Social Work

How Long Does It Take to Get a Doctor of Social Work Degree?

How Long Does It Take to Get a Doctor of Social Work Degree?
DSWs most often return to clinical practice or organizational leadership roles after earning their degrees. PhDs are more likely to enter academia or advanced research positions. Image from Unsplash
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Ginny Bartolone February 16, 2023

Many Doctor of Social Work (DSW) programs offer full-time, part-time, and online options that take three to seven years to complete. Earning this terminal doctoral degree may be well worth the effort if you're considering career paths in social work leadership or academia.

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Social workers looking to enhance their career options and advance to top leadership roles in the field of social work should consider obtaining a Doctor of Social Work (DSW) degree. This terminal degree, one step up from a Master of Social Work, equips students with real-world skills to help them attain their career goals.

Earning this doctoral degree can be a challenging feat. DSW students complete advanced coursework for three to seven years to attain the credential. Why the significant deviation in duration? Many factors influence how long it takes to obtain this social work degree. First, consider whether you’ll study full-time or part-time, enroll in online or on-campus classes, and what kind of specialization you intend to pursue.

If you opt for the full-time route, you can expect two years of coursework followed by one or two years of independent study or dissertation research. If you’re considering the flexibility of a part-time or online doctorate of social work program, these can take up to seven years to complete—or even longer if the university allows it.

Understandably, such lengthy programs can lead to some attrition. Don’t let that discourage you, though. On the contrary, pursuing a DSW degree can significantly improve your career options and empower you to mitigate major social inequities.

Modern economic and social challenges call for dedicated and trained leadership. Consider mental health professionals and substance abuse managers: the New York Times reported a recent sharp increase in demand for both professionals in the United States.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts a nine percent career growth for clinical social workers from 2021 to 2031. That’s more than double the growth rate of the overall job market.

So, how long does it take to get a Doctor of Social Work degree? We’ll cover a few related questions about the length and structure of this degree by discussing the following topics:

  • Why get a Doctor of Social Work degree?
  • DSW degree or Ph.D. in social work: what’s the difference?
  • How long does it take to earn a DSW degree?
  • How long does it take to earn a Ph.D. in social work?
  • DSW degree or Ph.D. in social work: which is best for you?

Why get a Doctor of Social Work degree?

Doctorate of social work programs attract students from across the field. Community advocacy specialists, mental healthcare and clinical social workers, and social justice professionals can all benefit from these terminal degrees.

While DSW students focus on advanced clinical practice, the Ph.D. centers on in-depth research and pedagogical tactics. Ph.D. and DSW programs both highlight the following:

  • Policies around social welfare
  • Quantitative and qualitative research methods
  • Study of pedagogy and teaching tactics
  • Specialized social welfare study
  • Theories and methods of leadership

Both pathways typically offer capstone, immersion, or thesis projects tailored to the student’s career goals. In Ph.D. programs, these usually take the form of a dissertation. Either doctorate allows students to transform their advanced clinical practice into concrete research that pushes the field’s boundaries.

Leadership roles and opportunities

Most doctoral degree candidates already hold an advanced degree and have full-time social work practice on their resumes. So, why take this extra step?

A doctoral degree empowers students to emerge as leaders in social work. They may choose to become educators at the college or postgraduate level. Many Ph.D. students focus on gaining expertise in social services research.

Additionally, various industries benefit from these specializations, even those beyond the nonprofit sector. For example, military and for-profit roles look for candidates with a social work education to shape mental health initiatives and company culture.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the highest ten percent of social workers earn annual wages of over $85,000. Glassdoor notes that executive directors of large nonprofits (over 500 employees) earn a median income of over $100,000.


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DSW degree or Ph.D. in social work: what’s the difference?

The DSW and Ph.D. paths offer social workers two distinct career directions.

Take the DSW path and you’re more likely to head back into clinical social work in a leadership role. The Ph.D. sends students toward high-level research and teaching in an undergrad, master’s degree, or Ph.D. program.

Admission requirements

Both social work doctoral programs traditionally require an MSW for admission, but there are exceptions. For example, some schools consider applicants with a BSW or significant experience in a particular field. For this reason, many prospective doctoral students already hold licensure, either as an LMSW or an LCSW.

Other admission requirements include:

  • 3.0 or 3.5 GPA
  • Graduate-level coursework on a specific topic
  • GRE scores
  • Non-BSW bachelor’s degree with related experience
  • Statement of purpose
  • Two to three letters of recommendation

Course of study

There’s plenty of crossover between these two programs. Ph.D. students spend more time honing their research, presentation, and analytical skills. The first two years of their program cover specialized coursework before launching full-time into dissertation work. Dissertations are extended written research essays that culminate in oral examinations before a panel of experts.

DSW candidates apply their hands-on clinical training in the field. Classes cover applied topics like leadership theories and organizational strategies. In addition, DSW programs offer training in specific areas like trauma, substance abuse, and food insecurity.

