Best Online Doctorate in Social Work Programs of 2021

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By Doug Wintemute

Reviewed by Melissa Russiano, LCSW, LISW

Published on September 13, 2021

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Online doctorate in social work programs teach students how to make a difference in the lives of others. These programs provide graduates with advanced research, leadership, and practical skills, along with knowledge of social work education, policies, and program development.

According to World Education Services, the average cost for a doctoral degree ranges from $28,000-$40,000 per year. Along with offering more flexibility, an online doctorate in social work may result in savings on tuition, travel, and room and board. Online programs can also help degree-seekers reduce the timeline to graduation.

While the degree requires a significant investment, the outlook can make it worthwhile. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects 12% growth for all community and social services professions between 2019 and 2029, three times faster than the average rate for all occupations.

Read on to learn more about online doctorate in social work programs, including career opportunities and common courses.

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

The typical online doctorate in social work takes 4-6 years to complete, though some schools offer shorter, accelerated pathways. Program length varies, as students complete their dissertation and final projects at different paces. These programs usually require 45-60 credits.

Prospective students can choose between a doctorate of social work (DSW) and a Ph.D. in social work. While DSWs prepare graduates for clinical careers through practice-based and leadership training, Ph.D. programs emphasize theory, behavioral science, and teaching. Ph.D. programs also focus on original interdisciplinary research, whereas DSWs focus on clinical research.

DSW learners can often specialize in social work education, advanced clinical practice, or social work leadership. Similarly, Ph.D. students may create a concentration 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.

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What Courses Will I Take in an Online Doctorate in Social Work Program?

Leading Complex Organizations and Systems

These courses examine methods for integrating ethical and effective practices and policies into complex organizations. Students learn about the challenges that social workers face while also examining and analyzing the latest developments in the field.

Public Policy Issues in Social Work

This course explores the processes and institutions involved with creating and implementing public policy in social work. Students examine issues with current and past policies. They may also analyze and critique these policies and create new models.

Financial Management for Social Change

This course teaches students strategies and methods for planning budgets and managing funds for various social programs on either a micro, mezzo, or macro level. Coursework looks at the program planning process, budget analysis, and various perspectives involved in social work finances.

Psychopathology and Psychopharmacology

This course provides students with knowledge of the psychological and pharmacological issues and practices in social work. Learners may examine how various social workers collaborate with mental health and medical professionals. They also learn about medications and the diagnostic classification system.

History and Theory in Social Work

This course explores the development of the social work field throughout history, examining how and why the field has changed. Students look at the evolving ways in which research, theory, and scholarship have changed social work practice and policy.

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

What Are Admission Requirements for an Online Doctorate in Social Work Program?

Admission requirements for online doctorate in social work programs vary by school, but prospective students typically need a master's degree in social work or a related field. Some schools may require a minimum 3.0 GPA and an interview.

Test Scores

Many programs require applicants to submit GRE scores. Standardized tests help schools compare applicants, and institutions often set minimum score requirements. Prospective students can improve their scores through proper GRE preparation.

Letters of Recommendation

Current and former employers and professors can write letters of recommendation that address an applicant's qualities, strengths, and chance at success in doctoral programs. Prospective doctoral students usually need at least three letters.

Resume

A resume highlights professional experience and responsibilities. Resumes can also demonstrate practical skills and interests. Some doctoral programs in social work may require that applicants have professional experience.

Essays

Application essays can take various forms. A personal essay highlights the applicant's strengths and experiences in the field. A research proposal focuses on what research interests the applicant hopes to pursue. Prospective students may also need to submit writing samples, such as previous essays from relevant classes.

Official Transcripts

Applicants must submit transcripts from all prior postsecondary education. These documents provide proof of previous grades and help schools determine if incoming students qualify for transfer credits.

What Can I Do With an Online Doctorate in Social Work Degree?

Career Outlook

As the field's terminal degree, a doctorate in social work qualifies graduates for most career paths available in the industry. While Ph.D. graduates typically pursue careers in postsecondary education and research, many DSW graduates continue to work as clinical social workers or enter community service administration management.

Most social workers work for nonprofit organizations, though businesses and insurance companies hire them, as well.

An aging population and the positive impacts of social services are driving demand for social workers. The BLS projects 13% job growth for social workers between 2019 and 2029, more than three times the average growth rate for all occupations. The BLS also projects 6% growth for social work teachers and 17% growth for community service managers over that same period.

Discover what a doctorate in social work can do for you. Learn more about social work careers here.

Career Paths

Licensed Clinical Social Worker

Licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs) help clients manage various issues, challenges, and situations. They may specialize in working with certain groups or issues and can diagnose and treat mental health disorders. To earn this title, social workers must meet licensure requirements for their state.

