PhDs in Social Work are experts in a specific area of social work. They have completed a rigorous academic program and earned the tile of Doctor. In order to earn this degree, one must successfully complete a PhD in Social Work Program. This article reviews the admission requirements and typical structure of these programs and career opportunities for graduates. In addition, some online PhD in Social Work programs are reviewed.

Phd in Social Work (or DSW)

Social work is an incredibly influential field in the U.S. Professionals that are interested in being providers of important services, advocates for social change, or researchers responsible for positively changing the field should consider PhD programs in the field of social work. Students that choose the educational path for their learning experience can focus on the historical changes and developments in the field in an effort to educate upcoming social work professionals during their degree programs.

The PhD option for social work students can provide you with the experience and practice you need to pursue careers associated with growth and development in this field. Our team of educational experts has put together this guide to help you learn more about this program and what is requires of learners enrolled.

What is the PhD in Social Work?

The PhD degree stands for Doctor of Philosophy. The PhD degree can be earned in many subjects including Social Work. The PhD in Social Work is the highest degree that can be earned in the field. The PhD is a requirement for many of the top-tier positions in social work.

What to Look for in a PhD in Social Work Program

Consider the following when deciding on a PhD program in Social Work:

  • Location - will you/your family need to relocate or commute for the program?
  • Cost and Available Financial Aid / Scholarships
  • Area of Study - does the program have instructors and researchers in the area in which you are most interested?
  • Coursework - do the required and elective course offerings sound interesting and applicable to future career goals?
  • Research Opportunities - Are there opportunities for you to participate in existing research projects to build skills and experience?
  • Length of Program - most PhD in Social Work programs take three to seven years to complete, including coursework and dissertation
  • Part or Full Time Study? Full time study may require you to change or quit your job in order to complete the program. Do you have the financial resources to decrease or go without your income while in school? Are you comfortable relying on student loans if needed during the program?
  • Course Format - in person or online classes, or a hybrid program?

What does it mean to have earned a PhD in Social Work?

To be a PhD in Social Work means that you have completed an intense educational program and earned a terminal degree in the field. This means that there is no higher degree to be earned in Social Work. Upon successful completion of a unique, comprehensive dissertation (extensive research project), you are considered an expert in that area. Earning a PhD is a rigorous process, and an accomplishment of which one should be extremely proud.

What is the difference between a PhD in Social Work and DSW?

The PhD in Social Work is a degree that prepares graduates for academic, research, policy analysis and educational administration positions. In contrast, the Doctor of Social Work (DSW) is a professional degree that focuses on clinical practice or leadership of a nonprofit organization providing clinical services. Determining one's career goals (research/teaching versus direct clinical practice) is critical before applying to a doctoral program in Social Work in order to study for and earn the ideal degree.

Entry Requirements for PhD in Social Work Programs

Some of the general requirements for acceptance into a PhD in Social Work program include:

  • Master of Social Work (MSW) or Master of Science in Social Work (MSSW) from an accredited school of social work. Some programs such as the University of Louisville or University of Illinois Chicago will accept applicants who possess a Masters degree in a related discipline. These students earn their MSW/MSSW prior to beginning PhD coursework.
  • Official transcripts from every post secondary institution attended
  • Written application including an essay or personal statement. Topics typically include motivation for pursuing a doctoral degree in social work, research experience and career goals and discussion of how the selected program will assist in reaching those goals.
  • Scholarly writing sample that demonstrates the ability to think critically and analytically. Examples include a published article, a master's thesis or an exceptional graduate level paper.
  • Curriculum Vitae (CV), ideally demonstrating 2+ years of social work practice experience in addition to leadership and scholarly potential
  • Proof of successful completion (with a grade of B or better) of an introductory statistics course (some programs have requirements that the course must have been completed within the previous 5 years)
  • Letters of recommendation. Most PhD in Social Work programs request 2-3 recommendations from both academic and professional settings
  • Interview - Some, but not all, programs require an interview as part of the application process
  • Application fee

GRE and Typical GPA Requirements for Entry

Not all PhD programs in Social Work require the GRE for admission. Many that do require GRE scores to be submitted have not published minimum threshold scores that are necessary for admission. Rather scores are to be considered 'competitive'.
Grade Point Averages (GPA) scores required for entry into a PhD program in Social Work typically include a 3.0 for undergraduate courses and 3.5 for graduate level courses.

