Human Services Degree and Career Guide
Doctoral Degrees in Human Services
About the Doctorate in Human Services
Degree Type:Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), Doctorate
Location:Online, classroom, and hybrid
Duration:3–5 years, including dissertation
Total Credits:Usually 55–62
Aid Eligible:Yes, for accredited programs
Human service organizations provide essential services to communities and individuals. They can offer meals to people facing food insecurity, coordinate aid for elderly clients, make job training available to the chronically underemployed, and much, much more.
With a doctoral degree in human services, you can take on a leadership role in an organization. You’ll study the theories behind policies and practices and learn how to implement them in everyday situations. Earning your PhD can help you make changes that can improve lives and strengthen your community.
What Is a Doctoral Degree in Human Services?
A doctoral degree in human services is an advanced degree that allows you to hold both leadership and teaching roles in the field. A PhD program will give you an in-depth understanding of the work of human service organizations and their impact. You’ll learn leadership skills and study the evidence and research behind current best practices in the field.
Typical Degree & Career Paths in Human Services
You’re likely to come across students from several backgrounds in your PhD programs. Students might want to earn their PhD for professional recognition, to advance into a leadership role, or because they want a deeper understanding of the field. A few paths that might lead students to seek a PhD in Human Services are discussed below.
Licensed social workers
Social workers who have earned their master’s and are looking to advance their careers might choose to earn a PhD in Human Services. Social workers pursuing a PhD might be looking to lead a nonprofit, teach on the college level, or go into private practice.
Licensed professional counselors
Professional counselors in multiple disciplines can seek a PhD in Human Services. They might be looking to open their own practices or become the head counselor in an existing organization. Types of counselors who might seek a PhD in Human Services include:
- Marriage and family counselors
- Drug and alcohol counselors
- Mental health counselors
- School counselors
- General counselors
Advanced practice nurses
Nurses who have earned a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) and are practicing at an advanced level might choose a PhD in Human Services. For those who want to hold high-level roles such as nursing home or home health administrators, a PhD can help to blend clinical skills with human service theories and organizational leadership skills.
Master of Human Services graduates
Earning a PhD in Human Services is the next step for many people who have earned a Master of Human Services degree. Some students go directly into a PhD program, while others begin after years of work at the master’s level. Graduates of master’s programs might already be working as managers in human service organizations and be looking to advance their leadership capacity.
Academic Requirements Before Starting a Doctoral Degree in Human Services
For some people, earning a PhD is a decision made after years in the workforce. For others, it might be the next step directly after earning their master’s. No matter when you choose to start a PhD program, there are steps you’ll need to take first. The requirements will vary by school, but you can expect to need letters of recommendation, a written personal statement, and transcripts from all postsecondary coursework.
All programs will also require that your master’s degree is from an accredited institution. This ensures that the program meets a certain level of educational standards. You can check accreditation through the U.S. Department of Education database.
Do you need to take the GRE?
This will depend on your school, but there are many programs that don’t require you to take the GRE. However, keep in mind that schools that do ask for the GRE will want your scores to be recent, most likely from within the last 5 years. Check the admissions page of your desired program to verify the requirements.
Are there GPA requirements?
For most programs, yes. GPA requirements are normally a minimum of 3.0.
How Long Does It Take to Get a PhD?
Earning your PhD will take between 3 and 4 years for a full-time student, and likely longer for those who are part-time. PhD programs generally allow up to 9 years to complete your degree.
The Doctorate in Human Services Curriculum
You’ll focus on leadership and research during your PhD program, learning the skills you need to successfully manage an organization and the theories behind them. You’ll also study financial management, including securing grants and other funding.
What core classes are involved?
Your classes will vary depending on your program and concentration, but standard core classes will include studying:
- Ethical decision making
- Strategic planning
- Research techniques
- Communication for leaders
- Leadership development
- Financial planning
- Organizational effectiveness
Number of course credits
A PhD normally includes between 55 and 62 credits.
You’ll need to complete a dissertation project as part of your PhD. You’ll select a topic and draft a dissertation proposal with the help of your faculty advisors. You’ll then conduct research and write your dissertation. You may also need to give a presentation on your dissertation to the faculty.
Is a practicum or fieldwork required?
No, however, many programs require academic residencies. You’ll do work and conduct research in organizations during a residency program. Residencies often last 3–4 months and can broaden your knowledge while also helping you build connections. The number of residences you’ll need will depend on your program, but many require at least 4.
In most PhD programs, you’ll be able to pick a concentration that allows you to focus your studies on an area of interest that aligns with your career goals. Concentrations often include specific types of leadership or deal with a particular population of clients.
Nonprofit management is a concentration dedicated to the workings of nonprofit organizations. You’ll learn management strategies and how to evaluate the effectiveness of a program. You’ll also study financial management and learn to write grants and apply for fundraising.
Mental health administration
A concentration in mental health will help you provide services to people in need. You’ll focus on the needs of people with mental health concerns and on the research behind best practices for assistance. You’ll learn how your organization can partner with other mental health providers to better serve your community.
