breadcrumbs-homeDoctorate degree in human services programs

Doctorate Degree in Human Services program guide

What is a doctoral degree in human services?

The field of human services is committed to helping individuals and communities that are undergoing difficulties to become self-sufficient through support and by linking them to the various available resources.

Human services organizations assist people in finding affordable housing and employment, teach communities about food and nutrition, and offer aid to those affected by different types of disasters.

A doctoral degree will provide human service professionals the opportunity to build upon their current skills and move to the next level in their careers. A doctoral degree in human services is an advanced multidisciplinary degree that requires a student to have in-depth knowledge of several different fields. It can provide valuable skills which lead to roles in non-profit leadership and post-secondary education and can help students become leaders for positive change in their communities.

What type of people take a doctorate in human services?

Students can come from various backgrounds toward the doctorate program. Here are some examples:

Licensed social workers

Social workers, who have a master’s, may study for a doctorate if they hope to lead a non-profit organization, teach in colleges, or go into private practice.

Licensed professional counselors

Licensed professionals from diverse counseling fields often aim to become the head counselor in an existing organization or to open their own practices.

Advanced practice nurses

Nurses who have a master’s of science in nursing (MSN) and who want to hold high-level roles as administrators can find that the theories and organizational leadership skills integral to human services doctoral program can support their professional goals.

Master of human services graduates

Studying for a Ph.D. in human services is the next career step for many people who hold a master of human services degree. Master’s graduates might go straight into a Ph.D. program, while others start a program with plans to advance their leadership potential after working for some years as managers in human services organizations.

How is a doctor of human services (DHS) different from a Ph.D. in human services?

When embarking on your doctoral degree you will have a choice whether to study for a Ph.D. or a doctorate in human services (DHS). Both the Ph.D. and DHS programs offer a deeper understanding of the human services field and equip graduates with the analytical and advocacy skills to make a significant contribution within their agencies and communities.

The exact skills learned in each degree will be slightly different as a Ph.D. is much more focused on creating original research and takes a long-term or strategic understanding of issues or problems in the human services field.

A DHS helps prepare graduates to be effective in the field on a day-to-day basis and looks to apply existing research to solve actual problems in human services. Compared to a Ph.D., a doctoral degree in human services is generally more practice-orientated while a Ph.D. is more research-based, but both can lead to leadership and teachings roles in the field.

What are the prerequisites for enrolling in a doctoral degree in human services program?

The requirements to be accepted on a doctoral degree program will vary by school. Most programs do not ask applicants to submit GRE scores or other standardized tests, but you can expect the following basic prerequisites:

  • A master’s degree from an accredited institution
  • A graduate level cumulative GPA of 3.0 or higher
  • Transcripts from all postsecondary coursework.
  • Letters of recommendation attesting to your suitability for the program
  • A written personal statement.

How long does it take to earn a doctorate?

Full-time students will take between 3 and 4 years to earn their doctorate. Part-time students can obviously expect to need more time, doctorate programs generally allow up to 9 years to complete your degree.

What is in the doctoral degree in human services curriculum?

Human services is a subject that covers and interacts with other fields; public administration, law, policy, sociology, and psychology are all areas that play a part in human services. The potential areas that a holder of a doctoral degree in human services can work in are much broader than the holder of a specialized degree. This does not mean to say that human services professionals do not specialize because when studying for the doctorate, you can choose a concentration that appeals to the career path of your choice.

What core classes are involved?

Your classes will vary depending on your program, but standard core classes will include studying the following:

Professional ethics

Data and analysis

Research techniques

Critical thinking, writing, and communication

Leadership principals and strategies

Financial planning

Organizational effectiveness

What concentration subjects are there?

In most doctorate degree programs, you can choose a concentration that allows you to focus your studies on a particular area of interest in the human services field that aligns with your career goals. 

