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Earning a doctorate in human development and family studies online prepares graduates for the highest positions in the field. Many graduates become professors or researchers, while others work as clinicians or directors for private organizations. Doctoral students also contribute to the field by conducting original research. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that many of these fields will grow by 2026; positions for professors are projected to increase by 15%. By pursuing a doctoral degree, prospective students build advanced skills in family studies and human development, which expands their career prospects.

Doctorate in Human and Family Development Degree Program Ranking Guidelines

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We selected the following online doctorate in human and family development degree programs based on the quality of the program and the types of courses offered. We examined the faculty, rankings, awards, and reputation of each school as well as its reputation for providing quality online degree programs.

The motto of TheBestSchools.org is Finding the best school for you. Here is how we do it:

The value of any ranking list of schools and/or degree programs depends on having a methodologically sound assessment of each school’s/program’s characteristics, especially insofar as these can be objectively measured. A college or university is a complex entity, with numerous factors to consider, and distilling these down to the place where meaningful comparisons can be made to form a defensible ranking list becomes part science and part art.

To meet this challenge—and thereby provide you with the most useful and insightful educational rankings on the Internet — TheBestSchools.org formulates our rankings based on five informational categories (six, when considering online schools). The major metrics and qualities for which we rank are these (with expanded, detailed considerations and weights listed):

1. Academic excellence based on a school’s curriculum generally or within the selected discipline [weight = 25%]

  • Weighs school against known leading schools in that discipline
  • Weighs number of core curricula listed as advanced courses within that discipline and compares against introductory courses
  • Weighs school’s curriculum against known knowledge needs of major employers in that discipline
  • Considers number and types of specializations offered within that discipline
  • Considers faculty expertise in that discipline
  • Considers range of electives within that discipline
  • Considers quality of online environment offered to students (if applicable), particularly within that discipline

2. Strength of faculty scholarship [weight = 25%]

  • Considers education background of the faculty
  • Considers years of faculty experience both inside and outside of academia.
  • Considers faculty membership and leadership within relevant, prominent associations
  • Considers academic papers published by faculty in relevant, prominent periodicals
  • Considers awards and recognitions given to faculty members from prominent organizations and from other sources

3. Reputation [weight = 20%]

  • Considers a school’s reputation among academic peers and employers regarding the following:
    • Faculty
    • Curriculum
    • “Freshness” of academic knowledge
    • Adaptability to changes in employment sectors
    • Suitability of graduates for the workplace

4. Financial aid [weight = 10%]

  • Mandatory: Requires full accreditation from an agency endorsed by the U.S. Department of Education and listed on the federal register to accept student federal financial aid
  • Considers range of school-sponsored financial aid such as scholarships and grants

5. Range of degree programs [weight = 20%]

  • Considers range of degree levels: associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral and professional
  • Considers range of degree subjects offered, such as art & design, computers & technology, education & teaching, criminal justice, and business

6. Strength of online instruction methodology (if applicable) [weight = 25%; subtract 5% from each of the above for online schools/programs]

  • Considers the following of the online classes:
    • Types of online technology used to deliver content
    • Pedagogy style: asynchronous, synchronous, or both (depending on the degree)
    • Extent and quality of the online, community learning environment, including options for communication, interactivity, and collaboration between students and also between students and instructors
    • Variety, breadth, and depth of coursework, and its support, including project options and online tutoring
  • Considers the following of instructors:
    • Extent of training for teaching within an online learning environment
    • Amount of timely, consistent feedback to students
    • Extent of collaboration with prospective employers to ensure suitability of instructional materials for achieving desired skills
    • Ratio to number of students in a class
  • Number and quality of internships in a student’s geographical area for applicable degrees

Because students tend to review a variety of information when choosing a school, the weight a student gives any one criterion will vary. For instance, it’s not enough to offer a carefully constructed ranking of great schools if many are too expensive or too difficult to get into.

To better serve the needs of prospective students, we are therefore increasingly offering filters that help you better use our rankings to find the schools that match your specific needs. These supplement our ranking criteria and include:

  • Accreditation
  • Public or private status
  • Acceptance rate
  • Retention rate
  • Graduation rate
  • ACT/SAT requirements
  • Cost in-state / out of state
  • Undergrad, grad, or both offered
  • Region
  • State
  • City

Get the best rankings here AND get them to suit your personal needs. That’s TheBestSchools.org advantage!

If you have any questions about our ranking methodology, please contact us.

