Doctor of Social Work

While the MSW is still considered the terminal degree in the field of social work, there are two options available for experienced social work professionals looking to obtain a doctorate degree: a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) and a doctoral degree in social work (DSW), also commonly offered as a doctorate in social welfare. Prospective scholars, researchers, or educators in social work are generally advised to pursue social work PhD programs, as PhDs are more research-focused. Students targeting a higher clinical degree should consider a Doctorate of Social Work (DSW), which tends to be more practice-focused. Either type of doctoral degree in social work primes graduates to hold advanced positions in the clinical and research fields.1 It is possible to complete a doctoral degree in social work in just three years, but it can take up to four or five years depending upon the time it takes students to complete their dissertation.

According to O*Net Online, postsecondary social work educators make a median salary of $68,300 per year and their projected job growth is 14% through 2026.2 Social and community service managers, including positions such as director of social services, clinical services director, and adoption service managers, earn an average of $65,320 per year.3

Table of Contents
Admissions Requirements
Core Concepts and Coursework
On Campus Doctorate of Social Work Programs
Online Doctorate of Social Work Programs
Social Work Licensure
Jobs with a Doctoral Degree in Social Work
Frequently Asked Questions

Admission Requirements

In order to be eligible for a PhD or DSW program, applicants must have received a master’s degree in social work, or in certain cases, a master’s degree from an allied field from an accredited college or university. Admission into a doctoral social work or social welfare program also often requires the candidate to provide prior transcripts showing academic excellence, including an acceptable grade point average (GPA). Along with requiring Graduate Record Exam (GRE) scores and recommendations, doctoral candidates are expected to showcase their capacity for advanced academic work, dedication to research, and strong writing and analytical skills. International students must take and submit Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) scores.

Core Concepts and Coursework

Doctorate of social work/social welfare (DSW) and PhD course requirements can differ significantly. Those working toward a PhD will typically find a curriculum devoted to advanced research methods, theory, behavioral science, policy, and teaching. The ultimate goal of PhD coursework is to develop leaders who will advance the practice of social work through research or through the education of others. DSW programs include courses emphasizing advanced clinical practice, clinical research, and advanced practice leadership. The goal of this coursework is to develop clinical leaders who will return to clinical practice, usually in advanced roles, influencing and improving social work practices for individuals, families, and communities.

Doctoral candidates will typically spend about two years completing coursework and two to four years researching, writing, and defending a thesis, dissertation, or similar project. While doctoral programs in social work can sometimes be completed in as few as three years, this is somewhat uncommon – particularly for PhD programs, which are generally expected to take four to five years, and sometimes up to six years, to complete.

DSW Coursework

  • Social Theories and Their Relation to Clinical Practice
  • Implementing Evidence-Based and Evidence-Informed Practices
  • Neuroscience for Clinical Practice
  • Psychopathology and Psychopharmacology
  • Critical Analysis of Clinical Practice

PhD in Social Work Coursework

  • Quantitative Scientific Methods
  • Survey of Research Methods in Social and Behavioral Science
  • Integrating Public Policy Issues and Outcomes Into Social Work Research
  • Doctoral Teaching Practicum
  • Dissertation Direction

On Campus Doctorate of Social Work Programs

University of Denver logo

The University of Denver (Denver, CO)

The University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work offers a PhD program for experienced master’s degree candidates who are interested in becoming scholars, researchers, or educators in social work. Students must complete 75 quarter-hour credits over two academic years before beginning work on a required dissertation. PhD candidates can expect to complete courses such as Social Work Knowledge Integration and Publication, Quantitative Methods for Assessing Social Interventions, Qualitative Data Analysis, Social Work Theory in Research and Practice, and Advanced Social Welfare Policy Analysis. With a heavy focus on mentorship, the School of Social Work offers students the opportunity to work with a faculty member during a teaching practicum to help prepare for a career as an educator. Once students have completed their coursework, they must pass an exam in order to move on to the dissertation portion of their education. All doctoral students must also complete a research apprenticeship or assistantship to complete their degree. The PhD program is structured for completion in four years, but students are allowed up to seven years to complete the requirements for this degree.

New York University logo

New York University (New York, NY)

New York University’s Silver School of Social Work offers a DSW program for master’s level clinical social workers with at least two years of practice experience who are looking to gain leadership roles in their field. The program begins with 19 academic courses to be completed during a three-year period. Courses are held on campus every other Friday (with the exception of a summer session) to provide accommodations for candidates who work full-time. Doctorate of Social Welfare courses include Philosophies of Knowledge and Mind; Contemporary Theories of Clinical Practice; Clinical Social Work and Social Policy: Past and Present; Teaching Clinical Practice; Supervision/Field Education; and Publication Development Workshop. After completing the required courses students focus on building a portfolio. The portfolio for this program takes the place of a dissertation, which is commonly required with other doctoral programs and encompasses writing two publishable papers and a formal presentation of this work at a professional conference. NYU also offers a PhD in social work.

Tulane University logo

Tulane University (New Orleans, LA)

Tulane’s doctoral level social work degree program, offered on the New Orleans and Biloxi campuses, strive to educate scholars who are dedicated to excellence in policy, research, and clinical practice. Focusing largely on the needs of vulnerable populations, students learn to think critically about programmatic and policy-related interventions. Tulane has designed its curriculum to be accommodating to working professionals and requires two courses to be completed per semester during the first two years of study. During the final year, this is reduced to one class per semester to account for the time dedicated to the required advanced clinical project. Some DSW courses include Historical Approaches to Student Welfare; Social Work Theory; Practice Models & Methods; Intro to Qualitative & Interpretive Approaches to Human Inquiry; Applied Social Statistics; and Advanced Clinical Project Seminar. Once students have completed their course load, they are required to pass a comprehensive exam. Instead of a dissertation, students are expected to complete an advanced clinical project, which is developed in collaboration with their faculty advisor. 56 credit hours are required to complete this degree.

