10 Best Online Doctorate in Social Work (DSW) - 2023 Guide (2023)

A doctorate in social work online is one of the highest degrees that you can earn in the field of social work.

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As you develop your skills and knowledge in this program, you may strive to become the best social work practitioner that you can be. With this graduate degree, you may qualify for leadership roles in social work agencies.

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Your expert training may also equip you to offer the most effective, evidence-based supports and services for the clients in your care.

Online Doctorate in Social Work Programs

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You may have entered the social work profession because you felt strongly about helping other people. To take your efforts to the next level, you may consider enrolling in an online doctorate of social work program.

During your studies, you may take some classes to enhance your counseling skills. Some courses often focus on working with kids and teens while others may address counseling strategies for couples and families.

You may also have classes that focus on implementing proven practices in your work. This will involve studying the latest research from the social work field and discussing ways to apply those findings as you assist people and lead organizations.

You may also study administration. This could involve classes on change management, budgeting, organizational leadership, and communication.

Some DSW programs have concentration tracks, so you can choose a specialty area that pertains to your career goals. Options may include addictions, counseling, criminal justice, healthcare, and aging. Some of your classes will be specific to your concentration area.

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Online DSW programs are often offered on a part-time basis, so you can maintain your professional life while going to school. In fact, many programs encourage students to keep working while earning a doctorate. Your work in the field can inform your studies, and you may be able to try out new ideas and techniques right away.

You’ll wrap up your doctoral program with a capstone project. For a DSW, that might be a dissertation, but it’s more likely to be a different type of project. You might design an intervention strategy, implement it in your social work setting, and conduct assessments to evaluate how well your idea worked.

Having a doctorate in social work may qualify you for many different roles in this field. You might be an agency administrator or an advisor for government policies. This online social work degree could also help you become a more effective therapist.

Whether you want to work in counseling, criminal justice, healthcare, school, or family-support settings, having a DSW can help equip you to carry out your mission.

Social Work Careers & Salaries

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Social work is a profession that’s dedicated to helping people, and with your DSW you may be able to assume some of the highest leadership positions in social work agencies, government groups, counseling centers, and other organizations.

You may be qualified to lead social work organizations. This could include overseeing other social workers in a hospital system, a large school district, a counseling center, or a community child-welfare agency.

If you currently practice as a mental health or substance abuse counselor, you could continue doing so after earning your doctorate. During your studies, you’ll acquire new ideas and approaches that can help you become an even more effective therapist for your clients.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, social workers earn an average annual salary of $51,760, but you’ll have the potential for higher earnings with an online doctorate in social work.

CareersAnnual Median Salary
Human Resources Manager$121,220
Social Work Professor$71,570
Social and Community Service Manager$69,600
Criminal Justice Social Worker$64,210
Healthcare Social Worker$57,630
Health Education Specialist$56,500
Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialist$55,690
Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Worker$48,720
Child, Family, and School Social Worker$48,430
Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, or Mental Health Counselor$47,660

Your acquired skills would be applicable in non-social work settings as well. For example, your understanding of human needs and behaviors would be useful in a parole or probation setting. You could head up teams of parole officers and help them put effective strategies into practice.

In the business world, you might be able to work as a human resources director. You could use your counseling and relational skills to settle workplace disputes and help employees feel heard.

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Having a doctorate might also make you a promising candidate for university positions. In that sort of role, you could teach classes to students in the social work department, and you might also be able to perform research.

Social work research can be influential in government policies. Holding a doctorate could make you a trusted voice in government agencies and political lobbying efforts.

Doctor of Social Work Curriculum & Courses

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Although each school features a different doctoral curriculum, especially if you pursue a niche concentration, your course schedule might include classes similar to those below.

  • Advanced Social Work Concepts: You may explore topics like using technology to enhance social work practices or developing a trauma-informed approach to handling cases.
  • Advocacy and Policymaking: This class will equip you with strategies for using your voice to make life better for others through government policies and programs.
  • Counseling Strategies and Supervision: Not only will you learn more in this course about how to provide transformational therapy, but you’ll also become better equipped to develop newer practitioners into effective counselors.
  • Data for Social Work Decisions: This class will cover quantitative and qualitative data analytics and discuss ways to turn statistical findings into actionable ideas.
  • Evaluating Interventions: You’ll learn how to decide whether your programs have made a difference for the populations you serve and, if so, how to distribute the ideas among other social work professionals.
  • Evidence-Based Practices: Scientific research should be the foundation of interventions used in social work, so this class will teach you how to critically read studies and incorporate their findings into your practice.
  • History of Social Work: Your time in this course will focus on how social work has been carried out over the years, and your findings will help you better understand and evaluate modern practices in this field.
  • Nonprofit Financial Management: Topics in a financial management course may include budgeting, grant writing, and fundraising.
  • Organizational Leadership for Social Work: This course will help you evaluate and develop your own leadership skills as you learn more about administering organizations and supervising employees.
  • Social Work Research: You will study methods for conducting research in the social sciences.

Most DSW programs require between 35 and 50 credit hours of study.