The DSW degree requires a capstone project, but its structure is more flexible than an extensive dissertation.

Career paths

Leadership roles are plentiful for both groups of graduates. Ph.D. students often pursue macro-level positions, such as teaching in higher education. Nonprofits and government agencies hire these advanced researchers as well.

DSW graduates typically become community managers, directors of nonprofits, or advanced clinical workers. While they can choose to teach, many focus less on full-time academic work.

How long does it take to earn a DSW degree?

Universities typically design doctorate in social work programs for mid-career professionals looking to elevate the scope of their daily work. The DSW encourages students to transform real-world problems into research-backed solutions they can immediately bring back into their communities.

Tulane’s full-time DSW program culminates in as little as 16 consecutive months. Students complete 60 credit hours, 12 of which consist of field practicum work. At the end of the program, students present a capstone project in their chosen field, typically as a peer-reviewed publication and presentation.

Tulane offers part-time programs for working professionals who require flexibility. Coursework and capstone projects take around 32 months (about two-and-a-half years) to complete. This structure allows students to continue working.

Common program structure

Depending on the length of the DSW program, students may spend the first three or four semesters covering standard coursework, including:

  • Community organizing
  • Diversity and social justice
  • Evidence-based social work and data analytics
  • Human behavior and social environment
  • Pedagogical tactics

As the program advances, advisors help students hone their studies with electives and special projects. Some programs, such as the Rutgers DSW, require peer-reviewed casework and focus on scholarly writing in their first years.

Capstone project

DSW programs often require students to present a tangible project immediately relatable to their current careers. Projects include:

  • Community engagements
  • Peer-reviewed publications or case studies
  • Presentations prepared for national conferences
  • Qualitative research papers

One student in the UPenn DSW program was hoping to use applied research to better understand her role at a regional autism center. Not only did an online DSW allow her to keep working—she also earned a coveted director position soon after graduating.

How long does it take to earn a Ph.D. in social work?

Students passionate about pursuing a life of research may choose the Ph.D.—or Doctor of Philosophy—in social work. Instead of sticking to applied research for the field, the curriculum prepares students to become:

  • Academic researchers
  • Directors in socially focused nonprofits
  • Government and military leaders
  • Professors and teachers in social work
  • Research think tank directors

Like the DSW, Ph.D. programs take between three and seven years to complete. The main difference is that the latter part of the degree concentrates almost solely on writing and defending a dissertation.

Prospective students usually hold an MSW degree from a university with accreditation by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE).

Common program structure

Consider Columbia’s Ph.D. program, which has been around for over 70 years. The school estimates two years of coursework over three semesters before shifting toward dissertation work.

Students can choose one of three specializations:

  • Advanced practice
  • Social policy and administration
  • Social policy and policy analysis

New York University offers multiple specialization options, including:

  • Children, youth, and families
  • Global social welfare and public health
  • Mental health and clinical science
  • Poverty and socioeconomic disadvantage

Graduation requirements

You can look to University of Southern California for a typical Ph.D. program structure. Students at USC complete a total of 45 units within two years. During this time, they build relationships with professors and mentors, develop their research area, and master analytical skills.

The third and fourth year then turns toward teaching and the dissertation. To graduate, students must:

  • Complete all doctorate-level coursework
  • Maintain a GPA of 3.0
  • Submit and defend a dissertation
  • Take a qualifying examination (which includes an oral defense)
  • Teach for at least two semesters

DSW degree or Ph.D. in social work: which is best for you?

One of the most exciting things about pursuing a career in social work is flexibility. Not all students start with a traditional BSW and work their way up the social work degree ladder.

When you’re ready to choose which doctorate in social work is right for you, you’ll have extensive experience in the field. In other words, choosing between a DSW and Ph.D. will come down to finding your dream job in social work.

The DSW degree track

DSW programs are best for those looking to stay in the field. You’ll keep working with the community face-to-face, even if you’re in a higher leadership position or shaping public policies.

You will also have the opportunity to teach, complete advanced research, or even open a private practice.

The Ph.D. in social work track

Do you see yourself in the classroom half the week and tackling research during the other? The Ph.D. social work degree shapes master researchers, professors, and presenters in the study of social work.

You may spend less time working directly with at-risk populations, but you will expand and perfect the systems that support them.

The bottom line

If time is the primary factor, consider this: both programs can take between three and seven years to complete. However, the Ph.D. program does require a dissertation, which can take far more time than a capstone project.

Dive in full-time and you’ll likely land on the shorter end of this timeline, but an online program offers more flexibility with your current career.

Most importantly, choose a program that excites you enough to take the next step in your career. After all, life in social work elevates communities and helps them adapt to change. Both degrees place you at the top of the field to advance this essential work.

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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About the Editor

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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