Citations: For a broader account of our ranking methodology, especially as it relates to TheBestSchools.org's underlying educational philosophy and, in other ranking articles, looks beyond academic excellence (as here) to such factors as return on investment or incidental benefit, see our article "Ranking Methodology: How We Rank Schools at TBS." Reputation of schools and degree programs can at least in part be gauged through the school or department's publishing activity, citations, and desirability. At TheBestSchools.org, we keep track of such social and peer validation: "Making Sense of College Rankings." For nuts-and-bolts information about colleges and universities, we look to the National Center for Education Statistics and especially its College Navigator. Insofar as salary and inflation data are relevant to a ranking, we look to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Finally, nothing beats contacting schools and degree programs directly, which our researchers often do, with the result that all the entries in this article should be considered as belonging to this citation!

Featured Online Human & Family Development Doctoral Programs

The Best Online Doctorate in Human and Family Development Programs

Because numerous types of degrees fall under the umbrella of “Doctorate in Human and Family Development,” the following sections display top-ranked programs from several related ranking articles on our website. To learn more about these different degrees, follow the link at the end of each section to their corresponding ranking article.

Human and Family Development Program Categories

The Best Online Doctorate in Human and Family Development Degree Programs

Liberty University Online View School Profile Lynchburg, VA Liberty University is regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC).

Liberty University is a Carnegie-classified doctoral research university that offers over 550 programs of study to more than 110,000 students. This Christian university teaches nearly 300 programs through online learning; these programs include 28 doctoral programs.

Among Liberty’s marriage and family counseling degree programs is its 57-credit Ed.D. in Community Care and Counseling, an online degree available in three specializations:

  • Marriage and Family Therapy
  • Pastoral Care and Counseling
  • Traumatology

This marriage-and-family concentration prepares students for ministry-oriented professional counseling setting by teaching courses that are grounded in statistics and research design. A non-licensure degree, students in the Ed.D. refine their research and assessment skills as well as learn to treat of couples and families. Courses last eight weeks, and there are eight start dates a year.

Admitted candidates can transfer up to 15 credit hours into the program. To qualify for enrollment, prospective students must have a master’s degree in counseling, psychology, human services, or related field, along with a minimum 3.0 GPA.

University of Louisiana at Monroe View School Profile Monroe, LA The University of Louisiana at Monroe is regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)The MFT doctorate is also fully accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE)

Founded in 1931, the University of Louisiana at Monroe is one of nine universities in the University of Louisiana system. In 2016, enrollment at ULM topped 9,000 students, and the school’s online programs reached over 1,200 distance students.

In 1996, the university launched its Ph.D. in Marriage and Family Therapy, a theory-based program focused on cybernetics and its impact on family systems therapy. This MFT doctorate with a concentration in systemic studies is a scholarly program of study, not a clinical degree. Students learn as part of a cohort and through synchronous courses. They explore topics such as: cybernetic and ecological therapeutic perspectives, creative transformation, and the theory of absurdity. While full-time students can complete the 60-unit Ph.D. in two years, a typical course sequence takes three years, with the final year devoted to a doctoral dissertation.

Applications must include transcripts of undergraduate/graduate work, GRE scores, a curriculum vitae, scholarly writing sample, doctoral program goal statement, and three recommendations.

Amridge University View School Profile Montgomery, AL Amridge University is regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC).

For over 25 years, Amridge University has been a leader in online education. Today, this Church of Christ-affiliated university employs distance learning in each of its programs. Amridge enrolls around 700 students.

The university’s Ph.D. in Marriage and Family Therapy online degree is a 60-semester hour research program that focuses on building therapeutic expertise. Students learn to conduct original research, classify mental disorders, and establish appropriate treatment plans. This program requires residency for one seminar, and students may return to Montgomery for their dissertation qualifying exam. Full-time students can complete all requirements in four years. However, this program does not prepare candidates for licensure.

Applicants must hold a graduate degree from a regionally accredited institution of higher learning — or from select nationally accredited programs — and submit a scholarly writing sample. All candidates must interview prior to admission decisions, and test scores are not required.

The Best Online Doctorate in Social Work Degree Programs

Baylor University View School Profile Waco, TX 79% 42% 5% Baylor University is regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC).

Chartered in 1845, Baylor offers a Baptist education to nearly 20,000 students.

Baylor's doctor of philosophy in social work program develops graduates to be leaders and educators in service programs and social work education. Courses cover research and analysis methods, religious and cultural diversity, and leadership and administration.

