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Doctor of Social Work


While the master of social work (MSW) is still considered the terminal social work degree, there are two options available for experienced social work professionals looking to obtain a doctorate degree: a doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.), and a doctoral degree in social work (DSW). The DSW is also commonly offered as a doctorate in social welfare.

Prospective scholars, researchers, and educators are generally advised to select research-focused social work Ph.D. programs. Students targeting a higher clinical degree should consider a DSW, which tends to be practice-based. Either type of doctoral degree in social work prepares graduates for advanced positions in the fields.

While some candidates may complete a doctoral degree in social work in just three years, others may take up to four or five years, depending on how long it takes to complete their dissertation.

According to The Bureau of Labor Statistics, postsecondary social work educators enjoy a median annual salary of $77,910 and a projected job growth rate of 9% between 2019-2029. Social and community service managers, including positions such as director of social services, clinical services director, and adoption service managers, earn a mean annual wage of $72,900.

Doctorate level social work degree

Length: 3-6 years

Credit Hours: 60 credits

Licensure Requirements: A master of social work is the terminal degree for clinical practice, and there is no license designated specifically for doctorate-holders.

Admission Requirements

Doctoral social work program applicants must hold a master’s degree in social work or an allied field from an accredited college or university. Applicants may also need to provide:

  • Transcripts showing academic excellence
  • A GPA of at least 3.0 or higher
  • GRE scores
  • Letters of recommendation

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.

DSW vs. Ph.D. Core Concepts and Coursework

DSW and Ph.D. course requirements often differ significantly. Ph.D. candidates typically complete a curriculum encompassing advanced research methods, theory, behavioral science, policy, and teaching. Ph.D. coursework develops leaders who will advance the practice of social work through research or teaching others.

DSW curricula emphasize advanced clinical practice, clinical research, and advanced practice leadership. The goal of DSW coursework is to build leaders in clinical practice, usually in advanced roles, who influence and improve social work practices for individuals, families, and communities.

Doctoral candidates typically spend about two years completing coursework and 2-4 years researching, writing, and defending a thesis, dissertation, or similar project. While doctoral programs in social work sometimes take only three years to complete, this is somewhat uncommon. Ph.D. programs generally last 4-6 years.

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

Social Work Licensure at the Doctoral Level

A master of social work is the terminal degree for clinical practice, and there is no license designated specifically for doctorate-holders. However, doctoral graduates are qualified to seek licensure at the master’s and clinical levels in most states.

What is the Difference Between an MSW and a DSW?

State licensing boards require an MSW for clinical social workers to practice. An MSW takes about two years to complete, followed by two years of clinical experience. Next-level DSW programs train students for advanced leadership roles as practitioners, researchers, educators, and administrators. DSWs take 2-5 years to complete and culminate in a dissertation, capstone, or final project and/or residency.

The advantages of earning a DSW apply mainly to social workers seeking to advance their clinical practices and/or pursue new career opportunities, particularly in teaching, clinical research, and administration. DSWs also increase earning potential.

After a near-disappearance of DSW programs in the late 1990s, a resurgence led to an increase from five programs in 2014 to 14 in 2017.

Jobs with a Doctoral Degree in Social Work

Doctoral degree-holders in social work find employment in clinical settings, postsecondary teaching and research, and upper-level administration in academia and healthcare facility environments. The following three positions offer a look at advanced career options for DSWs and Ph.D.s. A doctorate can increase annual income by $20,000 or more.

Clinical Social Worker: These professionals help clients with behavioral, mental health, and substance abuse issues, and may also assist them with finding employment and housing. Clinical social workers provide individual therapy in private practices, hospitals, and rehabilitation centers.

Postsecondary Social Work Teacher: Typically employed at four-year colleges and universities, postsecondary teachers train aspiring social workers at the undergraduate and/or graduate levels. They also conduct research in their specialty areas with a focus on advancement and innovation.

Social Work Administration: Focusing on the big picture of social problems and services, social work administrators manage and direct organizations, agencies, and facilities through budget design, outreach initiatives, program evaluation and development, program delivery improvement, and policy work.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is a doctorate in social work worth it?

The answer to this question depends on an individual's career goals. Earning a doctorate in social work can lead to increased opportunities and salaries for those who want to advance their social work practices and/or teach and conduct research.

What is the difference between a DSW and a Ph.D. in social work?

While the degrees hold some elements in common, the programs vary in scope and focus. Social work Ph.D. programs lead to a doctor of philosophy degree, taking a scholarly and theoretical approach to the subject. Known as a practice doctorate, the DSW prepares graduates to lead and direct clinics and organizations.

Is a DSW a doctor?

A DSW is not a doctor like a physician. DSW-holders possess doctoral degrees, indicating graduate-level training that prepares them to take on advanced leadership and administrative roles at organizations and agencies. While DSW-holders address mental health issues, they do not perform the same functions as an MD.

Who are the highest paid social workers?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics lists social workers employed in ambulatory health care services (excluding ambulance services) as the highest paid, making an annual mean salary of $83,050. Hawaii tops the list of highest paying states for social workers with social workers making an annual mean wage of $81,520.