Earn a Doctorate in Social Work (DSW)

While the master's in social work (MSW) has established itself as the terminal practice degree in the field, social workers interested in studying at the doctoral level can choose between two types of doctoral programs. The practice-focused doctorate in social work (DSW), which usually requires 3-4 years to complete, provides training for clinical management roles. The Ph.D. in social work, which requires dissertation research and takes up to seven years to complete, leads to careers in research and higher education.

When considering a degree at any level, prospective students should enroll at a properly accredited school. Regional accreditation verifies that the institution meets academic standards, ensuring that other schools and employers recognize a graduate's degree and earned credits.

The best social work programs receive additional accreditation from the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). In most states, licensure candidates must hold a degree from CSWE-accredited programs.

A doctorate provides a pathway to lucrative advanced careers in leadership and educational roles. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), positions for medical and health services managers are projected to increase by an unprecedented 32% from 2019-29, and pay a median annual salary over $100,000. Experienced postsecondary social work teachers can earn as much as $128,350 a year, depending on the school and the teacher's level of experience.

This page details doctoral level social work programs, including program types, typical admission requirements, and potential career opportunities.

Admission Requirements for a DSW Program

Most doctor of social work programs accept applicants with an MSW or a master's in a related field. Some programs admit students with a bachelor's degree, allowing them to earn their master's as they progress through the DSW program.

Applicants should arrange to forward official transcripts from all institutions they previously attended, documenting an overall 3.0 GPA. DSW programs may also request GRE scores, especially for applicants who do not already have an MSW.

Applicants typically submit two or more letters of recommendation from former professors or employers, and an essay or personal statement outlining professional or research interests. In some cases, candidates may have to visit campus for a personal interview.

While most DSW students are equipped with their license and some professional experience, some schools may specify clinical hours as a prerequisite for acceptance into the program.

Core Concepts and Coursework for DSW Programs

A doctorate in social work prepares graduates to enter advanced careers as clinical administrators, policy analysts, researchers, and educators. While the Ph.D. focuses on research skills, the DSW, as an advanced practice degree, prepares its graduates for leadership positions in clinical settings and for faculty positions in higher education teaching the next generation of social workers.

DSW coursework varies depending on the program, but the typical curriculum covers theory and clinical practice, qualitative and quantitative research, social policy, and ethics. Many programs feature courses on organizational leadership that explore the areas of financial management and social work administration.

DSW programs require students to complete between 40 and 60 credits. Depending on the program, students may choose concentrations in fields as varied as gerontology, gender and sexuality, military social work, and criminal justice. While most programs do not require practicum hours, students usually complete a capstone project that involves research in a clinical setting.

What is the Difference Between a DSW and a Ph.D. in Social Work?

The type of doctorate determines a graduate's career possibilities. The Ph.D. trains graduates for employment in academic and research settings. Universities hire social work professors to conduct original studies and teach undergraduate and graduate students preparing to enter the profession.

While its learning objectives overlap somewhat with those of a Ph.D. program, the DSW prepares students for advanced roles in clinical practice. A DSW, like the Ph.D., can lead to careers in education and policy analysis, but the curriculum places greater emphasis on administrative leadership.

Because DSW graduates meet the requirements for licensure in most states, they not only offer direct services to individuals and groups, but also assume leadership positions, supervising other social workers in agencies, clinics, and hospitals, in private and nonprofit settings.

Online Doctorate in Social Work Programs

Because online social work programs feature convenient formats and flexible schedules, they work especially well for social work professionals who want to earn their degree without leaving their jobs. Online DSW programs offer the same curriculum as traditional campus-based programs, often taught by the same faculty, but give students the freedom to choose when and where to study.

Using the latest technologies and learning platforms, online degrees provide opportunities for one-on-one advising and virtual classroom activities that enable learners to interact with each other and their instructors. While many programs use asynchronous formats, allowing 24-7 access to lectures and class materials, doctoral students should expect to attend occasional mandatory on-campus residencies for orientation and capstone research preparation.

Social Work Licensure Requirements for a DSW

Licensure demonstrates to employers and the public that social workers possess the competencies necessary to practice. Specific requirements for social work licensure vary by state, but most states view the MSW as the terminal degree for clinical practice and licensure.

DSW degrees do not offer a special licensing designation. The majority of doctoral students already hold a valid license, or they acquire their license while earning their degree.

Most state social work boards grant different types of licenses, commonly the licensed master social worker (LMSW) and the licensed clinical social worker (LCSW). Each practice jurisdiction requires social workers to renew their license every two years. To receive their renewal, licensed social workers must complete the required number of continuing education hours determined by their state board.

Certifications for Qualified Social Workers

Licensed social workers may decide to pursue specialty certifications to qualify for specific positions in clinical practice. Certifications, while voluntary, have become important credentials for employment or career advancement in a particular social work field. For employers, these credentials demonstrate broad knowledge, experience, and competencies beyond the earned degree and license designation.

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) administers several types of specialty certifications, including the designations of qualified clinical social worker (QCSW), which focuses on the treatment of psychosocial dysfunction, disability, or impairment, and the clinical social worker in gerontology (CSW-G), which demonstrates specialized skills working with the aging population. Social workers must renew their NASW certifications every two years by completing 20 continuing education hours.

What Can You Do With a Doctorate in Social Work?

The BLS projects social worker positions to grow by 13% from 2019-29, a much faster rate than the average for all occupations. Social workers with a DSW can expect even greater employment opportunities in almost every social work field. In addition to working in clinical management and educational roles, DSW graduates enter careers as policymakers, healthcare executives, and directors of social welfare and human services organizations.

Salaries for these positions depend on several factors, such as the type of employer, years of experience, and geographical location. Compensation varies greatly by type of social work specialty and position. While a clinical social worker earns a median annual salary of $50,470, a postsecondary teacher receives $72,070. The highest paid medical and health services managers earn more than $189,000 a year.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can you teach with a DSW?

    Most universities require their faculty to hold a doctorate. As more students enroll in BSW and MSW programs in preparation for careers as licensed social workers, accredited programs hire professors with either a Ph.D. or DSW. While Ph.D. faculty tend to focus on research areas of the curriculum, DSW-holders typically teach clinical practice courses.

  • Is a social work Ph.D. or DSW worth it?

    While the MSW opens up a variety of employment opportunities, the advanced knowledge and skills acquired in a Ph.D. or DSW program leads to rewarding teaching and administrative roles in multiple settings. A doctorate in social work enables graduates to expand career and salary prospects and make a difference in leadership roles.

  • What does a doctor of social work do?

    The additional years of schooling beyond the MSW provides DSW candidates with knowledge and specialized training in advanced clinical practice, research, teaching, management, and policy development. The degree prepares students for careers in clinical management, higher education, and consulting. Many DSW graduates hold executive positions in government, social services, and healthcare agencies.

  • How long does it take to complete a DSW program?

    DSW programs usually require three years of full-time study. Working professionals or students managing personal responsibilities may attend part time, taking longer to finish. Some schools require students to complete all degree requirements within six or seven years. After taking coursework in the first two years, students undertake a capstone project during their last year in the program.

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