Online Doctorate in Social Work

Social workers help clients of all ages, working at government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and in private practices. They may specialize in child and family services, the healthcare field, or mental health. School social workers support students' academic and social performance, while substance abuse social workers help clients cope with illnesses. Social workers use many of the same skills as counselors and therapists, helping clients manage problems in their daily lives.

During a doctoral program, social workers focus on a specialty within the field

With a bachelor's in social work, graduates can work in social services and hold entry-level positions, while professionals with a master's degree in social work can specialize in areas such as clinical social work. Many social workers earn a state license or certificates by meeting educational and work experience requirements. Social workers can also earn a doctoral degree and pursue advanced careers in academia or in the highest levels of administration.

During a doctoral program, social workers focus on a specialty within the field. Some doctoral candidates complete an original, research-based dissertation, while others focus on professional practice and gain advanced clinical experience. After graduation, doctors in social work often pursue jobs in academia or research. Most college-level teaching positions require a doctorate, as do many administrative positions in social services organizations.

Students who enroll in post-master's social work programs pursue either a Ph.D. in social work or a doctor of social work. While both degrees confer a doctorate in social work, the curricula of these degree tracks emphasize different skills and prepare graduates for different career paths. A Ph.D. in social work emphasizes research, and graduates typically pursue careers in academia as researchers or professors. In contrast, the DSW emphasizes practice, preparing social workers for leadership and administrative positions or for social work practice.

Many students prefer the flexibility associated with earning a doctorate in social work online. Enrolling in a social work doctoral program online allows learners to complete coursework from the comfort of their homes. Additionally, many programs let students access lectures and materials asynchronously, which may be especially beneficial to working professionals and individuals balancing school with family obligations. Online programs also tend to be less expensive, avoiding costs related to commuting and/or on-campus accommodations. In addition, many institutions offer discounted or in-state tuition for online students, regardless of where they live.

online students can typically access resources and academic advising remotely

Additionally, by choosing to pursue an online doctorate in social work, prospective students broaden their options. Rather than being forced to move to attend a top program, or being limited to local options, students open to enrolling in social work doctoral programs online can choose from the best programs across the country. Social workers interested in particular specialties or concentrations can attend a school out of state without disrupting the rest of their lives.

Students who earn a doctorate in social work online can typically complete any internship or research components locally at an approved site. Additionally, online students can typically access resources and academic advising remotely.

How Long Does it Take to Earn a Doctorate in Social Work Online?

Earning a doctorate in social work generally requires 3-5 years of full-time, post-master's study. Some schools that host doctor of social work programs online offer accelerated tracks, which take as few as two years to complete, although Ph.D. tracks often takes closer to five years because doctoral students must complete an original, research-based dissertation. Most doctoral programs consist of 60-70 credits.

A doctorate in social work includes both coursework and substantial independent research. Doctoral students take classes that cover theory, policy, and quantitative research, which help participants identify potential research topics for their dissertations. Social work students may also take a class on teaching at the college level, preparing them to become professors.

Example Courses

Social Work Theory and Practice Doctoral students analyze the theories underlying social work practice in several specialties. Coursework may cover theoretical frameworks and evaluating outcomes and intervention methods.
Social Welfare Courses on social welfare address development, implementation, and outcomes of public policy. Students may conduct a policy research project on a current issue in social welfare policy.
Quantitative Research Students earning a doctorate in social work online must perform in-depth quantitative research; this course prepares learners to design and implement their own quantitative experiments and research projects.
Social Work Teaching Seminar Many doctoral students in social work plan to teach at the college level after graduating. Teaching seminars address methods of teaching, course development, and the history of social work education.
Individual Research Working with a faculty member, doctoral students in social work conduct research, perform a literature review, analyze data, and write a research report, which often takes the form of a dissertation.

