Doctor of Social Work

DSW Degree

The Doctorate in Social Work (DSW) is a specialized program in one of the social work fields that prepares social workers to gain advanced training in research, supervision, and policy analysis.

The DSW differs from a Doctor of Philosophy in social work in that it is an applied degree designed to train students for practice settings of social work. The DSW degree prepares students for roles as administrators, trainers, and evaluators. A PhD in social work is a research degree that prepares students for careers in research, teaching, policy development and analysis.

A doctorate in social work gives you the versatility, leadership qualities, prestige, and recognition to pursue a variety of career options. A DSW will provide the authority to form your own research program as well as a deep understanding of the clinical social work field. Having a doctorate in social work may provide you the freedom to work in any social work agency, open an advanced practice, become a professor, work in health care and medical settings, or move directly into management.

DSW vs. PhD: What’s the Difference?

The difference between a DSW and a Doctor of Philosophy in Social Work lies in the focus. The DSW relies on curriculum centered around the practice of social work in various settings, while the PhD is based more on research and theory. A learner with a PhD in Social Work will likely go into teaching and further research, while someone who holds a DSW may advance in the workforce to leadership roles managing other social workers, creating policy and working in legal services.

For leaders looking to solve large-scale problems and conquer social work issues on a grand scale, a Doctorate in Social Work is a step beyond the MSW. Curriculum includes courses in organizational leadership, managing complex systems, and informatics in social work. A PhD in Social Work, since it prepares students to become educators, researchers or scholars, will include courses such as social policy analysis and ecosystems theory and practice, courses designed more for researchers than leaders.

Sponsored Online DSW Program
Sponsored Online DSW Program
School Program Description
University of Southern California (USC)
  • Earn a USC Doctor of Social Work degree online in as few as 24 months part time.
  • Develop expertise in organizational leadership, public discourse and data-driven decision-making.
  • In place of a dissertation, design an innovative solution to a real-world social problem that interests you.

Sponsored Online DSW Program


Degree Requirements

The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) is in the process of considering a set of standards for doctoral programs in social work. In their early research in October 2017, the CSWE found that most doctoral students complete their degree in three years.

While admissions vary by program, most programs require the applicant to hold a masters degree in social work from a program accredited by the CSWE. Some courses require you to be licensed for clinical practice, although this varies program to program. Most schools require an application fee.

Applicants are typically required to have a cumulative GPA of 3.0 and two years post-MSW experience in clinical practice. Letters of recommendation that attest to your ability to perform quality work are usually necessary. Most online Doctorate in Social Work programs require you to take the Graduate Record of Examination (GRE). Some schools require evidence of original research or samples of academic writing.

DSW Curriculum

Doctorate in Social Work concentrations can include Policy Practice, Criminal Justice, Medial Social Work, Social Work Administration, and Clinical Practice.

Courses in a DSW program may typically fall under two primary content areas: Advanced Management Practice in Complex Systems and Innovation and Leadership. You may expect the curriculum to explore topics such as:

  • Organizational Leadership: Understanding how organizations work and how organizational change is facilitated.
  • Data-Driven Decision Making: Development, implementation and management of change through data collection and analysis.
  • Innovation and Change: Study of cutting-edge transformative thinking and change-management research to predict client and community needs.
  • Leading Public Discourse: Development of new perspectives and ideas in the public realm to better benefit communities.
  • Technological Fluency: Evaluation of both theory and practices using new technologies, and best ways to implement them.

Course offerings may include:

  • Managing Innovation and Change in Social Work
  • Leading Public Discourse in Social Work
  • Informatics and Social Innovation
  • Leading and Managing Complex Systems
  • Financial Management for Social Change
  • Data-Driven Decision-Making in Social Services

Part-Time vs. Full Time DSW Programs

Full-time Doctorate in Social Work programs are designed for students who can attend on a full-time basis – usually about 12 credit hours per semester – and may typically be completed in 2-3 years.

Part-time DSW programs are designed to accommodate students who are working full-time. They require students to complete 2 courses per semester, with each class meeting once per week in the evenings, and may typically be completed in 3-6 years.

