If you’re a practicing social worker looking to transition into a more educational or administrative position or a social work student who’s unsure about clinical or hands-on practice, you might want to consider getting your doctorate. There are two similar but distinct options: a Doctorate of Social Work (DSW), which focuses on clinical or administrative social work practice, or a Doctor of Philosophy in Social Work (Ph.D.), which focuses on the theoretical, political, and educational aspects of social work.

While each degree will open a variety of new social work careers and opportunities for students, it’s important to know that no additional licensing opportunities will be available, as neither DSW nor Ph.D. in Social Work graduates are licensed by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), the primary accrediting body which oversees social work licensing. There will be, however, plenty more opportunities to “niche down” with a diverse set of specialties offered by universities.

Other things of note regarding DSW and Ph.D. in Social Work programs:

DSWPh.D. in Social Work
FocusApplied practice and leadershipResearch and scholarly inquiry
Career PathClinical practice, policy developmentAcademia, research, leadership
Program Length3-4 years4-6 years
DissertationEmphasis on applied researchEmphasis on original research
Job OpportunitiesClinical director, program managerProfessor, researcher, consultant
Program StructurePractice-oriented courses, fieldworkResearch-focused courses, dissertation
AdmissionsRequires MSW, professional experienceRequires MSW, research experience

Can I Get a Doctorate in Social Work (DSW or Ph.D.) Online?

While they aren’t as common as a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) or a Master of Social Work (MSW) degrees, DSW and Ph.D. programs in social work offered primarily or fully online are available. As we noted earlier, these degrees aren’t accredited, but they do offer a great advantage to those looking to stand out in the field of social work applicants, and they provide a generous educational background to social workers who want to have a diverse set of options beyond clinical practice.

Social Work Degrees at Every Level

Interested in a social work education? There's a degree for that! Check out the available campus-based and online social work degree options to get started.

BSW Degree

MSW Degree

Advanced-Standing MSW Degree

DSW & Ph.D. in Social Work Degrees

All Social Work Degrees

College student enrolled in a social work degree program at library with laptop

What Can I Expect in an Online Doctorate in Social Work Program?

As with other types of online social work degrees, every program is a little bit different in terms of delivery. Some classes may be offered fully online in tandem with on-campus classes, while others will be offered fully online. Some social work doctorate programs will offer classes fully online, but will require students to fulfill their clinical requirements on campus, or in the community in which the university serves. In most programs, however, the university will make accommodations in the online student’s own community through their network of resources.

In terms of online delivery, classes will be typically delivered over Zoom or other telecommunications app, and coursework can be completed through the university’s online portal. When it comes time to take the exam, proctoring software usually ensures that the student is conducting themselves ethically.

DSW classes will include typical courses such as:

  • Integrated Behavioral Health
  • Welfare Evaluation and Management
  • Executive Social Work Leadership

Social work Ph.D. programs, on the other hand, may include classes such as:

  • Advanced Social Work Research Methods
  • Social Work Grant Writing Strategies
  • Social Work Date Analysis

Both DSW and social work Ph.D. programs will also typically require a dissertation or capstone research project to complete the curriculum.

DSW & Ph.D. in Social Work Admission Requirements

Both DSWs and Ph.D. programs in social work will require the same set of admission requirements, but depending on the specific program, the requirements may look a little different. Ultimately, most DSWs and social work Ph.D. programs will require the following:

  • University and high school transcripts
  • Proof of a Master’s of Social Work (MSW) degree
  • Minimum GPA, typically 3.0 or 3.5
  • ACT or SAT test scores (sometimes replaced by a written essay)
  • A resume or CV showing the trajectory of your career as a social worker
  • Immunization records and background check

These will all be submitted with your completed application. Typically, an in-person interview is also required. You will also need an active social work license to participate in the clinical requirements of the program.

Learn more about Becoming a Social Worker.

Doctorate Degree in Social Work Length

Doctorate degrees, especially those delivered online, vary considerably in length. Depending on your current educational background and whether or not the program is self-paced or part-time, you will be looking at a commitment of three to six years once you’ve completed your master’s degree.

Doctorate Degree in Social Work Program Costs

The cost of Doctor of Social Work (DSW) and Ph.D. in Social Work programs can vary widely depending on factors such as the school, program length, and location. On average, DSW programs may cost between $30,000 and $70,000 in total tuition, while Ph.D. programs can range from $30,000 to $100,000 or more. Some schools offer scholarships, grants, or assistantships to help offset these costs, and students may also be eligible for federal financial aid. Additionally, online programs or part-time options may offer more flexibility and potentially lower costs compared to traditional full-time, on-campus programs.

Social Work Doctorate Degree Specialties: DSW vs. Ph.D. in Social Work

Doctorate degrees in social work typically offer an area of focus that varies depending on the degree type (DSW or Ph.D.):

  • A typical DSW will offer more clinical and administrative specialties, including Leadership and Planning in Social Work, Advanced Social Policy and Planning, and Advanced Social Work Practice.
  • On the more political and educational side, a Ph.D. in Social Work often offers specialties such as Social Work Policy Analysis, Social Work and Educational Systems, and Social Welfare Policy. A Ph.D. in Social Work prepares students to become social work professors or researchers.
Joel Gill
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