2021 Guide to Online Doctorate in Social Work Programs

A doctoral degree in social work provides advanced social work training in various specialized areas. A DSW program helps students learn about the latest social work research and tools to help grow their careers.

Online Doctor of Social Work programs, such as a doctorate in clinical social work, prepare social workers to add to their knowledge of the social work field and enable students to get a degree without having to relocate for school. This guide explains features of DSW programs to help you decide if one is worth pursuing.

Social Justice-Infused Online DSW. MSW Required.

Simmons University offers an online Doctorate of Social Work (DSW) — MSW required; no GRE required. The program prepares you to become a well-rounded scholar-practitioner through a curriculum focused on three key areas: inclusive leadership, advanced clinical practice, and teaching and education.

  • Complete in less than two years full time or less than three years part time 
  • MSW required; three years post-MSW work experience required
  • No GRE scores required


What Is a Doctor of Social Work DSW Degree?

A doctor of social work degree is a terminal degree in social work, which means it’s the highest level degree in social work available. Typically in DSW programs, students are able to choose a specialization and learn in-depth research, best practices, theories and tools related to that field in social work. Specializations in online social work programs include:

  • Addiction treatment
  • Clinical social work
  • Criminal justice
  • Disaster response
  • Family studies
  • Medical social work
  • Social work administration
  • Social work policy

Students who obtain a Doctor of Social Work may pursue employment in such areas as research, policy, education and leadership positions within their specialization.

To gain entry into a DSW program, applicants must typically hold a master’s in social work degree, though there may be exceptions for related master’s degrees. Some programs may also require that applicants have completed a certain number of years of social work experience to be considered.

Doctorate in Clinical Social Work vs Nonclinical Social Work

Both clinical and nonclinical DSW students may study the latest research and tools in their fields or specializations. Let’s look at clinical vs. nonclinical social work roles.

Clinical social work refers to social work that’s done in therapeutic settings, like private practice, or social work that takes place directly with clients. Social workers in a clinical setting may provide treatment and case management for clients. A DSW in clinical social work may enable social workers to supervise and mentor MSW students in clinical settings. This type of degree also prepares social workers for leadership positions in clinical settings.

A doctorate in nonclinical social work prepares students to work as leaders in macro social work environments. DSW graduates who work in nonclinical social work might pursue leadership positions in social work agencies or administration or work on social work policy change or research. DSW graduates may also pursue careers in social work education.

Clinical Social Worker vs. Psychologist

Psychologists and clinical social workers may both provide psychotherapy services, according to the American Psychological Association (APA), but their work and education differs. Psychologists must have a doctoral degree in a related field, such as psychology, education or philosophy. Psychologists learn advanced research in the science of human behavior. In some states, psychologists may prescribe psychiatric medication with advanced training.

Social workers in clinical settings provide therapeutic services to help people navigate problems in their everyday lives. Clinical social workers have an education focused on how social circumstances affect their clients. They may also provide community resources to help their clients.

Clinical Social Worker vs. Counseling

Mental health counselors work with individuals and groups to promote optimal emotional and mental health.  Counselors focus on prevention and may specialize in issues such as addiction and substance abuse, family issues, stress management and self-esteem. Counselors may pursue education in a specialization in counseling, such as marital counseling or addiction counseling.

Clinical social workers may also provide similar therapeutic services like counselors, but they may focus on populations that are experiencing difficult circumstances. They also connect clients with community resources.

What’s the Difference Between a PhD in Social Work and a DSW?

A PhD in social work is also a doctoral degree specializing in social work, so you might be wondering about the differences between a PhD vs doctorate in social work. While both are advanced social work degrees, a PhD tends to focus on preparing students for research in social work.

While some DSW graduates may go on to pursue social work research, a DSW program focuses on engaging students in areas like social work policy, leadership and administration. DSW programs may aim to teach social worker professionals how to advance their careers as social work leaders. A PhD in social work program aims to expand social work knowledge and prepares graduates for research but doesn’t focus as much on direct social work practice as a DSW program does.

Why Earn a Doctorate in Social Work Online?

If you’re employed in social work and want to advance your career, a Doctor of Social Work online program may help. Some positions in social work leadership may require a doctoral degree. You may be able to apply the knowledge and tools you gain from a DSW program in more advanced positions.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the 2019 unemployment rate for those with a doctoral degree was 1.1%, compared to 2% for those with a master’s degree. The 2019 median weekly earnings for those with a doctoral degree were $386 higher than the earnings for those with a master’s degree, equating to an increase of about $20,072 a year.

When you’re comparing online versus in-person social work programs, you may wish to consider the advantages of online programs:

  • Convenience: In an online program, you can learn wherever you are in the world, on any connected desktop, tablet or mobile device.
  • Flexibility: Online students can learn on a schedule that works for them. This is beneficial for students with work and family responsibilities.
  • School choice: Online students don’t have to uproot their lives to attend class on the campus of their desired school.

What to Expect from a Doctorate Degree in Social Work Program

In a DSW program, students may learn the theory and practice of social work. A DSW program may incorporate high-level learning that aims to inspire doctoral students to think methodically and critically about social work theory, practice, research and pedagogy.

DSW coursework may include courses on:

  • Neurobiology
  • Family and Couples Therapy
  • Research Methods
  • Clinical Theory

Additionally, DSW students may be required to research and defend a dissertation before they receive their degree.

Online DSW programs have many similarities and some key differences to on-campus programs. Online DSW programs may have the same instructors and curriculum as on-campus programs.

