Pursuing a terminal degree in social work starts with choosing between a practice-focused Doctor of Social Work (DSW) or a more traditional research-focused Ph.D. in Social Work.

DSW: Doctor of Social Work

Reviewed by Anna Shull, MSW

One of the greatest rewards of the social work profession is that the field grows richer with experience. There’s much that social workers continue to learn after receiving their master’s degree, and many find that their professional trajectory leads them to a particular area of specialty.

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Once you have gained experience as a social worker, you may find you’d like to enhance your expertise on a particular subject, or that you’d like to continue to rise in the ranks professionally. The next step toward making this happen is obtaining a terminal degree.

If you are a practicing social worker seeking to reach the highest professional level in your field, you’re ready to pursue a doctorate degree.

What are the advantages of holding a doctorate degree in social work? Typically, a doctorate is a distinction that reflects especially deep expertise. Those who hold doctorates are specialists who have spent their advanced schooling researching a particular focus area. If you’re looking to specialize, a doctorate in social work will allow you to draw upon your work experience to guide your studies.

Doctorate degrees are also excellent choices for those who wish to hold leadership positions in social work organizations. These high-ranking job titles can hold great responsibilities and are therefore often only available to those who hold terminal degrees. This is an excellent option for those who are looking to evolve from clinical practice to a position of broader oversight and influence.

The Two Types of Terminal Degrees for Social Workers

Pursuing a terminal degree in social work starts with choosing between a practice-focused Doctor of Social Work (DSW) or a more traditional research-focused Ph.D. in Social Work.

The decision to go with a Ph.D. or DSW comes down to how you plan to apply your advanced knowledge of social work.

While the Ph.D. offers a clear track to careers in academia, where you’ll contribute to policy research and teaching the next generation of social workers, the DSW doubles down on applied clinical knowledge, building on the BSW and MSW to prepare you for clinical leadership roles and advanced policy advocacy work in the field.

Both the DSW and PhD in social work prepare graduates to serve as effective leaders in their respective roles. But the DSW is a practice-focused program designed to impart the kind of advanced knowledge and skills that can be applied directly to the field to serve the needs of individual clients and communities. DSW students develop specialized clinical expertise, leaving them well-equipped to practice the most current clinical interventions, while honing macro-level skills to address large scale social issues.

While there is a limited number of DSW programs, the good news is that these programs are widely available online. Top universities offering DSW programs remotely are helping to make this terminal degree accessible to students across the country.

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How Do You Get a Doctorate of Social Work?

A DSW or PhD is typically obtained after earning an MSW. DSW and PhD programs both last around four years, but can vary in length depending on whether or not students choose to take courses full-time or part-time, as well as on the nature and duration of their dissertation or capstone project.

Though similar in duration, DSW and PhD degrees in social work are categorically different:

  • Doctorate in Social Work: The DSW is a better fit for those who wish to apply their knowledge in clinical practice or macro-level policy advocacy work
  • PhD in Social Work: PhD students are more focused on the academic aspects of social work, making them better suited for teaching and research positions in universities, think tanks, and government agencies

Both DSW and PhD students can expect curriculum exploring longitudinal case studies in social work, as well as micro, mezzo, and macro-level intervention plans, and in-depth research projects designed to get students thinking outside the box.

The DSW will orient learning opportunities to direct applications in the real world while the PhD presents students with more opportunities for purely academic explorations designed to expand their own expertise and the body of knowledge in the field.

It's worth noting that while CSWE launched a pilot program in 2021 exploring the development of curriculum guidelines and accreditation standards for DSW programs, the same is not true of PhD programs.

Online DSW Programs

The online Doctorate in Social Work allows you to access a graduate level education in social work on your own time from anywhere in the world. In a field where professionals don’t typically have the luxury of being able to take time off for a traditional campus-based program, it’s clear why this is the preferred method for most social workers looking to advance with a doctorate degree.

Q&A: What is the Online DSW?

Delivered through both synchronous and asynchronous courses, online DSW programs offer the flexibility and convenience you need to be able to balance your professional and family life. In the end, you get a Doctorate of Social Work consisting of the same curriculum you would find in an on-campus program.

For many students, online degree programs can make all the difference in taking on a rigorous academic workload while continuing to tend to their existing responsibilities, from their employment to their families.

