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Best Online Doctorate in Social Work Programs

By: SocialWorkGuide.org Staff
Last Updated: December 2019

A doctorate in social work qualifies graduates for most social work licenses and certifications, provided candidates meet additional requirements, such as exams and field experiences. Doctorate-holders can also work as postsecondary teachers, survey researchers, and sociologists.

For professionals with a doctorate in social work, salary potential varies by career and industry. For example, social workers earn a median annual salary of $49,470, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), while sociologists earn a median salary of $82,050 per year. The BLS projects positive growth for all noted careers from 2018-2028.

The BLS projects social work positions to increase 11% from 2018-2028, with some areas of the field growing more during the same time frame. The BLS projects mental health and substance abuse social work positions to grow the most quickly, increasing 18% from 2018-2028.

Employment Outlook for Social Workers in the U.S.

Employment and Average Salaries for Social Workers in the U.S.
Social Work Career Employment Median Annual Salary
Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers 116,750 $49,630
Healthcare Social Workers 168,190 $58,470
Child, Family, and School Social Workers 320,170 $49,760
Social Workers, All Other 57,440 $62,660
Median Salary for Social Workers, by Degree Level (U.S.)
Bachelor of Social Work $49,000
Master of Social Work $52,000

Social Work Licensure

Most states require candidates for social work licensure to pass an exam from the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB). ASWB offers exams at the associate, bachelor's, master's, clinical, and advanced generalist levels. The required ASWB exam depends on the type of license the candidates is pursuing. For example, candidates for licensed master social worker credentials must typically pass the ASWB master's exam. Pearson Professional Centers administer the multiple-choice exams.

Degree requirements vary by license and state. For example, clinical social workers often need at least a master's degree. However, a doctoral degree in social work fulfills the education requirements for most licenses and certifications. Some states award licensure to individuals with a degree related to the field, while other states require candidates to hold a social work degree from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education.

High-level licenses typically require fieldwork, often at least 3,000 hours in a position related to the license. These experiences must generally include supervised hours and be completed over a certain time period.

For more social work licensing information in your state, read our Social Work Licensing Guide.

Should You Earn an Online Social Work Degree?

Earning a doctoral degree in social work qualifies graduates to pursue social work licenses and certifications, provided they meet the experience and exam requirements. Doctorate-holders can also work as postsecondary teachers, teaching social work courses at a higher education institution or recreation workers at a community-centered organization.

Most online social work programs familiarize students with technology and virtual communication more thoroughly than on-campus programs. Distance learners often post on forums, submit coursework, create group wikis, and take online exams. Graduates can use this expertise to build websites, research community needs, create calls to action on social media, and organize client files. Distance education also trains students to meet deadlines with little supervision.

When selecting an online program, students should consider course requirements, concentration options, graduation times, field experiences, and admission requirements.

Online learning offers flexibility for students who have busy schedules and tight budgets. For the most flexibility, students can choose fully online, asynchronous programs. Learners in these programs complete assignments at their convenience, as long as they meet deadlines, and never need to visit campus. Other programs use a synchronous format, which requires students to log in at specific times, and may include some mandatory campus visits.

Distance education increases program options by allowing learners to attend schools in other states. When selecting an online program, students should consider course requirements, concentration options, graduation times, field experiences, and admission requirements. Candidates should also research networking opportunities, since virtual learning limits in-person connections. For example, online programs may provide webinars that encourage student and faculty interactions.

Traits of successful online students often include self-reliance and time-management skills, since distance learners work independently to meet deadlines. Online students should also be comfortable with technology. Because online programs help learners enhance these skills, graduates can often work well with minimal guidance, cope with tight schedules, and use technology for tasks such as file organization and research.

Best Online Doctorate in Social Work Degree Programs

University of Southern California -- Doctor of Social Work

A leading private research college, USC enrolls 47,500 students and offers 400 graduate and professional programs. The Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work is one of the first elite colleges to offer a doctor of social work online.

The doctorate in social work trains scholar-practitioners skilled in developing viable solutions to solve real-world problems. The 42-unit curriculum focuses on two areas: innovation and leadership and advanced management practice. Each semester, students participate in Innovation Laboratories to hone their leadership and management skills. Students supplement online learning with residencies to address the 12 Grand Challenges identified by the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare. Each challenge ties to an issue that drives social workers, including economic inequality, family and child welfare, and social justice.

