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.

Choosing a Program


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.

The Best Online Doctorate in Social Work Programs

School Location Cost Graduation Rate Description Toggle

Baylor University

Waco, TX Cost: $$$$$ Graduation Rate: 70%

Baylor University is a private, Christian research university located in Waco, Texas. Approximately 18,000 students enroll each year, 4,000 of whom pursue graduate and professional studies. The Diana R. Garland School of Social Work offers three degrees, including an online Ph.D. program.

Designed to develop visionary leaders and educators, BU's Ph.D. in social work integrates religion and faith with the ethics, values, and practices of the social work field. Cohorts of 5-7 students attend classes using synchronous videoconferencing technology. A successful teaching practicum and dissertation are required to graduate.

Admission requires a personal statement, scholarly writing sample, resume, letters of recommendation, and GRE scores. Students complete a mandatory five-day campus visit at the start of their first summer semester.

University of Pennsylvania

Philadelphia, PA Cost: $$$$$ Graduation Rate: 95%

Approximately 27,000 individuals attend the University of Pennsylvania each year, including 11,400 full-time graduate and professional students. Penn's school of social work promotes social justice and change through research and practice and offers a doctorate in social work.

Through a combination of campus immersion experiences and synchronous online courses, students can progress through the program in three years without career disruption. Interdisciplinary courses in clinical theory, research methods, and teaching prepare graduates for careers in education and leadership. Successful defense of a dissertation is required.

Applicants must hold a master's in social work and have two years of post-master's experience. Admission requires three letters of reference, a written work sample, and application essay.

University of Southern California

Los Angeles, CA Cost: $$$$$ Graduation Rate: 92%

The University of Southern California attracts more than 40,000 students to its Los Angeles campus each year. The top-ranked, private research institution also offers more than 100 online graduate and professional programs in over a dozen disciplines, including certificates, master's, and doctoral degrees.

Students pursuing USC's online doctorate in social work gain skills attributed to both practitioners and scholars. Required courses focus on social innovation, public discourse, and executive leadership. The 42-credit curriculum offers completion times as brief as 24 months, with two required six-day residencies in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., respectively.

USC prefers applicants to have at least five years of post-master's work experience. Prospective students must submit a resume, two statements of purpose, official transcripts, and three letters of recommendation.

University of St. Thomas

Saint Paul, MN Cost: $$$$$ Graduation Rate: 77%

The University of St. Thomas is the largest private university in Minnesota, offering more than 200 programs and enrolling more than 10,000 students each year. Founded in the Catholic intellectual tradition, St. Thomas strives to develop leaders who make a positive impact on the world.

The online doctorate in social work at St. Thomas specifically prepares graduates for university-level teaching and leadership. Progressing through the three-year program as a cohort, students take synchronous and asynchronous courses in scholarship, education, and writing for publication. A three-part dissertation and on-campus residencies are required.

Prospective students must have at least two years of post-master's social work experience and a minimum 3.0 GPA on previous graduate study. Previous higher education teaching experience is strongly preferred.

University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Knoxville, TN Cost: $$$$$ Graduation Rate: 73%

The University of Tennessee-Knoxville is the state's flagship university and a major public research institution. Nearly 30,000 students attend UT Knoxville, including 6,200 engaged in graduate and professional studies. The school of social work offers a bachelor's, master's, Ph.D., and online doctorate degree in social work.

Using synchronous and asynchronous delivery, this accelerated program allows full-time working professionals to graduate in three years. UT Knoxville's doctoral curriculum uniquely prepares students for advanced clinical practice and leadership. A final capstone requires preparation and oral defense of a paper reporting clinical research study results.

Admission requires a minimum 3.0 graduate GPA, submission of GRE scores, and two years of post-master's clinical practice experience. A three-day, on-campus orientation is required, and students must attend a one-week session on campus each summer.

What Else Can I Expect From an Online Doctorate in Social Work Program

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.

Accreditation for Online Doctorate in Social Work Programs

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.

Employment Outlook for Doctorate in Social Work Graduates


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.

Financing Your Online Doctorate in Social Work Program

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.


Approximately two-thirds of today's college students rely on loans to fund their education, but there are plenty of overlooked financing options you can use to reduce your overall student debt.


Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a crucial first step for any student with financial needs. Our FAFSA guide features a step-by-step rundown on the process and answers to several frequently asked questions.


Financial aid for online learning is equivalent to what you'll find for campus-based learning, but that hasn't always been the case. Learn about the changes that have taken place, as well as the different funding opportunities available to online students.


Online college programs can be a flexible, affordable option for single parents who are interested in earning a degree and securing their family's financial future. We've compiled a list of scholarships, grants, and other financial aid options geared toward single moms and dads.


Millions of dollars in free money is available to U.S. military personnel, but much of it goes unused. Learn more about grants, scholarships, and other financial aid opportunities available to veterans, active-duty service members, and reservists.