A doctorate in social work (DSW) is the most advanced degree that someone can earn in the field of social work. This highly respected degree opens up many career doors and can help graduates do their jobs on a deeper, more specialized level.
Social work is a rapidly-growing field. According to projections by The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), social workers will witness 13% job growth between 2019 and 2029, the BLS also projects a 17% job growth for social and community service managers.
And with the salary increase that often comes with this advanced degree, the investment can be well worth the return. For those looking to take advantage of this opportunity, we’ve rounded up some of the most affordable online doctorate in social work programs.
Accredited Online College Programs
Most Affordable Online Ph.D. in Social Work Programs
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.
Graduation rate: 72%
Program length: 4 years
Credits: 48 credit hours
Admissions requirements: Master’s in social work, 3.0 GPA, three years’ clinical experience
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.
Graduation rate: 96%
Program length: 3 years
Credits: 12 course units
Admissions requirements: Master’s in social work, three years’ work experience
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.
Graduation rate: 76%
Program length: 3 years
Credits: 45 credits
Admissions requirements: Master’s in social work, two years’ work experience
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.
Graduation rate: 78%
Program length: 3 years
Credits: 60 credits
Admissions requirements: B or higher on the Garland School of Social Work Required Statistics Exam
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.
Graduation rate: 92%
Program length: 28-36 months
Credits: 42 credits
Admissions requirements: Master’s degree, five years’ work experience
Answering Your Questions About Online Doctorate in Social Work Programs
Are there online DSW programs?
Several schools allow students to complete their doctorate in social work online. These online programs provide increased flexibility for working professionals and often come at a more affordable cost than traditional DSW programs.
How much does it cost to get your DSW online?
The cost of an online DSW program depends on the school you choose. In general, students can expect to pay between $10,000 and $30,000. If you’re interested in financing your doctorate program, there are scholarships for social work graduate students, as well as grants information at the bottom of this article.
How much does a DSW increase your salary?
A doctorate in social work can have a significant impact on your salary, but it ultimately depends on what line of work you choose to go into. Data from the National Association of Social Workers shows that a DSW or PhD can increase your earnings by roughly $17,000 annually above what you’d earn with a bachelor’s degree.
What is the difference between a DSW and a Ph.D?
TBoth a DSW and a Ph.D. are doctorate-level degrees. A doctorate in social work is primarily geared toward those who work in the social work field, often in a position of leadership or applied research. A Ph.D. in social work is better suited for those seeking a career in academia, possibly as a social work professor or researcher.
Is licensure necessary prior to applying for a doctorate in social work?
It’s not necessarily required that students be licensed social workers (LSW) before applying for a doctorate in social work. However, many schools will require some professional experience, and many jobs in the field do require licensure.
How to Become a Master Social Worker
To be eligible for a doctorate in social work program, applicants must first have earned their master’s in social work or a master’s degree in a similar field. To get a master’s degree, someone must first have earned their bachelor’s degree, as well as provide a resume, letters of recommendation, and in some cases, GRE or GMAT scores.
Since many DSW programs require work experience, many MSW graduates go into the workforce and practice as social workers before applying for their doctorate. Common careers in social work include:
Child and family social workers: These professionals provide services to children and families in their communities, often visiting families in their homes and assisting with abuse and neglect investigations or working with children in the foster care system.
School social workers: School social workers offer direct services to students, families, and students in an academic setting. They often work in intervention strategies, crisis management, and support services.
Healthcare social workers: Social workers in healthcare work with individuals coping with illness to provide emotional, financial, and social support.
Mental health and substance abuse social workers: These social workers serve those struggling with mental health challenges or addiction, helping them to treat their illness, implement plans to meet goals, and connect them with local resources.
To work in these fields, individuals must first become licensed social workers (LSW). Licensure requirements vary on a state-by-state basis. In most states, those requirements include passing an exam.
Once a student has earned a doctorate in social work, they often work in the same fields but at a higher level. They can dive into more specialized work in areas like clinical social work.
What are the requirements for an online DSW degree?
Admission requirements vary depending on the program you choose to enroll in. Students generally must have a master’s degree in social work or a similar field. They also must provide official transcripts, letters of recommendation, and personal essays. In many cases, applicants must have work experience in social work or a similar field.
What Should You Consider When Choosing Your Online Social Work Program?
Since the field offers a variety of online social work programs, and learning experiences, it’s important to choose the program that best fits your needs. Here are a few things to consider when deciding which program is right for you.
Is the school CSWE accredited?
