Doctorate in Social Work Degrees: Search the Best DSW Programs for You

Are you a licensed social worker interested in advancing your career in administration, policy advocacy, advanced clinical practice, or college-level teaching? Earning a doctorate in social work may be the right move for you.

Explore these rankings to help you choose the right Ph.D. or DSW program for your personal and professional needs. Our degree guide explains what to look for when comparing different doctoral programs in social work, and what you can do with your degree after graduation.

Key Factors for Selecting a Doctorate in Social Work Program

What should you look for when choosing the best Ph.D. or DSW program for you? Before enrolling in any program, investigate several options, noting the program’s academic reputation, curriculum requirements and available specializations, and faculty areas of expertise.


Consider social work programs offered by schools with regional accreditation from an agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. While the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) currently only accredits BSW and MSW programs, the CSWE’s Commission on Accreditation has begun a DSW pilot accreditation program.


If you want to work in a particular area of social work, look for DSW or Ph.D. programs that offer specializations or concentration paths that align with your interests and career goals.

Faculty Research Areas

The best colleges and universities hire faculty with strong research reputations who bring their expertise into the classroom. When comparing doctoral programs, check out faculty profiles to find out about their research interests and publications.

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The Best Doctorate in Social Work Programs

Our rankings of the best schools for doctoral degrees make it easier for you to see how one program differs from another. You can compare curriculum, learning formats, costs, and other factors that matter most to you.

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

University of California-Los Angeles

For over a century, the University of California-Los Angeles has garnered a reputation for academic excellence. UCLA boasts 16 Nobel Laureates, 15 MacArthur Fellows, 11 National Medal of Science winners, and two Pulitzer Prize winners among its faculty.

The Ph.D. in social welfare, offered by the Luskin School of Public Affairs, integrates personalized instruction and applied research with an interdisciplinary focus. Coursework includes nursing, public health, psychology, and sociology. Most applicants hold an MSW degree, but the program accepts students with a master’s in related fields, such as public policy or sociology.

Full-time students enroll in 12 units each quarter, completing two years of coursework prior to their dissertation research. Students can complete the program in four years.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Established in 1795, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is the oldest public university in the nation. The university enrolls over 35,000 students in 95 bachelor’s, 104 master’s, and 65 doctoral degrees.

The Ph.D. in social work, organized around the theme of social intervention, comprises nine core courses, a professional development seminar, a teaching seminar/practicum, a dissertation seminar, and additional electives. Students must complete 45 credits prior to beginning their doctoral dissertation.

Applicants for the doctorate in social work need an MSW from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education and two years of work experience in human services. A master’s in a related field may also be considered.

University of California-Berkeley

One of the most prestigious public universities in the nation, the University of California-Berkeley, offers over 10,000 undergraduate and graduate courses through over 300 degree programs.

Berkeley’s top-ranked Ph.D. in social welfare admits students who have completed a master’s in social work or social welfare, or a comparable degree in a related field. The doctorate takes a minimum of three years to complete, including two years of full-time coursework and one year for the dissertation.

The social welfare Ph.D. provides doctoral students with a generous financial package that includes tuition, health insurance, and an allowance for living expenses, funded jointly through fellowships and salary as a graduate student instructor or researcher.

Florida State University

Based in Florida’s capital city of Tallahassee, Florida State University administers close to 300 undergraduate, graduate, and professional programs, including a doctorate in social work.

FSU’s Ph.D. in social work emphasizes hands-on training in research and teaching. The curriculum comprises core methods and theory courses, specialized social work research methods courses, statistics courses, and cognates taken outside of the social work department related to the student’s areas of interest. Students typically complete the program in 4-5 years.

Admission requirements include an MSW from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education, a minimum 3.0 GPA, and GRE scores taken within the previous five years.

University of Chicago

The University of Chicago in Hyde Park ranks among the top U.S. and global research institutions. The Crown Family School, one of the nation’s first schools of social work, has played a seminal role defining the profession.

The Ph.D. in social work requires a minimum of 15 courses, including one on the history of social work, five on statistics and research methods, and nine additional courses that include three taken in other departments. Students take 4-5 years to complete their degree.

Admission to the Ph.D. program is highly selective. Of the approximately 100 applications received annually, the program admits only eight students. Enrollees receive a substantial financial aid package that includes a stipend, health insurance, tuition, and fees.

University of Georgia

Established over 235 years ago in Athens, Georgia, the University of Georgia is the state’s oldest institution of higher education.

The 60-credit Ph.D. in social work provides students with an interdisciplinary curriculum and certificate opportunities in gerontology, women’s studies, qualitative studies, quantitative methods, and nonprofit management and leadership. The program supports students with four years of financial assistance through teaching and research assistantships.

The Ph.D. program admits MSW-holders who have at least two years of post-MSW professional experience, an overall 3.0 undergraduate GPA, and a 3.5 MSW GPA. Applicants must submit GRE scores from within the last five years.

University of Washington-Seattle Campus

Consistently ranked among the top U.S. public universities, the University of Washington-Seattle Campus receives more federal research funding than any other public university. The campus hosts a student population of close to 30,000.

The Ph.D. in social welfare focuses on prevention/intervention research that addresses topics in health/mental health, promotion and disparities, aging, child and adolescent services, family-based practice, interpersonal violence, substance abuse, income distribution, and issues related to gender, communities of color and other underrepresented groups. An optional statistics track provides students with advanced quantitative training relevant to their areas of specialization.

The program offers four years of financial support, including teaching or research assistantships or fellowships, tuition, and health benefits.

The University of Texas at Austin

Established in 1883, the University of Texas at Austin has grown into a leading research university. As the main campus for the University of Texas system, UT Austin supports 52,000 students and 3,000 teaching faculty across 18 colleges and schools.

