Online Doctorate in Social Work


A Ph.D. in social work can open the doors to many exciting career options. These opportunities may include roles leading or supporting large-scale social change through completing research, teaching in higher education, and nonprofit or foundation administration. For a busy professional, an online Ph.D. in social work can be an excellent choice for maintaining a strong work-study-life balance.

This guide outlines the best online social work programs at the doctoral level. If you prefer in-person learning, consider our page on the best on-campus social work doctorate programs. Invest in yourself and explore these options today.

Featured Online Social Work Doctoral Programs

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Online Ph.D. in Social Work Overview

While a master’s in social work prepares enrollees to practice professionally, a doctorate program can lead to college-level teaching roles or large-scale research projects in non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Other, less common career paths include leading nonprofits and consulting. Most doctoral-level social work professionals keep their credentials and licenses current, though they rarely pursue direct, full-time social work roles.

A typical on-campus or online Ph.D. in social work typically takes 3-5 years, though some students may prefer part-time schedules. During a Ph.D. program, coursework combines classroom learning, fieldwork, and original research leading to a dissertation. Students often perform the human subject research components of their dissertations during fieldwork.

Accreditation for Online Social Work Doctoral Programs

During accreditation, the Council on Social Work Education reviews social work programs to determine that their educational offerings prepare graduates to apply their knowledge and skills at the appropriate level of professional social work.

This status offers the most important measure of a program’s quality for students and the public. Most employers will not consider hiring graduates of unaccredited programs, and accredited programs typically do not accept transfer credits from unaccredited schools.

Explore Requirements by State

Clinical social workers must have a license to work in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Nonclinical social workers must also obtain a license or certificate in most states. Licensed social workers usually need a master’s degree and at least two years of supervised, post-graduate work experience. State licensure boards ultimately determine who is eligible to become a licensed social worker, and consequently, the criteria for clinical and nonclinical positions vary from state to state. This directory allows you to browse the licensing and certification criteria for social workers across the country. To learn more, visit the state pages linked below.

Choose Your State Below

Read more about these online social work programs that are prominently featured on our site. Find information regarding accreditation, cost, admissions requirements, degrees offered, and program overviews to help you find the right online social work degree program for you.

Earning a Ph.D. in Social Work Online

An online Ph.D. social work program removes geographical barriers for attendance and commuting requirements, though you will need to attend local fieldwork. Some online programs include asynchronous classes, which use recorded materials and online discussions to complete on your schedule.

However, online programs may not suit all learners’ preferences. Many students find it easier to develop a network and relationships in person, which can be difficult without the structure of a classroom and scheduled classes.

Graduates of online social work master’s programs likely developed a sense of their ideal learning method. Some students benefit from a hybrid model, which mixes on-campus and online courses.

Prospective enrollees should also consider their availability and bandwidth. Full-time attendance may allow you to reach your goal more quickly, but it can be difficult for learners with significant professional or personal obligations. Talk to staff, current students, and admission counselors to help identify the best pathway.

Advantages of Earning an Online Ph.D. in Social Work

A Ph.D. is one of the two terminal degrees for social work. Earning an online Ph.D. in social work offers many career advantages, primarily if you want to teach in a college or university or perform high-level research for government or NGO programs. Benefits of these programs include:

  • Develop Research Expertise: While master’s degrees, bachelor’s programs, and associate degrees include some research, Ph.D. enrollees develop vital skills in qualitative and quantitative approaches. You will master the skills and emerge ready to teach effective and ethical research.
  • Master the Subject Matter: During a thesis, students perform advanced research to demonstrate their expertise in the field. You can make a difference in social work practice through further writing and publishing.
  • Lead or Participate in Major Research Programs: With so much still unknown about the best ways to improve human well-being, earning an online Ph.D. in social work can position you to contribute to new information in this growing field.

Online Ph.D. in Social Work Programs

This guide to online Ph.D. in social work programs will help you narrow your options. While there are many factors to consider, this list identifies the top overall programs for features that affect all students.

We use a data-driven methodology to determine the best online social work doctoral programs based on four primary factors: academic quality, overall cost, reputation, and accessibility.

Baylor University

Christian-based Baylor University in Waco, Texas, focuses its online Ph.D. in social work on preparing leaders and educators. Graduates conduct research, serve on the faculty of university social work programs, and lead government and private agencies.

Enrollees can attend synchronous lectures from anywhere in the world. The 10-semester curriculum begins with a required 4-5-day on-campus session. Course topics include doctoral research, religious and cultural diversity, and statistical analysis. Students complete a Ph.D. dissertation and comprehensive exam.

Admission requires a “B” grade on the school’s statistics exam. Baylor prefers candidates with a master of social work from an accredited program.

Simmons University

Located in Boston, Simmons University is a member of the Women’s College Coalition and offers an online Ph.D. in social work. The 4-6-year program develops scientific researchers who can advance the field’s evidence base.

