Online Doctor of Social Work Programs 2023

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

Social workers looking to increase their salaries and become leaders in the field can consider pursuing doctor of social work (DSW) degrees. Earning a DSW can prepare an individual for fulfilling work in advocacy, policy development, and direct practice. Discover more about what to expect from a DSW program, how to pay for your education, and salary data for graduates with this in-depth guide.

What You Can Expect From an Online Doctorate in Social Work Program

If you're a social worker who wants to become a leader and practice at the top of your field, you can pursue an online DSW program to enjoy flexibility in scheduling courses and completing assignments. After earning a DSW, you can advance your clinical practice, pursue leadership roles, or teach social work at the postsecondary level. Some DSW programs may require you to have 1-2 years of post-master's experience before applying.

You can earn your DSW in two years if you commit to full-time enrollment. Part-time delivery may extend this timeline to three years or more. These programs allow you to choose specialty tracks like clinical practice, administrative leadership, and social work education.

Depending on your program, you'll have to complete a residency, dissertation, or both. A residency is similar to the fieldwork experience you completed for your MSW because it requires you to apply what you learn in the classroom to your social work practice. A dissertation is a lengthy research project that requires you to present your findings to faculty and defend your conclusions.

Featured Online Social Work Programs

Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

Online DSW Programs

Before you choose an online DSW program, make sure the program meets your career goals. Research how much each program costs, accreditation status, and coursework requirements.

Accreditation: Employers and financial aid institutions require you to attend a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). This status ensures that your program meets rigorous academic standards and properly prepares you for the workforce. All schools on this list are accredited.

Tuition and Fees: Plan to pay for the tuition, fees, and other expenses you'll have in the 2-3 years you'll spend in school. Make sure to look into all available forms of financial aid.

Curriculum: Your DSW program covers courses on research, ethics, and your chosen specialty track. You will also have to complete a capstone project, which may include a dissertation or residency.

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

Spalding University

The doctor of social work program at Catholic-based Spalding University features primarily online coursework, with periodic on-campus experiential workshops and discussions on Saturdays. Students can choose between two tracks: advanced clinical practice or leadership and administration. The program offers summer research and scholarly publication opportunities; graduate assistantships and teaching fellowships in exchange for tuition reimbursement; and a capstone project tailored to enrollees' professional goals.

The cohort-based program requires 48-51 credits and takes three years to complete. Core courses include intersectionality and social justice; positionality and epistemology; trauma informed leadership and administration; and writing for publication.

Admission requirements include a master of social work degree from a Council on Social Work Education-accredited program; a 3.3 GPA; and two years of post-master's practice experience.

  • Program(s): Doctor of social work
  • Campus: Louisville, Kentucky
  • Type: Private
  • Accreditation(s): Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
  • Tuition: $990 per credit hour

University of Pennsylvania

Students can earn an online doctorate in clinical social work at the University of Pennsylvania in three years without career disruption. The primarily online, cohort-based curriculum pairs synchronous evening courses with periodic campus immersion experiences for the first two years. During the third year, enrollees focus on completing and defending their dissertations.

Coursework covers clinical theory; family based interventions; methods of inquiry: qualitative research methods; and race, culture, and identity. Learners also participate in a dissertation seminar series. Students are matched with dissertation mentors during their first year and their dissertation committee later on.

Applicants need a master of social work from an accredited program and three years of post-master's practice experience. Additional requirements include an essay, recommendation letters, and a video interview.

  • Program(s): Doctor of social work
  • Campus: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • Type: Private
  • Accreditation(s): Middle States Commission on Higher Education
  • Tuition: $7,014 per course unit for first two years; $1,154 per term for third year

Simmons University

Simmons University, a member of the Women's College Coalition, offers an online doctorate of social work with three focus areas: advanced clinical practice; inclusive leadership; and teaching and education. Students can graduate in less than two years of full-time study but can opt for part-time enrollment. The cohort-based program features live, online classes and culminates with a capstone project.

The curriculum emphasizes social justice values. Leadership track course topics include inclusive and socially just organizational cultures; advanced clinical practice teaches emerging practices to support diverse clients; and teaching and education focuses on comparative approaches to learning and instruction.

Admission requires a master of social work from a Council on Social Work Education-accredited program; a 3.0 GPA; and three years of post-master's work experience.

  • Program(s): Doctor of social work
  • Campus: Boston, Massachusetts
  • Type: Private
  • Accreditation(s): New England Commission on Higher Education
  • Tuition: $1,148 per credit hour

How to Pay for an Online DSW Program

A DSW program can range from less than $20,000 to almost $90,000 or more. These costs do not include books, transportation to your residency, and fees. The amount you'll pay for the program can depend on:

  • Credit requirements
  • Financial aid eligibility
  • Full-time vs. part-time enrollment
  • In-state vs. out-of-state residency

Most schools have their own financial aid programs or packages for doctoral students, so ask admissions advisors about applying for school-specific financial aid. You can also fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to determine your eligibility for state and federal financial aid.

Careers and Salaries with an Online DSW

On average, DSW graduates earn about $20,000 more per year than MSW degree-holders, according to Payscale data from July 2023. Earning your DSW opens you up to more leadership opportunities, responsibilities, and higher pay. Social work professors make one of the highest average salaries in social work.

If you choose the clinical practice track, you'll advance your patient counseling and clinical assessment skills. Licensed clinical social workers (LCSW) with patient counseling skills earn an average of $1,750 more per year than the average for all LCSWs. LCSWs with clinical assessment skills make an average of $2,840 more per year than the average for all LCSWs.

Frequently Asked Questions About Online DSW Programs

How long does it take to earn an online DSW?

It takes 2-3 years to earn your DSW online, depending on your enrollment status. If you work and earn your degree online through part-time enrollment, you can earn your degree in three years.

Are online DSW programs respectable?

CSWE-accredited online DSW programs are as respected as in-person accredited DSW programs. As long as you ensure the program's accreditation status, your employer will know you met rigorous academic standards and received adequate preparation for the next step in your career, regardless of delivery method.

What types of courses are part of an online DSW program?

Online DSW programs include courses in research, ethics, and a specialty track you choose. You can select pathways such as clinical practice, social work education, or administrative leadership. You'll also complete research in a dissertation or a residency fieldwork experience.

Are there any in-person requirements for online DSW programs?

An online DSW program may require you to complete your practicum or residency in person, but you can complete the rest of our coursework online. Your classes may also be asynchronous and allow you to complete your coursework around your other responsibilities.