CSWE accredited programs

As a social worker, you’re already familiar with CSWE, the prominent professional organization that accredited your BSW and MSW program. Online social work degree programs offered at the bachelor’s and master’s level are reviewed for relevance and reliability, and if they are found to meet CSWE’s rigorous curriculum standards, they earn the agency’s stamp of approval. In most states, graduating from a CSWE-accredited program is required for all levels of social work licensure.

As of this writing, CSWE does not accredit Doctor of Social Work programs. But the organization did launch a pilot program in the fall of 2021 with the goal of gaining approval from the Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) to accredit DSW programs.

Because there is no programmatic accrediting body for DSW programs (or PhD in social work programs), you should be sure to be very thorough in your research (which this page hopes to help you with). Read on to learn more about what to look for in your DSW program or consider one of the online programs we feature here.

What to Look for in an Online DSW Program

GRE Requirements
While GRE requirements may vary by program, most social work education programs in general do not require GRE scores, including DSW programs. However, programs will usually accept GRE scores as an optional application component.
GPA Requirements
When it comes to GPA requirements, students must have displayed exemplary academic achievement during their graduate education experience. For most DSW programs, applicants must have earned at least a cumulative GPA of 3.0 during their MSW programs. Some programs require a MSW minimum GPA of 3.5. The specific GPA requirements for each individual program can be found on each program’s website or by contacting the program’s admissions office.
Does the program require campus visits?
For online DSW programs, campus visits are typically not required, as students may enroll from all over the country. However, alternatives to campus visits, such as phone or teleconferencing interviews may be offered to students as a way to engage with admissions staff directly and become oriented to the program. Some programs also require students to attend program orientation on campus.
Does the program have field placement and licensure support?
The field work requirements for DSW programs vary by institution. Since students may be completing coursework that involves clinical interventions and assessment skills, the practice of implementing these skills into field work is important. Some programs allow students to use their current job to fulfill this practice (if appropriate) while others may require that placements are volunteer-based. Information regarding the specific field education requirements can be located on each program’s website or by contacting the admissions office.
Holding an MSW gives you access to the highest level of social work licensure available.

While there is no additional doctorate level social work licensure, there are opportunities for advancement to jobs where you’ll take on more responsibility and have more influence in the world of social services.

DSW degree programs may provide career counseling and support with your job search.

Why a Doctorate of Social Work Degree?

Earning the highest practice-focused degree in the field comes with a lot of prestige. But prestige only takes you so far in a field where the ability to serve as an effective counselor in the clinical environment or agent for positive change at the policy level are the things that really count.

Social workers are driven by a desire to do more for the people and communities they serve, and they know the best way to equip themselves to do that is to never stop learning. For many, that’s the main motivating factor behind earning a DSW. In a purely practical sense, a doctorate, whether a DSW or PhD, serves as the gateway to careers in higher education. Academia is the one area where a doctorate is almost always a standard requirement.

1. To gain knowledge in the field

Having the highest practice-focused degree available in the field of social work not only communicates a high level of expertise, it also conveys a serious level of dedication.

There are more than 700,000 social workers across the country, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, working in a huge number of different settings. All of them rely on experienced leaders.

2. For leadership positions in your career

DSW-educated social workers have the knowledge and qualifications to step into those leadership roles, guiding and inspiring other social workers educated at the bachelor’s (BSW) and master’s (MSW) level.

Holding a Doctorate in Social Work opens the door to positions that include social and community service management, human services administration, non-profit management, and more.

DSW-prepared social workers are also found advocating for their communities in the halls of legislation, working as program directors for state and federal government agencies, and serving in the judicial and welfare systems.

Social Work Advocacy: How DSW Holders Can Effect Change

If you want to contribute to positive change on a broad scale, social work advocacy could be an ideal career path for you. Social work leaders (typically holding DSW degrees) can be involved in all different sorts of advocacy, from fighting to improve local-level resources to guiding highly impactful policy decisions. They are involved in the arenas of healthcare, poverty reduction, child protection, mental wellness, and more.

One of the reasons why social workers are so respected as advocates is because of their up-close experience with communities in need, which can make them authorities on important issues and the quest for their solutions. This means that one of the most important skills a social worker can have is listening, as they are responsible for relaying their clients’ concerns to others in service to meeting their needs. It also requires extensive knowledge of the existing infrastructure of social services and, in the case of policy-based advocacy, a strong understanding of the law.

