No one becomes a social work professional for the money, glamor, or fame. As a career choice, it’s the ultimate labor of love, much more a calling than merely a way to collect a paycheck.
Pursuing a Doctor of Social Work (DSW) degree—one of the two highest degrees in the field—requires a deep commitment to the profession and to making a difference in the lives of others. As an added bonus, it can result in a nice boost in income.
People who work toward a DSW tend to have years of experience already. They’re professionals looking to take their work to another level, according to Social Work Today. At the University of Tennessee (UT) - Knoxville, for example, the average student enrolling in the DSW program has been a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) for nine years and earned their Master of Social Work 12 years ago.
"These are mid-career, highly skilled clinicians," said David Patterson, a professor and director of the Doctor of Social Work program at UT’s College of Social Work. "We have people coming out of mental health systems, hospitals, private practice. There are a lot of people who are in the military, DoD (Department of Defense) contractors, and VA employees."
DSW students, in short, are busy professionals, the sort of people who typically prefer the convenience and flexibility of an online program. So, can you get a Doctor of Social Work (DSW) degree online? This article answers this question and also addresses:
What is a Doctor of Social Work (DSW)? Let's start by examining what it’s not: a Doctor of Philosophy in Social Work (PhD). These doctoral-level degree programs may sound interchangeable, but they differ significantly in courses of study and end goals.
PhD candidates tend to be people who want to work in research or higher education. They may also end up working for nonprofit organizations or in policy or community organization. DSW candidates, on the other hand, are more likely to continue working in the field. (There are exceptions, of course.)
"A DSW is a practice doctorate in social work, including practice at the leadership or management level," Nancy J. Smyth, dean and professor in the University at Buffalo School of Social Work, told Social Work Today. "It differs from a PhD in social work/social welfare in that a PhD is focused more on developing [the student] as a researcher."
The DSW has made a comeback in recent years. The first social work PhD programs date back more than 100 years; the DSW came along in the late 1940s. DSW programs surpassed PhD programs in the 1970s before falling out of favor a couple of decades later. "By the late 1990s, the DSW had all but disappeared," according to a report by the Social Work Leadership Forum. "There were a few schools that continued to offer an advanced practice degree, such as the PhD in Clinical Social Work at New York University, but over time even that degree became a research-focused degree."
The recent resurgence in advanced clinical training in social work reflects dissatisfaction in some professionals who felt limited by having to settle for a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree. "In fact, there is anecdotal evidence that many social workers are pursing practice doctorates in other professions (particularly the PsyD) precisely because of the lack of such an option in social work education," the forum’s report notes.
Another factor noted in the report: the evolution of care. "The growing complexity of providing care, especially in the context of best practices reflecting the current cutting-edge interdisciplinary research, makes it understandable why the DSW is now evolving into an advanced practice degree."
The pursuit of a DSW offers multiple rewards, allowing doctoral students to take a deep dive into social work theory and advanced clinical practice, learn new skills, and open doors to more job possibilities. Let’s take a closer look.
Anyone with enough commitment to the field to pursue a DSW has an abiding curiosity about social work and the best ways to practice it. Take Laura Escobar-Ratlif, the coordinator and a clinical assistant professor in the College of Social Work at the University of Kentucky. In an essay for New Social Worker, she explained why she opted for a DSW program: "I appreciate social work researchers’ in-depth critical analyses of quantitative and qualitative data... However, as much as I respect the work of researchers, I do not want to do that type of research… I am excited about deepening my understanding and skills around practice… to explore the impact of real-world applications of theory in practice arenas."
Coursework offered in Tulane University of Louisiana's DSW program include:
Early training and years of practice experience give social workers a solid grounding in the field. A DSW allows them to climb to the upper echelon of their profession, with a deep understanding of its methods and practices. The aforementioned Tulane University DSW:
The resurgence of DSW programs in recent years has put them in the vanguard of the profession. According to David Patterson, DSW programs seek to "continually evolve curricula so that we are offering a set of skills and knowledge that students aren’t getting in their master’s programs. The intention is to be disruptive innovators."
A DSW can open a diverse array of doors in counseling, teaching, administration, and beyond. Here are some jobs you may qualify for after earning the degree:
A growing number of schools offer online Doctor of Social Work degrees, including Tulane University and University of Tennessee - Knoxville. "An online social work doctorate program offers flexibility for students who are also working professionals," according to U.S. News & World Report. Online programs closely track on-campus programs' curricula, faculty, and engagement opportunities. They are typically designed to replicate the traditional program as closely as possible.
Online DSW programs involve a substantial time commitment, requiring 42 to 52 credit hours. Knoxville’s program takes eight semesters to complete.
The pool of prospective candidates for a DSW is small. It’s not a degree for someone fresh out of grad school with no experience in the social work field. It may not be the best choice for someone with their sights set on research work or higher ed; they should look at PhD programs as a potentially better alternative. But if you’re an experienced social worker with a passion for learning more about the profession, a drive to help others, a desire to maximize your skills, an ambition for elevating your career, and the time and resources to pursue a demanding doctoral degree program, a DSW degree may well be your best path forward.
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