Faculty research interests include grief and loss, child welfare and adoption, and professional ethics and development.

Classes take place in an online, synchronous format spread across 10 semesters.

Applicants should submit a 7-10 page personal statement, a scholarly writing sample, and a statistics exam. New cohorts are only admitted in odd-numbered years.

The University of Tennessee-Knoxville View School Profile $$$$ Knoxville, TN 73% 42% 35% University of Tennessee, Knoxville is regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC).

Founded in 1794, UT Knoxville teaches more than 30,000 students across more than 900 programs of study.

UT Knoxville's doctor of social work degree focuses on clinical practice and leadership, while the doctor of philosophy in social work prepares students to improve the well-being of vulnerable groups through advanced research and program creation.

Applicants must hold a master's in social work and three years of post-MSW clinical practice, as well as submit GRE scores and official transcripts showing a 3.0 GPA.

University at Buffalo View School Profile $$$ Buffalo, NY 76% 47% 17% University at Buffalo is regionally accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE).

As the largest school in the State University of New York system, UB boasts research-intensive programs across 450 degree programs.

The UB doctor of social work degree teaches from a trauma-informed, human rights perspective. Courses include technology and human behavior, concepts in implementation science, and organizational characteristics.

The part-time program takes place fully online and consists of 39 credits. Students typically complete the program in three years.

Applicants must hold an MSW with a 3.0 GPA for graduate coursework and an active social work licensure, as well as three years of post-MSW work experience.

University of Pennsylvania View School Profile Philadelphia, PA 95% 14% 2% University of Pennsylvania is regionally accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE).

Founded in 1740, Penn now enrolls more than 26,000 students across four undergraduate and 12 graduate schools.

Penn's doctor of clinical social work program prepares students to design and implement evidence-based programs and interventions. Courses cover clinical theory, research methods, and different types of therapy.

The part-time program takes place in a fully online and synchronous format, although two five-day on-campus immersion experiences are required. Students typically complete the program in three years.

Applicants should obtain an MSW and three years of post-graduate work experience.

University of Southern California View School Profile Los Angeles, CA 92% 29% 18% University of Southern California is regionally accredited by the WASC Senior Colleges and University Commission (WSCUC).

Founded in 1880 with just 53 students, USC now serves over 46,000 students each year.

USC's online doctor of social work program is designed around the 12 Grand Challenges of Social put forth by the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare. Through coursework, students learn to manage complex systems, make data-driven decisions, and lead public discourse.

Rather than a dissertation, students complete a capstone project that yields a prototype for an organizational plan or contract proposal, among other options.

Applicants should hold a master's degree from a CSWE-accredited program, although it does not need to be an MSW. They should also demonstrate five years of post-master's work experience.

University of St Thomas View School Profile Saint Paul, MN 77% 49% 13% University of St. Thomas is regionally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC).

A Catholic university, UST enrolls more than 10,000 students across 150 programs each year.

UST's doctor of social work program prepares graduates to teach social work practice at the university level. Coursework covers topics like social work education, writing for publication, and curriculum development.

Coursework takes place fully online through synchronous and asynchronous courses, and students must attend a two-week on-campus residency each summer.

Applicants should hold an MSW with at least two years of post-MSW work experience. Transcripts should show a GPA of at least 3.0.

The Best Online Doctorate in Child Development Degree Programs

Capella University View School Profile Minneapolis, MN Capella University is regionally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC).

Capella University is a private, for-profit university established in 1993. For students pursuing advanced childhood development careers, Capella offers an online Ph.D. in psychology with a specialization in developmental psychology. The program develops the necessary knowledge and skills for understanding and working with children at all developmental stages.

The online Ph.D. program requires 107 quarter-credits for completion and consists of the following:

  • Seven core courses
  • Six specialization courses
  • Three dissertation research seminars
  • Four emphasis courses
  • A comprehensive exam
  • A dissertation project

The program includes coursework in areas such as:

  • Ethics and multicultural issues
  • Research methods and applications
  • Lifespan development
  • Health care policy
  • Prenatal development
  • Child and adolescent development

Students emerge prepared for jobs in a variety of settings, which includes teaching, advocacy and counseling.

Walden University View School Profile Minneapolis, MN Walden University is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC)

Walden University, an online for-profit university established in 1970, enrolls around 50,000 students in a wide selection of undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. Walden offers an online Ph.D. in developmental psychology with a specialization in child and adolescent development.