DSW holders have the power to change the world. If you’d like to take your social work expertise to the next level, getting your doctorate degree will help you get there.

The PhD in Social Work Degree

On the other end of the spectrum, individuals that choose to pursue a PhD in Social Work degree will find that their services are needed in universities and research institutes across the United States.

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PhD programs offer an exploration into the kind of analytical skills necessary to pull meaningful insights from social data. The knowledge gained through these programs goes well beyond pure statistical analysis, though. PhD graduates put that analysis to work conducting research that’s used as a road map to achieving a healthier society. And, of course, DSW-prepared social workers also serve as professors, contributing to the social work community by educating future professionals.

Salary for a Doctorate in Social Work Degree Holder

The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows social and community service managers earning a median salary of $74,000 as of 2021. Those in the top ten percent of the field, the ones more likely to hold DSW degrees, earn more than $118,650.

In the broader BLS category for social workers, those earning in the top ten percent made more than $82,840 that year, while the biggest segment, those specializing in child, family, and school social work, can expect 90th percentile salaries of $78,710 or more.

Mental health and substance abuse social work represented the highest-paying sub-field, where those in the top ten percent earned more than $97,300, followed by healthcare social workers who earned 90th percentile salaries of $86,820 or more.

The job outlooks for both community service managers and social workers are strong. The BLS projects an estimated job growth rate of 12% for social and community service managers by 2031, significantly higher than the average across industries. Jobs for social workers, meanwhile, are projected to grow by 9% in that time, also exceeding averages. This should be encouraging information for anyone considering building a career in the field.

Some FAQs about Doctor of Social Work Programs

The Doctorate of Social Work (DSW) was initially created in the 1940s, DSW programs remained scarcely available for decades due to the rise of the PhD in social work. However, social workers have recognized the value of the DSW within the last decade and have made strides to create more DSW programs across the country.

What is Foundational coursework for the DSW program?

Since DSW programs vary in terms of specialization and content focus, the foundational coursework for DSW programs may also vary. Generally, foundational coursework may include advanced theory and research courses. The introductory course for the dissertation/capstone project may also be included in foundational coursework.

What is Elective concentration coursework for the DSW program?

The elective coursework for DSW programs may also vary, depending on the study tracks offered to students. Examples of electives offered in different DSW programs include different advanced clinical intervention courses, such as Dialectical Behavior Therapy, or various leadership courses, such as leadership in large settings.

What is the difference between PhD Social Work programs and DSW programs?

The most significant difference between a DSW and PhD in social work is the research component. The PhD in social work places a heavy emphasis on research with the goal of building the body of knowledge in the field. While the DSW most certainly incorporates research into the curriculum, it’s oriented more toward helping students develop critical thinking skills applicable to professional practice.

The PhD may be an appropriate degree for students who are passionate about research. Graduate more often go on to work in higher education institutions where they will either focus on teaching or serving as research professors.

The DSW degree is better suited for students who strive to develop advanced clinical skills or take on leadership roles in social service agencies.

Are DSW programs available as a part time program?

The online DSW can be completed either part-time or full-time at most institutions. Some students may complete the degree in less than two years, whereas others may complete the degree in five years, depending on their chosen timeline.

What is the exact Online DSW meaning?

Online DSW programs offer students a chance to earn the esteemed Doctorate of Social Work degree from anywhere in the world they can find an internet connection. The Doctorate of Social Work is the highest level of social work education and provides students with advanced clinical and theoretical education.

What are the most common concentration tracks for Online DSW Programs?

  • Clinical: this concentration focuses on advancing clinical skills and equipping students with the most current and evidenced-based interventions.
  • Teaching: this concentration is ideal for students who are seeking to become educators in the social work field. Students learn specific skills regarding teaching social work.
  • Organizational Leadership: this concentration is focused on macro-level social work. Students engage in curriculum that is centered around understanding and developing interventions to solve large-scale social issues.
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2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary figures for Social and Community Managers and Social Workers represents national data, not school-specific information. 90th percentile salaries are shown to reflect what professionals with the highest practice-focused degree in the field are likely to earn. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed September 2021.