While Ph.D. programs cultivate researchers, the DSW prepares advanced social work practitioners who intend to have a great impact in their practice. USC delivers the synchronous program through the school's Virtual Academic Center. Students supplement online learning with two six-day residencies held in Los Angeles and Washington D.C. They complete the accelerated degree in 24 months.

Accreditation

  • USC is regionally accredited by the WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC).
  • CSWE does not accredit doctoral programs.

Admissions

  • Minimum GPA: N/A
  • Prerequisites: MSW or related degree such as MSN or MPA
  • GRE required?: N/A
  • Other Admission Requirements: In addition to five years of post-master's experience, students should show academic promise demonstrated through undergraduate and professional education.

Tuition

  • Average Undergraduate Tuition per Credit (In-State/Out-of-State): $1,928
  • Average Graduate Tuition per Credit (In-State/Out-of-State): $1,928
  • Notes: Tuition per credit does not include distance education fees or other expenses, such as books.

Academics

  • Social Work Program Accreditation: CSWE
  • Online Social Work Programs: MSW; DSW
  • Program Length: 2 years, 42 units
  • Information Relevant for Transfer Students: N/A

Social Work Coursework

  • Tracks/Concentrations: No
  • Field Education/Practicum Required?: No
  • Capstone/Thesis Required?: Students complete a capstone project that outlines a viable solution to one of the 12 Grand Challenges.
  • Core Courses: Managing innovation and change in social work; the science of social work; informatics and social innovation; leading public discourse in social work; leading and managing complex systems; financial management for social change; data-driven decision-making in social services; evaluating innovation and change
  • In-Person Requirements: Students attend two six-day residencies held in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.

Student Support

  • Technical Support: Yes
  • Special Services Provided to Online Students: Online students receive access to USC's online library services, mentoring, and help developing their individualized educational plans.

University of Pennsylvania -- Doctorate in Clinical Social Work

The University of Pennsylvania is one of the nation's Ivy League colleges. Located in Philadelphia, Penn maintains a culture of innovation to generate discoveries that address pressing social needs. The School of Social Policy and Practice offered the first social work practice doctorate, which is now delivered fully online. Faculty bridges theory, practice, and research as they prepare educators and leaders in social work practice

The doctorate in clinical social work requires 12 units of coursework and a dissertation. The DSW allows busy professionals to complete the coursework and dissertation simultaneously in three years. Students spend the first two semesters of the program focusing on clinical theory and research. They culminate the year with a course on trauma-informed individual and organizational interventions. The rest of the doctorate in social work examines topics such as teaching social work practice, family-based interventions, and relational theory.

Students complete two dissertation workshops, and in the third year, they develop and defend the dissertation. Some students complete their dissertation in two years, accelerating degree completion. Students learn from renowned faculty, whom they meet in person during two five-day, on-campus immersion experiences. Faculty delivers the program synchronously (in real-time) using online interactive video.

Accreditation

  • Penn is regionally accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE).
  • CSWE does not accredit doctoral programs.

Admissions

  • Minimum GPA: N/A
  • Prerequisites: CSWE-accredited master's degree in social work
  • GRE required?: No
  • Other Admission Requirements: Applicants demonstrate two years of post-MSW practice experience.

Tuition

  • Average Undergraduate Tuition per Credit (In-State/Out-of-State): Varies
  • Average Graduate Tuition per Credit (In-State/Out-of-State): Varies
  • Notes: This program charges $6,144 per course unit.

Academics

  • Social Work Program Accreditation: CSWE
  • Online Social Work Programs: DSW
  • Program Length: 2-3 years
  • Information Relevant for Transfer Students: The school will consider doctoral-level credit for transfer.

Social Work Coursework

  • Tracks/Concentrations: N/A
  • Field Education/Practicum Required?: No
  • Capstone/Thesis Required?: Dissertation required
  • Core Courses: Methods of inquiry; quantitative research methods; methods of inquiry: qualitative research methods; clinical theory I and II; dissertation seminar, trauma-informed social work practice, teaching social work practice; family-based interventions; relational theory.
  • In-Person Requirements: Students participate in two five-day residencies on Penn's Philadelphia campus.