The online Ph.D. program requires 110 quarter-credits for completion, which includes 75 quarter-credits of core courses, 15 quarter-credits of specialization courses and 20 quarter-credits of dissertation work. Students in the program encounter key topics, which include child development, abnormal psychology, behavior analysis and health issues. Students prepare for a variety of positions that work with children and adolescents by blending theory, research and practice. In addition to online coursework, the program requires four on-campus residencies totaling 16 days.

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The Best Online Doctorate in Human Services Degree Programs

Capella University View School Profile Minneapolis, MN Capella University is regionally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC).

Capella University, a private, for-profit university established in 1993, offers two online doctorate in human services program options: an online doctor in human services, and an online Ph.D. in human services. While the doctor of human services focuses program on professional practice, the Ph.D. in human services focuses more on research and theory. Both prepare students to advance a variety of careers and positions in the field.

The online Ph.D. in human services degree program comes with three specialization options, in multidisciplinary human services, nonprofit management and leadership, and social and community services. The program requires 92 quarter-credits for completion, a dissertation project, and comprehensive exams. Courses are lead by actively-practicing faculty covering topics such as case analysis, multidisciplinary practice, diversity in the workplace, advanced research methods, and ethics.

The online doctor of human services offers two specialization options in advanced program evaluation and data analytics, and leadership and organizational management. The program requires 72 quarter-credits for completion, as well as a doctoral capstone. Courses are lead by actively-practicing faculty covering topics such as grant writing, data analytics and program evaluation, multidisciplinary practice, ethics and leadership models, and action research methods.

Students in either program benefit from committed doctoral support, real-world education from scholar-practitioner faculty, asynchronous course delivery and 24/7 access, and a multidisciplinary approach.

Ashford University View School Profile San Diego, CA Ashford University is accredited by the WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC).

Ashford University, an online, for-profit university, enrolls over 36,000 students in an array of entirely online undergraduate and graduate programs. Among its offerings is an online doctor of philosophy in human services degree program.

The online Ph.D. in Human services requires 62 credit hours for completion, including 11 core courses, one elective research course, and five specialization courses. Students may choose from three specialization options, in the areas of mental health administration, nonprofit management, or standard human services. Regardless of the chosen specialization, the program develops advanced knowledge and skills in human services. Students prepare for leadership roles and learn to assess human services structures, evaluate and implement concepts, formulate strategies, and advocate for policies and practices.

The program requires students to complete a doctoral capstone and dissertation. Courses are completed in six-to-nine week segments. Applicants must have a minimum of a master’s degree for admission. Students benefit from 24/7 technical support.

Walden University View School Profile Minneapolis, MN Walden University is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC)

Walden University, an online for-profit university established in 1970, enrolls around 50,000 students in a wide selection of undergraduate, graduate, and professional degree programs. Among its offerings is an online doctor of philosophy in social services degree program that prepares students for advanced positions in an array of human services careers.

The online Ph.D. program offers 15 options for specialization, in areas such as advanced research, community and social services, criminal justice, family studies and intervention, gerontology, and military families and culture. The wide selection of specializations allows for students to fill any conceivable professional niche in human services by focusing on the specific area in which they wish to help. Regardless of the specialization chosen, students gain the advanced knowledge and skills necessary to effectively analyze problems, develop and implement strategies, and serve diverse populations of people.

The online Ph.D. program also comes with two track options, designed to serve students of all levels of experience. Track I is for students who hold a master’s degree from an accredited university in human services, counseling, social work, or psychology, and is the shorter path of the two, requiring just 83 quarter-credits. Track II is for student’s holding a bachelor’s degree, or a master’s degree in a non-related field, and requires 108 quarter-credits. Both tracks require a dissertation, a professional development plan, and four periodic campus residencies.

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Choosing an Online Doctorate in Human and Family Development Program

Earning a doctorate in human development and family studies online requires students to complete courses, pass exams, and write a dissertation. Most human and family development programs offer a mix of core and elective classes that cover topics like human development, quantitative research methods, and emotional development. Many programs also offer classes in marriage and family therapy or provide opportunities for interdisciplinary research in neuroscience, social work, or education. While a doctorate prepares graduates to work in academic positions as professors or researchers, each program emphasizes different areas of human development and family studies. This means that prospective students must evaluate which programs best aligns with their goals.

