Online Doctor of Social Work Programs 2023

Written by Rebecca Munday, Rankings Team
Last Updated: July 2023

If you have been practicing as a licensed master social worker (LMSW) or clinical social worker (LCSW) and want to become a leader in the field, consider a doctorate in social work (DSW). In 2-3 years, you can deepen your understanding of clinical practice, social work education, or research methods. This allows you to take on leadership roles in your area of expertise.

Discover more about how earning a DSW can benefit your career.

What to Expect From a Doctorate in Social Work Degree Program

If you are practicing clinical or generalist social work at the master’s-level and you want to build your knowledge and expertise in social work, consider earning a DSW.

A DSW takes 2-3 years to complete and comprises 40-45 credits. DSW programs may allow you to choose your track in areas, such as clinical practice, organizational leadership, or social work education. You can expand your expertise in leadership, teaching, and research methods.

A DSW is the terminal degree in social work, enabling you to be a leader in your chosen social work specialty and earn a higher salary. Careers available for DSW graduates include:

  • Post-secondary professor
  • Licensed master social worker (LMSW)
  • Licensed clinical social worker (LCSW)
  • Program director for a non-profit organization
  • Professional researcher

DSW degree-holders earn about $20,000 more per year than the average annual salary for master of social work (MSW) graduates, according to Payscale data from June 2023 and a report from the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) in 2017.

Featured Online Social Work Programs

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The Best Social Work Degree Programs

Learn more about each DSW program’s accreditation, course requirements, fieldwork experience hours, and tuition costs. These factors can help you decide which social work program best meets your needs.

Accreditation: Employers and financial aid institutions require you to attend a Council on Social Work Education (CSWE)-accredited program to employ you or pay out financial aid. All programs on this list are CSWE-accredited.

Fieldwork Experience: DSW programs require you to complete about a year of a residency and dissertation seminar. During your residency, you apply your knowledge of teaching, clinical practice, or leadership under the guidance of a faculty member. In the dissertation seminar, you conduct independent research on a topic of your choosing that enhances the social work profession.

Tuition and Education Costs: The tuition for your DSW will be about $20,000-$30,000. This total does not include costs associated with books, class materials, residency requirements, or fees. Find out the average cost of these expenses and the financial aid you can expect to help cover these costs.

We use a data-driven methodology to determine the best social work degree programs based on three influential factors, including affordability, academics, and reputation.

Simmons University

Simmons University, a member of the Women’s College Coalition, offers a doctorate in social work online with full- or part-time enrollment options. Students advance through three focus areas: advanced clinical practice, inclusive leadership, and teaching and education grounded in social justice values.

Full-time enrollees can complete the 48-credit program, including a capstone project, in less than two years. Part-time learners can finish in fewer than three years. Course delivery follows an interactive synchronous, cohort-based format.

  • Program: Doctor of social work
  • Campus: Boston, Massachusetts
  • Type: Private
  • Accreditations: The New England Commission of Higher Education
  • Tuition: $1,200 per credit
  • Admission Requirements: Master of social work (MSW) from an accredited program; minimum 3.0 GPA; three years of post-MSW practice experience
  • Minimum Time Commitment: Less than 24 months
  • On-Campus Requirements: No

Spalding University

Catholic-based Spalding University‘s doctorate in social work online program emphasizes making waves and creating positive disruption. The 48-credit curriculum offers tracks in advanced clinical practice and leadership and administration. Learners attend periodic on-campus Saturday classes and complete the rest of their coursework online.

Students can graduate in three or four years and take classes that include community practice and policy advocacy, theories of social change, and trauma informed leadership and administration. The program culminates with a capstone project.

  • Program: Doctor of social work
  • Campus: Louisville, Kentucky
  • Type: Private
  • Accreditations: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
  • Tuition: $990 per credit
  • Admission Requirements: Master of social work (MSW) from an accredited program; minimum 3.3 GPA; two years of post-MSW practice experience or completion of a 225-hour practicum at the start of the program
  • Minimum Time Commitment: 36 months
  • On-Campus Requirements: Yes

University of Pennsylvania

The doctor of social work program at the University of Pennsylvania combines synchronous online courses with campus immersive experiences. Students can earn their doctorate in three years while continuing to work. The initial two years consist of coursework, with the third year devoted to a dissertation seminar.

Required courses include advanced topics in social work practice, clinical theory, family based interventions, qualitative and quantitative research methods, and teaching social work. Graduation requires completion of a dissertation.

  • Program: Doctor of social work
  • Campus: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • Type: Private
  • Accreditations: Middle States Commission on Higher Education
  • Tuition: $7,014 per unit (years 1-2); $1,154 per term (year 3)
  • Admission Requirements: Master of social work (MSW) from an accredited program; three years of post-MSW practice experience
  • Minimum Time Commitment: 36 months
  • On-Campus Requirements: Yes

Paying for a Social Work Degree Program

DSW programs cost about $20,000-$30,000. This tuition covers all classes you enroll in but does not cover fees, books and other school supplies, and housing.

If you attend fully online, you can limit additional costs. You can apply for student loans, scholarships, or grants to help you pay for all or part of your tuition. DSW programs are for MSW-holders who have about three years of post-master’s experience, so you may be able to continue working while completing your education.

Careers and Salary with a Social Work Degree

A DSW is not required for social work licensure, but you can earn more money and build skills that help your expertise stand out to clients and employers. Common careers for DSW graduates include program director, postsecondary professor, or LCSW.

Postsecondary professors earn an average of $90,130 per year, according to Payscale data from June 2023. Non-profit program directors earn an average of $62,130 per year. You can earn more than average as a program director or post-secondary professor with leadership and strategic planning skills.

LCSWs earn an average annual salary of $63,690. You can earn a higher salary as an LCSW if your skill set includes:

  • Program management
  • Program development
  • People management
  • Clinical assessment
  • Patient counseling

DSW programs build your skills in all these areas. Earning your DSW helps you stand out in your career as a program director, LCSW, postsecondary professor, or any social work role that requires you to lead teams, create and implement programs, or assess and counsel clients.

Frequently Asked Questions About Social Work Degrees

What do people do with a Ph.D. in social work?

A Ph.D. in social work prepares you for a career in research or postsecondary social work education. A Ph.D. in social work focuses on research and teaching methods in social work, so you can work as a professional researcher or postsecondary professor.

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

The difference between a Ph.D. in social work and a DSW program is the curriculum. Ph.D. programs focus on research and teaching methods. DSW programs focus on clinical practice, leadership, and macro social work training for practicing social workers.

Can you teach with a DSW degree?

Yes, you can teach social work classes in master’s and bachelor’s in social work programs. If you want to teach social work at the postsecondary level, consider enrolling in a DSW program with a social work education track. This track prepares you to teach post secondary social work education.

What is the highest degree in social work?

The highest degree in social work is a DSW. This terminal degree allows you to choose a specialty track in clinical practice, organizational leadership, or social work education and further your knowledge and expertise in that area of social work. With a DSW, you can oversee mental health and substance misuse programs and provide advanced clinical social work for clients.