Best Online Doctorate in Social Work (DSW) Programs

Pursuing a Doctorate in Social Work (DSW) can advance your career in social work. Explore the best online DSW programs, where we detail the costs, requirements, and career opportunities available.
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Updated on May 29, 2024
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If you're a seasoned social worker, you've already devoted your career to helping others. But you may have also wondered how you could do even more — and whether a doctorate in social work would help.

We'll be honest — a doctorate in social work is a lot of … work. But for folks who don't mind some heavy academic lifting and who want a shot at the most advanced clinical practice and research positions, an online DSW program may be a good choice.

Here's how to make sure it's a good choice for you:

  • Explore this page to determine whether this path is the right choice for you.
  • Check out the top-ranked online doctorate in social work programs, as well as our sponsored programs.
  • Request more information from schools you're interested in to find the best fit for you.

Featured Online Doctorate in Social Work Programs

What Are the Best Online Doctorate in Social Work (DSW) Programs?

We use trusted sources like Peterson's Data and the National Center for Education Statistics to inform the data for these schools. BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site. from our partners appear among these rankings and are indicated as such.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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Best Online Doctorate in Social Work (DSW) Programs

Baylor University

  • Waco, TX
  • 4 years
  • Online + Campus

100% Online + One summer week | Scheduled classes

Avg. Cost per Credit
In State | $2,285
Out of State | $2,285

Credits to Graduate
10 semesters

Program Information
Program Accreditation | Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission

Baylor's social work Ph.D. program focuses on integrating religion into the social work profession. Because this is a Ph.D. program, it focuses more heavily on research than some doctor of social work programs. 

When admitted, you will receive full funding for up to five years. You must be on campus for five days during your first summer semester and teach during one of your fall terms. 

To apply, you must take a statistics exam and earn a B or better within two tries. You must also submit a scholarly writing sample, resume, letters of recommendation, official transcripts, and a $50 application fee. You do not need a master's degree to apply to this program.

Average Undergrad Tuition
In-state
$44,544
Out-of-state
$44,544
Average Graduate Tuition
In-state
$33,408
Out-of-state
$33,408
Retention Rate
91%
Acceptance Rate
68%
Students Enrolled
19,297
Institution Type
Private
Percent Online Enrollment
92% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.
Accreditation
Yes Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
Best Online Doctorate in Social Work (DSW) Programs

Simmons University

  • Boston, MA
  • 4 years
  • Online + Campus

100% online | Scheduled classes

Avg. Cost per Credit
In State | $1,170
Out of State | $1,170

Credits to Graduate
48

Program Information
Program Accreditation | New England Commission on Higher Education

Simmons' doctorate of social work allows graduates to pursue various social work degree paths in and out of academia. The program specializes in three areas of focus: inclusive leadership, advanced clinical practice, and teaching and education. You can complete this program in as little as two years.

Applicants must hold an MSW and have completed three years of post-MSW work experience. The program accepts applications throughout the year, and cohorts begin in September, January, and May.

Average Undergrad Tuition
In-state
$40,850
Out-of-state
$40,850
Average Graduate Tuition
In-state
$21,528
Out-of-state
$21,528
Retention Rate
84%
Acceptance Rate
83%
Students Enrolled
6,263
Institution Type
Private
Percent Online Enrollment
100% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.
Accreditation
Yes New England Commission on Higher Education
Best Online Doctorate in Social Work (DSW) Programs

Spalding University

  • Louisville, KY
  • 4 years
  • Online + Campus

Hybrid | Scheduled Classes

Avg. Cost per Credit
In State | $990
Out of State | $990

Credits to Graduate
48

Program Information
Program Accreditation | Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission

SU's doctor of social work is a hybrid, low-residency program that offers two tracks of study: advanced clinical practice and leadership and administration. 

Most classes are held online during the week, but the program does require periodical attendance at Spalding’s Louisville campus on Saturdays. There are no classes during the summer, but you can pursue summer research or publication. 