Student Support

  • Technical Support: N/A
  • Special Services Provided to Online Students: N/A

University at Buffalo SUNY -- Doctor of Social Work

UB, the largest in the 64-campus SUNY system, ranks as one of the top 40 public colleges in the nation. The UB School of Social Work offers an online, part-time doctor of social work in social welfare. The 39-credit program enrolls experienced social workers seeking to advance their professional practice. The DSW builds on the School of Social Work's signature trauma-informed and human rights (TI-HR) perspective.

The degree translates research into best practice, building participants' body of knowledge in the implementation and evaluation of evidence-based interventions among vulnerable populations. In addition to the curriculum's core courses, students use three elective courses to examine issues such as teaching and pedagogy, along with neurobiology and psychopharmacology in social work practice.

The DSW program grants students access to a target population and setting in which they can develop and implement a required capstone project. DSW graduates leave the program empowered to assume leadership in the dissemination of advanced social work practices, thereby contributing to the advancement of the TI-HR perspective. Faculty delivers the program with both synchronous and asynchronous formats. The online program requires a mandatory on-campus orientation. Students generally complete the doctorate in social work online in three years (seven semesters) on a part-time basis.

Accreditation

  • UB is regionally accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE).
  • CSWE does not accredit doctoral programs.

Admissions

  • Minimum GPA: 3.0
  • Prerequisites: CSWE-accredited MSW
  • GRE required?: Yes
  • Other Admission Requirements: Applicants must demonstrate a minimum of two years of post-MSW direct client practice. They must hold a valid and active social work licensure/certification in the state they practice.

Tuition

  • Average Undergraduate Tuition per Credit (In-State/Out-of-State): $286; $343
  • Average Graduate Tuition per Credit (In-State/Out-of-State): $462; $555
  • Notes: Tuition per credit does not include distance education fees or other expenses, such as books.

Academics

  • Social Work Program Accreditation: CSWE
  • Online Social Work Programs: MSW; DSW
  • Program Length: 39 credits, 3 years (7 semesters) part-time
  • Information Relevant for Transfer Students: Students may transfer up to 30 credits earned in a CSWE-accredited MSW program.

Social Work Coursework

  • Tracks/Concentrations: N/A
  • Field Education/Practicum Required?: No
  • Capstone/Thesis Required?: Capstone required
  • Core Courses: Technology, human behavior, and professional practice; doctoral seminar in trauma and human rights; concepts in implementation science; evaluating and utilizing evidence-based practices in social work; using professional collaboration networks for pre-implementation planning; identifying evidence-based interventions for translation
  • In-Person Requirements: Students attend a mandatory on-campus orientation before the start of the program.

Student Support

  • Technical Support: Yes
  • Special Services Provided to Online Students: N/A

The University of Tennessee-Knoxville -- DSW in Clinical Practice and Leadership

The state's flagship college, the University of Tennessee-Knoxville enrolls 29,000 students in 900 programs administered by 11 colleges. The College of Social Work offers a three-year doctor of social work in clinical practice and leadership that focuses on evidence-based practice, clinical science, clinical leadership, and applied research. The practice doctorate remains the only one of its kind offered by a major college.

Students enrolled in the 48-credit program actively provide services to at-risk populations in various settings, including private counseling practices and military and veterans services. The DSW's online format allows full-time clinical social workers to continue their careers uninterrupted. For one week each summer, DSW students convene on campus to discuss issues of practice with professors and peers, immerse themselves in the program content, and develop professional networks with other practitioners. Students complete two capstone papers to culminate the degree.

Faculty delivers the program using synchronous and asynchronous components. Students must enroll on a full-time basis, defined by the College of Social Work as six credits per semester. On average, students enrolled in this doctorate in social work online enter the program after a 10-year hiatus from their schooling and with about nine years of practice experience as a licensed clinical social worker.

Accreditation

  • UT Knoxville is regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC).
  • CSWE does not accredit doctoral programs.

Admissions

  • Minimum GPA: 3.0
  • Prerequisites: CSWE-accredited master's degree in social work
  • GRE required?: Yes
  • Other Admission Requirements: Applicants must demonstrate at least two years of post-MSSW/MSW clinical practice experience.

Tuition

  • Average Undergraduate Tuition per Credit (In-State/Out-of-State): $378; $453
  • Average Graduate Tuition per Credit (In-State/Out-of-State): $639; $714
  • Notes: Tuition per credit does not include additional fees such as online support and special courses.

Academics

  • Social Work Program Accreditation: CSWE
  • Online Social Work Programs: MSW; DSW
  • Program Length: 48 credits, 3 years
  • Information Relevant for Transfer Students: The DSW committee accepts transfer credits from doctoral programs on a case-by-case basis.

