Graduates of online doctor of social work programs affect social change through leadership, research, and advancement. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a 12% growth in the social work field within the next decade. Social care workers are employed at schools, clinics, hospitals, and other institutions at the clinical and administrative levels. Salaries vary depending on education and expertise. Social workers are integral to the framework of the growing healthcare field, making now the perfect time to earn a doctoral degree in social work.


Doctor of social work programs are designed for students and professionals interested in careers in academia or research. Graduates are prepared to work in clinical environments, and many programs offer concentrations, such as medical social work. Students complete residencies to find their ideal work environment.


Admission requirements vary by program. Most doctorate in social work programs require one to two years of experience as a social worker. Typically, programs verify work experience by reviewing your résumé and references. Students gain additional work experience through residencies.


A doctoral degree in social work requires students to apply classroom skills during residencies, which involve real-world situations. Online programs are designed for working professionals, and instructors expect their students to be current social work professionals. Students are encouraged to apply work experience when completing assignments and projects.


Earning a doctorate in social work online provides flexibility, with courses designed to accommodate working professionals. Programs may be cohort-based or individually paced to facilitate different learning styles. Online students receive one-on-one attention from instructors and can access course materials at their convenience.

School Cost Enrolled Online Description Toggle
The University of Tennessee-Knoxville Knoxville, TN Cost: $$$$$ Enrolled Online: 26%

UT offers one of the best online doctor of social work programs in the country, and the program prepares students to become leaders in the field. This accelerated three-year program is designed for professionals who plan to work full-time while earning their degree. The program emphasizes empirical, theoretical, and professional knowledge and teaches students how to become innovators in social work policy and practice. Areas of study in this online doctor of social work program include epistemology, neuroscience for clinical practice, cognitive behavior therapy, psychopathology and psychopharmacology, and clinical management. Students must also complete capstone courses in their fourth and eighth semesters.

The program is delivered both synchronously and asynchronously and includes one week-long campus visit during the summer semester each year. Applicants must have a master's degree in social work, a minimum of two years of postgraduate clinical practice, and a minimum cumulative GPA of 3.0 in all graduate coursework to be considered. They must also submit competitive GRE scores with their application. This program is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education.

University of Pennsylvania Philadelphia, PA Cost: $$$$$ Enrolled Online: 0%

UPenn's School of Social Policy and Practice has a long history of advancing the field of human services. In fact, the Ivy league school developed the nation’s first social work practice doctorate. Coursework in this online doctorate in clinical social work covers a variety of topics, including clinical theory, applied statistics, trauma and interventions, teaching social practice, clinical supervision, and leadership for change.

All coursework, include dissertations, are completed in real-time through synchronous study and limited on-campus immersion. Students can earn their hybrid doctorate in social work in three years while continuing to work full-time. Applicants must have a master's degree in social work, two years of post-MSW experience, and three references (both academic and from clinical work) to be considered. UPenn boasts that its graduates are highly coveted as experts, educators, and leaders in the field. UPenn is accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

University of Southern California Los Angeles, CA Cost: $$$$$ Enrolled Online: 2%

USC offers one of the country's first online doctor of social work programs. This program prepares students to pursue leadership and management roles in the field in just two years. This doctoral degree in social work is taught by distinguished faculty and helps students become leaders in the discourse about social issues facing vulnerable populations. This 42-credit program is delivered in a synchronous format and requires two six-day residencies in Los Angeles and Washington D.C.

The curriculum includes courses on a variety of topics, such as innovation and change in social work, informatics and social innovation, financial management, data-driven decision-making, and leading complex systems. Students must also complete a capstone project that develops a solution to one of the "grand challenges" in social work. Applicants must have a master's degree in social work and a minimum of five years of post-master's professional experience to be considered. USC is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.

University of St Thomas Saint Paul, MN Cost: $$$$$ Enrolled Online: 1%

St. Thomas offers a doctorate in social work that was developed to fill a void of social work professors at the university level. The program develops professionals who can assume leadership roles in higher education. This online doctor of social work program can be completed in three years and includes coursework on a variety of topics, such as social work education, research and scholarship, theoretical perspectives, and engaged scholarship. Graduates are prepared to engage in transformative teaching practices and are able to write for publications in the field.

The program uses a cohort model and is delivered in both synchronous and asynchronous formats. Students are required to attend a two-week, on-campus residency in St. Paul during each summer semester. Applicants must have a master's of social work degree with a minimum GPA of 3.0, at least two years of post-MSW practical experience, and previous teaching experience at a postsecondary institution (either adjunct or full-time) to be considered. They must also submit three letters of recommendation. St. Thomas is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

Each program has unique learning objectives and outcomes to prepare students for careers in social work. Specific curricula vary by school, but students complete core and elective classes and residencies.


