What to Look For in a Doctorate in Social Work Online Program


Written by Ann Feeney, SWG Rankings Team
Last Updated: May 2023

Earning a doctorate in social work online can position you to pursue career advancement as a social worker, social work administrator, researcher, or professor. This guide explains what to look for when researching programs, things to expect in an online social work doctoral program, and professional pathways after graduation. Learn more with this outline of the top doctorates in social work online.

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What to Look For in a Doctorate in Social Work Online Program

Doctor of social work (DSW) degrees emphasize the skills and knowledge needed to provide strategic direction for government offices or nonprofits engaged in social work. A Ph.D., on the other hand, emphasizes research. This guide to earning a doctorate in social work online focuses on the DSW.


Even if you already have a social work license from an accredited master in social work (MSW) program, attending an accredited doctorate program is still vital. Most employers will not consider hiring graduates of unaccredited programs, and almost no accredited programs accept transfer credits from unaccredited schools.


The primary factors affecting cost are the school’s public vs. private status and whether you qualify for in-state tuition. At a private school, costs can be $50,000 or more per year, while public schools may charge half of that. However, a private school may be able to offer more generous financial aid through scholarships, so it’s important to take a holistic view of all opportunities.

Financial Aid

At the DSW level, financial aid often includes work-study programs such as assisting faculty with teaching or research. You may also qualify for grants, scholarships, and loans from your school or external sources like foundations, nonprofits, and corporations.

Admission Requirements

Admission requirements can offer insight into the likelihood of becoming accepted. You can also use them as an indicator of program culture and what the school values in students. If you do not meet all of the requirements for an otherwise ideal program, talk to an admissions counselor at the school. You may have other skills, experience, or background that can outweigh possible shortcomings.

Online Requirements/Formatting

Some doctorate in social work online programs have on-campus requirements, while others do not. If you need to maintain your job while pursuing a degree, consider programs with asynchronous delivery, which offers more flexibility in scheduling and completing coursework than synchronous classes with set class times. Asynchronous courses, however, offer fewer opportunities for networking and interacting with faculty.

Featured Online Programs in Social Work

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The Best Online DSW Programs

Simmons University

Simmons University offers an online doctorate in social work program that you can complete part time or full time. The 48-credit program lets you focus on inclusive leadership, advanced clinical practice, or teaching and education.

You’ll study building positive organizations, advanced practice with diverse populations, social change, and theory and pedagogical practice. At the program’s end, you’ll present a capstone to your peers and faculty.

You can apply year round and start in January, May, or September.

  • Program: Doctorate in social work
  • Campus: Boston, Massachusetts
  • Type: Private
  • Tuition: $1,200 per credit hour
  • Admission Requirements: Master of social work degree from an CSWE-accredited school; minimum 3.0 GPA; three years of post-graduate work experience
  • Minimum Time Commitment: 24 months
  • On-Campus Requirements: Yes

Spalding University

Spalding University’s low-residency doctorate in social work program allows current social workers and educators to advance their clinical practice to prepare for leadership and administration positions.

The 48-credit hybrid program offers online courses and on-campus classes on Saturdays. The curriculum covers in-depth the theories of social change, research for advanced social work practice, trauma-informed interventions, and teaching skills. You’ll finish the program with a capstone.

Throughout the program, you can take advantage of fellowships, research positions, and publication opportunities.

  • Program: Doctorate in social work
  • Campus: Louisville, Kentucky
  • Type: Private
  • Tuition: $990 per credit hour
  • Admission Requirements: Master of social work degree from an CSWE-accredited school; minimum 3.3 GPA; two years of post-graduate work experience; resume; three letters of recommendation; statement of purpose
  • Minimum Time Commitment: 36 months
  • On-Campus Requirements: Yes

University of Pennsylvania

University of Pennsylvania’s school of social policy and practice offers a fully online doctorate in social work that you can complete in 2-3 years.

This program requires 12 course units. The full-time program offers two evening courses held online every week, but you need to attend two five-day immersion experiences.

Courses blend theory, practice, and research to prepare you to become an educator.

