Most Affordable Online Doctorate in Social Work Programs 2020

| Staff

Most Affordable Online Doctorate in Social Work Programs 2020
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Social workers connect people to social services and resources in their communities. These professionals typically serve specific populations, seeking to effect larger social change. For example, mental health social workers advocate for people living with mental health challenges, and policy advocates develop strategies to address systemic, community-wide problems.

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People choose careers in social work for a variety of reasons, often motivated by a passion for helping others. Some professionals might have pursued careers in social work after knowing good social workers themselves. Years of volunteering may have motivated others to become social workers.

Social workers with a master’s degree can pursue a doctorate to advance in research or clinical practice or to teach in higher education. Doctoral programs in social work generally take three years to complete. This allows practicing social workers to earn the degree without career disruption.

This page lists some of the most affordable doctorate in social work online programs. Prospective students can kick-start their school search by reviewing career paths for social workers, common social work courses, and admission requirements.

Advertisement is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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Question Answer
What is social work? Social work, a practice-based profession, helps people improve their quality of life and seeks to effect large-scale, social change.
Is a master’s degree necessary to apply for a doctoral program in social work? Yes, applicants typically need to hold a master’s degree to apply for a doctoral program in social work. Some programs require a master’s in social work (MSW), while others recognize master’s degrees in related fields.
Do you need a license to be a social worker? Some states require professional social workers to hold licensure, while others do not. However, most employers prefer licensed candidates.
Do you need a doctoral degree to be a social worker? No, social workers can obtain licensure with a bachelor’s in social work or an MSW. A doctoral degree in social work increases opportunities to pursue advanced positions.

Most Affordable Online Ph.D. in Social Work Programs 2020

Our list ranks the most affordable online Ph.D. in social work programs to help prospective students identify the best programs for their career goals. This list includes programs that offer a variety of courses and online teaching methods. This allows practicing social workers to complete the doctorate without disrupting their careers.

  • The University of Tennessee-Knoxville

    Knoxville, TN



    One of Tennessee’s premier research universities, UT Knoxville offers an accelerated online doctor of social work (DSW) in clinical practice and leadership. The program allows practicing clinical social workers to complete a doctorate without disrupting their careers.

    Students enrolled in UT Knoxville’s online DSW program complete six credits each semester over eight consecutive semesters. Students complete two required capstone courses. Online courses use both synchronous and asynchronous models to teach students about evidence-based practice, clinical research, and leadership. Students must also travel to campus each summer for a period of intensive learning and networking with peers and professors.

    Applicants must hold a master’s degree in social work accredited by the Council on Social Work Education. They also need three years of post-MSW/MSSW clinical experience to enroll in UT Knoxville’s DSW program. The online DSW program costs the same as its on-campus counterpart, plus a distance education fee. Students in southeastern states can apply for in-state tuition through the Southern Regional Education Board’s Academic Common Market.

  • University of Pennsylvania

    Philadelphia, PA



    An Ivy League school located in Philadelphia, Penn offers an online doctor of social work (DSW) to prepare working professionals for teaching and leadership positions in research, clinical theory, and trauma-informed practices.

    Penn’s online DSW program consists of occasional on-campus immersion experiences and synchronous online courses two evenings each week for two hours. This allows professionals to complete the degree without career disruption. Students complete their coursework and dissertations in three years with support from their dissertation chair. Penn’s program also allows local students to utilize on-campus resources, such as library access and in-person meetings with faculty.

    All applicants must hold a master’s in social work and at least three years of post-MSW experience. The program does not require entrance exams for admission. To complete Penn’s DSW program, students need a desktop computer or laptop with access to a video camera, microphone, and the internet.

  • University of St. Thomas

    Saint Paul, MN



    A private university located in St. Paul, Minnesota, UST offers an online doctor of social work program (DSW) that specializes in teaching and leadership positions in social work education.

    UST’s 45-credit online DSW program prepares students to teach in social work programs at the postsecondary level. Online courses engage students with synchronous and asynchronous instruction over three years. Students advance through the program in cohorts and must write banded dissertations to complete the degree. UST’s program also offers the opportunity for students to meet on campus for a two-week residency each summer.

    Eligible applicants must hold a master's in social work (MSW) and two years of post-MSW professional social work experience. UST’s DSW program prefers applicants with previous adjunct or full-time higher education teaching experience. The program accepts up to 15 applicants from across the country to join each year's new cohort of students.

  • Baylor University

    Waco, TX



    Based in Waco, Texas, Baylor offers an online Ph.D. in social work with a distinctive focus on religion and faith in social work practice.