DSW Careers

A Doctorate in Social Work may provide graduates with opportunities to pursue a career in a number of social work fields. Some of these are:

  • Advanced Practice Clinical Social Worker – Often specializes in specific practice areas, and may consult or supervise other social work professionals, work on setting policy at local or national levels, or work in education. They are qualified to practice independently and make referrals to other specialists.
  • Social & Community Service Manager – Plans, directs, or coordinates the activities of a social service program or community outreach organization. Oversees the program or organization's budget and policies regarding participant involvement, program requirements, and benefits.
  • Non-Profit Director – Engages in the oversight or direction of a social service non-profit. This includes legal, financial, program and management oversight. The Non-Profit Director reports to a Board of Directors.
  • Social Work Administrator – Directs a social service agency or health agency at a local, state, or national level. Sets the agency’s budget and program development policy, and oversees management.
  • Professor of Social Work – Teaches and performs research in social work courses at a college or university. Typically begins at an assistant professor level, but may be considered for tenure track at some institutions.
  • School Social Work – Collaborates with teachers and staff at elementary or high schools to help remove barriers to education and address issues in and out of the school environment that may impact the well-being of students.
  • Child Welfare Permanency Worker – Also known as an Adoption Worker. Evaluates potential homes for children who are in foster care or state supervision. Assists with transition into the home and referrals for post-adoptive care.

Online DSW Programs

The prevalence of online education allows the student to access a wide range of excellent institutions of higher learning while they pursue the Doctorate in Social Work. It also means that many of the barriers that working professionals face when making the decision whether to return for a terminal degree are removed. Some of the top/best DSW programs now offer at least some online component to their program. Pursuing a DSW program online has a number of unique advantages.

  • Flexibility – Unlike brick-and-mortar universities, which have set class times, online programs rarely do. While there are due dates for exams and assignments, students are free to work according to their own schedule, from anywhere that has internet access. This aspect allows students who are working full-time or have other obligations that make it difficult to adhere to a set class schedule. Students can also attend a program in another state without having to move.
  • Self-Directed – It’s much easier to keep pace in an online program than in a traditional classroom. Sometimes, in a traditional setting, the students can find themselves feeling stuck waiting on a slow-paced professor, or overwhelmed trying to keep up with a fast-paced one. In an online DSW program, the student can take their time on more difficult topics or skip ahead when they’re ready.

Online Doctorate in Social Work Programs: Class Structures & Instruction Methods

Course scheduling in an online DSW program will typically be in one of two formats: the Cohort Model, or Flexible Course Scheduling. In the Cohort Model, students move through the entire program as a group. This allows them to develop strong personal and professional connections, develop a sense of community, and create stronger peer support.

In the flexible course scheduling model, students move through the program at their own pace and achieve completion on their own terms. This model is the primary advantage of an online program.

DSW: Online vs. Hybrid Delivery Methods

In an online DSW program, most of the content will be delivered in an online format. Assignments are turned in online and exams administered online. Class sessions can be synchronous, in which students interact with their professors live and at set times, or asynchronous, in which students participate in learning activities on their own time.

Hybrid DSW programs combine on-campus learning with internet-based lectures and class activities. Some hybrid programs only require on-campus activities once a semester or one time at the end of the program. Hybrid programs allow for the flexibility of studying online with the in-person interaction of campus-based classes.

Is a Doctorate in Social Work Worth It?

While a Doctorate in Social Work is certainly not a requirement, it is often considered an improvement upon the standard level of education earned by most social workers. For those looking to practice as well as lead, the DSW sets you apart and gives you the educational background to step up your career and show your dedication to your career and lifelong learning. A DSW may open new doors, and possibly lead to more advancement opportunities over the life of your career. That said, a DSW is not the standard for licensure, that spot is held by the Master of Social Work, or MSW, or even only a Bachelor of Social Work in some states. However, if you aspire to hold a leadership role, then a DSW may be personally worth it to you.

DSW Frequently Asked Questions

Do I have to hold an MSW degree to get into a DSW program?

Not necessarily. While some programs require that your master's in social work, other programs accept related programs as well; these may include Master of Public Health (MPH), Master of Public Policy (MPP), Master of Business Administration (MBA), Master of Public Administration (MPA), Master of Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT), Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or any professional doctorate. If you do have an MSW, it needs to be from a CSWE-accredited program.

Do I need to take the GRE?

No, graduate level exams are not necessary for the DSW program.

Can I use financial aid for a DSW program?

Most students use a variety of resources to fund their education. Usually, a combination of loans, scholarships and fellowships are used to finance their education. Sometimes employer contributions are also a big help when it comes to funding education.

What technical equipment will I need for online classes?

Since most DSW programs are at least partially online, you will need a desktop or laptop computer equipped with a video camera and microphone. It’s a good idea to invest in a noise-canceling headset and a broadband internet (high-speed) connection.

What jobs does the DSW prepare me for?

Take a look at our section on DSW careers, but graduates of DSW programs may succeed in securing jobs they were unable to prior to earning their degree, and jobs in research and policy are also common. From clinicians to directors, the DSW provides the learning foundation necessary for success in a variety of roles.