International students must submit Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) results. Some programs have specific scores that must be met prior to applying for admission, while other programs indicate the scores must be competitive.

Why Consider a PhD in Social Work?

The social work field is a constantly changing - indicating a need for versatile professionals that are ready and willing to change alongside it. The PhD in Social Work can teach students how to analyze their environment and find solutions for upcoming or unseen changes within social areas.

The PhD in Social Work can also create professionals that can train and prepare upcoming social work professionals for work in this changing field. Since the PhD program considers core subject areas such as social policy and research methods, you could utilize what you learn during it to adapt to change throughout your career.

As the population continues to grow, the need for more structured and provisional social work systems may be needed. In order to develop and test these systems, research specialists may be sought out by local and national government agencies.

In addition to research and education, this degree program can also provide you with the knowledge needed to manage and operate social agencies within your community. This added leadership component can be a major influencer for students considering a move into this degree program.

If you are the type of person that loves to help others or that is always looking for ways to make things easier for others, this could be the right program for you to choose. PhD in Social Work degrees help to prepare future educators and researchers in this field to make a difference within their communities of professionals, as well as in the social environment.

Online PhD in Social Work Options

Students that are prepared and eager to begin an online PhD in Social Work can find flexible programs at universities across the country. It is important to review all available programs prior to making the decision on which to enroll in.

Our Lady of the Lake University is currently a provider of online PhD programs in Social Work. From the onset of the program, you can expect to complete around 3 years of course work surrounding research and education in the social work field.

This program in particular requires that students already hold a Master's in Social Work, as well as 2 years experience working in the social work field. A large number of online PhD programs may require that you hold a minimum MSW and have some experience in the field.

Another online option for you to consider is located at Walden University. This online PhD program in Social Work offers specializations like Criminal Justice, Addictions and Social Work, Family Studies and Interventions, and Policy Practice.

This online PhD program also requires that applicants hold a MSW and provide proof of employment history for acceptance consideration. In total, this program can be completed in around 3 years for most students.

Are PhD programs CSWE Accredited?

The Council for Social Work Education (CSWE) is the national accrediting body for programs of social work. They set standards for how schools of social work should function and the general requirements for educating social workers at the bachelors and masters level. The CSWE does not currently provide accreditation for doctoral programs, including the PhD.

However, in June 2020, the CSWE voted to begin a pilot program to provide accreditation of practice doctoral programs.

This means that some DSW programs may eventually become accredited through CSWE. Updates to this pilot program may be found here. At this time, there have been no announcements of plans to begin an accreditation program for PhD programs in Social Work.

A Few Reputable Online PhD in Social Work Programs

Not many universities offer online PhD programs in Social Work. Most PhD programs are offered solely as in-person classes. However; that shouldn’t be a reason to deter a dream of becoming a PhD. Below are four of the top online PhD in Social Work programs currently available.

Our Lady of the Lake University PhD in Social Work Program

Our Lady of the Lake University (OLLU) has a longstanding tradition of educating social workers. OLLU was the first school of social work in Texas over 75 years ago. The PhD program prepares graduates to bridge the gap between practitioners and academic researchers and for research, teaching and service within minority serving institutions. The program has a unique focus on teaching pedagogy for diverse student populations.

The four year, 54-credit program follows a cohort model, where students enter at the same time (summer) and take their courses together. Courses are offered synchronously, where each student is online interacting at the same time and asynchronously, where coursework is completed independently. Each summer during the time in which students are completing coursework, students must attend a one-week onsite summer session.