Median Annual Salary: $51,760

Postsecondary Teacher

Postsecondary teachers educate aspiring social workers in colleges and universities. They also conduct their own research and publish work based on their findings. While a DSW can prepare and qualify graduates for a teaching position, most postsecondary teachers hold a Ph.D.

Median Annual Salary: $80,790

Community Service Manager

Community service managers supervise programs, organizations, and services that help people and communities in various ways. Depending on the size of the organization, they may handle administrative duties, program design, and operations.

Median Annual Salary: $69,600

Public Relations and Fundraising Manager

Public relations and fundraising managers supervise an organization's public-facing image and initiatives. Nonprofit organizations that rely on donations need managers to create fundraising messaging, oversee campaigns, and form partnerships with major donors.

Median Annual Salary: $118,430

Political Scientist

Political scientists analyze governments and policies, tracking trends and historical developments. In social work, these scientists evaluate current practices and regulations and look for potential challenges and improvements. They may also conduct research for governments and organizations.

Median Annual Salary: $125,350

Social Work Not For You? Check Out These Related Careers.

Continuing Education

Graduates with a doctorate in social work rarely go on to pursue another degree, but they may choose to take an interdisciplinary approach. Students could, for example, pair their social work education with business expertise by earning an MBA in nonprofit management. Others might explore a doctorate in psychology.

Most social workers, however, continue their education through their research as postsecondary teachers or to meet requirements for licensure renewal.

Licenses and Certifications

Certifications and licenses available to social workers vary by state. To become an LCSW, candidates need a master's degree and two years of supervised clinical experience at minimum.

They then need to pass the certification exam through the Association of Social Work Boards and apply for state licensure. LCSWs renew their license every 2-3 years by completing continuing education credits.

Depending on the state, possible social work licenses include the following:

How Do I Choose an Online Doctorate in Social Work Program?

Cost

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average graduate degree cost $19,314 per year in 2018-2019. Public school programs averaged $12,171, while private school programs averaged $25,929. To find the true program cost, prospective students must consider additional fees and material costs, which online degrees can help reduce.

Program Format

Program format can make a big difference for students, particularly for online learners who may choose synchronous or asynchronous learning depending on their scheduling needs. Schools may offer part-time and full-time enrollment options and accelerated formats, which can reduce completion times.

Location

Location plays a big role for on-campus degree-seekers, but even online learners should pay attention to it. Prospective distance learners should check if their program includes any residency requirements. If traveling to meet those requirements is not possible, they may need to make other arrangements or choose a closer school.

Accreditation

Accreditation is crucial. Schools with regional accreditation can access federal funding and provide transfer credits to other accredited institutions. To qualify for social work licensure, students need to graduate from a regionally accredited school and a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education.

Student Support

Even online learners should look for schools that offer academic support and wellness services, along with career support services, mentorship programs, and alumni connections. Ask an academic advisor about available services.

2021 Best Accredited Online Doctorate in Social Work Programs

Rankings compiled by the the BestColleges Ranking Team

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Baylor University View School Profile Waco, TX

Based in Waco, Texas, Baylor offers a 10-semester Ph.D. in social work program that students can complete in approximately three years. This program delivers all coursework synchronously, with learners attending online classes through videoconferencing technology.

At the conclusion of their third semester, degree-seekers complete a comprehensive examination leading to the dissertation portion of the degree. Standard classes for this degree program include statistical analysis for social work, social policy and the religious sector, and advanced qualitative research. New cohorts begin in the summer semester of odd-numbered years, and participants start by completing a 4-5-day on-campus session.

Program Snapshot

  • Program URL: Visit Program
  • Cost Per Credit: $2,093 per credit
  • Program Length: 3-4 years
  • Total Credits Required to Graduate: 60 credits
  • Instruction style: Synchronous
  • Format: Online
  • School Status: Private
  • School Accreditation: SACSCOC
University at Buffalo View School Profile Buffalo, NY

Delivering coursework both synchronously and asynchronously, UB's 39-credit doctor of social work in social welfare program takes three years to complete. Designed for working professionals, the program allows students to complete required coursework part time and entirely online. Core classes cover concepts like implementation science; technology, human behavior, and professional practice; and evaluating and utilizing evidence-based practices in social work.

Prospective students must hold a master's degree in social work from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education. Additionally, applicants must demonstrate strong academic performance and have at least three years of professional experience.

Program Snapshot

  • Program URL: Visit Program
  • Cost Per Credit: $800 per credit (in state); $1,050 per credit (out of state)
  • Program Length: 3 years
  • Total Credits Required to Graduate: 39 credits
  • Instruction style: Synchronous and asynchronous
  • Format: Online
  • School Status: Public
  • School Accreditation: MSCHE
University of Pennsylvania View School Profile Philadelphia, PA

Based in Philadelphia, Penn offered the nation's first social work practice doctorate. The university now offers an online version of that doctoral program. Distance learners attend synchronous online courses on Tuesday and Thursday evenings for two hours each. First-year coursework covers clinical theories, applied social statistics, and trauma-informed theory and interventions.

