Clinical Research

Doctor of Social Work (DSW) vs. PhD: How to Decide

Doctor of Social Work (DSW) vs. PhD: How to Decide
A PhD typically takes five to seven years to complete. Most DSW programs can be completed in three years. Image from Unsplash
Maya Rose Levine profile
Maya Rose Levine August 20, 2022

Both the DSW and the PhD are doctoral-level social work degrees. They differ in duration, focus, and the career paths they forge. Which degree is right for you? This article can help you decide.

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Whether you’re already a practicing social worker and looking to transition into a leadership role or just beginning to explore the profession, deciding whether to pursue a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Social Work or a Doctor of Social Work (DSW) can be an exciting and daunting proposition. Both a DSW and a PhD are doctoral degrees, but these doctoral programs differ in significant ways.

So, how should you compare the two paths? Which degree is the best fit for your desired career path? This article can inform your decision by exploring these questions:

  • What is a PhD in social work?
  • PhD in Social Work program objectives and requirements
  • PhD in Social Work jobs
  • What is a Doctoral of Social Work (DSW) degree?
  • Doctoral of Social Work (DSW) program objectives and requirements
  • Doctor of Social work (DSW) jobs
  • PhD or DSW: which is right for me?
  • Online options

What is a PhD in Social Work?

A PhD in Social Work leads primarily to a career in academia and/or advanced research. A research-intensive degree, the PhD prepares social workers for scholarly research and the tools to teach social work practice. A PhD program typically culminates in a dissertation, a multiyear research project producing a long scholarly paper on an original subject. A PhD candidate must defend their dissertation in front of a committee of scholars. They must also pass a comprehensive oral examination.

PhD in Social Work objectives

PhD in Social Work programs focus on developing and strengthening research skills and preparing future Doctor of Philosophy students to pursue a career in higher education and/or advanced research.

In order to “promote rigor in doctoral education in social work” and develop “researchers and educators who function as stewards of the discipline,” The Group for the Advancement of Doctoral Education (GADE) stresses the importance of in-depth research training for PhD students resulting in multiple published journal articles and conference presentations.

PhD in Social Work curriculum

Most PhD in Social Work programs are research-focused, stressing intensive research training and mentoring alongside opportunities to develop teaching skills. PhD in Social Work students typically must take a final examination at the end of their course studies. After this exam, students work with a mentor to establish a dissertation plan and then defend their dissertation.

In almost all PhD in Social Work programs, students gain exposure into:

  • Research methodology
  • Social policy evaluation
  • Social science theory
  • Social welfare history
  • Social work education

PhD in Social Work admission requirements

Social work PhD admission requirements tend to be similar from program to program. Generally, requirements include the following:

  • Master of Social Work (MSW) from a Council on Social Work Education (CSWE)-accredited program (or a closely related program in a minority of cases)
  • Two years of work experience in social work or human services
  • Graduate Record Examination (GRE)
  • Strong GPA and a history of commitment to the profession’s goals and purpose

In addition to a formal application, additional material may include:

  • Transcripts of undergraduate and graduate work
  • Professional and personal letters of recommendation
  • Writing samples
  • A well-written personal statement

How long does it take to complete a PhD in Social Work?

A PhD in Social Work usually takes between five and seven years to complete. PhD candidates typically complete the coursework portion of the degree in two to three years.

PhD in Social Work job

Social work PhD students usually pursue one of two fields:

  • Professor of social work
  • Field researcher

Depending on both personal preference and one’s hiring institution, a professor of social work may spend more time in the classroom than in the research field. If you enjoy a student-facing role while also juggling collaborative research and preparing publications, becoming a professor of social work might be the right track for you. The average salary for a professor of social work is $101,628.

Alternatively, as a field researcher, social work professionals have the opportunity to conduct research for a wide array of organizations. From public health nonprofits to government agencies focused on mental health, social work field researchers meet the challenge of evaluating the effectiveness of different programs and identifying new and innovative ways to help vulnerable populations and make real social change.

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“I Want to Be A Social Worker!”

