Finding the Best Online DSW Programs for You

Learn everything you need to know about the online doctorate in social work and the social work PhD, including the key differences of each degree, how they work, and which schools have the top online DSW and PhD programs and courses today.

Written By

PhDs.me Staff

Last updated

Mar 08, 2021

The doctorate of social work (DSW) attracts working professionals who have the goal of increasing their leadership skills in a clinical social work setting. Unlike the PhD in social work, which is more research-based and offers a path to working in academic settings, the DSW focuses on the practice of working with individuals, families, and communities on critical issues such as homelessness, gun violence, and foster care. To minimize career disruption, some DSW programs have moved all or part of their curriculum online, making earning the degree more convenient than ever.  

How do I know which online DSW programs are the best? How much will my salary increase after earning an online DSW? Should I get a PhD instead?

This guide answers important questions and addresses key issues that prospective DSW seekers need to know. Personalize your search by finding which doctoral options make sense for you, and start and narrow your program search here.

Top Online Social Work Doctorates for 2021

Identifying the “best” DSW programs is subjective and depends on your specific wants and needs from a higher education program. The top online DSW for you might not be the right choice for someone else. We’ve collected data on all the blended and online DSW programs in the U.S. to help you make the college choice that’s right for you. We’re also spotlighting a few DSW program to familiarize you with what’s available this year.

University-of-Tennessee-at-Knoxville

The University of Tennessee at Knoxville

The DSW online program at UT Knoxville is designed for professional social workers already engaged in clinical practice who are looking to elevate their careers into leadership roles and advanced clinical practice. This program is notable for the convenience it offers students who are working full time in clinical practice while attending school. Courses are presented in a combination of synchronous and asynchronous features. Synchronous learning consists of real-time components, while asynchronous learning offers students the ability to complete coursework at a time that works for them. UT’s online DSW program is accelerated so that students can finish their studies in three years while working full time. Tuition for out-of-state students is $775 per credit, while in-state students pay $700 per credit.

New-York-University

New York University

The Silver School of Social Work at NYU offers a doctorate in social work in a hybrid, partially online program that enables students to maintain their full-time professional commitments while completing their degree. The three-year program requires students to take 19 classes over the course of eight semesters and enables them to complete the program in three years. In-person class time is limited to Wednesday nights during spring and fall semesters and Monday and Wednesday nights during the summer section. Elective courses can be taken at different NYU branches. One notable aspect of this program is that instead of having to write a dissertation, students are required to write and publish two papers and present their work at a symposium. Tuition is $1,412 per credit, but the school offers financial aid and scholarships to DSW students.

Tulane-University

Tulane University

Tulane University’s DSW is a 54-credit program that students can complete in as soon as three years, though they have the option of taking more time if they wish. It’s designed for those already working in the social work field who want to elevate their careers with a doctorate. Every DSW student is required to attend an immersion weekend in New Orleans, where Tulane is located. This not only gives students the opportunity to meet each other and work together, they also get to experience the culture and flavor of New Orleans. The cost per credit for the online DSW program at Tulane University is $1,198.

Benefits of the Online Doctorate in Social Work

For many working professionals today, earning a doctorate can be a challenge. Not necessarily because of the coursework itself, but due to the time and energy it takes to attend class, coordinate with fellow students and professors, and conduct research, all while trying to keep a clinical practice thriving. The good news is, many colleges and universities have acknowledged this difficulty and have added an online element to their DSW programs. Whether fully or partially, these online DSW programs are making it much easier for social work leaders to advance their educations and eventually their careers.

Flexibility and convenience.

Whether the program you’re in is fully online or partially online, you’ll have the benefit of coursework that you can complete according to your schedule. While you’ll still need to adhere to program deadlines and may be expected to take proctored exams at a predetermined time, you will still be able to access lectures, readings, and assignments anytime and from anywhere.

Go at your own pace.

The online DSW program is designed for working professionals. Most students pursuing the DSW do so while working in their professions. DSW degree curriculums are designed for full- and part-time students to work at their own pace, though they may be required to finish in a certain amount of time. In many cases, students may be able to take anywhere from three to five years to complete DSW program requirements. Part-time students can take fewer courses per semester and can take longer to work on their capstone projects, which are the social work equivalent of a dissertation.

