The online DSW degree is the terminal degree for the social work field. At the doctorate level, graduates could possibly be responsible for providing guidance to a wide range of social work professionals, making this degree program a great choice for professors, or those interested in pursuing management-level positions in the field. If you would like to learn more about this program and its benefits, read along in the guide provided by our team of educational experts.

Online DSW (Doctor or PhD in Social Work)

Compared to the Ph.D. in Social Work, this program is best suited for individuals that wish to pursue hands-on positions in the field, as opposed to the research-oriented nature of the Ph.D. path. Most learners interested in pursuing this degree program have some experience working in the field of social work.

Every degree program at each degree level serves a specific purpose for the learners enrolled in it. The DSW is an intensive doctoral-level degree program that seeks to provide students with practical skills for use in the social work domain.

Who Should Consider a DSW?

Students with the desire to pursue careers responsible for helping others can enroll in diverse and all-inclusive Doctor of Social Work (DSW) degree programs. This incredible applied degree program can provide learners with the skills needed to assess, plan, and implement programs to improve the lives of others within their specialty field.

The field of social work can reach into several different specialized fields - providing direct services to clients in need. Many degree programs focusing on social work can provide you with concentration options that allow you to learn more about your particular field of interest, while others can provide a generalized curriculum that can be applied in a variety of settings.

What To Expect in an Online DSW Program

At the onset of an online DSW program, you may enroll in 1-4 classes per term through your university. These courses can be accessed through logging in to your schools online course room, which is usually linked to the college's main website.

Participation in each course is measured by how many times you log in per week and the weekly assignments that are outlined in your course syllabus. These assignments may include weekly readings, discussion board posts, assignment submissions, or even online quizzes.

Online learning can provide you with the independence of logging in at times that work around your schedule and the convenience of an all-in-one platform from your very own home. This can be exceptionally beneficial for students that are currently working full-time jobs in the social work field.

As an example of online course expectations, a student may log in on Monday morning, review an assignment outline, and be required to submit that assignment by the following Sunday night before midnight. The way that you utilize the time between is totally up to you, with the only required factor being on-time submissions of homework.

What is the Online DSW?

Leaders in the social work field often should have higher knowledge of state and federal policies pertaining to social work, as well as some insight into leadership methods and practices for social work professionals. Each of these components may be part of the greater DSW program at your chosen university.

Universities Are Bringing the DSW Online

Universities that offer the DSW may have various expectations of learners within their programs, including participation in a practicum or residency requirement prior to graduation. These on-site experience requirements can allow learners to engage with the population that they intend to serve under the guidance of doctoral-level professionals.

What You Would Study

There are multiple unique aspects of this degree program that can essentially set it apart from other similar options in this field. As an example, this program prepares students to become knowledgeable and persistent advocates for social justice, safety and stability for families, and responders in times of crisis or need.

As society progresses into one that is accepting of all people and is developed into a provider for all citizens, social work professionals may be in integral part of these motions. Your involvement in a DSW program can be a great first step to becoming an important factor in positive societal change.

Studying the DSW Online

The popularity of online degree programs may be changing the way that upcoming students view the process of completing a higher education program. If you are like many other busy adults in today's society, the thought of pursue your degree on-campus may be daunting and even nearly impossible alongside your daily responsibilities.

Online DSW programs can be found at a large number of reliable and well-known universities across the country. Typically, these programs require that you hold at least a minimum GPA of 3.0 from your previous educational experience in order to enroll, likely due to the independent nature of the learning experience.

A Few Reputable Online CSWE Accredited Online DSW Programs

University of Southern California Online DSW Program

The online DSW Program at the University of Southern California offers a unique doctoral education experience for social work practitioners who are seeking to further their social work expertise. This program is unique in that the curriculum places a heavy emphasis on developing ethical macro-level solutions to address the many social injustices that society is currently experiencing. This differs from other DSW programs that focus on clinical advancement and developing teaching skills.

