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Best Online Doctorate of Social Work Programs 2021


While aspiring social workers can earn professional licensure with a master's degree, some prefer to expand their career opportunities with a doctor of social work (DSW) or Ph.D. in social work.

A doctorate equips learners with expertise and high-level knowledge about a niche area within social work. Many individuals with a doctorate in social work go on to work in top management positions, social work policy analysis, and consulting. Other graduates focus on research and teaching.

Doctoral programs require a significant time commitment, with candidates spending anywhere from 4-7 years or more to earn their degree. Many students choose to pursue a doctorate of social work online. Distance learners can study from home on their own schedules and avoid the often long and costly commute to campus.

If an online Ph.D. in social work appeals to you, check out the best Ph.D. social work programs below.

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Best Online Doctorate in Social Work Degree Programs

Baylor University — Doctor of Philosophy in Social Work

Established in 1845 by Baptist pioneers, this Texas-based Christian university offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in 12 academic divisions. Baylor has designed an online doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.) in social work that prepares graduates for research and teaching positions in higher education and leadership roles in government, social work agencies, and religious organizations.

The Ph.D. program admits a new cohort of 5-7 students every other year. Before beginning their studies, distance learners attend an in-person 4-5 day mandatory orientation at the Waco campus. Each course meets weekly in real-time on specific evenings using a synchronous video conferencing format. The 10-semester curriculum comprises courses that evince the university's integration of faith with social work practices; some courses include Christianity, ethics, and social work, social policy and the religious sector, and religious and cultural diversity.

  • Program: Ph.D. in social work
  • Campus: Waco, Texas
  • Type: Private
  • Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
  • Tuition: $1,856 per credit
  • Admission Requirements: Master of social work (MSW) or master's in a related field; personal statement; resume or CV; sample of scholarly writing; grade of B or higher on the Graduate School of Social Work statistics exam
  • Minimum Time Commitment: 36 months
  • On-Campus Requirements: Yes
  • School site: Tuition | Financial aid
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The University of Tennessee, Knoxville — Doctor of Social Work

UT Knoxville, the flagship institution of the University of Tennessee system, administers 370 undergraduate and 547 graduate programs to over 30,000 students. The College of Social Work offers a doctor of social work (DSW) degree online in clinical practice and leadership. This three-year, accelerated program features an innovative advanced clinical social work curriculum that integrates evidence-based practice, clinical leadership, clinical science, and applied research.

The 48-credit curriculum enables clinical social work professionals to earn their degree without interrupting their career. Students take two 3-credit courses each semester for eight continuous semesters, including summer sessions. All distance learners must attend a week-long intensive session at the Knoxville campus during their first summer semester.

  • Program: DSW in clinical practice and leadership
  • Campus: Knoxville, Tennessee
  • Type: Public
  • Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
  • Tuition: $13,380 annually in-state; $31,684 annually out-of-state
  • Admission Requirements: Master of social work (MSW) from a Council on Social Work Education-accredited school; 3.0 GPA; three years of post-MSW clinical experience; graduate record examinations (GRE) scores
  • Minimum Time Commitment: 36 months
  • On-Campus Requirements: Yes
  • School site: Tuition | Financial aid
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State University of New York at Buffalo — Doctor of Social Work

The flagship institution of the State University of New York system, UB offers over 500 programs. The 39-credit, part-time doctor of social work (DSW) in social welfare takes three years to complete over seven semesters.

Designed for experienced social workers with access to a client population, the DSW curriculum advances the incorporation of a trauma-informed and human rights perspective into social work practice. Students learn to integrate research into best practices as well as identify and overcome barriers to effective treatment.

The fully online degree delivers synchronous classes comprising live video sessions and asynchronous classes that give students the flexibility to complete work at their own pace. Degree seekers should plan to attend one mandatory on-campus orientation before beginning their degree.

  • Program: DSW in social welfare
  • Campus: Buffalo, New York
  • Type: Public
  • Accreditation: Middle States Commission on Higher Education
  • Tuition: $800 per credit in-state; $1,050 per credit out-of-state
  • Admission Requirements: Master of social work (MSW) from a Council on Social Work Education-accredited school; 3.0 GPA; three years of post-MSW clinical experience; valid and active state-issued social work licensure, certification, or registration
  • Minimum Time Commitment: 36 months
  • On-Campus Requirements: Yes
  • School site: Tuition | Financial aid
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University of Pennsylvania — Doctorate in Clinical Social Work

Philadelphia-based University of Pennsylvania, established in 1740 by Benjamin Franklin, has grown into a respected Ivy League university offering innovative undergraduate and graduate programs. Penn boasts the nation's first social work practice doctorate, which is administered through the School of Social Policy and Practice.

This mostly online doctoral program in clinical social work allows social work practitioners to finish their degree in three years without disrupting their careers. The curriculum combines synchronous, real-time courses two evenings a week with two 5-day campus immersion experiences.