Each doctor of social work degree program has unique requirements, but the courses below are common to most doctorate in social work programs.

  • Interpersonal psychotherapy: Students develop skills necessary to assist patients with strained interpersonal relationships. Students learn to apply psychotherapy techniques to client interactions to help clients build stronger relationships with family and friends.
  • History and development of social work: This course covers the history of social work and welfare. Students study foundational concepts and explore the effect of past social justice issues on the modern world. This course prepares students for careers in research.
  • Advanced social work theory and practice: Students explore the ideals and concepts that shape modern social workers. They learn about social justice and how social workers contribute to community welfare. Students learn how services social workers provide shape individuals and families. Future clinical and medical social workers will benefit from this course.


The number of required credit hours impacts degree completion time. Each curriculum meets learning objectives, which vary by program. Most students complete their doctoral degree in social work in three to five years. Typically, programs require at least 71 credit hours.

Most programs require students to take at least two courses per semester, but whether a student studies on a full-time or part-time basis also affects completion time. Individually-paced, asynchronous programs may be completed more quickly, as students complete assignments on their own. Cohort-based, synchronous programs involve working with a group of peers and may take longer to complete.

Regional and national accreditation are the two most common forms of accreditation within higher education. Regional accreditation is handled by six geographically dispersed agencies. The U.S. Department of Education (DOE) and the Council for Higher Education (CHEA) oversee these agencies. Regional accreditation is the most prestigious, and credits earned from these institutions are easily transferable.

National accreditation is handled by CHEA-approved agencies, which evaluate accredited schools every three to five years. Most vocational and technical schools are nationally accredited. Nationally accredited programs are typically less expensive, but degrees from these schools are not as widely recognized.

The DOE allocates federal funds to public and private institutions within the U.S. school system and monitors schools to ensure adherence to federal regulations. The Council for Social Work Accreditation is a specialized agency that reviews social work programs, in conjunction with the CHEA, to ensure programs meet rigorous standards. For a list of accredited schools, visit the DOE or the CHEA website.


Online doctor of social work programs increase graduates' earning potential and open doors to the best social work job opportunities. The table below highlights common career paths for graduates of doctorate of social work online programs. Most positions involve working with clients, but graduates also work in administration and research.

Job Title Overall Median Salary Median Salary for Entry-Level Employees (0-5 years) Median Salary for Mid-Career Employees (5-10 years) Median Salary for Late-Career Employees (20 years)
Medical Social Worker $51,528 $50,000 $54,000 $61,000
Licensed Social Worker $45,029 $43,000 $48,000 $53,000
Clinical Social Worker $53,087 $48,000 $57,000 $64,000
Pediatric Social Worker $46,872 - - -
College Professor $85,452 $60,000 $86,000 $99,000

Source: PayScale


Graduates of social work doctoral programs pursue careers in research, teaching, and practice. Social work professionals work in clinical settings to assist people struggling with addictions, mental health issues, and interpersonal relationships. Graduates also serve on administrative boards, supervising a team of social workers and implementing policy changes. Researchers work with doctors to perform clinical studies and document findings in scientific journals.

Medical social worker

Medical social workers interview clients to understand their medical history. They refer clients to specialists, arrange transportation to appointments, and offer advice.

Median Annual Salary - $52,000
Projected Growth Rate - 12%

Licensed social worker

These social workers identify cognitive or mental issues. They serve as a client's support system to help them identify and reach personal goals.

Median Annual Salary - $45,000
Projected Growth Rate - 12%

Clinical social worker

Clinical social workers are licensed and trained to provide clients with therapy. They also coordinate other health services for clients.

Median Annual Salary - $53,000
Projected Growth Rate - 12%

Pediatric social worker

Pediatric social workers help children and their families identify health-related issues and cope with illness. They also help families find health services and providers.

Median Annual Salary - $47,000
Projected Growth Rate - 12%

College professor of social work

Instructors help students grasp social work concepts, policies, and procedures. They work with students at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

Median Annual Salary - $85,000
Projected Growth Rate - 13%


Professional organizations help social workers grow personally and professionally by providing a support system. Many organizations hold conferences across the globe. They provide job opportunities and career counseling for both recent graduates and experienced professionals. Most importantly, these organizations are committed to social justice reform; they advocate for policy change and implementation.

All graduate students should complete the Federal Application for Student Aid (FAFSA), which is handled by the DOE. Eligible students receive aid in the form of loans, grants, scholarships, and work-study programs. Graduate students may also fund their education by working as research or teacher's assistants.


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