Online Doctorate of Social Work Programs

Baylor University logo

Baylor University (Waco, Texas)

Baylor University offers an online PhD degree program through the Diana R. Garland School of Social Work. The program uses high definition video conferencing technology to provide students with a simulated classroom experience. Classes are hosted at a set time one day during the week, in an online setting that makes it easy for students to interact with both peers and their instructors. Students will need to visit the campus for an introductory five-day session, and once again before the program concludes. Baylor’s PhD program is designed to create leaders and educators in the social work field. Their program differs from other PhD programs in that it focuses heavily on religion and faith in regards to ethics and social work practice. Classes fall under three tracks that must be completed prior to the dissertation: Faith in Practice and Theory, Research, and Teaching and Leadership. Students can expect to take courses such as Christianity, Ethics, and Social Work, Religious and Cultural Diversity, Quantitative Research for Social Work, Statistical Analysis for Social Work, and both a research and teaching practicum. Baylor’s PhD program will take students approximately three to four years to complete.

University of Tennessee Knoxville logo

University of Tennessee Knoxville (Knoxville, TN)

UT Knoxville offers a Doctor of Social Work (DSW) in Clinical Practice and Leadership ideal for working professionals. Intensive and accelerated, the DSW program can be completed in three years. Courses are taught online via interactive video and instructional media utilizing online learning resources focusing on theoretical knowledge, research, and evidence-based practice. All students must spend one week of each summer on the University of Tennessee Knoxville campus, but all other work will be completed through distance learning. Applicants should hold an MSW or MSSW from a CSWE-accredited program as well as two years of post-graduate clinical experience. A GPA of 3.0 is required as well as acceptable scores on the GRE. Coursework at UT Knoxville’s program is delivered through both synchronous and asynchronous models and includes classes like Neuroscience for Clinical Practice, Psychopathology and Psychopharmacology, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy I, Clinical Management, Advanced EBP for Addictions and Dual Diagnosis Treatment, and DSW Capstone II.

University of St. Thomas logo

The University of St. Thomas (Saint Paul, MN)

The University of St. Thomas offers a three-year online DSW program which prepares students for university-level teaching and advanced higher education positions. Students complete coursework online, with the exception of two-week residencies which take place annually on campus during the summer sessions. During the fall and spring each year, students are required to complete two 8-week courses. Classes include History of Social Work and Social Work Education, Roles and Responsibilities of the Professoriate, Mission and Purpose through Curriculum Development, Social Work Theoretical Perspectives, and a teaching practicum. Students must complete 45 credit hours in order to graduate.

Social Work Licensure

Because a master’s in social work is the terminal degree for clinical practice, there is no licensure designated specifically for doctoral graduates. However, doctoral graduates will be qualified to become licensed to practice at the master’s and clinical levels in most states.

Jobs with a Doctoral Degree in Social Work

Doctoral and PhD degrees in social work can open the door for a number of careers in the field of social work. Some examples include:

  • Administrator
  • Clinical Director
  • Clinician
  • Clinical Social Worker
  • College or University Professor (PhD)
  • Executive Director
  • Human Services Director
  • Licensed Social Worker
  • Nonprofit Executive
  • Researcher (PhD)
  • Senior Social Worker
  • Job Title

Frequently Asked Questions

Do I need to attend an accredited college or university to receive my PhD or DSW degree?

This is important criteria to consider if you looking at MSW or BSW degree programs but PhD and/or DSW programs are not accredited by the Council of Social Work Education. Students should choose a school with a strong reputation that holds regional accreditation. In addition, though it is not an accreditor, schools may join the Group for the Advancement of Doctoral Education in Social Work (GADE), membership in which is a sign of rigor in doctoral social work academics.

How long does it take to complete a PhD in social work?

Typically it takes at least three years to complete a doctoral program in social work. The first two years are commonly dedicated to academic coursework. After coursework is completed, students focus on their dissertation or final project, a process that commonly takes two to three years. Due to the intensity of doctoral-level dissertations, it is not uncommon for schools to allow up to six, and in some cases seven, years to complete a PhD or DSW.

What’s the typical salary for a social work professors?

According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, social work professors who teach, as well as those who do a combination of teaching and research, make an average of $71,670 per year.4 Those in the top 90th percentile make upwards of $111,150.4

Is it worth getting a doctorate in social work?

Depending upon your career goals, it can be beneficial to complete a doctorate in social work. Those who want to hold positions as researchers and university professors are usually required to have this degree in order to hold one of these positions. Those who want to hold an advanced position at a non-profit or at a clinical organization can also use this degree to set themselves apart from other candidates.

1. Advanced Practice Doctorates in Social Work : Implications for Social Work Practice, Research, and Education: http://www.socialworkpolicy.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/SWPI_DSW_ActionBrief.pdf
2. O*Net: Summary Report for Social Work, Teachers, Postsecondary: https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/25-1113.00
3. O*Net: Summary Report for Social and Community Service Managers: https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/11-9151.00
4. Bureau of Labor Statistics: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes119151.htm