Within the human development and family studies field, doctoral students can focus on:

  • Cognition
  • Diversity and Cultural Influences on Development
  • Emotional Development
  • Poverty

Each program offers several concentrations, core classes, and faculty advisors. These options allow doctoral students to customize their degree around their research interests and professional goals. For example, students interested in statistical analysis and careers in research science may prefer a program that offers that concentration. By carefully researching programs, prospective students can find the best fit for their interests.

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What Else Can I Expect From an Online Doctorate in Human and Family Development Program?

Doctorate in human development and family studies online programs design their own curricula and concentrations, so prospective students should carefully research what each program offers. If you pay attention to program specializations, elective courses, and graduate career paths, then you can choose a program that fits your interests and career goals.

Online Doctoral Degree in Human and Family Development Concentrations

  1. Social and Emotional Development:
    The social and emotional development concentration trains doctoral students in human social and emotional development theories, methodologies, and research skills. Doctoral students may take interdisciplinary courses in family dynamics, intervention, and neuroscience.
    • Concentration Careers: Professor, research scientist
  2. Couples and Family Therapy:
    Doctoral students can gain clinical experience through a couples and family therapy concentration. Students build clinical and research skills, apply research designs, and accumulate supervision experience. The concentration also fosters scientific and grant proposal writing abilities.
    • Concentration Careers: Research scientist, clinician, professor
  3. Statistical Analysis:
    In a statistical analysis concentration, doctoral students study human development and family studies statistical methodologies. Doctoral students also evaluate and create measurement methods, which includes statistical modeling. This specialization prepares graduates for research and analysis positions in family and human development.
    • Concentration Careers: Research scientist, professor, academic dean

Curriculum for an Online Doctoral Degree in Human and Family Development

  • Adult Development:
    This course covers adult development theories and focuses on the most influential theorists. Doctoral students also survey the most recent research and learn how to apply these theories in clinical settings.
  • Advanced Human Development:
    Doctoral students study advanced theories and research on development throughout the life span, from prenatal development to gerontology. The course may allow students to focus on their dissertation topic.
  • Theories in Human Development:
    Students survey psychoanalysis, behaviorism, and cognitive theories of human development research. The course examines the differences between theories, the role of developmental stages, and influential theorists.
  • Quantitative Research Methods:
    This course develops advanced skills in quantitative research, including mixed methods, structured data collection, experimental design, and data analysis. Students learn to develop a research method by following ethical procedures and Institutional Review Board guidelines.
  • Dissertation:
    Doctoral students complete a dissertation under the supervision of a faculty advisor. The dissertation must be based on original research and contribute to the field. In order to graduate, doctoral students defend the dissertation.
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Careers with a Doctorate in Human and Family Development

As the terminal degree in human and family development, a doctorate leads to careers in academia, research, and management. While many doctoral students pursue careers as professors, they can also work as research scientists for private organizations, government agencies, or universities. A Ph.D. or DSW can also lead to careers in higher education administration.

  1. Human and Family Development Professor:
    Professors of human development and family studies teach undergraduate and graduate courses in their field. They design syllabi, write lectures, create tests, and educate students in a college or university setting. In addition, many professors also conduct research and publish their findings in scholarly journals. Tenure-track positions in this field require a doctorate.
    • Median Annual Salary: $76,000
    • Projected Growth Rate: 15%
  2. Research Scientist:
    Research scientists with a degree in human development and family studies design and conduct studies with the goal of understanding human development, physiology, and neurological development. They may also develop programs to improve health and wellbeing and many write research grant proposals to receive government or private funding. Many research scientists work in an academic setting.
    • Median Annual Salary: $82,090
    • Projected Growth Rate: 13%
  3. Academic Dean:
    Academic deans run a program or division at a college or university. They may also hold the title director or provost. Deans oversee faculty research and help develop academic policies and manage budgets. Many also play a role in hiring and tenure decisions. A doctorate in human and family development prepares graduates to work as the dean of health sciences or in administrative positions in a medical school.
    • Median Annual Salary: $92,360
    • Projected Growth Rate: 10%

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

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What is the Difference Between a Social Work Ph.D. and a DSW?

The difference between a social work Ph.D. and a doctor of social work (DSW) is that social work Ph.D. programs tend to be oriented towards research, while DSW programs tend to be oriented towards clinical practice. However, both degrees share significant overlap when it comes to their curriculum and educational requirements. Regardless of which degree is earned, the holder of the degree has a doctorate in the field of social work. If you are interested in the research-side of social work, then you might want to look at social work Ph.D. programs. If you are interested in leading social workers in a clinical setting, then consider a DSW.

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