2021 Best Online Doctorate in Social Work Online [PhD & DSW]

Home » 2021 Best Online Doctorate in Social Work Online [PhD & DSW]

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If you’re a social worker who wants to enhance your clinical skills, leadership capacity, or policy expertise, then earning a doctorate in social work online could be a strategic next step.

Doctorate in Social Work Online

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Doctoral programs enable you to work closely with skilled faculty, network with other experienced professionals, and develop advanced expertise in your chosen area of concentration.

Doctorate in Social Work Online Programs

Doctorate in Social Work Online Programs

In a Doctor of Social Work (DSW) online program, you can study under expert faculty and exchange ideas with a diverse cohort of engaged and qualified peers.

Pursuing a doctorate of social work could be an opportunity to develop advanced knowledge in a specialized area of social work policy. You can also study the most up-to-date best practices in the field, relevant to specific areas of concentration.

A doctorate can also enhance your research capabilities. You can develop advanced competencies in research practices and field study designs.

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A DSW can cultivate your skills in a specialized area of study. For example, you might choose to focus your studies on:

  • Organizational leadership
  • Clinical social work
  • Social work administration
  • Case management
  • Policy reform
  • Academia or research

Getting a doctoral degree in social work can open doors to new opportunities, expand your professional network, and help you develop expertise in a specialized area of the field.

Common Social Work Doctorate Concentrations

Common Social Work Doctorate Concentrations

Most DSW programs provide doctoral candidates with extensive curriculum offerings and training in one or more concentrations. Common social work concentrations include:

  • Community Outreach and Services. Social workers with this concentration often work in community education and outreach roles. Those with advanced degrees might supervise other social workers, take on case management responsibilities, or help manage social and community service organizations.
  • Family and Youth Services. This concentration focuses on providing targeted services to families and youth. These services can include counseling and therapy, advocating for youth, and other behavioral or rehabilitation support roles.
  • School Social Worker. School social workers may work for a school district or for social service providers. They can help schools provide specialized support services for students, including relevant family support services.
  • Social Work Administration. This concentration helps equip students with practical and strategic skills for effectively administering, managing, leading, and developing social work agencies, programs, and organizations. This can include policy compliance, personnel supervision, and financial management.
  • Social Work Policy and Advocacy. Leaders in this aspect of social work can develop more advanced research and policy analysis skills. They can help organizations and agencies implement policies, or they can advocate for policy reform.

Many social work doctorate programs seek applicants whose aspirations align with their own areas of faculty expertise and research. So, you may want to look for programs that offer strong curriculum and faculty support in the concentrations that most interest you.

Social Work Careers & Salaries

Social Work Careers & Salaries

Getting a doctorate in social work can help professionals learn advanced skills and practices. Doctoral studies can enable them to become more effective social workers, case managers, clinicians, or policy advocates, depending on their specialization.

Getting a doctoral degree could also help you qualify for more challenging, meaningful, and lucrative job roles.

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According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, many careers depend on people with the advanced knowledge and skills you can develop while earning an online doctorate in social work.

Careers Annual Median Salaries
Top Executives $107,680
Sociologists $86,110
Postsecondary Social Work Teachers $71,570
Social and Community Service Managers $69,600
Social Workers, All Other $64,210
Survey Researchers $59,870
Healthcare Social Workers $57,630
Health Education Specialists $56,500
Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers $48,720
Child, Family, and School Social Workers $48,430

Your career path will likely depend on your own area of concentration. Following a PhD track in social work typically involves more theoretical and academic research. This degree path can help professionals develop deep theoretical expertise and prepare for consulting work, policy work, publishing, or jobs in social research and academia.

A Doctor of Social Work (DSW) is a more practice-based degree intended for active professionals in the field.

Social Work Curriculum & Courses

Social Work Curriculum & Courses

Doctor of Social Work curriculum and research designs will vary by school and program. To a certain degree, they will also be tailored to align with specific areas of academic and professional specialization.