Several careers in the social work field require a graduate-level education. For example, licensed clinical social workers in most states must hold a master's in social work. However, some positions also require a doctorate in social work. With a doctoral degree, social workers can assume academic positions and conduct research. Some leadership positions outside of academia also require a doctorate. In many areas, professionals with a doctorate in social work earn significantly more than workers who hold master's-level positions. For example, social work professors earn close to $80,000 a year on average.

Social workers weighing the benefits of a master's degree versus a doctorate in social work can learn more about social work careers available to professionals who hold a master's degree.

Social Work Teacher, Postsecondary

Postsecondary teachers, also known as professors, work at colleges and universities where they instruct students in all areas of social work. Many professors also conduct research and publish their findings in academic journals.

Salaries and Job Outlook for Social Workers

Occupation Minimum Degree Required Employment Annual Mean Wage
Social Work Teacher, Postsecondary Doctorate 12,430 $74,560
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), May 2017

Top-Paying Settings for Postsecondary Teachers

Setting Salary
Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools; State $79,340
Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools; Private $77,170
Junior Colleges; Local $76,890
Junior Colleges; State $56,030
Source: BLS, May 2016

After earning a graduate degree in social work, many workers complete the licensing and certification process to become licensed professionals. Clinical social workers, for example, must hold a license to practice in most states. These licensing requirements vary by state, although many require social workers who interact with clients to hold a license.

Some jobs may require a state license

While enrolled in a doctor of social work program, graduate students should research the licensing requirements that apply to their future career path, whether in academia, research, or administration. Some jobs may require a state license. Social work graduates who want to apply for a license typically need to submit their academic transcripts, pass an examination, and, in some cases, earn a minimum number of hours of professional experience.

In addition to the licensure process, social workers can pursue various certifications. Earning a specialized certificate acts as a marker of distinction, demonstrating a social worker's advanced skills in a particular area. While certification is not required for most social work careers, it can help professionals obtain competitive positions and/or increase their salaries. Because certification requirements vary depending on the specialization, aspiring social workers should research the benefits of earning a certificate in their concentration.

When choosing a social work program, prospective students should be sure to check the program's accreditation status. Accreditation signals a program's commitment to best educational practices, and nearly all state social work licensing organizations require professionals to hold a degree from an accredited program.

In social work, the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) evaluates social work programs in terms of the quality of instruction, credentials of faculty, and student learning outcomes. CSWE accreditation assures students and future employers that graduates gain important social work skills. Many employers and state licensing boards only accept degrees from CSWE-accredited programs. Social workers interested in pursuing a doctorate in social work online should choose a program with CSWE accreditation. The organization maintains a directory of online social work programs that it accredits.

In addition to specialized program-level accreditation, students need to check an institution's accreditation status. Regional accreditation tends to be considered more prestigious than national accreditation. Students at higher education institutions with regional accreditation qualify for federal financial aid, and credits earned at a regionally accredited college or university transfer to other schools more easily.

Professional organizations connect social workers across the country. They also provide valuable resources for graduate students. For example, individuals earning a doctorate in social work online gain access to networking opportunities and can attend annual conferences. Many professional organizations also run job boards, provide student membership discounts, and host events for early-career professionals. Joining a professional organization while enrolled in a doctor of social work program helps graduate students develop their career while completing their degree.

National Association of Social Workers

The largest professional organization for social workers, NASW was founded in 1955. The organization supports the professional growth and development of social work students and professionals.

Clinical Social Work Association

A professional organization for clinical social workers, CSWA provides professional development resources, a jobs board, and licensing support for members.

School Social Work Association of America

School social workers benefit from the professional resources of SSWAA, which offers membership discounts and professional advocacy services.

Society for Social Work Leadership in Health Care

Dedicated to social workers in the healthcare field, this organization provides continuing education resources, networking opportunities, and member discounts.

Association of Oncology Social Work

Social workers who help cancer patients and their families rely on AOSW for news about the latest research, networking opportunities, and professional development resources.

National Rural Social Work Caucus

Specializing in issues affecting rural social workers, this caucus hosts an annual conference, provides continuing education resources, and offers access to journals and other research.

