What is the Difference Between an MSW and DSW?

The primary difference between an MSW and a DSW is the career options that graduates enjoy. Both degrees teach social work skills, including clinical talk therapy, macro-level advocacy and social justice. However, the additional schooling of the Doctorate of Social Work provides additional career opportunities, including research and leadership roles that are out-of-reach for most Master of Social Work graduates. Whether those opportunities are worth the cost depends on a student's goals. Here's a detailed look at the career differences between an MSW and a DSW.

Completion Time

A MSW takes approximately two years of full-time study to complete. Some students take three years or longer in part-time programs. Exceptional students can complete an MSW is one year by choosing an accelerated Master's of Social Work program or an intensive graduate program. Many DSW programs claim students only need three years to graduate. This may be true on paper, but the average doctoral degree takes 8.2 years to complete, according to CBS News. Motivated, disciplined students can finish their degree program on time, but personal or family events can significantly delay completion. For students ready to start working right away, the MSW is a better choice unless DSW funding is available.


Very few MSW graduates are leading research studies. They may be employed as assistants who interview clients, conduct literature reviews or find trial participants. Most federal funding agencies only give funds to studies led by a researcher with a doctoral degree. While the DSW focuses on clinical practice, graduates also study research methodology. Many DSW holders conduct research on a full- or part-time basis. However, the best social work degree for future researchers is the Doctor of Philosophy in Social Work, or PhD.


The Group for the Advancement of Doctoral Education in Social Work (GADE) says there's a growing need for faculty and not enough candidates to meed the need. Still, schools are unlikely to allow MSW-prepared students to teach MSW-level classes. It may be possible to teach a few courses in undergraduate social work with a master's degree, but those who are passionate about teaching should pursue a DSW. Universities are hiring increasing numbers of teaching-oriented, tenure-track professors. These jobs give the same security and benefits as traditional professorships but rarely conduct research. A DSW is the perfect preparation for these roles because the program doesn't emphasize research.


Social workers usually enter the field with a passion to help clients. With an MSW, graduates can offer clinical counseling, case management and life skills services. It's possible to move into administrative roles with enough experience. The DSW prepares students for advanced clinical roles. This can include supervising social workers with a BSW or MSW, providing upper-level guidance for non-profit organizations or working with challenging clients. The years spent earning a DSW are often counted as equivalent to years spent working with an MSW. This lets students bypass difficult entry-level roles.

Related Resource: Top 10 Online Social Work Degree Programs 2018

In many cases, it's possible for students to earn an MSW, obtain employment and pursue a part-time DSW with tuition assistance from the workplace. With this option, students don't have to decide if the professional difference between an MSW and a DSW is worth the extra student loans.