Course delivery is primarily synchronous, with some asynchronous content. Students also complete teaching and research practicums and dissertations, which can also happen online. Distance learners are also welcome to come to campus to teach courses and conduct research.

Competitive applicants hold a bachelor’s degree and a master’s in social work from an accredited program. Simmons also requires a 3.0 GPA and a minimum of two years of social work or related experience.

University of Alabama

The University of Alabama‘s cohort-based doctor of social work program features primarily online learning, with a one-day orientation and 4-5-day summer residencies on the Tuscaloosa campus. Students choose between advanced clinical practice and organizational leadership tracks.

UA requires enrollees to have a work or volunteer social work practice location where they can apply concepts learned in class. The program comprises 45 credits and a capstone project that can be completed in three years.

Applicants must have a master of social work degree from an accredited program, a 3.0 GPA, and three years of post-master’s experience for admission.

University of Tennessee, Knoxville

UT Knoxville‘s 34-credit Ph.D. in social work focuses on research and takes 3-4 years to complete. All admitted students receive a four-year financial aid package with a tuition waiver, stipend, and health insurance. Coursework covers social work theory, research methods, teaching preparation, statistics, and grant writing. The blended program combines two years of in-person and virtual learning, followed by 1-2 years of dissertation work and a comprehensive exam.

Admission to the College of Social Work requires a master’s degree from an accredited social work program and post-master’s social work or social welfare practice experience. Submission of GRE scores is optional.

University of Pennsylvania

At the University of Pennsylvania, located in Philadelphia, working graduate students can pursue a hybrid doctorate in clinical social work without interrupting their work schedule. The 2-3-year program emphasizes clinical expertise and teaching through a blend of online evening classes and two on-campus immersions.

Coursework includes clinical theory, dissertation seminar, supervision, and methods of inquiry covering quantitative and qualitative research methods. Graduation requires the completion and defense of a dissertation that includes two publishable articles.

Applicants must hold a master’s degree in social work from an accredited program, along with three years of post-master’s practice experience.

University of Southern California

The Los Angeles-based University of Southern California offers an online doctorate of social work program that focuses on social change and innovation for community and agency leaders and entrepreneurs. The 42-credit curriculum equips practitioners and scholars with skills to develop solutions to challenges faced by vulnerable, marginalized, and disadvantaged populations.

Enrollees can follow a nine-semester standard track or a seven-semester accelerated track. Both options require completion of a capstone project. Courses include a design laboratory for social innovation in which students address the 12 Grand Challenges in Social Work and Social Welfare.

Candidates for admission need a master’s degree in social work from an accredited program and five years of post-master’s experience.

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How to Apply to an Online Ph.D. in Social Work Program

Most online Ph.D. social work programs require undergraduate and graduate transcripts in social work or related fields, at least two references, personal essays, and an application. Schools typically require a minimum 3.0 graduate school GPA and strongly prefer academic/peer-reviewed publishing history, along with professional experience.

Like some master’s programs, some online Ph.D. in social work programs do not require GRE scores. Many offer scholarships or other forms of financial aid. However, because many programs include teaching or research assistant responsibilities as part of their financial aid, there may be fewer opportunities for students to attend online Ph.D. social work programs, depending on the school.

What Can I Do With an Online Ph.D. in Social Work?

Most graduates of on-campus and online Ph.D. programs in social work conduct research, teach in higher education, or work as program administrators.

As of May 2021, the average annual salary for social workers is $57,880, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), but this data applies primarily to workers with master’s degrees. BLS reporting also indicates that postsecondary school teachers in social work earn an average annual $77,650. More generally, the BLS reports a median annual salary for postsecondary administrators of $96,910.

Like other social work careers, while you can expect to earn an above-average salary, other career options require less formal education and often pay higher salaries.

Frequently Asked Questions About Online Ph.D. in Social Work Programs

What’s the difference between a Ph.D. and DSW?

A Ph.D. and a doctorate in social work (DSW) take approximately the same time and cover some of the same materials as doctoral programs in social work. However, A Ph.D. focuses on research and research methodology, while the DSW emphasizes advanced practice in the field.

Is it worth doing a Ph.D. in social work online?

Your professional and personal goals will inform whether a Ph.D. in social work online program is a worthwhile investment. Earning a Ph.D. takes time, and other degrees can lead to higher-paying jobs. However, if you find satisfaction in social work and want to teach or conduct high-level research, a Ph.D. can offer a rewarding pathway.

How long does it take to get a Ph.D. in Social Work?

A Ph.D. in social work typically takes 3-5 years of full-time study. Including the time spent in undergraduate and graduate programs, the process can total 8-10 years. Specific timelines depend on the program’s pace and curriculum.

Note: The ranking list and school descriptions on this page were created and reviewed independently by our Rankings Team.