Social Work Licensure

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Being a licensed social worker might qualify you for an increased number of jobs and responsibilities. Some states require anyone practicing as a social worker to hold licensure. Requirements and types of licensure vary among states.

Some states offer introductory licensing for people who have earned a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW). This license may allow you to carry out a variety of social work responsibilities, but you’ll probably need to do so under the supervision of a more advanced practitioner.

In most states, the next level of licensure requires at least a Master of Social Work (MSW) from an accredited school. Some states accept a Doctor of Social Work (DSW) as an alternative prerequisite. These graduate degrees can be easily achieved through accelerated MSW programs or even online MSW programs no GRE.

In addition to earning a graduate degree, you may also need to earn supervised work hours and pass an exam. There may be additional requirements, such as background checks and fingerprinting, as well. Plus, when you apply to your state licensing board, you’ll have to pay a fee.

The title for licensed social workers at the graduate level varies from state to state. In some places, you would be known as a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW). Having this credential may qualify you to provide independent counseling services or supervise other social workers.

Admissions Requirements

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To get into a doctoral program, you’ll need to prove to the admissions committee that you have what it takes to succeed at high-level social work research and leadership. Your application materials may include:

  • Essay: Schools appreciate when applicants have clear goals for their studies and can articulate them in personal statements.
  • Resume: Admissions committees may want to see how much relevant professional experience you have.
  • Transcripts: Most DSW programs require applicants to hold at least a masters degree, so you’ll need to provide proof with transcripts.

Some schools request GRE scores, but waivers may be available for qualified applicants.


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When you enroll in a regionally accredited school, you can rest assured that you’re attending a school that meets commonly accepted educational standards. A regionally accredited degree is well-respected by employers and institutions alike.

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To receive this type of accreditation, universities must be approved by one of the seven regional accrediting agencies in the US. A full list of accreditors is available from the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).

Financial Aid and Scholarships

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As a doctoral student, you may be eligible for federal loans. If you borrow money from the government, you can repay the funds after graduation. State programs may allow you to borrow money as well.

In select cases, there might also be grant money available through federal or state programs. You may need to demonstrate financial need to qualify. To learn more about your eligibility for these government programs, you can submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

In addition, your university or a private organization may be able to provide scholarship or fellowship funds. Receiving this funding may require submitting applications and being selected by an awards committee.

There might also be opportunities for you to work as a research or teaching assistant during your program. In exchange, the college may cover some or all of your tuition.

What Can You Do with a Doctorate in Social Work?

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Online doctorate of social work programs help prepare students for leadership and administrative roles in social work organizations. Social workers often hold positions in counseling centers, healthcare organizations, schools, and substance abuse treatment facilities.

If you are currently a social worker who provides counseling services, you can continue that practice as a DSW. Your DSW could also inform your work in the fields of human resources, criminal justice, or political advocacy.

Are Online Doctoral Programs a Legitimate Option?

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Yes, online graduate programs have become increasingly common, and accredited online programs are a strategic, flexible way to earn a respectable doctoral degree.

You may find online study quite similar to on-campus academic experiences that you’ve had in the past. You may still have opportunities to interact with faculty members, build relationships with fellow students, and complete assignments that stretch and challenge you.

One key difference is that online programs are typically more flexible. You may be able to fit class participation and study sessions around your personal and professional commitments. Plus, you won’t have to relocate to be close to campus.

Advantages of completing social work PhD programs online include:

  • Cost savings: Tuition prices vary from school to school, but you may save money by choosing an online program. Plus, you can avoid either room and board charges or commuting costs.
  • In-the-field opportunities: Online programs often expect that their participants are currently employed in social work settings, and you may be encouraged to try out new skills and ideas as you go.
  • Work-school balance: Being able to complete coursework when it suits your schedule may allow you to hold a full-time job while also earning a doctorate.

You may want to keep in mind that different online programs have various schedule options. Some may require you to come on campus a few times while other programs can be completed 100% online.

How Long Does It Take to Get a Doctorate in Social Work?

You may spend between 3 to 5 years on your Doctor of Social Work online. The overall length of your program will depend on whether you are able to enroll full-time or part-time. Another factor can be the number of classes you are required to take.

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Some schools use a traditional semester calendar with 16 week terms. Others use accelerated scheduling in which each term lasts only around 8 weeks. An 8 week format may help you complete your degree program more quickly.

What Is the Difference Between Human Services vs. Social Work?

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Both human services and social work fall within the greater category of social services, but they involve different approaches to making a difference for others. Human services usually involves more of an administrative role. While human services professionals do interact with clients, their interactions might be limited in scope.

Social work involves helping clients solve problems and connecting them to support services. Social workers often run assessments, plan interventions, and stay in frequent contact with clients.

What Is the Difference Between Social Work vs. Psychology?

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If you want to provide counseling services, you could become a licensed clinical social worker or a psychologist. Even still, there are distinct differences between these two career paths.

Social work addresses helping people find solutions to their problems. Professionals in this field often work with clients who deal with challenging life circumstances and need support to get through them.