The following list highlights the kinds of courses you may encounter:

  • Social Work with Individuals, Families, and Groups: You’ll learn about and critique the most up-to-date policies and practices related to individual, family, and small group counseling interventions.
  • Evidence-Based Practices and Policies: You’ll learn how to research and monitor objective data from a range of academic and government resources. You’ll also learn how to use data for informed policy decisions and for creating or reviewing guidelines for practice.
  • Community Outreach and Education: This course helps you develop community outreach goals and programming, examining methods and practices for effective, change-oriented, and advocacy-driven social work.
  • Social Justice and Culturally Competent Practice: You’ll explore and discuss the social dynamics and ethical dimensions of social work practices in culturally and socially diverse communities.
  • Social Policy Analysis and Advocacy: This course provides in-depth training in public policy analysis, with applications for organizing support for social policy development and reform.
  • Organizational Management and Development: You’ll learn methods and best practices for effective organizational management, and you can learn skills that help you foster effective teamwork and a positive work environment.
  • Leadership, Policy, and Ethics: This course examines effective organizational governance practices in the context of policy-driven settings. It explores a range of leadership, ethical, and decision-making issues and challenges.
  • Case Management: You’ll explore advanced topics in effective case management methods and practices, and you’ll apply what you learn in simulated case-management challenges.
  • Research Design and Methods: This course covers essential concepts and methods related to evaluating and designing research studies in the social work sector.
  • Advanced Field Work: You’ll have an opportunity to participate in or to help design and conduct supervised field work.

In a doctoral program, many courses might be offered in a more flexible seminar format. Faculty-led curriculum designs may reflect current issues and cohort interests and be infused by students’ own outside research.

How to Choose an Online Social Work Doctoral Program

Online Social Work Doctoral Program

There are many schools that offer online doctorate in social work programs, but course offerings and program features can vary significantly. So, here are a few important considerations to keep in mind when comparing programs:

  • Areas of concentration. Doctoral programs are usually designed to help you acquire deeper expertise in a specific concentration, so it’s strategic to look for programs with faculty and curriculum offerings that align with your interests.
  • Learning formats. Online programs are often designed either to offer more flexible and independent asynchronous learning options or to provide students with more structured cohort-based learning experiences. It’s beneficial to consider your own scheduling needs as well as the kind of academic and intellectual learning experiences you’re wanting in your doctoral program.
  • Professional orientation and capstone requirements. Doctor of Social Work (DSW) and Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) programs tend to attract different types of students. DSW programs tend to be more practice-based with capstone project requirements, while PhD programs are more theory-based and typically have dissertation requirements.

As you compare programs, you may discover other factors that are important to you as well, such as tuition costs and financial aid opportunities.

Admissions Requirements

Doctorate in Social Work admissions

Actual requirements will vary by school and program, but here are some typical admissions criteria for DSW online programs:

  • GRE or GMAT scores (only some schools require them)
  • Master’s degree in social work or related field
  • Relevant work experience or internships
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Statement of purpose

In addition, doctoral faculty are typically interested in identifying candidates who can communicate passionately about their vocational aspirations. They generally look for applicants who have demonstrated an ability to engage in self-directed research, advanced academic study, and in-depth critical thinking.

Accreditation

Doctorate in Social Work financial aid

It can be strategic to only apply to fully accredited schools and programs. Regional accreditation is the gold standard for schools, and social work programs can hold CSWE accreditation.

You can feel confident that a CSWE accredited DSW program will consist of high quality instruction, with learning objectives well aligned to prospective employers’ expectations. Accreditation can also be a precondition for licensing and for some forms of financial aid.

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Organizations such as the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) can help you learn more about accreditation and find accredited schools.    

Social Work Licensure and Certifications

Social Work Licensure and Certifications

Licensing requirements will vary from state to state, but most states require candidates to hold at least a Master of Social Work (MSW).

Licensing requirements may also be different for community health educators than they are for school counselors, family therapists, and clinical social workers. Some state licensing boards also require that your qualifying degree be earned from a CSWE accredited program.

Other requirements can include passing a state licensing exam and completing a supervised field study or internship.

Financial Aid and Scholarships

Doctorate in Social Work financial aid

Financial aid can help qualifying students cover tuition and other education-related costs, allowing them to focus on their doctoral studies.