There are a couple of significant practical considerations:

- A Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in social work
- A license to practice or required social work certification

Credentials vary among careers, states, and territories. Licenses include:

- Certified Social Worker (CSW)
- Clinical Social Work Associate (CSWA)
- Licensed Advanced Practice Social Worker (LAPSW)
- Licensed Advanced Social Worker (LASW)
- Licensed Baccalaureate Social Worker (LBSW)
- Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
- Licensed Graduate Social Worker (LGSW)
- Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW)
- Licensed Mental Health Professional (LMHP)
- Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW)

Most of these licenses require a Master’s or Doctorate, along with additional coursework or clinical internships. (source)

A survey of 2017 social work graduates by the National Social Work Workforce Study found that social workers with Master’s degrees and Doctorates made substantially more than those with no advanced degree. (source)

- People with MSW degrees made $13,000-plus more than those with only BSW degrees
- MSWs make more in large cities or urban clusters
- People with doctorates earned $20,000 to $25,000 more than people with only MSW degrees

University and Program Name Learn More

What is a Doctor of Social Work (DSW) degree?

In contrast to a PhD in social work program, a Doctor of Social Work program (DSW) is focused on strengthening a student’s advanced clinical social work skills and managerial expertise. A DSW is a “practice doctorate,” putting a special emphasis on real-world social work experience at both an individual and a leadership/management level.

Doctor of Social Work (DSW) program objectives

A DSW program focuses on bolstering prospective students’ professional practice abilities through advanced clinical practice training. Students take the preliminary skills they were taught in their master’s degree programs and expand on those skills to become leaders in the field.

Doctor of Social Work (DSW) curriculum

DSW programs prepare practitioners for managerial-level positions in the nonprofit, public health, and social services realm. In Tulane University’s online DSW program, students take such courses as:

  • Community Advocacy and Participatory Research for Applied Practice
  • Leadership in Social Work and Evidence-Informed Practice
  • Nonprofit Management, Fundraising, Board & Workplace Development
  • Portfolio Planning Seminar
  • Quantitative Methods and Measurement for Services Outcome Research
  • Social Work Pedagogy and Curriculum Development
  • Social Work Theory, Practice Models & Methods

A DSW will help you take your Master of Social Work (MSW) degree to the next level. DSW programs test your critical thinking, crisis coordination, and leadership skills, all imperative to develop as a successful social work leader.

Doctor of Social Work (DSW) admission requirements

The admissions requirements for a DSW and a PhD in Social Work are similar. You’ll need to show you’ve earned a Master of Social Work from a school with CSWE accreditation and provide GRE scores, letters of recommendation, a personal statement, and official transcripts for all previous postsecondary academic work.

Since a DSW program places a stronger emphasis on advanced clinical programs, admission to a DSW program requires extensive hands-on experience in social work. Since candidates have completed an MSW program, they typically meet this criterion without difficulty.

How long does it take to complete a Doctor of Social Work (DSW)

Unlike PhD in Social Work programs, full-time DSW programs move quite quickly. A typical DSW program takes around three years to finish. DSW programs are more likely than PhD programs to offer a part-time study option.

Depending on the program, students typically spend the first three or four semesters covering general coursework, followed by elective work and a capstone project. The capstone project requires students to use their learned research methods to present a final presentation directly related to their course experience and future career goals.

Doctor of Social Work (DSW) jobs

A DSW program focuses on preparing future practitioners for leadership positions in a multitude of roles within the social work arena. A DSW can qualify you for high-level administrative leadership positions, leading to some of the highest-paying jobs in the field. According to ZipRecruiter, a director of social work earns an average salary of over $82,000 (top earners bring in over $115,000).

A DSW can also open the door to policy leadership, research development, social justice advocacy, health care and teaching roles. While a PhD is better suited for individuals on a direct path to academia, a DSW provides the opportunity to bring your knowledge and skills learned from prior clinical or leadership careers into the classroom.

PhD or DSW: which is right for me?

It depends on your career goals. Are you interested in academics and research? The PhD is the degree for you. Are you looking to advance to leadership positions in clinical social work, policy advocacy, or social work administration? If so, the DSW is the better fit.

Professor Bruce Thyer, initially a DSW skeptic who received his PhD in Social Work from the University of Michigan, emphasized that as a PhD in Social Work, you are almost guaranteed to have strong research skills. However, he notes, many PhDs lack post-MSW work experience or licensure to practice clinical social work. The benefit of a DSW is that one acquires hands-on experience as a clinical social worker, which they can subsequently bring to the classroom.

Online Options

If you are feeling inspired to move up the social work ladder and become a leader in your field, a DSW degree might be the way to go. Terrific schools such as Tulane University offer you the opportunity to start your DSW path from the comfort of your own home. At Tulane University, the DSW Online Degree Program helps students prepare for executive-level positions through coursework that fosters critical thinking and collaborative skills. The program environment is flexible, adaptable, and individually focused, and takes only three-years to complete.

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Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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