Human services can seem like something of a fuzzy term. That’s no accident, and it’s not unintentional. Human services is less a job title than it is an umbrella under which a wide array of professionals work in an individual and increasingly coordinated effort to bring health and social services, guidance and counseling, advice and support to people and communities in need. It encompasses everything from housing and healthcare, to child welfare and assisting the elderly, to education, vocational training, and job counseling. Programs and interventions aimed at confronting societal ills like substance abuse, domestic violence, poverty, racism, and crime also fall under the rubric of human services. As the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a cabinet-level federal agency established by an act of Congress and signed into law by President Eisenhower in 1953, explains in its directive, “It is the mission of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to enhance and protect the health and well-being of all Americans. We fulfill that mission by providing for effective health and human services and fostering advances in medicine, public health, and social services.”

Benefits of Earning a Doctorate in Human Services

Human services work takes place in a wide range of settings and at a variety of levels: at private and non-profit community-based organizations; through state and local governmental initiatives; in community centers, clinics, and hospitals; at schools and churches; and as part of federal programs. The mission statement of the National Organization for Human Services (NOHS) states this quite plainly, and quite broadly: “‘Human services professional’ is a generic term for people who hold professional and paraprofessional jobs in such diverse settings as group homes and halfway houses; correctional, intellectual disability, and community mental health centers; family, child, and youth service agencies; and programs concerned with alcoholism, drug abuse, family violence, and aging.”

That’s the ground-level work of human services. Above that, there are administrators, researchers, policy experts, analysts, and other key players entrusted to design, implement, manage, and evaluate individual programs, projects, and initiatives. Their imperative is to coordinate the diverse efforts of the social workers, psychologists, counselors, community activists, religious leaders, teachers, information technology specialists, and healthcare professionals who each play distinct and critical roles in the interconnected human services network. PhD programs in human services are designed for professionals who already have experience in the field, and who have completed a master’s degree program in human services, social work, psychology, public policy, or any number of related disciplines. Entry-level and paraprofessional jobs in the human services sector are open to those with a bachelor’s degree; a master’s degree in human services is generally adequate for professional positions in the field. A PhD in human services is the top-tier degree, aimed at those looking to do social polity research, oversee social program design, implementation, and evaluation, and/or teach at the college and graduate level.

PhD in Human Services Concepts

  • Contemporary and emerging issues in counseling
  • Human sexuality
  • Grief and bereavement counseling
  • Child and adolescent counseling
  • Geriatric mental health issues
  • Compulsive and addictive behavior
  • Psychopathology
  • Assessment and treatment
  • Theories of psychotherapy
  • Family dynamics
  • Group counseling
  • Mental health and aging
  • Research methodology
  • Intervention strategies
  • Administrative procedures
  • Social policy evaluation and development

What does a PhD in Human Services Entail?

Doctoral degrees in human services are offered online and through campus-based programs that may be affiliated with larger university departments of psychology, education, social work, and health care. Most require a commitment of between three and five years to complete, although the latter half of that time is generally spent independently working toward the completion of a doctoral dissertation on a specific human services research topic. The Council for Standards in Human Services Education (CSHSE) is the nationally recognized organization that confers accreditation on human service degree programs, research, and publications. The CSHSE stamp of approval is an important consideration when weighing various academic programs.

In terms of what it takes to thrive in the human services sector, the NOHS stresses that, “A strong desire to help others is an important consideration for a job as a human services worker. Individuals who show patience, understanding, and caring in their dealings with others are highly valued by employers. Other important personal traits include communication skills, a strong sense of responsibility, and the ability to manage time effectively.”

The Difference Between Human Services and Social Work

Perhaps the single best way to get a firm grasp on the nature of human services is to contrast the discipline with the closely related field of social work. Technically, social workers are human services professionals, as are many people who work in counseling, education, health care, and other areas that seek to improve the lives of people through social policy programs, direct interventions, and the amelioration of problems that impact the health and wellbeing of communities. But, the pedagogical approach in human services education at the master’s and PhD level is unique in that it emphasizes an integrated, interdisciplinary approach to incorporating bodies of knowledge from various disciplines with an emphasis on practical application in researching, evaluating, and implementing social welfare policy.

In a paper commissioned by the Council on Social Work Education, the differences are explained this way: “The Council for Standards in Social Work Education maintains that applying an interdisciplinary approach to learning is a benchmark of human services education, and educational programs are designed with the needs of major employers in mind; thus, the standards’ emphasis is on skills. In comparison, social work education is grounded in the liberal arts and the profession’s history, purposes, and values, resulting in expectations for coverage of a broad range of content regarding the profession’s knowledge base, skills, and values. Human services takes pride in its interdisciplinary faculty who come from fields such as human services, psychology, sociology, social work, counseling, political science, adult education, and nursing.”