The field of gerontology is dedicated to providing services to the elderly. You’ll learn about home health care and study the models of effective assistance. You’ll also study strategies to keep your elderly patients as safe and as healthy as possible.
A family studies concentration will discuss family structures and theories of child development. You’ll study the impact that larger social issues can have on families and learn when and how interventions are needed. You’ll gain the skills you need to run an adoption agency, family crisis center, child services agency, or youth center.
Crisis management and disaster relief
Large-scale disaster relief requires strong leadership and overarching management structure. A concentration in crisis management and disaster relief can teach you the skills you need to deliver effective aid to communities in crisis.
Can I Get a PhD in Human Services Online?
There are schools that offer PhD programs in an online format, but keep in mind that you might still need to fulfill residency requirements in person. You’ll also need to complete a dissertation, no matter the setting of your program.
Online and hybrid
Many schools around the country allow you to earn your degree online, letting you pursue your PhD while you continue to work. While some of these programs are entirely online, most will require some classroom time, either for residencies or seminars. These hybrid options offer nearly as much flexibility to students as entirely online programs.
Traditional programs in the classroom setting are offered by many universities, with both full-time and part-time options. You’ll likely be able to set your own pace as you go through your coursework and dissertation.
Accelerated programs for bachelor’s degree students
You can find a few programs that allow students who have bachelor’s degrees in a human services field to combine earning their master’s degree with earning their PhD. With an accelerated program, you’ll get the foundation you need to earn your PhD while saving time and money.
However, these programs are not available everywhere. Most PhD programs will require that you already have your master’s.
How to Pick a Degree Program
One of the most important things to note when looking at programs is accreditation. If your program isn’t accredited, you may not be eligible for federal financial aid, and the credits you earn might not transfer.
The faculty of the program is also an important consideration. You’ll be working closely with these staff members over several years and they’ll be important mentors for your career. You can get a sense of whether a program fits your needs by learning about the faculty’s work experience and reading any materials they’ve published.
Of course, you’ll also need to make sure your program fits your needs in terms of cost, time, and the other ways that it fits into your lifestyle. Considerations include:
- The possibility of financial aid
- Length of time to complete the program
- Cost per credit for the degree
- The availability of part-time or independently structured options
- Admissions requirements
Human Services Careers with a PhD
Earning your PhD can allow you to impact the future of the human services field. You’ll be able to take on management or directorial positions, and you’ll likely be in the highest salary bracket for your title. You might become the head of a social services or counseling department. If you’re already in a private practice, earning your PhD can allow you command a higher rate. The career opportunities available to you will depend on where you live and your prior work experience.
Some common jobs for PhD graduates are discussed in more detail below.
Professor of Human Services
Professors can teach undergraduate and graduate students in the human services field. You can prepare students who are aspiring to pursue a variety of human services careers. As a professor, you’ll likely also conduct research and publish papers on important issues in human services.
According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), teachers of all kinds on the postsecondary level make a median annual salary of $66,930.
To work as a professor, you may need to have several years of practical experience working with a human services organization. This will depend on the employer and on your specific concentration.
Chief Executive of a Human Services Organization
As a chief executive, you’ll be responsible for the operation of your organization. You might spend a lot of time traveling to raise funds and connect with other human services providers. You’ll make the plans and set the goals for your organization, and you’ll ensure services are being delivered. You’ll likely be hired by and report to the board of directors.
The BLS reports the 2022 median salary for chief executives employed by social assistance or healthcare providers to be $189,520 per year.
This depends on the organization. You might need to have many years of work experience, demonstrated leadership skills, or grant-writing abilities.
Financial Aid for Human Services Students
There are several financial aid options for PhD students. The first step to is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This allows you to find out what types of assistance you qualify for, including government loans and grants.
You might also be able to pay for your education in the form of a stipend by working as a teaching or research assistant while you earn your PhD. This can be a good option for students who are hoping to teach once they earn their degree.
Employers might offer financial assistance toward your PhD, especially if you’re planning to continue working for them once you finish your degree. Additionally, there are several fellowship and scholarship opportunities available for PhD students.
Do Human Services Jobs Qualify for Student Loan Forgiveness?
In some cases, yes. Keep in mind that student loan forgiveness is normally only available for federally funded direct loans. The Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF) grants loan relief to human service students who find full-time employment with a government or nonprofit agency.
Professional Organizations for Human Services
Professional organizations provide human service professionals with opportunities for networking, credentialing, and continuing education. You might get exclusive access to industry news and research and be eligible to attend conferences and seminars. These organizations include:
- National Organization for Human Services (NOHS): This prominent organization publishes the Journal of Human Services. The NOHS offers grants and scholarships to human services students and also awards a certification as a Human Services-Board Certified Practitioner.
- American Public Human Services Association (APHSA): The APHSA operates human services centers throughout the country and is dedicated to improving public policies. APHSA membership is available for individuals as well as organizations.
- National Human Services Assembly: The National Human Services Assembly works to improve human services across the country.
- American Counseling Association (ACA): The ACA works to enhance the counseling profession as a whole and provides career services to counselors of all types.