Social Work Coursework

  • Tracks/Concentrations: N/A
  • Field Education/Practicum Required?: No
  • Capstone/Thesis Required?: Students complete two capstone papers to culminate the program.
  • Core Courses: Neuroscience for clinical practice; epistemology and clinical evidence-based practice; psychopathology and psychopharmacology; clinical research and applied statistics; cognitive behavioral therapy I and II; interpersonal psychotherapy; trauma-focused interventions; clinical management; advanced evidence-based practice for addictions and dual diagnosis treatment.
  • In-Person Requirements: Students attend an on-campus session one week each summer.

Student Support

  • Technical Support: N/A
  • Special Services Provided to Online Students: N/A

University of St. Thomas -- Doctor of Social Work

The University of St. Thomas is a Catholic institution and the largest-private college in Minnesota. The school operates three campuses and educates 10,000 students enrolled in 200 programs. The School of Social Work offers an online doctor of social work specifically to prepare social work faculty for teaching and leadership positions at colleges. The program enrolls MSW-educated social work educators and practitioners practicing anywhere in the country.

The three-year cohort program equips participants with knowledge and training to engage in transformative teaching, develop their identity as scholar-practitioners, write for publications, and pursue social justice through their work and service. Students develop their teaching skills when they participate in a three-credit in vivo teaching practicum in the classroom. Participants complete one course at a time to accommodate their work schedule.

Faculty delivers the program using eight-week synchronous and asynchronous sessions. Students supplement their online learning with a two-week, on-campus residency each summer in St. Paul. They culminate the online doctorate in social work with a dissertation they develop and defend in the final year.

Applicants to the DSW must hold a minimum of two years post-MSW social work practice experience. The admissions committee prefers applicants with some teaching experience in higher education.

Accreditation

  • UST is regionally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC).
  • CSWE does not accredit doctoral programs.

Admissions

  • Minimum GPA: 3.0 GPA
  • Prerequisites: CSWE-accredited MSW
  • GRE required?: N/A
  • Other Admission Requirements: Applicants must demonstrate a minimum of two years' post-MSW social work practice experience. The admissions committee prefers applicants with some teaching experience in higher education.

Tuition

  • Average Undergraduate Tuition per Credit (In-State/Out-of-State): $1,357
  • Average Graduate Tuition per Credit (In-State/Out-of-State): $799.50-$1,131
  • Notes: Tuition per credit does not include additional fees the college may charge, such as for technology, books, or special courses.

Academics

  • Social Work Program Accreditation: CSWE
  • Online Social Work Programs: MSW; DSW
  • Program Length: 45 credits, 3 years
  • Information Relevant for Transfer Students: Transfer credits are evaluated on a case-by-case basis and typically require a final grade of "C-" or better.

Social Work Coursework

  • Tracks/Concentrations: N/A
  • Field Education/Practicum Required?: Yes, students in the doctorate in social work develop their teaching skills when they participate in a three-credit in vivo teaching practicum in the classroom.
  • Capstone/Thesis Required?: Students complete a banded dissertation.
  • Core Courses: History of social work and social work education; social work education; social work theoretical perspectives; research and scholarship I and II (quantitative and qualitative methods); teaching social work; pedagogies in social work education; engaged scholarship; writing for publication; mission and purpose through curriculum.
  • In-Person Requirements: Students complete a two-week, on-campus residency each summer in St. Paul.

Student Support

  • Technical Support: Yes
  • Special Services Provided to Online Students: Yes, students receive access to counseling services‌ and graduate writing support.

Capella University -- Doctor of Social Work

Established in 1993, Capella University is a virtual college designed to expand access to higher education, offering nontraditional learners 53 degree options they can pursue at their convenience. The School of Public Service Leadership offers a doctor of social work to train social workers to assume positions as advanced practitioners, educators, and leaders. The 71-quarter-credit program requires 19 courses taken in sequence. Students learn from scholar-practitioners with expertise in the field who can guide them in their practice and career.

During a capstone, students apply learning in a written project that demonstrates their ability to improve outcomes or resolve challenges in social work practice. Faculty pairs students with a mentor to guide them during this culminating project. Students supplement online learning with two professional doctorate research seminars to identify a research problem, draft questions, and craft a research plan in the company of peers and faculty. Capella hosts the residences at alternating hotel conference centers in locations such as Dallas, Chicago, and Orlando.