The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) accredits social work programs for bachelor and master-level degrees. Up until 2020, the organization did not accredit doctoral programs since they aren’t necessary to prepare students for professional social work practice. In 2020, the organization voted to begin the accreditation of doctoral programs. Once the program is fully active, students can consider accreditation as a factor when choosing a school.
What social work concentration does the program offer?
Advanced social work students typically specialize in one particular concentration. When choosing a doctoral program, it’s important to make sure the program offers the concentration you’re interested in. The primary concentrations for social work are:
Clinical/direct social work (Micro): Those at the micro-level of social work are the boots-on-the-ground individuals. They work directly with individuals and families to provide services.
Community development or administration (Macro): Macro social work takes place at the administration level. Those who go through this concentration often oversee community programs, develop policies, or work at the management level.
Generalist (Micro and Macro): Social work generalists typically concentrate on both the micro and macro levels of the field. They learn to work with individuals while also learning to develop or oversee a program or policy.
Does the online program use a cohort model or a flexible course scheduling structure?
Each program has its own method for providing instruction to students. Some require full-time study, while others allow for part-time study. Some require a more strict time commitment or for students to be available at specific times. It’s important that students research these characteristics ahead of time, especially if they are working professionals or attending school while raising a family.
The Types of Instruction Methods in Online DSW Programs
DSW programs generally use either synchronous or asynchronous instruction to teach students. Some programs use just one, while others use a combination of the two. Each instruction model comes with pros and cons.
Synchronous instruction occurs in real-time, meaning the professor and students gather at a particular time. In the case of online programs, synchronous instruction would take place via video conferencing, teleconferencing, or live-streamed lectures.
Ask questions and get feedback in real time
Keeps students on schedule
Requires a strict schedule
Leaves room for technical difficulties
May not be ideal for parents or working professionals
Asynchronous instruction happens on the student’s own time. The program provides learning materials such as video lectures, textbooks, and assignments. Aside from deadlines, there’s no schedule that students must follow.
Provides more flexibility
Allows students to work at their own pace
Often more affordable
Leaves room for students to fall behind
No real-time feedback
Prevents interaction with classmates
Salary Outlook for Social Workers
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for social workers in May 2019 was $50,470. Here’s what median annual wages look for social workers across different fields:
Median Annual Wage
Social workers in general
Healthcare social workers
Child, family, and school social workers
Mental health and substance abuse social workers
Social workers who complete a DSW have a variety of specializations they can choose from when it comes to career. Recent data shows that the projected growth of employment for social workers is 13 percent from 2019 to 2029. It’s important to keep in mind that employment growth can vary by specialization. The following are the top-paying industries within social work:
Median Annual Wage
Ambulatory healthcare services
Individual and family services
Career Paths for a Doctorate in Social Work
Once someone has earned their doctorate in social work, they can work in virtually any job in the field of social work. Some of the popular career paths include:
Licensed Clinical Social Worker: Many DSW graduates continue to work as a clinician, serving their communities at a deeper, more specialized level.
Professor of Social Work: Though most professors hold a Ph.D. rather than a DSW, those with a doctorate in social work are still qualified to join the world of academia, either in a full-time or adjunct capacity.
Nonprofit Director: With a doctorate in social work, graduates may go onto lead a nonprofit organization, especially one that focuses on community or social services.
Social Work Administrator: In this type of role, individuals administer social service organizations, either within or outside of the government. While a clinical social worker focuses on the micro-level, administrators focus on the macro-level.
Social Welfare Policy Researcher: As a policy researcher, DSW graduates can go on to research and influence public policy as it relates to social welfare issues.
Top-paying industries for social workers
Social work isn’t a particularly high-paying field. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for the field is $50,470. Healthcare workers make slightly above-average salaries, while social workers specializing in children and families, schools, or mental health and substance abuse tend to make below-average salaries. That being said, jobs popular with DSW graduates often come with higher salaries.
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 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.
Professional Organizations for DSW Students
Joining a professional organization is a great way for DSW students to network with those in their field, develop professional contacts, and find support in the social work community. Popular professional organizations in the field include:
Grad School Hub compiles rankings based on public data released from educational, commercial, and government databases. Sources such as the National Center for Education Statistics and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics play a significant role in how we source our educational data. After collecting insight for each institution, we organize information into five weighted categories.
Full-time faculty percentage, student-to-faculty ratio, student retention and graduation rates
Tuition rates, median student debt, and financial aid
Admission and enrollment rates
Number of program options
Online Enrollment Score
Portion of learners taking at least one online course
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Erin Gobler is a contributing writer who covers higher education, online graduate programs, college planning, and more for Grad School Hub. Her writing has also appeared in The Simple Dollar, Robinhood, and The Balance.