What Types of Online DSW Programs Are There?

Each student’s academic and professional wants and needs are different, which means the right program for one person may be a less-than-ideal choice for another. Let’s start the program journey by reviewing some of today’s most popular online DSW program options.

Full-time, fully online

Fully online DSW programs are designed for ultimate flexibility. They combine elements of real-time and your-own-time elements to help ensure quality learning outcomes with the convenience of online study. Real-time classes and other collaborative exercises take place using interactive video at preset times. For the component students complete on their own time, they use anything from email to college- or department-specific communication platforms to share course-related documents and research. Despite being fully online, these programs do have a residency requirement, which means each student will need to visit the campus at least once per year to network with fellow students and work with professors on research projects. These residencies last anywhere from three days to a week.

Part-time, fully online

These programs have many of the same online elements as full-time programs, but often come with a more flexible schedule. Students can adjust their course loads more easily to fit their work and family commitments. Part-time online DSWs can take between three and four years to complete. These programs are ideal for working professionals in social work who need ultimate flexibility when pursuing their degree.

Full-time, partially online (blended)

Partially online programs have same-time and own-time elements as well. However, students must also attend semi-regular classes on campus either after hours or on the weekend (or both). The classes usually occur in three- or four-hour blocks and involve extensive collaboration with professors and fellow students. These blended DSW programs are best for students who like the time and place convenience of online learning but who may need or prefer face-to-face interaction when learning.

Part-time, partially online (blended)

One of the most popular options, because many colleges are still integrating large online learning programs, the part-time nature appeals to busy professionals and allows students to ease into online education. Blended (or hybrid) programs either have a selection of courses that are fully online, or parts of courses with an online presence. These programs are best for DSW students who need to take their time (relatively speaking) and either prefer in-person learning or may not be ready for a fully online degree.

Doctorate in Social Work Learning Outcomes

Most DSW programs anchor their curriculum to specific learning goals or outcomes. These outcomes guide both students and faculty and ensure that graduates leave the program ready to impact change. The University of Southern California (USC), for example, has connected its online DSW program goals to the 12 Grand Challenges of Social Work established by the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare. These challenges influence the courses and research direction of the program to meet the learning goals accomplished by students upon earning the degree.

1

Identify as a leader and educator in the social work field.
With the expertise and knowledge obtained in the DSW program, graduates are known experts and therefore leaders in their profession.

2

Use evidence-based practice and apply critical thinking.
Ability to focus on examination of key literature, establishing evidence-based processes, data collection, analysis, and synthesis, and the strengths and weaknesses of evidence its application to direct practice.

3

Problem identification and solving.
Use research, communication technologies, and knowledge of human behavior to create processes and goal setting strategies with clients.

4

Embody ethics and professional behavior.
Expert knowledge of acceptable and ethical behavior in social work and ability to model behavior for other social workers. Ability to put personal beliefs aside and adhere to best ethical practices in social work.

DSW Specializations: Discover Where Your Strengths Lie

Because the DSW is a practical doctorate and mostly for mid-career professionals, applicants should already know where their interests lie. This means that choosing a degree track may not be as difficult with a DSW as it could be with a PhD. However, your desired specialization could direct you toward or away from certain social work doctorates. If you’re searching for just the right online DSW program for your career path, consider the following specializations:

  • Criminal Justice:Work with victim or offenders and inform best practices in this specialization.
  • Disaster and Crisis Intervention:Model and inform crisis intervention theories and practices. Work with victims and first responders during and after a disaster or crisis.
  • Addiction:Identify requirements for people with addictions and offer support and resources to them and their families and communities.
  • Social Work in Healthcare:Identify resources and advocate for patients, families, and staff members in healthcare organizations and government.
  • Administration:Understand organizational behavior and relationships, lead and support social workers and staff, engage in community relations.
  • Policy and Practice:Identify social work policy issues and work with stakeholders to advance social welfare on a local or national level.

Timeline: How Long Does It Take to Get a DSW Online?

