies at the doctoral level are usually found within a PhD in Social Work. The opportunity to specialize in social and community services usually comes from your dissertation research and elective choices. PhD programs typically emphasize research training and methodologies. You may need a master's degree to qualify for admission to a PhD program, but not all schools have this requirement.

Graduates with a PhD in social and community services typically seek careers in research, private industry, academia and government. Outside academia, a PhD can provide a significant edge if you want to become a subject matter expert in your field; however, keep in mind that you may be over-educated for some positions.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Required for most careers in academia
  • Academic institutions may provide grants, loan forgiveness or financial aid to qualified PhD candidates
  • Class sizes in PhD programs are generally small, which allow professors to interact closely with students

Cons

  • Acceptance into a PhD program can be competitive because only a handful of applicants are selected each year
  • Some programs may require students to participate in teaching assistantships, which are highly competitive, require time commitments and may offer little to no salary
  • Significant competition for tenured teachings positions was expected, meaning you may only be able to find part-time or adjunct positions*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Common Courses and Requirements

PhD programs feature several components, including academic coursework, preliminary examinations and researching, writing and presenting an original dissertation. Students may also need to participate in field research, complete a practicum or participate in a teaching assistantship.

As a student in a social and community services PhD program, you can expect courses in public policy, community action, human services and social work. Courses may include topics such as advanced research methods, principles and practices of social work, social influences of behavior, statistical analysis and history of social welfare in the U.S. You generally have the opportunity to take a few elective courses, which is where you'll be able to pick courses that focus on social and community services.

Online Course Options

A few online programs in social and community services are available. Coursework in online programs is generally similar to what you'd find in traditional programs, but you may miss out on a few key learning aspects. A significant part of the PhD program is based on research methods and advanced seminars, so you may wish to meet with your mentors or professors on a regular basis. You may need to participate in some weekend experiences, which could require travel. If you do decide to pursue a PhD via distance learning, make sure the school is accredited by an agency approved by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation or the U.S. Department of Education.

Getting Ahead with This Degree

Find ways to gain extra experience related to the type of job you're planning to pursue when you graduate; for example, if you're planning on teaching, find additional opportunities to gain classroom experience beyond what's required by your program. You may be able to get paid to teach some undergraduate courses while you're working on obtaining your PhD.

If you're more interested in research, find out what type of research projects are going on at your school. Some schools may have projects that involve social work, child welfare services or care services provided by community organizations. If you're able to contribute to a research project, you'll be more prepared to conduct your own research after you graduate.

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