With 25 years of doctoral experience, Capella provides learners in the doctorate in social work online program with a comprehensive set of resources, such as writing coaches and academic and capstone planning tools.

Accreditation

  • Capella is regionally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC).
  • CSWE does not accredit doctoral programs.

Admissions

  • Minimum GPA: 3.0
  • Prerequisites: A CSWE-accredited master's degree in social work
  • GRE required?: No
  • Other Admission Requirements: Admission to the DSW program requires students to complete the Automatic Course Registration Acknowledgment.

Tuition

  • Average Undergraduate Tuition per Credit (In-State/Out-of-State): $375-$411
  • Average Graduate Tuition per Credit (In-State/Out-of-State): $435-$800
  • Notes: No difference for in-state or out-of-state residency.

Academics

  • Social Work Program Accreditation: CSWE
  • Online Social Work Programs: DSW; doctor of human services
  • Program Length: 71 quarter credits, 3 years
  • Information Relevant for Transfer Students: Capella does not limit the number of credits students can transfer into the program.

Social Work Coursework

  • Tracks/Concentrations: No
  • Field Education/Practicum Required?: No
  • Capstone/Thesis Required?: Students complete a capstone course in which they apply learning in a written project.
  • Core Courses: Advanced social work practice; professional doctorate research seminar for public service I and II; survey of research methods; quantitative design and analysis; qualitative design and analysis; advanced social work practice; grant writing and administration; leadership and management in complex social systems.
  • In-Person Requirements: Students attend two weekend residencies to work on their capstone projects.

Student Support

  • Technical Support: Yes
  • Special Services Provided to Online Students: Students receive access to writing coaches, an online library, career counselors, academic and capstone planning tools, and a career center.

Walden University -- Ph.D. in Social Work

Walden University was established to serve the needs of nontraditional learners. Students pursue degrees in a variety of fields by attending classes online. The school offers a 63-quarter-credit Ph.D. in social work for social workers who want to acquire the training necessary to advance their careers as social work scholars, researchers, and leaders in the field.

A suite of specializations separate the doctorate in social work online program from many other programs. All students complete a five-course core and choose from one of eight specializations, including clinical expertise, criminal justice, addictions and social work, social work administration, and medical social work. Participants prepare for their dissertation with six courses that develop their proficiencies in areas such as quantitative and qualitative reasoning and analysis and research theory, design, and methods.

Students complete four face-to-face residencies that give them the opportunity to collaborate with professors and peers and build their professional network. Students have up to eight years to complete their doctoral degree and may accelerate degree completion by transferring in up to 20 doctoral credits.

Accreditation

  • Walden is regionally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC).
  • CSWE does not accredit doctoral programs.

Admissions

  • Minimum GPA: N/A
  • Prerequisites: A CSWE-accredited MSW
  • GRE required?: N/A
  • Other Admission Requirements: Applicants need at least two years post-MSW practice experience within the past five years.

Tuition

  • Average Undergraduate Tuition per Credit (In-State/Out-of-State): Tuition varies by program.
  • Average Graduate Tuition per Credit (In-State/Out-of-State): Tuition varies by program.
  • Notes: This program costs $610/credit. The four-day residencies cost extra, as does the dissertation period of enrollment up to eight years.

Academics

  • Social Work Program Accreditation: CSWE
  • Online Social Work Programs: Ph.D.; DSW
  • Program Length: 63+ quarter credits. Students have up to eight years to complete their doctoral degree.
  • Information Relevant for Transfer Students: Students may transfer in up to 20 credits.

Social Work Coursework

  • Tracks/Concentrations: Clinical expertise; criminal justice; addictions and social work; social work administration; medical social work; family studies and interventions; policy practice; and disaster, crisis, and intervention.
  • Field Education/Practicum Required?: No
  • Capstone/Thesis Required?: Yes, students complete a capstone resulting in a dissertation.
  • Core Courses: Advanced social work theory and practice; history and development of social work; contemporary issues, social change, and social policy; program and practice evaluation; and preparing for dissertation.
  • In-Person Requirements: Students complete four residencies as part of the doctorate in social work online program.

Student Support

  • Technical Support: Yes
  • Special Services Provided to Online Students: Students receive access to doctoral peer mentors, virtual check-in groups, student success advisors, and research support from staff at the online library.