The time it takes to earn an online DSW depends on whether you plan to study full-time or part-time. Each program has different course load minimums and maximums that can influence your timetable. The standard requirement for completion of all coursework, exams, and dissertation is five years, but some programs may allow as many as eight years from start to finish. Below is a general timeline for study, though programs will vary.

Year one

Students studying full time will take approximately 15 credits of core requirements, which is the equivalent of five courses. A common breakdown would be two classes in the fall, two classes in the spring, and one over the summer. In addition to coursework, students will select their capstone topic, do some preliminary research, and adjust their topic accordingly. Depending on the program students will take courses in cognitive behavioral therapy, psychopathology and psychopharmacology, and clinical research and applied statistics. A part-time student will meet many of these same requirements, but may take three or four classes over the course of the year and take more time with the capstone project.

Year two

Second-year DSW study centers on the continuation of coursework, but with more of a focus on the student’s chosen specialization and applied research. Full-time students will take around 16 credits, with six credits in core courses and 10 credits in clinical practice. Part-time students may take a similar course load and 10 credits in clinical practice, but they will continue to do research on their capstone requirement during this time, while full-time students typically turn in a draft and final version of their proposal.

Year three

Full-time students are full-speed ahead on their specialization and elective courses, typically taking two classes in the fall and two in the spring. They will also turn in their capstone analysis and findings in the fall, with the final paper and defense taking place in the spring. At that point, they should be near graduation, but some may need to finish the program in the summer. Part-time students will use this third year to take one class per semester, earning nine credits in total, and working on their capstone paper. They should be finishing up core classes and starting on specialization course work. They will be turning in their proposal draft and collecting data during this year.

Years four and five

Part-time students are still forging ahead, taking nine more credits and spreading them out to fall, spring and summer. Much of their time will be spend on the capstone project. In year four, they will work on their findings and analysis, work with their advisor, and turn in a rough draft of their paper. In year five, they will be mostly dedicated to finishing and defending the capstone presentation, and possibly finishing up any classes they need to take.

What’s the Difference Between a DSW and a PhD in Social Work?

Like a number of subjects that involve working with patients and students in a service-oriented setting (public health, education, psychology), social work has two higher educational options at the doctoral level. The Doctor of Philosophy in social work, also known as the PhD in social work, and the doctor of social work, aka the DSW. Both degrees can support academic and career advancement and help social work professionals boost their earning potential. Which one of these advanced degrees makes the most sense for you?

Social Work DoctoratesDSWPhD
Program focusClinical, hands-on, interactiveResearch, scholarship, teaching
Minimum degree req.Master’sBachelor’s
Career trackClinical/professionalAcademia
Program type (common)Full-time or part-timeFull-time
Program length2-3 years (standard)4-6 years (standard)
Capstone projectApplied researchDissertation
Primary studentsMid-careerEarly career

If you thrive in a hands-on environment and prefer to make a difference with patients directly, a DSW program may be the best fit. Interested in teaching others and advancing the field through research? Explore PhD programs to move your career forward. If you still need input, talk to someone with each degree or to a professor who teaches in each program.

Are Online DSW Programs Accredited?

When it comes to higher education, the right accreditation matters. A few colleges and programs claim to possess accreditation from entities that sound professional and official. With social work doctorates, however, make sure every institution has the following:

  • Regional accreditation.At the institutional level, regional accreditation is the official sign of quality higher education. Accrediting bodies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education review and vet the curricula, faculty, and overall mission of colleges and universities to ensure their resources and academics reach certain standards. When researching and narrowing down your online DSW program list, make sure the institutions have this accreditation in hand.
  • CSWE accreditation? The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) is a national association representing advanced social work education in the U.S. It’s recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation as the only agency that accredits social work programs in the nation. The CSWE itself does not accredit doctorate programs in social work, instead opting to focus on those at the bachelor’s and master’s degree levels. However, when researching a DSW program, make sure the department offering it has bachelor’s and MSW programs with the CSWE stamp of approval.
  • What is GADE? While not an accreditation agency, the Group for the Advancement of Doctoral Education in Social Work (GADE) is comprised of more than 80 social work doctoral program representatives across the world. GADE works to ensure that social work PhD and DSW programs are rigorous and produce graduates ready to excel in the field when they leave school. When researching online social work doctoral programs, look for those with GADE membership.