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Graduation requirements include completion of coursework, and the development and implementation of a unique research project. The dissertation requires three publishable articles and a successful oral defense. Graduates are best suited for teaching assignments at Carnegie classified R3 institutions rather than the R2 (high research activity) or R1 (very high research activity) institutions. Administration and other social work leadership positions are also common for graduates of this program.

Courses you might take in this program

In addition to the standard statistics and research methods courses found in doctoral programs, you may take the following courses:

  • Epistemology and Theories – Covers the philosophical, theoretical and empirical underpinnings of social work practice theories including the conceptualization, development and application of the theories in order to complete a critical analysis.
  • Grants and Proposals – Covers the complete process of grant proposal development including researching potential funding sources, proposal writing and budgeting.
  • Scholarly Writing and Publishing – Covers the skills necessary to develop and improve skills in scholarly writing and publishing in peer reviewed social science journals. Emphasizes writing, editing, reviewing, revising and submitting manuscripts. Students submit their final paper for publication to an applicable journal.

Admissions standards and requirements for this program

  • MSW from a CSWE-accredited social work program
  • Minimum of two years of direct practice experience post-MSW (applicants are preferred to be licensed as advanced clinical practitioners)
  • Graduate GPA of 3.0
  • An original, 3-5 page scholarly writing sample
  • Three letters of recommendation
  • Interview

Baylor University PhD in Social Work Program

Another Texas-based PhD in Social Work program is Baylor University. Baylor is a private Christian university that is renowned as a nationally ranked research institution. Based in Waco, Texas, the online PhD program in Social Work has a unique focus on integrating religion and faith with the ethical values and practices of social work.

The 10-semester program accepts a cohort of just 5-7 students in odd-numbered years only. The cohort begins classes in the summer with a required five-day in person session on the Baylor campus. Subsequent courses are offered online in the evenings and are synchronous, so students meet live with each other and the instructor each week. The structure of the program allows students to continue working while pursuing their PhD.

A comprehensive exam is required at the end of year 2 and covers theory, research, statistics and the ethical use of faith and practice. This exam serves to assess that the basic levels of competence have been met and signifies that the student is prepared to move forward in developing their dissertation project. The dissertation involves the development, implementation and assessment of a unique and independent research project that significantly contributes to knowledge in the field. Three publishable articles are required as part of the dissertation.

Courses you might take in this program

  • Religious and Cultural Diversity – Covers world traditions and ethical theory in the context of social work practice. Discusses how a social worker can be sensitive to each tradition and understand comfort, pain and ethics in the context of each tradition.
  • Social Policy and the Religious Sector – Introduces students to social policy as it defines and is defined by four structures of American Society: political, cultural, economic and social. The intersection of religion, congregations and religiously affiliated organizations and social welfare policy.
  • Higher Educational Teaching and Learning in Social Work – Covers theory and practical skill development for developing curricula and lesson plans and delivering content to a diverse audience with varied learning styles.

Admissions standards and requirements for this program

Baylor’s website does not list specific requirements in order to apply, but rather that the program is highly selective. As such, applicant must exhibit a superior academic record in all previous work, have a clear interest in developing theory, policy and research skills in an area relevant to social work and the maturity, intellectual ability and readiness for doctoral studies.

Applicants must also complete a required statistics exam with a grade of B or higher to qualify for admission. This requirement is not waived for students who have completed a statistics course – all applicants must complete and pass the exam as part of the application process.

The GRE is not required for admission to Baylor University’s PhD in Social Work program.

Walden University PhD in Social Work Program

Walden University‘s program is quite different than the others reviewed in this article. Their online PhD program in Social Work has multiple start dates throughout the year and provides the opportunity to transfer up to 20 credit hours. Students have 8 years to complete all doctoral degree requirements including coursework and dissertation.

The program requires four academic residencies that align with critical stages of the online coursework and provide the opportunity to network with other students, faculty and staff. The first takes place within 90 days of beginning the program. The second residency is face to face or virtual and it coincides with either the 18 month mark of starting the program or upon completion of the first research course. The third residency is face to face and completed by the end of the third year and the final residency can be done face to face or virtually at the end of the third year or beyond.