The specific macro framework that this program seeks to address within its curriculum is the 12 Grand Challenges for Social Work, as published by the American Academy of Social Work and Social Policy. The academy highlights these 12 social issues as the major challenges that society is plagued with today that must be addressed by social workers:

  • Ensure healthy development for children and adolescents
  • Close the health gap
  • Build healthy relationships to end interpersonal violence
  • Advance longer and more fulfilling lives of those in society
  • Utilize technology to promote social good
  • Achieve equal justice for all people
  • Build financial resources
  • Create social responses for climate change
  • End homelessness
  • Address and solve social isolation
  • Advocate for the end of mass incarceration
  • Reduce economic inequality

The program offers two different tracks: the standard track and the accelerated track. The standard track consists of 9 semesters and the accelerated track consists of 7 semesters. The major difference between these two tracks is that in the standard track, students take only 2 courses per semester for the first 6 semesters, and students in the accelerated track take 3 courses per semester for the first 4 semesters.

In addition to coursework, all students also complete a Capstone Project during the last 3 semesters of the program. Upon completion of the program, the goal is to present the most well-educated and sufficiently prepared social work leaders to the world.

Sample DSW Courses from University of Southern California Online DSW

In order to shed some light on real-world and available online degree programs, our team of educational experts reviewed an online DSW program currently being offered at the University of Southern California (USC). USC is a prestigious and well-respected university that offers flexible alternatives to their on-campus programs.

The curriculum for this online DSW program is filled with in-depth and informative courses developed to train experienced and knowledgeable doctoral-level social work professionals. Read through some of the course provisions below to see what types of courses you might take while enrolled in this program.

The entire online DSW through USC can be completed in 6 semesters. During this time frame, students may be expected to complete 42 credit hours, all of which are part of the required curriculum for this program. In addition to course work, students are also required to complete 2 residencies and a capstone project prior to graduation. The curriculum of this program is broken down into 3 primary topic areas:

  1. Problem definition within the 12 Grand Challenges for Social Work, an initiative developed by the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare
  2. Innovative Design
  3. Leadership in social work settings

All courses within the program fall into one of these categories. Examples of courses include:

  • Leading and Managing Large Complex Systems, which highlights skills needed to navigate macro-level social systems, such as food support, housing, employment, and financial services
  • Executive Leadership, which prepares students to obtain leadership roles within the field after graduation
  • Communication and Influence for Social Good, which highlights how current forms of communication, such as social media, can be used to advocate for social change on a macro scale

Admissions standards and requirements for this program

An online application tool is utilized to apply for entry into the program. The components of the application include the following:

  • Current resume: Social-work related roles must be included
  • Writing Prompts (X2): applicants must write and submit two essays answering prompts provided. The program asks that each essay be approximately three pages long. More information regarding the specific requirements for each prompt can be found here
  • Three letters of recommendation: academic references and/or professional references are accepted
  • Official transcripts from each accredited school previously attended
  • Application fee: $90

For more information about admission requirements, please visit the school's website.

The University of Alabama School of Social Work Online DSW Program

The University of Alabama School of Social Work recently launched an online DSW program in the fall of 2019 that is accessible for students across the United States. The program follows a cohort model that allows students to receive consistent peer support throughout the program.

While the majority of the program occurs in an online format, students are required to visit the campus several times per year: once for an initial orientation and for multiple residency programs during the summers. In addition, students are required to engage in the social work field simultaneously, either through employment or volunteer work.

This program requires students to complete 45 credit hours in order to graduate, and is typically completed in 3 years. This program is unique in that students can choose to follow a clinical track or an organizational leadership track.

Finally, similar to other DSW programs, students complete a Capstone Project on a topic of their choosing throughout the program, and present the project upon graduation.

Courses you may take

All students, regardless of track, are required to take 6 core courses, or the equivalent of 21 credit hours. These courses are:

  • Advanced Advocacy and Policy Practice
  • Research for Clinical and Community Practice I
  • Research for Clinical and Community Practice II
  • Introduction to Capstone Project
  • Capstone Project Proposal
  • Capstone Project

Students also must take courses that are specific to their chosen track, which equal approximately 18 credit hours.