Financial aid options can include federal or state education grants, scholarships, employer-sponsored programs, and student loans. Some universities also offer work opportunities to doctoral students to help them cover the cost of their degree.

Terms for loans and other offers can vary, so it’s beneficial to review all financial aid offers carefully. If you plan to apply for grants or need-based scholarships, a good first step could be filling out and submitting the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Social Work Professional Organizations

Social Work Professional Organizations

If you’re planning to get an advanced degree in social work and you’re not already affiliated with one or more professional organizations, this could be a strategic time to take that step. Here are some common social work professional organizations:

As a member of a professional organization, you can hear about professional development opportunities and receive workplace news and information. You can also discover opportunities for growing your professional network.

What Is a DSW Degree?

What Is a DSW Degree

A Doctor of Social Work (DSW) degree is a professional doctorate in the field of social work. DSW programs are often intended for social work professionals who are seeking practical, advanced knowledge that can be utilized in the field.

While a DSW and a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Social Work are both doctoral degrees, a DSW program may involve the completion of a capstone project in lieu of a dissertation. A PhD, on the other hand, has more emphasis on academic research and theoretical inquiry, often involving a dissertation requirement.

Social workers who apply to a DSW program typically have substantive professional experience and are seeking opportunities for professional growth and career advancement.

Is a DSW Called Doctor?

DSW professional doctorate degree

Yes, since a DSW is a professional doctorate degree, people who earn the degree are formally referred to as “doctor.” This is a purely academic title, though, and has no relation to medical training.

In fact, anyone who earns a professional doctorate or a PhD in their chosen field is, formally speaking, a doctor, but with different training and expertise from a medical doctor (MD).

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In academic settings, students may refer to an instructor as doctor if they have a doctorate, or they may simply use the title professor instead.

What Can I Do with a Doctorate in Social Work?

doctorate degree in social work

What you can do with a doctorate degree in social work will depend on the licensing you obtain, your work experience, and your areas of specialization, among other factors.

Many professionals with doctorates are seeking advancement or professional development to qualify for more senior roles. This may include work in policy reform, survey researching, case management, or organizational leadership.

Professionals with DSW degrees often manage and supervise other social workers, work as senior case managers or clinicians, or take leadership roles as social and community service managers. Doctoral study can also help you qualify to work in academia.

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

Ph.D. vs. Doctorate in Social Work

For many professionals, completing a doctoral program takes between 3 to 5 years of full-time study. Doctoral programs may involve extensive field study activities, research efforts, or dissertation writing, so the time it takes to finish can vary based on schools and programs.

While a PhD program typically requires a dissertation, many online DSW programs offer a more practical capstone project as an alternative. If no dissertation is required, a doctorate can generally be completed in 3 years with full-time study. Working professionals who want part-time study options may take longer to finish their degree.

What’s the Difference Between a Ph.D. vs. Doctorate in Social Work?

A doctoral degree is the most advanced academic degree you can earn, but there are two kinds: a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Social Work and a Doctor of Social Work (DSW).

Doctor of Social Work PhD in Social Work
  • Emphasizes training in applied social work, leadership and administration, or clinical methods
  • Enables professionals to advance their skills and qualifications in social work
  • May offer a practical capstone project in lieu of a dissertation
  • Has more of an academic and theoretical focus
  • Prepares professionals for careers in academia and research
  • Typically requires a dissertation and more intensive academic research

A DSW is a more practical, work-oriented degree program that tends to appeal to professionals seeking ongoing professional advancement. A PhD program tends to appeal to those with more theoretical interests who want to work in academia.

What’s the Difference Between a Doctorate in Human Services vs. Social Work?

doctorate in Human Services vs. Social Work

Social workers focus their work on community outreach and education, including providing clinical therapy and counseling services. Human services degree programs focus more on the administration of human services agencies.

  • Doctor of Social Work: A DSW program provides advanced training in applied social work skills. Social workers can provide services both independent of and in conjunction with establish public human services agencies.
  • Doctor of Human Services: A DHS program provides advanced training in the administration of public human service agencies. Students can develop advanced knowledge of policies, regulations, and laws related to human services agencies.