Psychology deals with the inner workings of the mind. Psychologists often work with people who have mental health disorders and require psychological assessments.

What Is the Difference between a DSW vs. PhD in Social Work?

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A Doctor of Social Work is considered a professional doctorate. It’s best suited for current practitioners who want to continue working in the field as administrators or therapists.

On the other hand, an online Ph.D. in Social Work program has an academic focus. This research-oriented degree may include a dissertation requirement. A PhD in Social Work online program is typically the best choice for those who want to teach at the university level or conduct scientific research.

Is a Doctorate in Social Work Worth It?

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Yes, a doctorate in social work is worth it for many students. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, community and social service jobs are set to grow at 12% over the next 10 years, much faster than the average for all occupations.

Common DSW careers in this field include healthcare social worker, school social worker, mental health counselor, social service manager, and substance abuse social worker.

With this degree, you might also be able to provide mental health education, oversee human resources departments, or work in the correctional system. There may also be opportunities to teach social work at the college level. It’s also common for a social worker who holds a doctoral degree to earn a higher than average pay.

Universities Offering Online Doctorate in Social Work Degree Programs

Methodology: The following school list is in alphabetical order. To be included, a college or university must be regionally accredited and offer degree programs online or in a hybrid format.

Capella University

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The Doctor of Social Work program at Capella University includes 14 core courses, two residency requirements, and the completion of a doctoral capstone project. Students will study advanced topics involving the most recent academic theories in the social work field and gain practical experience from highly qualified doctoral faculty members.

Capella University is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.

Kutztown University

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Students in Kutztown University’s Doctor of Social Work program will put much of their focus into learning about leadership and education. The program is part-time, adheres to the cohort model of education, and features mostly online instruction and coursework. Students must attend a required, weekend-long, face-to-face course once each session.

Kutztown University is accredited by theMiddle States Commission on Higher Education.

Simmons University

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Simmons University is well-known for housing the nation’s first school of clinical social work. Students applying to the online Doctorate of Social Work program must already hold masters degrees in the field, and two years of professional experience is preferred. Students may enroll in the program either part-time or full-time.

Simmons University is accredited by the New England Commission ofHigher Education.

Tulane University

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Tulane University’s Doctor of Social Work program is a 54 credit program that takes most students about 3 years to complete.

Required courses in the curriculum include social work theory, practice models and methods, social work pedagogy and curriculum development, applied social statistics, leadership in social work, and evidence-informed practice.

Tulane University is accredited by theSouthern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

University of Alabama

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The Doctor of Social Work program at University of Alabama is primarily completed online, but students must come to campus 4 or 5 days each summer during all 3 years of the program. Students can select from the clinical track or the organizational leadership track. Both require 45 total credits.

TheUniversity of Alabamaisaccredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

University of Pennsylvania

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University of Pennsylvania’s Doctorate in Clinical Social Work program is fully online with the exception of two 5 day immersion experiences at the beginning of and in the summer following students’ first years in the program. Students will take courses in trauma-informed social work practice, social work teaching, and applied statistics.

TheUniversity of Pennsylvaniaisaccreditedby the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

University of Southern California

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Students in University of Southern California’s online Doctor of Social Work program develop the skills needed to design effective, real-world solutions to the large-scale social challenges faced by marginalized, vulnerable, and disadvantaged populations.

Most coursework focuses on innovation and leadership, problem definition within social work fields, and advanced management practices.

USC is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.

University of St. Thomas

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According to the school’s own description, the Doctor of Social Work program at University of St Thomas is the first program of its kind that seeks to prepare students to become professors of social work or take on social work-related leadership positions at the university level. Graduates should earn teaching credentials.

TheUniversity of St.Thomasisaccredited by the Higher Learning Commission.

University of Tennessee – Knoxville

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University of Tennessee – Knoxville’s Doctor of Social Work in Clinical Practice and Leadership Program is a 48 credit program that requires students to take two courses (6 credits) each semester for 8 total semesters.

Required courses include trauma focused interventions, cognitive behavioral therapy, neuroscience for clinical practice, and interpersonal psychotherapy.

The University of Tennessee – Knoxville is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

Walden University

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Students in the social work PhD program at Walden University can transfer up to 20 credits from a previously attended program or university towards their degrees. There are eight different concentrations from which students can choose, including social work administration, policy practice, clinical expertise, medical social work, and criminal justice.

Walden is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission.

Getting Your Doctorate in Social Work Online

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To continue developing your skills and knowledge in your social work practice, it may be time to enroll in a Doctor of Social Work program. Studying for an online doctoral degree in social work can help you become the very best social work practitioner you can be.

Holding a doctorate may help you gain high-level leadership positions among social workers in healthcare, criminal justice, school, or community settings. If you’re ready to get started, you may want to take a look at the many accredited options for DSW programs online.

Ready to start your journey?

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Joy Cromwelle

Joy is pursuing her Ph.D. in Public Policy & Foreign Policy and holds a Master of Business Administration in Strategic Management, as well as a Bachelor's in Business Administration. Joy's focus is helping non-traditional students find accelerated degree options and credit for prior learning opportunities.


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