Social Work

Is a DSW Worth It? Determining the ROI on Your DSW

Is a DSW Worth It? Determining the ROI on Your DSW
The ideal candidate for a DSW program is a student who already has professional social work experience and is looking to further develop their expertise and forge a path to a leadership role. Image from Unsplash
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Maya Rose Levine September 30, 2022

A Doctor of Social Work (DSW) degree elevates your chances to land a leadership role in social work management, clinical practice, and advocacy.

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When deciding whether to pursue a graduate degree, ask yourself: “What degree will differentiate me from the rest of the job-hunting pack?” According to the United States Census Bureau, approximately 21 million Americans hold a master’s degree. The number with doctoral degrees is, unsurprisingly, much smaller; about 4.5 million Americans hold a Ph.D. or Ed.D., while another 3 million hold a professional degree (e.g., MD, DDS, JD) that is, or is comparable to, a doctoral degree.

Earning a doctorate requires a substantial commitment of time and effort, so it’s not a decision to make cavalierly. However, it does place you in some pretty rarified company, which can open the door to exciting employment opportunities that might not otherwise be available to you. That’s certainly true in social work, especially if you aspire to leadership positions in organizations, academics, or advocacy.

Not only will a Doctorate in Social Work (DSW) individualize you from the many other Master of Social Work (MSW) holders, but a DSW program can also strengthen your leadership skills and enable you to become an expert in your field. This terminal social work degree can open doors in opportunities ranging from community activism to social entrepreneurship.

So, is a DSW worth it? This article can help you make that assessment while also addressing:
– What is a DSW?
– DSW vs. PhD
– DSW vs. MSW
– DSW curriculum
– Who needs a DSW?
– Jobs for social workers with a DSW
– DSW earning potential
– Determining whether a DSW is worth it for you

What is a DSW?

A Doctorate in Social Work (DSW) program focuses on strengthening a student’s practitioner skills. DSW programs aim to develop strong executives and clinicians in the social work field. The ideal candidate for a DSW program is a student who already has professional social work experience and is looking to further develop their expertise and forge a path to a leadership role.


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DSW vs. Ph.D

Both a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D) and a DSW are doctoral degrees; the primary difference between the two paths lies in the goal of the program. DSW coursework focuses on developing clinical practitioner skills and management skills. This differs from a Ph.D. program, which focuses on research and academics. Those who pursue a social work Ph.D. typically aspire to careers as a:

  • Professor of social work
  • Field researcher

A Ph.D degree in social work takes longer to complete than a DSW. PhD programs are designed to run five to seven years, and it is not uncommon for students to take longer to complete their dissertations (required in most social work PhD programs). A DSW, in contrast, is often completed in three years.


A Master of Social Work (MSW) is the minimum required degree to practice clinical social work. Many social work employers won’t consider candidates who lack the MSW for management and leadership roles, but strictly speaking the degree isn’t required for these advanced jobs, at least not by law or professional code. If you want to provide clients with one-on-one counseling, however, you will need an MSW from a Council of Social Work Education (CSWE)-accredited program and a state license. You can enter the social work profession with only a bachelor’s degree, but know that most BSWs work in sub-management roles like case work.

A DSW qualifies you for many top leadership roles and, with them, salaries that more closely approach what top professionals in other fields earn. According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), Ph.D and DSW degree holders earn between $20,000 and $25,000 more than MSW degree holders. You won’t make any lawyers or doctors jealous with your salary, but you will enjoy a significant pay boost.

DSW curriculum

The DSW curriculum focuses primarily on preparing students for executive-level positions by fostering critical thinking skills and creativity. DSW students also advance their research methods and writing skills.

A typical full-time DSW program takes about three years to complete; if you decide to pursue a part-time DSW program, expect to work on your degree for up to five years. What type of courses will you take in a DSw program? Tulane University‘s online program requires the following:

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

The online Doctor of Social Work program emphasizes real-world clinical experiences, culminating in a capstone project on a topic of your choosing. Presentation topics can range from healthcare policy initiatives to a new social justice nonprofit framework to support child welfare to creative social welfare innovations. Students can choose from a multitude of specializations within a DSW program.

Who needs a DSW?

For clinical social workers with years of experience who feel stagnant in their position or practicing social workers who would like to delve into an upper management role, a DSW program presents excellent opportunities to advance. This advanced practice doctorate provides the tools to take what you have learned and apply it to high-level strategy and leadership.

Jobs for social workers with a DSW

DSW candidates face many different career options. You could pursue work as an administrative executive focused on budgeting, identifying population needs, and lobbying or as a policy leader committed to changing and creating laws. Further job opportunities for DSW candidates include:

  • Advanced clinical social work practice and supervision
  • Clinical director
  • Disaster, crisis and intervention specialist

DSW earning potential

Top social work executives usually make between $110,000 and $153,000. Pursuing a DSW degree enables you to gain further work experience within your speciality, opening the door to higher earning potential. You may find a role as a social work educator with your DSW, although the PhD is the more traditional route to that career. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics social work teachers earn a median annual wage of over $71,000, with the top ten percent earning nearly $131,000.

Determining whether a DSW is worth it for you

A white paper reviewing social work doctorates (Samuel Lewis Bradley) argues that the DSW “offers the added value of producing seasoned clinical professionals who become highly trained in theory, policy, and research.” That’s a potent combination.

Is the degree right for you? If you think it might be but worry about the opportunity cost of enrolling in a DSW program, know that you can earn this degree online in a part-time program that reduces that cost. The online Doctor of Social Work program at Tulane University’s School of Social Work can be completed from your current location while you remain in your current job. Flexible scheduling for coursework and assignments makes online learning even more convenient and manageable.

(Updated on February 21, 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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