Social Work

You Might Need a Social Work Doctorate If…

You Might Need a Social Work Doctorate If…
DSWs lead primarily to practice roles, while social work PhDs primarily lead to teaching and research positions< Image from Pexels
Lucien Formichella profile
Lucien Formichella May 30, 2021

Earning a Doctor of Social Work (DSW) allows social workers to advance their clinical practice, start academic careers, and take on leadership roles. In contrast, a PhD is more academically focused.

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If you’re considering earning a Doctor of Social Work (DSW), you’re probably already pretty far along in your social work career. You likely already have a master’s degree and have spent a few years practicing as a clinical social worker. You may even have a social work management position. The good news is earning a social work doctorate is the last degree you’ll ever need in the field.

Today, the DSW is an excellent option for anybody who wants to reach the peak of the social work field, but it wasn’t always like that. According to a task force report by the Deans and Directors of Schools of Social Work (NADD), conducted through the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), the PhD was the preferred social work doctorate until recently. The DSW, a professional as opposed to academic doctorate, has recently gained popularity because “social work practitioners with a master’s degree understand the implicit disadvantage to a terminal practice degree at the master’s level when working with peers from other disciplines holding doctorates.” In short, the DSW is social work’s answer to clinical doctoral degrees in fields like nursing, psychology, and rehabilitative counseling.

Beyond just a clinical degree, DSWs allow graduates to pursue careers in academics, policy, and social work leadership. If you can see a way to improve social work practice as a whole but don’t have the power to in your current role because you lack the experience and education, you should strongly consider earning a DSW.

To adapt Jeff Foxworthy’s catchphrase, you might need a social work doctorate if… This article answers questions like:

  • What is a Doctor of Social Work (DSW)?
  • You might need a social work doctorate if you…
  • Can you get a DSW online?

What is a Doctor of Social Work (DSW)?

DSW programs are designed for social workers looking to advance their careers. They typically hold positions like:

  • Clinician
  • Community activist
  • Entrepreneur
  • Organization leader

The DSW is a terminal degree that allows graduates to step into high-level leadership positions, including:

  • Administrative leader: You can shape the way organizations like welfare agencies, Employee Assistance Programs, and treatment centers conduct social work. This could involve the hiring and firing of social workers, creating and maintaining budgets, and overseeing long-term planning and vision.
  • Clinical therapist: DSWs can set up a private practice to provide therapy and counseling.
  • Policy leader: Working in policy is an excellent way to utilize your doctoral degree, including leadership roles at governmental and community service levels. Policy falls into the macro and mezzo approach to social work, meaning that you won’t be interacting with individual clients on a day-to-day basis. You’ll be able to take on specialized roles in social welfare and justice institutions.

What’s the difference between a DSW and a PhD?

According to Nancy J Smyth, Dean of the University at Buffalo School of Social Work, the DSW “is a practice doctorate degree in social work, including practice at the leadership or management level.” That distinguishes it from the PhD, which “focused more on developing [the student] as a researcher.”

DSWs lead primarily to practice roles, while social work PhDs primarily lead to teaching and research positions. Having a DSW does not prevent you from earning professorships or research positions; it’s just not as common a path. Similarly, earning a PhD can prepare you for career paths outside of academia, including corporate positions in human resources.

PhD students learn research methods and study subjects like:

  • History of social welfare
  • Multivariate statistics
  • Policy evaluation
  • Social work education
  • Theory of social science

The DSW can typically be completed in less time than the PhD. University of Southern California offers two DSW tracks—traditional and accelerated. The traditional track takes nine semesters, while the accelerated one only requires seven. At The University of Alabama, the DSW program takes around three years to finish. According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) in 2011, a majority of doctoral students take between five and seven years to finish a PhD .

What will I study in a DSW program?

There’s quite a bit of overlap in terms of core subjects for DSW and PhD programs. DSW students pursue graduate coursework in social work subjects like:

  • Community advocacy
  • Data collection, management, and storage methods for social statistics
  • Ethical research practices
  • Evaluation methods (program and clinical)
  • How to obtain grants
  • Nonprofit leadership
  • Pedagogy and curriculum development
  • Quantitative methods
  • Social work history

Schools may offer concentration opportunities like advanced practice, policy analysis, children and families, and criminal justice, which allow you to hone your focus on a single area. Completing a capstone project may be a significant aspect of specializing. USC asks DSW students to complete a capstone that “proposes an innovative, actionable solution to one of the Grand Challenges,” which include the health gap, social isolation, homelessness, environmental crisis, criminal justice, and racism. A good capstone project can provide a launching point for more work in your chosen sub-field.