You’ll study quantitative and qualitative research methods, clinical theory, trauma spectrum and its treatment, and teaching methods.

  • Program: Doctorate in social work
  • Campus: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • Type: Private
  • Tuition: $7,014 per course unit
  • Admission Requirements: Master of social work degree from an CSWE-accredited school; three years of social work practice; resume; video interview; application essay; writing sample; three letters of recommendation
  • Minimum Time Commitment: 24 months
  • On-Campus Requirements: Yes

What to Expect in a Doctorate in Social Work Online Program

During a doctorate in social work online program, you can expect to explore social work at the macro level, along with structuring social work initiatives, advanced clinical counseling, program impact measurement, and policy analysis. All doctoral programs include research, a dissertation, or at least one capstone research project.


Almost all doctorate in social work online programs include foundations of research methods and statistics, advanced social work theory, advanced clinical social work, and leadership for social change classes.

Program Length

Some doctorate in social work online programs take two years of full-time study, while others take 3-4 years. Most courses require 50-70 credits.

Field Placement

Depending on the program and state requirements, you will complete field hours. Check with the program to make sure you can complete these in your community and what kind of help you can receive for finding a placement.

Prepare for Licensure

If you already have a social work license, your doctoral work will typically count towards continuing education programs. If you do not have a license, your doctorate in social work online will typically meet state requirements for a social work license. Research these requirements before enrolling in a program.

What Can You Do With a DSW Degree

A DSW can qualify you for nearly any role in social work. In addition to direct clinical social work, a DSW can prepare you to lead or administer a social work agency, conduct policy research and analysis for government or a non-governmental organization, perform high-level program impact evaluation, or teach in a college or university.

Careers with a DSW may pay considerably more than those with an MSW. However, pay also depends on the type of organization, experience, local costs and competition for social workers, and other factors.

Careers with Doctorate Social Work Degree (DSW)

Licensed Clinical Social Worker

An LCSW can diagnose mental health conditions and provide counseling. While the minimum requirement for this role is an MSW, a DSW may qualify you for a higher ranking as an LCSW or supervisor role.

Average Salary (May 2023): $62,600

Bereavement Coordinator

Bereavement coordinators help individuals and families cope with the death of a loved one. They often work in hospitals or hospice programs to provide support before and after losing a close friend or family member. They may collaborate with chaplains and other spiritual support positions.

Average Salary (May 2023): $48,780

Medical Social Worker

Medical social workers are typically embedded in hospitals or clinics and help patients address social determinants of health. These may include access to food or housing, referral to mental health or substance misuse programs, and other roles. In some emergency rooms, medical social workers act as violence interrupters to stop the escalation of violence and revenge.

Average Salary (May 2023): $59,310

School Social Worker

School social workers coordinate with children, families, teachers, and staff to create the optimal learning environment for every student. They may support new immigrant families, help dysfunctional families, address school bullying, and identify and report potential signs of child abuse.

Average Salary (May 2023): $51,060

How Much Can You Make With a Social Work Doctoral Degree?

Earning a doctorate in social work online or on campus can be expensive, but it can help to look at your education as a financial investment. According to the National Association of Social Workers 2017 survey, new social workers with DSWs typically earn $66,500 annually — considerably higher than the average MSW salary of $44,309. As graduates gain work experience, they can expect to earn even more.

Learn more about social worker salaries in our social work salary guide.

Frequently Asked Questions about Getting Your Doctorate in Social Work Online

Why would someone get a DSW?

A DSW can prepare graduates to take on a leadership role in social work, social policy development, or related fields. Graduates with DSWs also typically earn more than MSW-level professionals.

What is the difference between DSW and PsyD?

A DSW is a doctoral degree focused on the theory and practice of social work, while a Psy.D. has earned a doctorate in psychology. Most Psy.D. graduates work as psychologists, while most DSWs work in social work directly or in administration.

How long does it take to get a DSW?

Depending on factors such as the individual program, your graduate degree, and whether you attend on a full-time or part-time basis, you can earn a DSW in two years. Most programs, however, take 3-4 years.