Social workers may provide a wide range of services and tend to target specific community needs. On the other hand, human services professionals are trained to administer established human services agencies and effectively monitor and comply with agency policies and regulations.

Is a Doctorate Degree in Social Work Worth It?

doctorate degree in social work professional

Yes, a doctorate degree in social work is worth it for many professionals. Most social workers are passionate about improving the quality of life in local communities.

Social workers can actively respond to community needs and support families and individuals struggling to overcome behavioral, social, educational, or economic challenges. Social workers can also act as frontline advocates for social justice policy reforms or for disaster response and relief efforts.

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Depending on their concentrations, advanced professionals in this field can work as trained clinicians, community educators or organizers, community service managers, social work trainers, and senior case managers.

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.

Barry University

Barry University

Barry University offers a part-time, online Doctorate in Social Work program. The online program is designed to give students individualized attention and support, and academic standards are the same as for students in traditional classrooms.

The program’s faculty members have experience in both research and clinical practice. The courses they lead are designed to develop students’ knowledge of trauma-informed clinical practices and organizational management.

Barry University is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

Capella University

Capella University

At Capella University, you can earn a Doctor of Social Work either online or in person. The program includes 14 core courses, two residencies, and a capstone project. The program is intended to help students develop real-world leadership skills to prepare them for management roles in the field of social work.

Capella University is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.

Case Western Reserve University

Case Western Reserve University

Case Western Reserve University offers part-time and full-time PhD programs in social welfare. Students can apply without taking the GRE. This is an on-campus program that requires completion of 37 credit hours and a dissertation. Full-time students typically take courses for 2 years, and part-time students typically take courses for 3 years.

Case Western Reserve University is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.

Kutztown University

Kutztown University

Kutztown University’s Doctor of Social Work program emphasizes both leadership and education. This is an online, part-time program designed with working professionals in mind. It uses a cohort model, with students completing two courses per session. Students get one weekend face-to-face learning component each session.

Kutztown University is accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

Millersville University

Millersville University

Millersville University’s Doctor of Social Work program is primarily online but includes two on-campus residencies.

The curriculum covers leadership, teaching, theory, and research to help students complete a dissertation on a topic of their choice. Students also get to take electives to learn about disciplines outside of social work, including nursing, education, business, and psychology.

Millersville University is accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

Our Lady of the Lake University

Our Lady of the Lake University

The Worden School of Social Service at Our Lady of the Lake University is now offering an online program for a PhD in Social Work. Full-time students can typically complete the program in as little as 4 years. Students must complete a one-week residency each summer they are in the program.

Our Lady of the Lake University is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

Sacred Heart University

Sacred Heart University

Sacred Heart University’s PhD in Social Work program is a part-time, online program that features a one-week summer immersion on campus. The program is designed with working professionals in mind.

Students are expected to take courses year round, allowing them the opportunity to earn six credit hours in each semester. Semesters are 14 weeks long. Coursework covers social and racial justice, research methods, and pedagogy.

Sacred Heart University is accredited by the New England Commission of Higher Education.

Simmons University

Simmons University

Simmons University offers full-time and part-time online programs for a Doctorate in Social Work. Full-time students can potentially graduate in less than 2 years. The program requires students to take live, online classes with a cohort. It offers three areas of focus: Leadership, Advanced Clinical Practice, and Leadership and Education.

Simmons University is accredited by the New England Commission of Higher Education.

Southern Connecticut State University

Southern Connecticut State University

Southern Connecticut State University offers a part-time, online Doctorate of Social Work that is designed to allow students to maintain employment while earning their degrees.

The program follows a cohort model and typically takes 3 years to complete. Students are required to complete a five-day, in-person residency each summer. The program also includes a capstone project that is completed across the span of 4 semesters.

Southern Connecticut State University is accredited by the New England Commission of Higher Education.

Tulane University

Tulane University

The Tulane University School of Social Work offers online and on-campus options for students wishing to earn a Doctorate of Social Work. In the online program, students take part in monthly live sessions via synchronous classes. The program can typically be completed in three years while maintaining employment.