The Ph.D. in social work offers an interdisciplinary approach to the field with an emphasis on advanced research methodology and statistics. Minimum requirements for admission include an MSW from a Council on Social Work Education-accredited or related field and extensive experience in human services. Applicants must have a 3.0 GPA or above in upper-division undergraduate courses and in any completed graduate work.

University of South Florida

A relatively young university founded in 1956, Tampa Bay’s University of South Florida enrolls over 50,000 students across 13 colleges.

Based in the College of Behavioral and Community Sciences, the Ph.D. in social work emphasizes five topic areas that reflect the strengths of the college and the forecasted direction of the profession. These five areas cover societal change and innovation, global issues, health, behavioral health, and leadership and business.

Admission is typically limited to individuals who hold an MSW from a Council on Social Work Education-accredited program or international equivalent, with an overall 3.5 GPA. Applicants without an MSW may be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Florida International University

Florida International University is a public research university in Miami, offering bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees to over 56,000 students. The university emphasizes research as a major component in its mission.

The Ph.D. in social welfare boasts one of the fastest completion rates and highest retention rates among U.S. social work doctoral programs. Students typically complete the program in as little as three years.

Admission to the program is selective. Requirements include an MSW from a Council on Social Work Education-accredited school of social work or a master’s in a closely related field, at least a 3.0 undergraduate GPA and a 3.5 graduate GPA, and GRE scores. Preference is given to applicants with prior social work experience.

Advantages of Earning a Doctorate in Social Work

If you are already working as a licensed social worker, you may wonder why you should invest the time and money into earning a doctorate in social work. Today, the need for highly trained social workers in advanced practice and leadership roles has never been greater, and earning a Ph.D. or DSW comes with many advantages.

Salary Potential

A doctoral degree expands your career opportunities in administrative roles, with salaries significantly higher than master’s-level positions. According to a report from the National Association of Social Workers, DSWs earn $20-$25,000 more than MSWs.

Opportunities in Academia

The increased enrollment in social work programs has resulted in the need for more social work educators to train the next generation of professionals. Most college-level teaching positions in social work require a doctorate. Postsecondary social work teachers employed at colleges, universities, or professional schools earn an annual average salary of over $78,000 a year.

Increased Credibility

As the most advanced practice-focused degree in the field, a doctorate provides you with a high level of expertise and the credibility to address complex social work issues, formulate social policy, and bring about social change. A doctorate in social work establishes you as a “thought leader” and critical thinker with the insight and skills to make significant contributions to the field.

How to Apply to a Doctorate in Social Work Program

Required application materials for DSW or Ph.D. programs vary by institution. Most often, schools request official transcripts, 2-3 letters of recommendation from teachers and supervisors, and a current resume. Be prepared to submit a personal essay outlining why you are seeking the degree, what you hope to accomplish with it, and why you have chosen to apply to this program.

Admission requirements also vary by program. In general, applicants must hold a master’s in social work from a CSWE-accredited program and at least two years of post-MSW practice experience. Some programs may admit individuals who have earned a graduate degree in a related field, such as counseling or psychology.

The best DSW programs look for candidates with strong undergraduate academic records, requiring a minimum 3.0 GPA. A growing number of programs no longer require GRE scores for admission.

What Can I Do with a Doctorate Degree in Social Work?

A doctorate provides a respected credential to advance in clinical practice and to move into leadership positions. Doctorate-level graduates find employment in social service agencies, educational organizations, nonprofits, and governmental agencies. This degree can prepare graduates to take on administrative and managerial roles at the macro level; developing and implementing organizational policy; and supervising, teaching, and guiding clinical practitioners.

Employment prospects in social work remain strong. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a 9% increase in social work positions between 2021 and 2031, exceeding the national average for all occupations.

When considering whether to pursue a DSW, keep in mind that educational attainment impacts salaries in almost all professions. According to a 2021 BLS report, doctoral degree-holders make $400 a week more than individuals with only a bachelor’s degree. Social workers with a DSW can expect to earn the highest salaries in the field.

Your Next Career Path: Is a Doctorate in Social Work Right for Me?

Earning a DSW or Ph.D. in social work can lead to significant professional advancement, but keep in mind that the expanded career opportunities and higher salaries also come with increased responsibilities. When choosing a DSW program, evaluate how the curriculum can help you acquire the skills needed to achieve your professional goals.

Does the program offer specializations and electives that reflect your interests? Does it prepare you to move into a leadership role in your organization or conduct research that informs policy change? Will you get the training needed to teach, supervise, and mentor the next generation of social work practitioners?

Besides the academic preparation you receive in a doctoral program, you must develop the needed “soft skills” to take on these new roles and obligations, such as perseverance, perceptiveness, and listening skills.

Frequently Asked Questions About Doctorate in Social Work Programs

What is the difference between a DSW and PhD?

The DSW focuses on advanced training for clinical practice, leadership, and applied research for policy advocacy and professional practice. The Ph.D. emphasizes theoretical and methodological perspectives and research to build knowledge in the field.

How long does it take to get a DSW?

Earning your doctorate in social work takes 3-5 years, depending on whether you enroll full or part time. Some programs offer accelerated two-year options.

Can you complete DSW or Ph.D. in social work online?

Yes, though students enrolled in an online DSW or Ph.D. will need to attend local fieldwork. See our roundup of online Ph.D. in social work programs to learn more.

Where do DSW graduates work?

DSW graduates pursue careers as social work administrators, community or social service managers, policy analysts, educators, and nonprofit directors. They work in a variety of settings, including social service agencies, healthcare facilities, schools, and government offices.

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