To be considered for admittance, you must have a master of social work degree from an accredited school, a GPA of 3.3 or higher, and a minimum of two post-MSW years of practice experience. 

Average Undergrad Tuition
In-state
$25,800
Out-of-state
$25,800
Average Graduate Tuition
In-state
$12,186
Out-of-state
$12,186
Retention Rate
66%
Acceptance Rate
93%
Students Enrolled
1,596
Institution Type
Private
Percent Online Enrollment
78% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.
Accreditation
Yes Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
Best Online Doctorate in Social Work (DSW) Programs

The University of Tennessee-Knoxville

  • Knoxville, TN
  • 4 years
  • Online + Campus

Online + One in-person week per summer | Scheduled

Avg. Cost per Credit
In State | $700
Out of State | $775

Credits to Graduate
48

Program Information
Program Accreditation | Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission

The doctor of social work program at UT Knoxville focuses on clinical practice and leadership over academia and teaching. This program is a great choice if you want to stay on the professional side of social work. The program requires you to attend one week of on-campus learning each summer for three years. 

To apply, you must have a master’s in social work and three years of post-master’s experience. This program is intended for working professionals and has no part-time option.

Average Undergrad Tuition
In-state
$11,332
Out-of-state
$28,522
Average Graduate Tuition
In-state
$11,468
Out-of-state
$29,656
Retention Rate
89%
Acceptance Rate
78%
Students Enrolled
30,559
Institution Type
Public
Percent Online Enrollment
41% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.
Accreditation
Yes Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
Best Online Doctorate in Social Work (DSW) Programs

Tulane University of Louisiana

  • New Orleans, LA
  • 4 years
  • Online + Campus

Online classes + one immersion weekend | Scheduled classes

Avg. Cost per Credit
In State | $1,195
Out of State | $1,195

Credits to Graduate
54

Program Information
Program Accreditation | Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission

Tulane’s doctor of social work online degree program prepares students to become leaders of social change. Classes such as approaches to social welfare and applied social statistics instill the critical thinking skills and knowledge necessary to take on executive-level positions in social work. 

Aside from one immersion weekend at Tulane’s New Orleans campus, the program is fully online. To apply, you must have an MSW, a minimum GPA of 3.3 and three or more years of post-master’s social work experience.

Average Undergrad Tuition
In-state
$54,766
Out-of-state
$54,766
Average Graduate Tuition
In-state
$59,090
Out-of-state
$59,090
Retention Rate
92%
Acceptance Rate
11%
Students Enrolled
13,927
Institution Type
Private
Percent Online Enrollment
63% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.
Accreditation
Yes Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
Best Online Doctorate in Social Work (DSW) Programs

University of Pennsylvania

  • Philadelphia, PA
  • 4 years
  • Online + Campus

Hybrid (Online classes + campus immersion experiences) | Scheduled classes

Avg. Cost per Credit
In State | $6,728 per course unit
Out of State | $6,728 per course unit

Credits to Graduate
12 course units

Program Information
Program Accreditation | Middle States Commission on Higher Education

Penn’s doctorate in clinical social work specializes in preparing students for teaching. This hybrid program combines two weekly evening courses with periodic campus immersion experiences. 

You can complete the program in as little as three years, which can help reduce career disruption. During the last year of the program, you work solely on a dissertation, allowing you the opportunity to become an expert on your subject matter of choice.

To apply, you must hold a master’s degree in social work from an accredited program and have three years of post-MSW practice experience. 