    Baylor’s online social work doctoral program prepares students for positions in higher education, leadership in government and private agencies, and academic research. Each student must attend online courses taught through high-quality video conferencing technology. They must also undergo a five-day on-campus orientation before the summer session begins. Students earning a Ph.D. in social work from Baylor need to complete comprehensive exams and dissertations to obtain the degree.

    The program admits up to seven students every other year and awards financial aid packages based on application strength. A master's in social work is not required for admission, but it is strongly preferred. Applicants must also complete the Garland School of Social Work Required Statistics Exam with a grade of B or higher to qualify for admission.

  • University of Southern California

    Los Angeles, CA



    An elite research university based in Los Angeles, California, USC offers an online doctor of social work (DSW) that prepares students to address large-scale issues through innovation and advanced management practice.

    USC’s online DSW program offers both standard and accelerated tracks. USC professors design their classes to promote small-group discussions and use online collaborative tools, such as breakout rooms, document-sharing, and live chat. Students earning a DSW from USC must complete 42 credits and a capstone requirement to obtain the degree.

    Eligible applicants hold a master's in social work or a related field, such as an MPA, MPH, or MBA. Applicants must also possess a minimum of five years’ post-master’s experience and exceptional professional and academic achievement. USC’s online DSW program offers year-round start dates and admits a limited number of students each year.

Types of Social Workers

Social workers provide services to individuals, families, and communities within public and private agencies, schools, or hospitals. This list offers potential career paths for social workers.

Child and Family Social Workers: Child and family social workers provide direct services to families and children in their communities. While child and family social workers work in a primary location, they often travel to clients’ homes to assess their well-being. These professionals advocate for families’ self-sufficiency and care of children. Social workers often assist in abuse and neglect investigations. They also work to place at-risk children in safe homes through foster care and adoption. Overall, families in need look to social workers for available resources and services.

School Social Workers: School social workers offer direct services to students, families, and teachers in an academic setting. Schools collaborate with social workers to ensure the academic success of each student. Their work includes intervention strategies, crisis management, and support services. Social workers also address emotional, developmental, and educational needs. Overall, school social workers advocate for students.

Healthcare Social Workers: Healthcare social workers provide people with the emotional, financial, and social support needed to cope with an illness. While healthcare social workers primarily work in hospitals, some work in outpatient healthcare settings or rehabilitation facilities. People living with a chronic, acute, or terminal illness look to social workers for resources and services. Healthcare social workers also offer support to caregivers in crisis or bereavement.

Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers: Mental health and substance abuse social workers offer support and services to people with mental health challenges and/or addiction. These professionals diagnose mental health disorders, implement plans to meet goals, and connect clients with local resources. Hospitals, residential treatment facilities, and social service organizations all hire social workers to provide people with psychotherapy. They also offer counseling to help people cope with mental health challenges and/or addiction. These social workers also collaborate with treatment teams.

What Do Social Workers Do?

Social workers help vulnerable populations cope with life’s challenges. They also empower their clients toward self-sufficiency. Many social workers provide direct services to a particular population. Others pursue a private practice, teach, or conduct research.

Day-to-day tasks for social workers vary among specializations in a variety of contexts. For social workers who work directly with individual clients, tasks include counseling, case management services, and crisis intervention. These professionals often work in hospitals, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations.

Many social workers focus on communities and governmental organizations. Their tasks include analyzing policies, community organization, and proposing legislation. These professionals typically work with policymakers, media, and legislators to end injustices in their communities. Some may also work as faculty or conduct research at universities.

Communities rely on social workers to help and advocate for people in need. In caring for vulnerable populations, many social workers encounter challenges in their work. Social workers often experience unpredictable schedules, emotional fatigue, and heavy workloads. Many social workers create a self-care plan to alleviate the stress of their career.

Salary Outlook for Social Workers

Salaries for careers in social work vary depending on geographic location, experience, and industry. According to the Bureau Labor of Statistics (BLS), social workers earned a median annual salary of $50,470 as of 2019. The BLS also projects jobs in this field to grow at a faster rate than most other occupations.

A doctorate in social work often leads to higher-paying job opportunities. For example, the BLS reports that social workers working for their local government earned a median annual salary of $55,500 in 2019, while those working in individual and families services earned $43,030.

Bottom 10% Median Annual Salary Top 10%
$31,790 $50,470 $82,540

Source: BLS

Licensure for Social Work

Many states require social workers to hold licensure before providing social work services or using the “social worker” title. Licensing in social work helps identify and maintain standards of safe and professional practice in each state.