Examples of courses in the clinical track include:

  • Teaching Social Work Practice
  • Cognitive Behavioral Theory
  • Neuroscience in Clinical Social Work Practice

Examples of courses in the organizational leadership track include:

  • Leadership and Organizational Change
  • Program Planning, Implementation, and Evaluation
  • Organizational Leadership Theory and Practice

Finally students are able to take two elective courses, such as Social Work and Emotional Trauma.

Visit the University of Alabama School of Social Work website for more information about courses and curriculum tracks.

Admissions standards and requirements

To be considered for this program, applicants must:

  • Have earned between a 3.0 and 4.0 GPA during their graduate degree education
  • Have earned a MSW degree from a CSWE-accredited college or university
  • Have completed at least 3 years of experience in the social work field after graduating from the MSW program
  • Submit a Statement of Purpose. Specific instructions for this can be found here
  • Transcripts from the graduate school institution (must be official transcripts!)
  • Current Social Work Placement
  • Application fee

For a more detailed list of application requirements, please visit The University of Alabama School of Social Work website.

Finally, it is important to note that since this program is cohort-based, applications are not accepted on a rolling basis. The application deadline each year is March 1.

University of Pennsylvania Online DSW Program

The University of Pennsylvania was the first institution to launch a Doctorate of Clinical Social Work program. With recent technology advances, the university has successfully created a fully online DSW program that educates students across the country.

Accredited by the CSWE, this program emphasizes enhancing clinical skills and learning leadership skills in order to prepare highly qualified top leaders of the social work field.

Students typically complete this program in three years. In addition, the majority of this program occurs online, but also provides students the opportunity to complete two brief residencies at the university’s campus.

This program utilizes a combination of synchronous and asynchronous learning to provide students with the richest learning experience possible. Live classroom sessions are held two evenings per week, with each course lasting approximately two hours. Students also complete a significant amount of work outside of the live classroom sessions.

Finally, in addition to courses, students are required to complete an original dissertation upon graduation. During the first year, students complete an introductory dissertation workshop to orient them to the dissertation process. Students are then assigned to a dissertation advisor to act as a support while completing the dissertation.

Course you may take

The online DSW at the University of Pennsylvania outlines a specific curriculum that students follow throughout the program.

During the first year, students take courses that focus primarily on theory and research. These courses include:

  • Trauma-Informed Theory and Interventions
  • Research Methods
  • Clinical Theory I: Psychodynamic, Relational, Attachment, and Neurobiology Theories

During the second year, students take courses that includes more specialized clinical approaches and skills related to leadership and teaching. Students are also able to select elective courses, in addition to the required courses.

Required courses include:

  • Teaching Social Work Practice
  • Family and Couples Therapy
  • Substance Use Interventions

Elective Courses include:

  • Group Therapy
  • Leadership for Change
  • Trauma-Informed Supervision

During the third year, students do not complete any coursework. Instead, students focus on completing and defending their dissertations.

While the above curriculum is outlined in a three-year timeframe, some students are able to complete all coursework and the dissertation in two years.

Admissions standards and requirements

In order to be considered for enrollment into this program, applicants are required to:

  • Hold an MSW from a CSWE accredited college or university
  • Have completed at least three years of post-MSW field experience
  • Submit three letters of recommendations, which must consist of at least one academic reference and one supervisor reference
  • Write and submit a piece of written work that displays writing skills and proficiency
  • Write an application essay that addresses specific prompts

For more information on admission requirements and more specified application essay instructions, visit The University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice website.

Entry Requirements for DSW Programs

If you have a career goal involving leadership, justice, and dedication in mind, the DSW could be a degree program to help you meet this goal. Since this program is of the highest level for degrees in the field of social work, you may find that different universities have varying requirements for upcoming applicants to their program.