Average Undergrad Tuition
In-state
$53,166
Out-of-state
$53,166
Average Graduate Tuition
In-state
$37,678
Out-of-state
$37,678
Retention Rate
95%
Acceptance Rate
9%
Students Enrolled
26,552
Institution Type
Private
Percent Online Enrollment
85% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.
Accreditation
Yes Middle States Commission on Higher Education
Best Online Doctorate in Social Work (DSW) Programs

University of Southern California

  • Los Angeles, CA
  • 4 years
  • Online + Campus

100% Online + Scheduled Classes 

Avg. Cost per Credit
In State |$2,045
Out of State | $2,045

Credits to Graduate
42

Program Information
Program Accreditation | Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior Colleges and University Commission

USC’s online doctorate of social work program focuses on providing practical solutions to large-scale social challenges that primarily impact disadvantaged people, such as the health gap and homelessness. Graduates of the program should be well-suited for management or professional leadership positions. The program offers both a standard and accelerated track. 

To apply, you must hold a master’s degree, but it does not necessarily need to be in social work. Having five years of post-master’s professional employment is strongly preferred. USC’s program offers start dates throughout the year.

Average Undergrad Tuition
In-state
$59,260
Out-of-state
$59,260
Average Graduate Tuition
In-state
$47,880
Out-of-state
$47,880
Retention Rate
91%
Acceptance Rate
16%
Students Enrolled
46,287
Institution Type
Private
Percent Online Enrollment
89% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.
Accreditation
Yes Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior Colleges and University Commission

How We Selected These Schools

At BestColleges, we believe a college education is one of the most important investments you can make. We help you navigate the college selection process by offering transparent, inclusive, and relevant school rankings.

We use datasets from trusted sources like the National Center for Education Statistics to inform the data for these schools and our methodologies. This ranking is from 2023. To learn more, check out our full ranking methodologies.

What Can You Do With a Doctoral Degree in Social Work?

With a doctorate in social work, you can pursue several in-demand healthcare careers. If you're looking to specialize, most programs offer tracks in specific areas, such as social work education, advanced clinical practice, or social work leadership.

Similarly, you may concentrate in areas such as child and school social work or mental health. DSW programs also tend to feature more advanced clinical internships than Ph.D. programs.

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

Both degrees are doctoral-level programs. Both options can help you advance your career, deepen your knowledge, and widen your impact in the field.

But these degrees do differ somewhat when it comes to program focus, curriculum, and future career paths.

DSW vs. Ph.D. in Social Work
Aspect DSW Ph.D. in Social Work
Program Emphasis
  • Clinical practice
  • Leadership and management
  • Applied research
  • Practice-related social work theory
  • Management and policy analysis
  • Academic theory
  • Scholarly research
  • Policy development
  • Social work theory
  • Statistics and research methods
Program Outcomes Prepares students to become leaders and administrators. Prepares students for positions in academia and scholarly research.
Career Paths
  • Clinical practice
  • Private practice
  • Leadership
  • Administration
  • Policy
  • Advocacy
  • Academic positions
  • Research positions
  • Think-tank contributors
  • Specialized policy roles

Which Degree Is Best After an MSW?

The answer really depends on your professional goals. If you're devoted to furthering the social work field through teaching and research, then a Ph.D. in social work would be a good choice.

But if you want to become an expert clinician who can handle the most complex cases or step into impactful leadership positions, a DSW would make the most sense.

How Much Does an Online Doctorate in Social Work Degree Cost?

Average Cost of Tuition for a Ph.D. Program Per Year

$20,600

Average Cost of Non-Tuition Related Expenses Per Year

$20,300

Average Total Cost of a Ph.D. Per Year

$40,900

Total Cost of a Ph.D. (4-8 Years)

$163,000-$327,000

Source: BestColleges, How Much Does a Ph.D. Cost?

Look, $130K-$263K for a Ph.D. is a really big financial lift — especially for someone in a career that isn't exactly known for high pay.

This is why we recommend that you consider earning your doctorate online to save time, money, and opportunity costs. You should also apply for every grant, scholarship, or fellowship you can find.

You know what they say: Friends don't let friends pay for doctoral degrees. Many doctoral programs offer multi-year funding packages that cover tuition and provide a stipend, and sometimes even offer healthcare.

But if you're considering picking up the whole tab yourself, you should think really hard about whether the payoff will be worth it.