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

University at Buffalo

University at Buffalo

The online Doctor of Social Work program at the University at Buffalo emphasizes a trauma-informed and human rights perspective.

This part-time program for experienced social workers requires the completion of 39 credit hours to graduate. Coursework includes both synchronous and asynchronous components. Aside from an on-campus orientation session, the program can be completed entirely online.

The University at Buffalo is accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

University of Alabama

University of Alabama

The University of Alabama offers a primarily online Doctor of Social Work program. It requires the completion of 45 credit hours and can potentially be completed in as little as three years of study. The program is intended to prepare students for careers in specialized practice, public and nonprofit agency management, and teaching.

The University of Alabama is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

University of Kentucky

University of Kentucky

At the University of Kentucky, students can earn a Doctor of Social Work entirely online. Coursework includes both synchronous and asynchronous components.

Students can choose a concentration in Advanced Clinical Practice, Advanced Leadership, or Military Behavioral Health. The program can typically be completed in two years and includes a capstone project.

The University of Kentucky is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

University of Louisville

University of Louisville

The University of Louisville’s online Doctor of Social Work program includes both a teaching practicum and a clinical practicum. The program can potentially be completed in as little as 3 years, or 8 semesters. It requires the completion of 44 credit hours, including 6 credit hours of thesis/capstone coursework.

The University of Louisville is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

University of Pennsylvania

University of Pennsylvania

The University of Pennsylvania offers an online Doctorate in Clinical Social Work program intended for working professionals.

The program usually takes 3 years to complete, and students can complete their coursework and dissertation simultaneously. The program includes two on-campus residencies that are each 5 days long. Synchronous online classes meet twice a week.

The University of Pennsylvania is accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

University of Southern California

University of Southern California

The University of Southern California offers a fully online Doctorate of Social Work program.

It includes 42 credit hours of coursework that covers problem definition, innovative design, and executive leadership. There is a standard track that can typically be completed in nine semesters, and an accelerated track that can typically be completed in seven semesters.

The University of Southern California is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, the Senior College and University Commission.

University of St. Thomas

University of St Thomas

The University of St. Thomas offers an online program for a Doctor of Social Work. The program includes an on-campus residency that is 2 weeks long but is otherwise fully online. It requires 45 credit hours of coursework to be completed with a cohort across three years. Students complete one course at a time in sessions that are 8 weeks long.

The University of St. Thomas is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.

University of Tennessee – Knoxville

University of Tennessee Knoxville

The University of Tennessee—Knoxville College of Social Work offers a Doctor of Social Work in Clinical Practice and Leadership.

Coursework is fully online for the convenience of working professionals and includes both synchronous and asynchronous components. The program emphasizes evidence-based practice, clinical leadership, and applied research.

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

Walden University

Walden University

Walden University’s online PhD in Social Work program offers three different specializations.

Options are Advanced Clinical Practice and Leadership, Impact Leadership in Social Work Administration, and Social Work Education. Students can begin focusing on their dissertation topic as soon as they start their first course. Up to 20 credit hours of qualifying coursework from another university can be transferred into the program.

Walden is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission.

Wayne State University

Wayne State University

Wayne State University’s Doctorate in Social Work program emphasizes research methods and social work theory. Full-time students can usually complete the program in four years, and part-time students can usually do so in five years. Wayne State’s School of Social Work also offers dual-title and interdisciplinary PhD options.

Wayne State University is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.

Getting Your Doctoral Degree in Social Work Online

Doctoral Degree in Social Work Online

Getting a Doctor of Social Work degree online could enable you to deepen your skills as a social worker or to gain the qualifications necessary to lead and develop community service programs and organizations.

There are a number of online social work degree programs offered by accredited universities, so you may be able to find ones that fit your specific learning needs as well as your professional goals.

Why not start exploring programs today?

Ready to start your journey?
Keith Nickolaus
WRITTEN BY
Keith Nickolaus
Keith has a Ph.D. and Master's in Comparative Literature from the University of California - Berkeley and a Bachelor's in Literature from the University of California - Santa Cruz. A retired educator, Keith lives in Berkeley and researches and writes about trends in innovation, policy, and education leadership.