Students who are studying for the Ph.D. programs in human services will most likely be required to complete a dissertation project. Students will need to submit a dissertation proposal and carry out independent research that is related to their concentration field under faculty guidance. The dissertation is usually completed during the latter stages of the program. Here are some examples of concentration subjects:

Non-profit management and leadership

Non-profit management and leadership is a specialization that focuses on the theoretical and practical workings of non-profit organizations. You will study effective management strategies and how to judge the efficacy of a program. Learning where to apply for fundraising and how to write grants, along with financial management, are also important components of this concentration.

Mental health administration

A concentration in mental health will equip you to help provide services to clients who require but find it difficult to navigate the often complicated system of mental health services. You will focus on the proactive delivery of aid and research policies and best practices for people with mental health concerns. You will study how your organization can interact with other mental health providers to better serve your clients.


Gerontology is a human services concentration dedicated to providing services to elderly individuals. Your studies will cover factors such as home-based healthcare and the different models of delivering effective support.

Family studies

Students in the family studies concentration focus on family structures and how members function and develop. You will study how families manage to deal with the impact that social issues can have on them and learn when and how interventions are needed.

Crisis management and disaster relief

A crisis management and disaster relief concentration provides students with a core knowledge of emergency management related issues. Students look at the complexities of disaster response operations and gain an understanding of how effective emergency management can deliver practical aid to communities in crisis.

What type of study options are available?

Online doctorate programs

Studying online is a very popular choice especially for those who are already working professionals or have family obligations. Many schools allow you to earn your degree online and the syllabus is as rigorous as for campus-based programs. You should bear in mind that most online doctorate in human services programs are Ph.D. pathways that will require some academic residencies during the program where you work and conduct research that culminates in a dissertation.

Classroom doctorate programs

Many universities offer traditional programs in the classroom with both full-time and part-time options.

Hybrid doctorate programs

While some programs are almost entirely online, most will require some classroom time, either for residencies or seminars. These hybrid options offer students nearly as much flexibility as online programs.

Accelerated doctorate programs

Some schools offer accelerated tracks that allow students who hold bachelor’s degrees in human services to link earning their master’s degree with their doctorate.

How to choose a doctorate in human services degree program?

There are a number of key factors to be considered to make sure your program fits your needs in terms of cost, time, career ambitions, and your lifestyle.

Key factors include:

Accreditation status 

This is one of the most important considerations for prospective students. Colleges and universities are granted accreditation from agencies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. If your program is not accredited, it can mean that course credits you earn are not transferable and that you will lose your eligibility for federal financial aid.  So, you should ensure the school offering the program has earned national or regional accreditation.

Cost of the program 

Online and part-time programs can be significantly less expensive than on-campus programs and allow you to work and earn an income. In-state programs can also be considerably cheaper than out-of-state courses.

Financial aid

There are several financial aid options for doctorate students. A good place to start is to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This allows you to discover what financial assistance, including government loans and grants, you might be eligible for.

Employers might offer financial assistance, especially if you are planning to continue working for them once you finish your degree. Additionally, there are several fellowship and scholarship opportunities available for doctorate students.

The faculty

As you will be working with the staff of the faculty for the duration of your degree, they will likely be a major influence on your career. It is important that you check that their program and experience fits your career path by learning about the faculty’s work experience and reading any materials they have published.

What jobs can I do with a doctorate in human services?

Earning your doctorate can allow you to influence the future of the human services field.  A Ph.D. in human services often leads to a professorial position, while holders of a DHS often take on leadership roles. Whichever route you take, you will probably be in the highest salary range for your title.

Professors can teach human services to undergraduate and graduate students in colleges and universities. You can help train the next generation of human services professionals. As a professor, you will probably conduct research and publish academic papers on a variety of areas related to human services.


According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), postsecondary teachers in the health specialties field in May 2019 made an average annual salary of $97,320. 

As a chief executive, you will manage and be responsible for the operation of your organization. An important part of the post is setting the goals for your organization, raising and directing funds, and overseeing staff and volunteers to make sure that objectives are delivered.


The BLS reports the average annual salary for chief executives employed in the healthcare and social assistance fields in May 2019 was $166,410 per year.

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