The main difference is the delivery method. Online doctorate in social work classes may be uploaded for students to access on their own schedules. Exams may also be on a flexible schedule. Instead of having to be in a physical classroom at a certain time, online students may access lectures and exams and upload coursework when they want, as long as they meet the deadline.

Teachers in online doctorate in social work programs may be available to students via email or virtual meeting. Online programs may also give students the opportunity to connect with classmates all over the world.

After you’ve transitioned to a social work career, you might want to continue your education to advance your career. An online DSW program provides flexibility and convenience so you can continue living wherever you are and learn on a schedule that works for you.

Online Social Work Doctorate Degree Program Admissions

Schools may differ in their standards for online DSW program applicants. Typically, you can expect the following requirements for Doctor of Social Work program admissions.

  • Social work education: Can you get a doctorate without a master’s in social work? Most DSW programs do require an MSW. In some cases, you may be able to enter a DSW program with a related master’s degree (in an area like public health or nursing, for example).
  • Social work experience: Typically, DSW candidates must have at least two years of post-master’s social work experience. Applicants may also be required to submit a current resume.
  • Exam: Some programs may require completing a GRE exam to be admitted. Some may look at past GRE scores.
  • Minimum GPA: DSW programs may require a minimum GPA—some as high as a 3.0 on the 4.0 scale. Official transcripts are typically required for DSW admissions.
  • Letters of recommendation: These may come from past social work instructors or social work supervisors. Writing samples: DSW applicants may be asked to submit writing samples based on a prompt and/or a personal essay.
  • Writing samples: DSW applicants may be asked to submit writing samples based on a prompt and/or a personal essay.

Schools may also require that applicants who progress in the admissions process complete an in-person or virtual interview with the admissions team.

Online Doctoral Programs in Social Work That Don’t Require the GRE

There are many DSW programs with no GRE required. Typically, these programs require that applicants have an MSW or related master’s degree and a certain amount of post-master’s experience in order to qualify. Other application requirements may include a resume, letters of recommendation and writing samples.

Online DSW Program Curriculum

Each school’s DSW program curriculum will vary and may differ depending on the specialization a student chooses. Generally, DSW programs cover subjects like social work research, clinical theory and statistics.

DSW programs also typically include a dissertation or capstone project, where students present findings for a project that encompasses their DSW studies. DSW courses may cover subjects like:

  • Clinical practice
  • Data-driven decision making
  • Managing and leading complex social work systems
  • Social justice and diversity
  • Social work executive leadership
  • Social work policy
  • Strategic social work innovation
  • Social work ethics
  • Social work literature and research

In addition to core courses, specialization courses, research courses, elective courses and completion of a dissertation or capstone project, some online DSW programs may require an in-person residence. These may take place over a weekend or two and present students with the opportunity to collaborate with instructors and students face to face.

Clinical Experience for Doctor of Social Work

Generally, DSW programs in clinical social work will require clinical experience of around at least two years in order to be considered as an applicant. To work as a clinical social worker, you’ll need to become licensed as a licensed clinical social worker, or an LCSW (PDF, 183 KB) . Licensure will require obtaining an MSW degree, completing supervised clinical social work hours and passing social worker licensure exams for the state where you want to work.

For students who wish to continue their education after receiving LCSW licensure, a DSW is an option. DSW programs, unlike MSW programs, don’t typically include supervised practice as part of the curriculum. The clinical training that’s required to enter the program will be completed prior to the DSW program.

Doctorate in Social Work License Requirements

Licensure is available for clinical social work and generalist social work. If you want to become licensed in social work, you’ll need to earn an MSW, complete required coursework and complete the minimum required hours of supervised training. You’ll also have to meet state requirements, which typically include passing the relevant Association of Social Work Boards exam, either in Clinical or Advanced Generalist social work.

You can use helpful social worker resources like professional development, blogs and books to prepare for licensure and DSW programs.

What Can You Do With a Doctorate in Social Work?

There may be various of Doctor of Social Work jobs available. Some licensed social workers may get their DSW to stay current on the latest research, theories and trends affecting their area of practice so they’re more capable to handle emerging cases as social workers. Other people may pursue a DSW to obtain leadership positions in social work administration that require a DSW in order to be considered.

Social work doctorate careers may include:

  • Social work educator
  • Social work manager or executive
  • Social work policy professional
  • Social work researcher

Social workers who have an MSW and the required amount of experience may also pursue licensure and become an LCSW.

There are job opportunities for social workers in a variety of fields, including healthcare, education, addiction treatment facilities, aging care, child welfare and mental health. DSW holders may pursue leadership positions (PDF, 1.7 MB) in areas like these.

Online Social Work Doctoral Programs FAQ

Do you want to learn more about online DSW programs? Check out these frequently asked questions as you’re navigating your educational future in social work.

Should you earn an MSW or DSW?

An MSW is a requirement to become a clinical social worker. For career advancement, a DSW may help you qualify for certain positions including leadership roles. It may also help you increase your earnings in social work, as the BLS reports.

How long does it take to complete a Doctor of Social Work?

Generally, expect a DSW program to take 23 to 36 months to complete, depending on if the program is accelerated or a standard program.

How much can you make with a doctorate in social work?

The 2019 median pay for social workers was $50,470 per year, according to the BLS. You may be able to earn a higher doctor of social work salary, since that median accounts for social workers with all educational levels. The BLS reports the highest 10% of social workers earned more than $82,540.

Is there demand for social workers with doctoral degrees?

Social workers are in high demand. Employment of social workers is expected to grow 13% between 2019 and 2029, which the BLS reports as much faster than average. With a rising demand for social workers, there may also be an increase in demand for doctorate in social work degree holders to lead them.

Last Updated November 2020