Prospective students must have a master's degree from an accredited social work program and at least three years of professional experience. Applicants must submit three letters of recommendation, an academic writing sample, and an essay outlining professional goals.

Program Snapshot

  • Program URL: Visit Program
  • Cost Per Credit: $6,538 per course
  • Program Length: 3 years
  • Total Credits Required to Graduate: 12 courses plus dissertation coursework
  • Instruction style: Synchronous
  • Format: Online
  • School Status: Private
  • School Accreditation: MSCHE
University of Southern California View School Profile Los Angeles, CA

Based in Los Angeles, USC offers an online doctorate of social work that most students earn in nine semesters. Additionally, the doctoral program offers an accelerated track that some learners can finish in seven semesters. Core requirements include courses like financial management for social change, application of implementation science, and leading and managing large complex systems.

Prospective students must have a social work master's degree from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education and at least five years of post-master's professional experience. Applicants should submit a professional resume and letters of recommendation. They must also answer two writing prompts. The program does not require GRE scores.

Program Snapshot

  • Program URL: Visit Program
  • Cost Per Credit: $1,995 per unit
  • Program Length: 3 years
  • Total Credits Required to Graduate: 42 units
  • Instruction style: Synchronous
  • Format: Online
  • School Status: Private
  • School Accreditation: WSCUC
University of St Thomas View School Profile Saint Paul, MN

Based in St. Paul, Minnesota, UST offers an online doctor of social work degree program that includes both synchronous and asynchronous elements. Additionally, all students in the program must complete a two-week residency in St. Paul each summer.

Throughout this three-year program, students complete two successive, eight-week sessions each fall and spring semester. Required online classes include social work theoretical perspectives, writing for publication, and history of social work and social work education.

Alongside a completed application, prospective students must submit a resume, letters of recommendation, a writing sample, and a personal statement outlining their academic goals.

Program Snapshot

  • Program URL: Visit Program
  • Cost Per Credit: $1,131 per credit
  • Program Length: 3 years
  • Total Credits Required to Graduate: 45 credits
  • Instruction style: Synchronous and asynchronous
  • Format: Online
  • School Status: Private
  • School Accreditation: HLC
The University of Tennessee-Knoxville View School Profile Knoxville, TN

Students in this doctoral program complete synchronous and asynchronous coursework. They must also attend a one-week intensive study session on campus.

UT Knoxville takes a holistic approach when reviewing prospective students for its DSW program. The admissions department considers past academic performance, GRE scores, and clinical experience as indicators of academic success. However, GRE scores have been waived through fall 2022.

Program Snapshot

  • Program URL: Visit Program
  • Cost Per Year: $13,380 per year (in state); $31,798 per year (out of state)
  • Program Length: 3 years
  • Total Credits Required to Graduate: 48 credits
  • Instruction style: Synchronous and asynchronous
  • Format: Online
  • School Status: Public
  • School Accreditation: SACSCOC

Frequently Asked Questions About Doctorate in Social Work Programs

Is a doctorate in social work worth it? true

A doctorate in social work qualifies graduates for nearly all social work careers. This degree can lead to leadership and teaching positions, along with some of the highest salaries available in the field.

What can I do with a doctorate in social work? true

With a doctorate in social work, graduates can pursue careers as postsecondary teachers, LCSWs, and community service organization managers. Graduates can enact changes in policy, as well as develop organizations and programs that help entire communities.

Are social workers in high demand? true

The demand for social workers and related professionals looks very strong. The BLS projects the addition of more than 90,000 new social worker jobs between 2019 and 2029. The BLS also projects the addition of nearly 350,000 community service occupations during that same period.

How much money can I make with a DSW?

Salary potential for DSW graduates depends on their chosen field and location. According to the BLS, the top 10% of earners in the social work field make more than $85,820 per year. Postsecondary teachers make a median annual wage of $80,790, and the top 10% of earners make more than $180,360 per year.

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

Graduates can find work as fundraising managers, who earn a median annual wage of $118,430. They can also pursue careers as political scientists, who make a median annual salary of $125,350.

Reviewed by:

Melissa Russiano is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice that has organically developed into a specialty helping working professionals. Russiano has a proven track record helping professionals avoid burnout in a unique way that holds clinicians accountable through laughter, tears, blunt (yet very supportive) feedback and quirky analogies that are grounded in solid theoretical research. Russiano practices solely in a virtual setting in the states of California, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. In addition, Russiano is a professor at Simmons University online, imparting her experiences and knowledge in the field to graduate social work students.

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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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