Requirement 1: A MSW degree

There are multiple universities that require applicants to hold at minimum a Master of Social Work degree program prior to applying. While this is the most widely-known expectation for incoming learners, there are several universities that accept master's graduates from related degree programs such as Public Affairs, Nursing, or other specific Counseling disciplines.

Students that hold master's degrees from other related disciplines should check with their chosen university for enrollment standards prior to applying. There is a high number of DSW students that have transitioned from alternative master's level programs.

Requirement 2: Work experience within social work

In addition to the degree requirements, some institutions may also require that applicants have experience in the field of social work to be considered for their program. This requirement can also be different depending on which college you are researching, with some colleges requiring as little as 2 years and others asking for applicants with 5 years of experience.

Experience in the field can provide you with a stable foundation for learning, especially since this career area can be extremely diverse and complex for new entrants to grasp. Different types of careers at different levels may also be considered for satisfying this requirement.

The field of social work can lead you into many different specialized areas throughout your career. If your DSW program is related to counseling or mental health services, your anticipated degree program may require that you hold licensure as a MSW social worker or even LCSW.

Requirement 3: GPA, Specific Courses, More

One of the most important steps to preparing for entry into a DSW program is to review the acceptance requirements and curricula for the schools you plan to apply to. This can help to ensure that the program accepts individuals with your credentials, as well as help to confirm that the degree program provides insight into fields that interest you the most.

Sample DSW Courses

Leading and Managing Large Complex Systems
This is a course offering that takes a look at some of the macro-elements of doctoral-level social work. This can include national views on the housing crisis, social justice, and programs that ensure income security for people from all social classes. Part of the consistency of this course includes considerations into how these programs can be financially stable, managed, and implemented in today's society. Students may also learn more about the political barricades that interfere with progress in this area of change, as well as methods for enlightening politicians of the need for change.
Leading Public Discourse
This is another course offering that can further education students on the methods utilized for encouraging public involvement in the debate and public conversations on various social issues. Since social work professionals are often vying for change, the best method for speeding up this process is through making the issue known to the public and encouraging members of society to participate in the rally for change.
Financial management of organizations
Courses that offer further learning in the financial management of social work organizations, methods for implementing programs, and data-driven decision making can also be a part of your DSW program at USC. The combination of these courses can create educated and motivated social leaders prepared for taking on the task of improving the quality of life for people from all backgrounds in the U.S.

Career Options with a DSW

Now that you have read more about what this degree program consists of and its overall mission, you might be interested in learning more about the careers that can manifest as a result of your dedication. The field of social work may be filled with an abundance of career options for graduates of the DSW program in the online environment.

Example titles

Since the DSW can provide you with more insight into the knowledge of financial management and guidance to social work professionals, you could pursue a career as a leader within a social work organization. Some example titles may include a Non-Profit Director, Social Services Manager, or Clinical Director.

Work within healthcare

Social work professionals that have an employment background in nursing or healthcare administration could utilize their doctorate degree as a means for obtaining careers as Nursing or Healthcare Administrators. This field may require that you have an extensive knowledge of healthcare guidelines and regulations within your state.

Potential to oversee a clinical team

If your prior social work experience was through licensure as a MSW or LCSW, you could seek out careers as a member of a Clinical Oversight Team or even as a regional Clinical Manager within your organization. Some career opportunities at the government level may require that doctoral-level graduates hold licensure is one of these social work areas.

Working in other industries

The social work field can be found under the blanket of human service organizations within a given community. Leadership professionals responsible for ensuring that these agencies operate according to policy may require DSW graduates to fill their positions responsible for regional management, auditing, and ensuring operation in accordance to policy.

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Leadership is a top area

These types of leadership positions can be found through your local Department of Human Services and often require a minimum of a doctoral degree for incoming applicants. Since there are so many individual social work organizations within certain areas, your experience and education can lead you into diverse and multi-disciplinary career options throughout your career.