Distance learners attend online classes with the same cohort of students through the first two years, exploring social work foundations and electives that span clinical theory and research to trauma-informed interventions. In the last year, students participate in a seminar that guides them through the completion and defense of their dissertation research.

  • Program: Doctor in clinical social work
  • Campus: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • Type: Private
  • Accreditation: Middle States Commission on Higher Education
  • Tuition: $6,086 per course unit
  • Admission Requirements: Master of social work (MSW) from a Council on Social Work Education-accredited school; three years of post-MSW clinical experience; sample of written work; application essay
  • Minimum Time Commitment: 36 months
  • On-Campus Requirements: Yes
  • School site: Tuition | Financial aid
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University of Southern California — Doctor of Social Work

USC, a leading private research university in Los Angeles, boasts an enrollment of over 40,000 in 75 undergraduate and 125 graduate and professional programs. The online doctor of social work (DSW) degree prepares experienced social work practitioners for leadership and entrepreneurial roles in agencies and community organizations.

The curriculum encompasses the areas of innovative design, executive leadership, and the "12 Grand Challenges for Social Work" outlined by the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare. Graduates acquire the knowledge and skills to apply practical solutions to challenges that directly impact marginalized, vulnerable, or otherwise disadvantaged client populations.

The DSW degree comprises 42 units of coursework delivered via weekly online courses, two in-person residencies, and a capstone project. Distance learners may choose a standard track that takes nine semesters to complete or an accelerated track requiring seven semesters.

  • Program: DSW
  • Campus: Los Angeles, California
  • Type: Private
  • Accreditation: Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior College and University Commission
  • Tuition: $1,995 per credit
  • Admission Requirements: Master of social work (MSW) from a Council on Social Work Education-accredited school; five years of post-MSW clinical experience; resume; statement of purpose; three letters of recommendation
  • Minimum Time Commitment: 28 months
  • On-Campus Requirements: Yes
  • School site: Tuition | Financial aid
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University of St. Thomas — Doctor of Social Work

The University of St. Thomas, a Minnesota-based Catholic institution, has developed the first online doctoral program in social work that focuses on preparing social work faculty for university-level teaching and leadership positions.

Students progress through the three-year study plan as a cohort. The 45-credit curriculum comprises 15 courses offered in two eight-week sessions each semester. Designed to fit the needs of social work professionals, the online courses use synchronous and asynchronous delivery formats. The program also requires distance learners to attend an annual two-week residency at the Saint Paul campus.

All degree seekers must complete a banded dissertation comprising three critical works of scholarship. The banded dissertation requirement leads to research-based or publishable articles, which prepares graduates for academic positions.

  • Program: Doctor of social work
  • Campus: Saint Paul, Minnesota
  • Type: Private
  • Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission
  • Tuition: $1,131 per credit
  • Admission Requirements: Master of social work (MSW) from a Council on Social Work Education-accredited school; 3.0 GPA; two years of post-MSW clinical experience; writing sample; personal statement; three letters of recommendation
  • Minimum Time Commitment: 36 months
  • On-Campus Requirements: Yes
  • School site: Tuition | Financial aid
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Applying to an Online Doctor of Social Work Program

The admission requirements for online social work doctoral programs do not differ much from on-campus programs, although incoming students must have a reliable internet connection at home.

Doctoral programs are challenging and come with demanding admission requirements. Prospective students should hold a master's degree in social work with a high GPA -- usually 3.0 or above -- and research experience through a master's thesis. Schools often require candidates to submit dissertation research proposals with their application, so prospective students should be prepared to describe their research interests.

While doctoral programs do not necessarily require work experience or social work licensure, some DSW programs prefer candidates with 1-2 years of professional experience. In addition, applicants usually need to submit recommendation letters and participate in admission interviews.

Frequently Asked Questions

What can you do with a doctorate degree in social work?

Earning a doctorate in social work online prepares individuals for a variety of careers in the field. Some DSW-holders become researchers or faculty members at institutes and universities. Graduates also go into consulting and training or apply their expertise to policy development or social work administration.

What is accreditation and why is it important?

Accreditation ensures that students receive a quality education. Accreditation agencies assess schools and academic programs, offering accreditation status to institutions that adhere to the highest quality standards. Unaccredited programs, therefore, should appear as a red flag to individuals looking at potential schools. Social work students in particular should look for programs accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE).

Is an online doctorate degree in social work worth it?

Many students prefer online degrees, which allow candidates to study from home on their own time. This flexibility often allows distance learners to work while they earn a degree without sacrificing their income. Accredited online degrees hold the same value as on-campus degrees.

What is the highest paid social worker position?

While social workers as a whole make a median annual salary of about $50,470, healthcare social workers earn median annual wages of $56,750, according to the BLS. Social workers who fall into the "other" category make even more, earning a median salary of $61,230.