Licensing requirements for social workers vary on a state-by-state basis. Some states allow experienced social workers with an associate degree to obtain their license. Others require at least a master’s degree.

In many states, social workers interested in a career in licensed clinical social work must complete 2-4 years of clinical supervised experience. Other states require social workers with a bachelor’s or master’s degree to complete hours of supervised experience for licensure qualification as well.

To qualify for licensure in most states, social workers must take an exam offered by the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB). Required exams can vary based on level of education or focus in clinical social work. Other states do not require an exam.

The ASWB offers a list of state boards to help you find your state’s requirements for licensure.

Courses in Social Work

A doctorate in social work can lead to career advancement and new job opportunities in higher education, research, and clinical positions. Many programs offer clinical management and research courses to develop skills needed for advanced social work positions. Students use the skills developed in these courses for capstone projects and dissertations.

The following list introduces possible specialized courses found in doctorate in social work programs. Not all of the courses listed below appear in every program. Rather, they represent a sample curriculum found in an online DSW program or a Ph.D. in social work program.


In this class, students learn about quantitative and qualitative research methods in social work. Students develop the critical thinking skills needed to measure and analyze data. They also learn about the theories and methods behind advanced research. Programs often require research as a prerequisite for a capstone project or dissertation.

Trauma-Informed Social Work Practice

Courses on trauma-informed practice teach students to use the basic principles of trauma-informed care. Since many social workers work with clients impacted by trauma, these courses prepare students to better understand the complexity of trauma. They also ensure that students administer appropriate treatment.

Teaching Social Work

Courses in social work education prepare students to teach social work and human services in higher education. Students in these classes explore learning styles, teaching methods, and curriculum development. In these interactive courses, students may also develop courses and practice teaching on their peers.

Clinical Management

Clinical management courses teach students the principles of management in a clinical setting. Students learn and develop skills such as employee supervision, strategic planning, and program design. This course prepares students for leadership positions in clinical social work and to manage clinical programs effectively.

Leadership in Social Work

This class explores leadership in higher education, social service organizations, and clinical settings. Students examine their personal leadership values, styles, and skills. Leadership courses may ask students to develop a leadership development plan. They may also need to demonstrate competencies in mentorship, supervision, and teaching. This course prepares students for leadership positions in social work.

Scholarships for Social Work Students

Scholarships help students pay for their degree. Students looking to earn a doctorate in social work online may qualify for multiple scholarships. The following list includes scholarships available to students pursuing a DSW or Ph.D. in social work.

Melanie Merola O’Donnell Memorial Scholarship
Who Can Apply: The Melanie Foundation Scholarship provides financial assistance to students pursuing a doctorate or master’s degree in the mental health field. Applicants must demonstrate past involvement in volunteer, career-related, or research activities in mental health.
Amount: $2,500

The Cenie “Jomo” Williams Tuition Scholarship
Who Can Apply: Members of the National Association of Black Social Workers can apply for this scholarship. Applicants must hold a 3.0 GPA, demonstrate community service, and enroll for full-time study in an accredited social work program.
Amount: $1,500

P.E.O. Scholarships
Who Can Apply: P.E.O. Scholarships recognize women living in the United States or Canada who demonstrate academic excellence and leadership skills in their field. Applicants must be enrolled in full-time study in a doctoral program.
Amount: $20,000

Council on Social Work Education Scholars Program
Who Can Apply: CSWE Scholars Program helps doctoral students in social work fund research projects and initiatives. Applicants must demonstrate knowledge and experience with surveys, focus groups, and literature reviews.
Amount: Varies

Doctoral Dissertation Award in the Psychology of Aging
Who Can Apply: Doctoral students contributing research to adult development and aging qualify for this award. Applicants must submit a letter of support from their dissertation advisor, current CV, and dissertation abstract.
Amount: $2,500

Accreditation in Social Work

Prospective students should verify a school’s accreditation status before applying. Regional accreditation ensures that institutions meet academic standards within a particular location. Private accrediting organizations recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) conduct a review process to accredit schools. This process also allows the public to know that the school or program offers a quality education.

Students benefit from accreditation in a variety of ways. For example, a student must attend an accredited school to receive federal financial aid. Also, employers often ask about a school’s accreditation before offering tuition assistance. State requirements for licensure typically include a degree from an accredited institution as well.

School programs also undergo the accreditation process. CSWE’s Commission on Accreditation (COA) grants accreditation social work programs in accordance with CHEA. The COA also develops accreditation standards for undergraduate and graduate social work programs. Find out a program’s accreditation status.

Advertisement is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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