Do you need an MSW to pursue a DSW?

Yes, not only do you need a Master of Social Work (MSW) to pursue a DSW, but you typically also need at least a couple of years of field experience. For example, Rutgers University – New Brunswick requires that students have an MSW, or the equivalent for international students, plus at least two years of field experience after their master’s. It also requires that applicants be licensed social workers—a Licensed Clinical Social Worker credential is typically preferred. The good news is that Rutgers does not require Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) scores.

Schools commonly have GPA requirements. New York University asks that applicants maintained a GPA of at least 3.5 during their previous graduate program. Tulane University of Louisiana requires a 3.3 GPA—during both graduate and undergraduate study—and at least two years of work experience.


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You might need a social work doctorate if you…

Now that you know a little bit about what a DSW can do, it’s helpful to discuss why you’d decide to earn one. A DSW isn’t for everybody. You already know they can be time-consuming, though less so than a PhD. DSWs are also expensive. The University at Buffalo charges domestic students $1,004.50 per credit in tuition and fees—the number grows to over $1,250 per credit for international students—for its 39-credit program. University of Pennsylvania charges an estimated yearly cost of $40,068 for incoming students in the 2021-2022 school year.

You may earn scholarships, fellowships, or awards from social work organizations, such as the NASW, which can mitigate, cut, or eliminate costs. Earning a paid teaching or research position can also help; you may qualify for one of these roles towards the end of a doctoral program. However, these savings opportunities are hardly guaranteed.

It can be complicated to determine whether you need a DSW to advance as a social worker. Can you reach the job you want with just work experience and a master’s degree?

This section can provide a framework to decide whether you’ll benefit from a DSW, though it doesn’t consider factors like family responsibilities and your current job. You may not be able to balance everything that you want to do, even if a DSW could be beneficial. Much depends on your situation.

… you want to build greater expertise in your practice area

This is perhaps the best reason to get a DSW. While it’s possible to earn high salaries in social work, especially if you start a private therapy practice or reach an upper-level administrative position, this is not a field known for extravagant wages. The best social workers feel called to the vocation and constantly want to become better at their jobs.

According to the NADD task force, “What distinguishes this level of practice is that those holding this degree will be experts beyond the master’s level social work in practice or policy expertise and will contribute to continuously improving advanced practice competencies among social workers and other service practitioners.”

DSWs also include more education on theory as it relates to:

  • Developing a greater understanding of innovative skills to use during intervention
  • Teaching students to speak academically about issues and methods
  • Improving evaluation skills through advanced and current research methods
  • Understanding which tools work best for societal and practice issues

The NASW identifies16 social work specializations:

  • Administration and management
  • Advocacy and community organization
  • Aging
  • Alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs
  • Child welfare
  • Developmental disabilities
  • Healthcare
  • International social work
  • International social work
  • Mental health and clinical social work
  • Occupational and Employee Assistance Program (EAP) social work
  • Policy and planning
  • Politics
  • Public welfare
  • Research
  • School social work

In addition to increasing your practical knowledge, a DSW can help you change specialties or combine focuses. While most BSW and MSW programs offer multiple concentration opportunities, you aren’t guaranteed to get the one you want. For instance, CUNY Hunter College, which has an excellent social work program, offers only nine track options in the BSW program. You may not be able to complete your desired focus until reaching the doctoral level. Alternatively, you may want to change your focus after a few years of experience or increase your education in preparation for more advanced roles (more on that later).

… you need to bolster your credentials to attain leadership roles

According to the NASW, “Obtaining a doctorate offers the opportunity to become an expert in a narrow, but substantively important, practice issue. Generally, DSW/PhD social workers find that the expertise gained during their doctoral studies is an asset that they draw upon throughout their careers.” This could mean earning additional clinical referrals if you have a private practice or earning a promotion to organizational leadership positions. As a terminal degree, a DSW is the highest social work credential you can earn. It should confer an advantage in the hiring process over MSW-holders (all things being equal).