Is a DSW Worth It?

A doctorate in social work can be worth it for social workers who want to get into advanced clinical practice or an academic career.

You don't need a DSW to become a licensed clinical social worker, but it can help you specialize in practice areas you're most passionate about.

How Much Money Can I Make With a Doctorate in Social Work?

In addition to expanding job opportunities and responsibilities, earning a doctorate often helps graduates qualify for higher salaries. Top earners in the social work field take home more than $100,000 annually.

Median annual wage for the top 10% of earners in the social work field

$104,580+

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2023

Median annual wage for all social work occupations

$63,770

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2023

What Jobs Can You Get With a Doctorate in Social Work?

A doctorate in social work is a distinction that can open the door to advanced practice, leadership, and research positions in the field. See options for social work careers below:

Social Work Career Paths

  • Licensed clinical social worker (may require additional education or certification)
  • Postsecondary teacher
  • Community service manager
  • Public relations and fundraising manager
  • Political scientist
  • Professor/researcher
  • Clinical director
  • Policy analyst

DSW Program Concentrations

At the doctoral level, you'll get to hone in on the area of specialization that you care about the most. Some common specializations include:

  • Clinical Practice and Supervision: Develop clinical skills and learn to apply evidence-based practice to complex cases.
  • Leadership and Administration: Learn to develop social programs, manage staff, and do high-level advocacy work.
  • Education: Prepare for a career as a teacher or researcher.
  • Social Justice: Learn to leverage critical approaches to social work practice to address systemic issues.
  • Disaster, Crisis, and Intervention: Develop the skills to work in settings like emergency management, community outreach, and mental health counseling.
  • Mental Health and Substance Misuse: Prepare to work with individuals and families living with mental health and substance misuse disorders.

CSWE Program Accreditation

The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) is the primary accreditation organization for social work programs in the United States.

It's crucial that you get your DSW from a CSWE-accredited program for a few reasons:

  1. It ensures that you receive a high-quality education that meets national standards for social work.
  2. It will make it easier for you to become licensed and practice in your state.
  3. It signals to employers that you are qualified to work in the field.

How Long Does It Take to Get a Doctorate Degree in Social Work?

It takes between 2-5 years to complete a doctoral degree in social work, depending on your course load, school, and program.

Many DSW programs require you to complete an original research dissertation or capstone project in addition to your coursework.

Required Course Credits

45-60

Field Study Requirements

Yes*
*Depending on your program and specialization

Featured Online Doctorate in Social Work Programs

Everything Else You Need to Know About a Doctorate in Social Work Degree

What courses will I take in a doctorate in social work program?

Coursework varies by program, but most DSW programs will include some version of the following:

  • Cultural competence and ethics
  • Advanced social work practice
  • Advanced research methods in social work
  • Human development and behavior
  • Trauma-informed care
  • Social policy and social justice
  • Clinical supervision and leadership

What are the admission requirements for a DSW program?

These requirements may vary, but many doctoral social work programs typically require applications to have the following:

  1. Master's degree in social work from an accredited program
  2. Two to three years of experience in the field
  3. Letters of recommendation
  4. Statement of purpose or personal essay
  5. Academic transcripts from previous higher education institutions
  6. Test scores, such as GRE scores

What are the highest-paying jobs with a doctorate in social work?

A doctorate gives you access to various well-paying careers in social work. One of the highest-paying social work careers is a public relations and fundraising manager.According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, these workers earned a median annual salary of $130,480 in May 2023.

In addition, Payscale reports that clinical directors earned an average salary of $85,510 per year as of April 2024.

Can you complete a DSW part time?

Of course! Most online DSW programs provide the flexibility to get your degree part time, or on whatever schedule works best for you. This gives you the added freedom to continue working and gaining professional experience while going to school.

Note: The insights on this page — excluding school descriptions — were reviewed by an independent third party compensated for their time by BestColleges. Page last reviewed April 24, 2024.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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