Doctoral students in social work can access several funding opportunities, including scholarships offered by organizations like NASW. Some of these scholarships provide upwards of tens of thousands of dollars toward a degree.

MSW Scholarships

Social Work HEALS Doctoral Fellowship $17,900

Who Can Apply: Offered by NASW, this fellowship funds doctoral students in social work who plan to pursue careers in health social work. Applicants must be NASW and CSWE members attending a CSWE-accredited doctoral program. View Scholarship

Eileen Blackey Doctoral Fellowship $4,000-$6,500

Who Can Apply: Doctoral candidates with membership in NASW who specialize in welfare policy and practice qualify for this fellowship. To apply, applicants must submit a three-page proposal summary including the objectives of their project, a statement of relevance and significance, the project design and methodology, their expected dissertation completion date, and an itemized budget. View Scholarship

Jane B. Aron Doctoral Fellowship $17,900

Who Can Apply: NASW offers this fellowship to doctoral candidates who demonstrate a commitment to the field of health social work. Applicants should be engaged in dissertation research related to healthcare social work education, policy, or practice. View Scholarship

National Association of Black Social Workers Scholarships Varies

Who Can Apply: The NABSW offers multiple scholarships to doctoral students. Applicants must be members of NABSW and submit a statement of purpose and two letters of recommendation. View Scholarship

Minority Fellowship Program Varies

Who Can Apply: Provided by CSWE, doctoral students in social work can apply for this fellowship. Applicants should be committed to reducing health disparities and improving healthcare outcomes of racially and ethnically diverse populations by increasing the number of culturally competent behavioral health professionals. While this program targets applicants who identify as racial or ethnic minorities, it is not explicitly limited to these groups. View Scholarship

Melanie Foundation Scholarship $2,500

Who Can Apply: Doctoral students in the field of mental health can apply for this scholarship. Applicants must be nominated and provide two letters of recommendation, a CV, transcripts, an essay, and a cover letter. Recipients may reapply for additional years. View Scholarship

Doctoral Dissertation Award in the Psychology of Aging $2,500

Who Can Apply: Candidates in their final year of a doctoral program can apply for this award if their research focuses on the psychology of aging and adult development. Applicants must provide a cover letter, a dissertation abstract, and a letter from their dissertation advisor. View Scholarship

CSWE Scholars Program Varies

Who Can Apply: The scholars program offered through CSWE helps doctoral students in social work by providing funds for research projects. Applicants should hold experience with a variety of research methods, such as literature reviews, surveys, and focus groups. View Scholarship

Leopold Schepp Foundation Scholarship $9,000

Who Can Apply: Doctoral students in the field of social work can apply for this award. Candidates must submit letters of recommendation, hold a minimum 3.3 GPA, and demonstrate financial need. Applicants must be enrolled in classes full time, and finalists must attend an interview in New York. View Scholarship

Graduate Student Research Award $500

Who Can Apply: The American Society on Aging offers an award to doctoral students who submit an unpublished research paper on a topic related to aging. Applicants must be sponsored by a faculty member. View Scholarship
  • National Association of Social Workers Social work students who join NASW benefit from networking opportunities and multiple scholarship opportunities.
  • Council on Social Work Education As the most important accrediting agency in social work, CSWE sets educational standards in the field. It also provides scholarship opportunities to doctoral students.
  • Association of Social Work Boards Licensed social workers must pass ASWB exams to earn their state license. This organization also provides resources for students and works with social work regulatory boards.
  • Journal of Social Work Education A peer-reviewed journal published by CSWE, this publication covers the doctoral process, distance education offerings, and key coursework in social work programs.
  • Social Work Social Work is a journal published by NASW. This publication focuses on both social work practice and research, and NASW members receive free access to this journal.
  • Social Work Today A magazine aimed at social workers, this publication covers professional regulations, provides book reviews, and includes a career section in every issue.
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