PhD in Human Services Coursework

Much of the coursework at the PhD level in human services is aimed and directed at the research and analysis that goes into completing a doctoral dissertation. And, most doctoral programs offer students the opportunity to both play to their strengths in terms of pursuing a dissertation topic that is in line with their career goals, and acquire additional knowledge in behavioral psychology, sociology, healthcare administration, government social policy, and other areas that are part of the discipline. The chart below illustrates some of the typical core courses in a human services PhD program:

CourseAreas of Study
Human Services Policy and PracticeAn in-depth exploration of how human services policy is designed, implemented, and evaluated.
Systems of Human ServicesThe philosophical, ideological, and practical aspects of human services policy as it has evolved through history.
Ethics and Equality in Human ServicesThe ethical concerns and best practices of human services policy, especially as it relates to social and economic privilege, racial and ethnic bias, and other issues of diversity and bias.
Human Behavioral Development and Socio-Cultural FactorsApplying the tools of psychology and sociology to the field of human services policy research and analysis.
Organizational Operations and Grant Management in Human ServicesA practical guide to how human services organization are administered, from the perspective of managing employees and finances.
Quantitative Research Methodologies in Human ServicesHow the research that guides social policy is designed, carried out, and analyzed for quantitative data and qualitative assessment.
Innovations and Trends in the Human Services SectorAn exploration of how changes in technology, social structures, and other factors are impacting work in human services.

Areas of Specialization in Human Services

As mentioned above, human services isn’t a single profession; it’s more a cadre of professionals who are all working toward similar objectives — better social policy that improves lives and reduces societal ills. Below is a list of some of the areas of specialization in human services that students can pursue at the PhD level:

  • Human Services Administration and Leadership
  • Community Development and Advocacy
  • Child and Family Advocacy and Policy
  • At-Risk Populations and Communities in Need
  • Human Services in Health Care and Mental Health
  • Human Services Information Technology and Administration
  • Human Services for the Aging and Elderly

Career Options, Salary Outlook, and Certifications

A degree in human services can lead to a wide array of careers in social work, healthcare, counseling, education, community advocacy, and many other areas. But, a PhD in human services prepares graduates for the top-tier of jobs in the field and is generally an absolute requirement for those aiming to become college or university professors. The PhD is also necessary for top policy research and administrative positions in human services. In addition to completing the degree, certification for human services professionals is available from the Center for Credentialing and Education, which offers the HS-BCP, or Human Services-Board Certified Practitioner credential to those who qualify to take the exam. The HS-BCP exam and credential were created in consultation with the National Organization for Human Services and the Council for Standards in Human Service Education.

Because human services is such a wide ranging field, there isn’t any one job designation to zero in on for growth or salary data. However, recent reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) suggest that demand in the health and human services sector is indeed robust and should remain so for the foreseeable future. In a December 2013 press release, the BLS noted, “The health care and social assistance sector is projected to grow at an annual rate of 2.6 percent, adding 5.0 million jobs between 2012 and 2022. This accounts for nearly one-third of the total projected increase in jobs. The growth reflects, in part, the demand for healthcare workers to address the needs of an aging population.” The data for job growth in health and human services, as projected by the BLS through 2022, breaks down this way:

IndustryProjected Growth
Health Care and Social Assistance2.6%
Individual and Family Services4.4%
Nursing and Residential Care Facilities2.2%
Home Health Care Services4.8%

The BLS’s Occupational Outlook Handbook projections for total growth in human services-related fields through 2022 looks like this:

OccupationProjected Job Outlook
Social and Human Services Assistants22%
Social and Community Service Managers21%
Social Workers19%
Medical and Health Service Managers23%
Health Educators and Community Health Workers21%

So the overall job outlook is quite good. Salaries in the social services sector tend to be commensurate with job experience and the degree level attained. So, having a PhD in human services is a distinct advantage, albeit one that is not measured by any of BLS’s data. The latest BLS Occupational Employment Statistics include breakdowns for several human services related professions. The chart below illustrates the average annual salary for people who fit these job descriptions. And, it’s fair to assume that having a PhD in human services would likely put one well above the average or the median income.

OccupationMedian Annual Salary
Social and Human Services Assistants$31,860
Social and Community Service Managers$67,730
Social Workers$58,410
Health Care Social Workers$53,590
Child, Family, and School Social Workers$46,180
Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers$45,820

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