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A unique aspect of the program at Walden University is the ability to choose one of eight specializations within which to align ones interests and focus their studies. Specializations include:

  • Addictions
  • Clinical Expertise
  • Criminal Justice
  • Disaster, Crisis and Intervention
  • Family Studies and Interventions
  • Medical Social Work
  • Policy Practice
  • Social Work Administration

Courses you might take in this program

  • Treatment of Addictions – Covers theories, treatment intervention and case management strategies for addition counseling. Also examined are substance abuse policies and regulatory processes that influence service delivery in addiction counseling.
  • Policy Analysis in the Criminal Justice System – Covers key court decisions and explores the tension between constitutionally guaranteed individual rights vs crime prevention and public safety efforts. Also covers policy analysis and planning within the criminal justice field.
  • Introduction to Dimensions of Contemporary Aging – Covers a multidisciplinary approach to the study of aging in contemporary societies. Students critically examine current issues in gerontology.

Admissions standards and requirements for this program

  • A MSW degree is required.
  • Official transcripts for all previous coursework.

University of Utah PhD in Social Work Program

The newest program to launch an online PhD in Social Work is the University of Utah. Their program is called a Distance Delivered Doctorate. The first students will begin in Fall 2021 in a synchronous cohort model. Distance students will attend classes synchronously and interact with faculty and both on-campus based students and other distance learners simultaneously.

Online students are required to be on campus in Salt Lake City, Utah for the first week of each semester for the first two years. The program is designed for students to complete their degree in three to five years.

Courses you might take in this program

  • Systematic Reviews – Covers question formulation, retrieval of literature and appraisal of information retrieved. Also covers narrative reviews, qualitative and quantitative syntheses and meta-analyses.
  • Scholarly Writing – Covers an introduction to the political economy of academic discourse from the political dynamics that influence editorial decision-making to the economic considerations that determine the fate (and content) of journals. The craft of scholarly writing is explored via reading and critiquing published articles and preparing a critical review of the literature in ones chosen field.
  • Secondary Data Analysis – Covers methods for finding, transferring and processing existing data sources. Trains students to answer important research questions using secondary data sets.

Admissions standards and requirements for this program

    • MSW degree from an accredited institution
    • Minimum 3.0 GPA in both undergraduate and graduate courses

Priority is given to students who have completed an introductory statistics course within the last two years and with a final grade of B or above.

  • Two or more years post-MSW social work or related practice experience.
  • Statement of Purpose including qualifications and readiness for pursuing doctoral studies in social work, discussion of research goals, commitment to social justice and equity and career plans.
  • Three or more academic or professional letters of reference
  • Example of scholarly writing such as a published article, a manuscript that has been submitted for publication or an exemplary paper.
  • The PhD Admissions Committee may also request a candidate interview

The GRE is not required for admission to the University of Utah PhD in Social Work program.

Typical Courses for a PhD in Social Work Program

Since the online PhD program was designed for future researchers and social work educators, a lot of the curriculum may be focused on building skills for problem solving and policy practice. Courses like Design and Data Analysis for Researchers can provide you with insight into appropriate data collection procedures for research projects, as well as design measures for finding accurate and relevant results.

Theory for Applied Social Sciences

Theory for Applied Social Sciences can also be a beneficial course for students within this program. Since theory often dictates that processes by which professionals engage with clients in the field, future educators and research specialists can benefit from familiarizing themselves with various social theories.

Social Welfare Policy

One of the most commonly found courses in doctoral-level social work programs is Social Welfare Policy. The policies set forth for social work professionals often drive action and planning within all social fields, making it incredibly important for members of the social work field.

In this course you may be tasked with applying policy to common situations at work, reading case studies and analyzing proper use of policy, and defining policy according to what you have learned throughout the course. This course among many others can help bring together many of the practical and research-oriented topics learned during the PhD program.