Applications & Requirements

You have a master’s in social work, a decent GPA, and four years of work experience in a clinical setting. Your resume shines, and you have more than enough high-caliber people ready and willing to craft recommendation letters on your behalf. You even scored well on the GRE six years ago before your graduate work began. But you still may be asking: Can I get in to a DSW program?

It’s true that admissions standards can vary as much as the programs themselves. However, applicants should be prepared for a few common denominators; the requirements that pop whether you’re seeking admission at an Ivy League juggernaut or a smaller regional university. Here’s a quick look at the core DSW prerequisites and if there’s any wiggle room to play with.

  • Master’s in social work: Because the DSW is for mid-career pros looking for continued education, a master’s degree is the standard. Some programs even require the applicant to hold a master’s from a program accredited by the CSWE.
  • Clinical experience: 2+ years: Being a mid-career professional in social work means possessing clinical experience. Some programs accept as few as two years of clinical experience, while others may require five or more.
  • Grade point average (GPA): A lot of DSW programs, and the graduate schools of which they are a part, require a 3.0 out of a 4.0 to gain admission. You may encounter programs that require a 3.0 in your master’s program only and some that require it for your entire college career. The more competitive DSW programs may require as high as a 3.5, with competitive applicants possessing in the 3.7-3.8 range.
  • Graduate Record Examination (GRE): A “competitive score” is required, which is subjective and depends on the caliber of the college and program to which you apply. If you’re in the 60th percentile on both quantitative (~156) and verbal (~153), you should be in a good position. The most important note here, however, is when you took the test. Nearly every DSW program that requires a GRE score asks that it’s no older than five years. Some programs don’t require a GRE score at all, but that’s rare.

Tuition and Fees: Paying for Your Online DSW

Don’t necessarily assume you can’t afford to get your doctorate degree in social work. Tuition and fees aren’t cheap for any doctoral programs, but chances are you’ll be able to find a program that fits both your academic and financial needs. Here’s a quick look at the in-state cost of some of today’s most popular online DSW programs, as well as four key ways you can drive that cost down even further.

SchoolCost per CreditTotal CreditsSubtotal
Florida Atlantic University$37050$18,500
University of Tennessee – Knoxville$62648$30,048
St. Thomas University$1,13145$50,895
Walden University$80078$62,400
New York University (NYU)$1,30656.5$73,789
University of Southern California$1,86342$78,246
University of Pennsylvania$5,93614$83,104

Note: DSW programs want motivated, hard-working students who can make a positive impact in the field of social work, and most offer financial assistance for students who show promise and need. As any programs you’re interested in about the following financial aid options:

Social work scholarships.
Students pursuing a DSW can find merit-based scholarship opportunities from a variety of sources, including foundations and associations dedicated to excellence in social work as well as the schools themselves. GADE has a great starter list of scholarships and other funding sources open to advanced social work students. Scholarships can range from a few hundred dollars to full-tuition coverage.

DSW grants.
Grants come from multiple sources including the federal or state government, private businesses, colleges, and non-profit organizations. They can be general in nature (for all students in financial need), or target a specific population of students, e.g., veterans, foster care youth, students with disabilities, under-represented populations, or those who may be pursuing a certain career.

Fellowships in social work.
With these funding options, students receive assistance paying for tuition and fees, and they may earn a stipend for other expenses. In exchange for funding, DSW students engage in social work research in areas such as policy or veterans’ welfare. You can find a list of social work fellowships at the National Association of Social Workers Foundation.

Salaries in Social Work

Social work is about helping people, but even the most talented and hardest-working social work professional needs to know that an advanced degree will be worth their time, energy, and money. The average annual salary for someone with a PhD in social work or a DSW is $74,779, while the salary for a master’s degree holder in social work is $54,016. Keep in mind that these are average salaries and both location and experience impact salary. Here are some of today’s most popular careers and salaries for doctorate social work degree holders, according to PayScale.com:

Job TitleMedian Earnings90th Percentile Earnings
Executive Director$80,000$171,000
Associate Professor, Postsecondary/Higher Education$78,000$129,000
Clinical Social Workers$59,000$78,000