Research Methods and Systematic Research

Additionally, courses focusing directly on research such as Research Methods and Systematic Research for Scientific Inquiry may be included within your curriculum depending on your institution of choice. This is in hopes that students can leave their program with the skills needed to identify needs, suggest change programs, and test their theories through accurate scientific research.

Thesis Requirements

The PhD program is unique for collegiate learners in that it often requires additional independent research as part of the overall degree requirements. While you search for online programs to enroll in, you should check in to the thesis requirements for each.

The thesis requirement can have varying directions at different universities, with most requiring an original research project that has been well-researched, designed, and completed prior to the end of your program. Your university may provide a structured outline of what is expected, with instructional classes on how to meet each requirement during your PhD program. Others can provide one-on-one mentors that work with students as they develop their initial research question up until their final submission.

Some students in social work degree programs choose a current social problem that is easily researched and develop an intervention or social change model for presentation to their thesis review board. The work that you submit can be reviewed by an internal thesis review team, requiring that you defend your research during the review process.

Progression through the online PhD in Social Work program may include continuous work on your thesis project, with some programs requiring that you complete it over the course of 2-3 different classes. Universities typically offer you a lot of support and even mentors throughout the process.

Some FAQs about PhD in Social Work Programs

Below are some frequently asked questions about PhD in Social Work Programs.

What is Foundational coursework for a PhD in Social Work program?

Foundational coursework for a doctoral program in social work includes research methods, statistical analysis, qualitative and quantitative research design and analysis, theory and ethics.

What research projects might you take on during a Social Work PhD program?

Oftentimes doctoral students will volunteer or accept a paid assistantship on a faculty members’ funded research project. This provides the student hands on experience in the area in which they intend to specialize in the future. The topics are varied and participation ranges from literature searches and review to subject recruitment to data collection and analysis and writing up results.

Are advanced standing programs available as a part time program?

None of the online programs discussed above offer part time programs. Advanced standing status is typically reserved for MSW/MSSW programs and not at the doctoral level.

Do PhD in Social Work Programs have concentration tracks?

Each student enters a PhD program with a general idea of a topic or area of concentration they’d like to study. Ideally the student is paired with a faculty mentor experienced in that same or a similar area. The mentor can then help guide the student in networking in that arena and collaborating on research projects and publications. As interests of each student varies, there are not concentration tracks within a PhD program as there are in MSW/MSSW programs. Students take the information learned in courses and apply it to their core area of interest. For example, a doctoral student interested in Gerontology could focus an Ethics paper on elder abuse. Another student in the same class interested in child welfare could center their Ethics paper on a portion of the foster care system.

Social Work Career Options

Once you have completed the journey towards your PhD in Social Work, you may be able to cash-in on your investment through a wide variety of careers in the social work field. An intriguing aspect about the PhD program is that it can help you gain access to careers in education, research, or even social work leadership.

Current job openings for PhD in Social Work holders can include Social Services Director, which can include leadership within certain sectors of community social work programs. This career may have different title variations such as Community Service Director and Family Service Director.

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Colleges, universities, and non-profit organizations may also employ PhD holders to help educate students and professionals on various social work policies, procedures, and methods. This is one of the most popular sectors of employment for PhD graduates, since it can influence the success of social work professionals in the field.

At the government level, social work research may be a large component in the constantly changing social environment. PhD holders in Social Work can organization and implement research programs to find effective social interventions or services suggested for various social problems.

Regardless of which field you plan to pursue after graduating, the PhD in Social Work can provide you with valuable skills that can be applied in many diverse professional areas. Your engagement in this program can result in years of a fulfilling career within your community or beyond it.

What types of jobs are available for a PhD in Social Work?

Most PhDs in Social Work are researchers, professors or administrators in schools of social work. They can work at colleges and universities, hospitals and direct social service agencies. A number of PhDs in Social Work become policy analysts, consultants, writers, professional speakers and trainers. These professionals can work for government agencies, think tanks or start their own companies. Salaries for PhDs in Social Work can range from $80,000 up to $93,000+ per year depending upon the position and length of experience 

2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for Social Workers, All Other reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed March 2023.