Having a doctorate qualifies you for the most advanced roles. Jennifer Plumb, a University of Pennsylvania graduate, realized she needed to return to school to move up to better positions. According to Plumb, “Getting my doctoral degree definitely put me on the trajectory to move up in my career into more management positions.”

Keep in mind; the promotion may not be instantaneous. Plumb stayed in her previous role providing services to families of children with autism at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). It was only after a few years that she advanced to the role of Outreach Core Director at the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute.

… you want to deepen your understanding of social work ethics and theory

Ethics is a core aspect of social work taught at every level but is expanded upon greatly during doctoral degree programs. The NASW identifies the social worker code of ethics as “based on social work’s core values of service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence.” A social worker’s primary purpose is to correct societal wrongs and stand up for marginalized people. Ethical behavior is integral to social work’s mission.

One of the critical concepts of DSW programs, as outlined by the NADD, is a “greater emphasis on differential theoretical approaches to social problems and practice approaches.” There’s also a greater focus on social work ethics in DSW programs than MSWs; coursework builds upon what you learn during bachelor’s and master’s degree programs.

Tulane University of Louisiana students complete a course called Social Work Theory, Practice Models & Methods, which prepares them to “develop a theoretical platform and practical implications of social work practice, research, and values.” Students in the course focus on applying their theoretical understanding to their focus area.

In a DSW, such as the one at Rutgers, you’ll complete ethics training through coursework—it permeates the entire curriculum—and workshops. Students learn ethical decision-making processes and how to address specific issues like moral panic and social work uses in bioethics.

… you want to teach social work

While PhD programs are the more traditional route to a professorship, a DSW can also lead to a pedagogical career. The NADD suggests only that social work educators have doctoral degrees—but does not specify that the degree must be a PhD. The organization says schools need to identify teachers with practical and academic experience—you don’t technically even need an MSW.

Remember, DSW programs may offer assistant teaching positions to students who are completing their degrees. Additionally, curricula often include pedagogy courses as part of the DSW program. Jennifer Plumb was able to start teaching during her DSW and decided she enjoyed the experience. Even if becoming a professor of social work isn’t your main goal, you can still experience the field as part of your education—and earn a little money while doing it. If the experience is positive, teaching may become a long-term goal.

… you want to conduct advanced social work research

Again, PhDs are the go-to research advanced degrees, but earning a DSW can set you up extremely well for career opportunities in research, especially if you decide to go into applied research, as Plumb did. Plumb conducted research based on her clinical work, then utilized those findings to become a better practitioner. Remember, DSWs are ultimately practical degrees that include substantial research and theory-focused coursework.

A DSW can provide more career options in academics. For instance, Gillian O’Shea Brown, a graduate from the NYU DSW program, was able to write a book on complex PTSD. According to Brown, she was only able to write her academic book because of the NYU program, which gave her the time to focus on it, resources to get it done, and credibility to land the book deal in the first place. Brown maintains a private psychotherapy practice and helps trauma victims through Certified Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy.

… you want to become a thought and practice leader in a highly specialized field

This is THE reason to earn a DSW. Not only can a doctorate lead to more practical skills than an MSW, but it also prepares graduates to advance the entire field—not just their careers. According to the NADD, you’ll be “continuously improving advanced practice competencies among social workers and other service practitioners.”

Practically, what does this mean? While being a clinical social worker has its benefits and can provide great opportunities to help others, it’s not a job that offers much chance to make institutional changes.

Yodit Betru, another University of Pennsylvania graduate, put it succinctly when she said that being a clinical social worker only really allowed her to help those in front of her. Working with homeless populations, her only action was to help them find homes, not address the underlying factors of why they needed one.

Betru says pursuing this degree has helped her advance more quickly than if she continued working in a clinical setting. In her words, “I can do this as an Executive Director in 20 years, or I can get a clinical doctorate and be in a position of leadership.” Betru pursued a DSW because it allowed her to research while continuing her clinical practice (combining both to create more impactful policies). Ultimately, a DSW allows social workers with a vision of how to make the profession better to explore their theories and put them into practice. It’s one of the best opportunities to create change on an institutional level.

Can you get a DSW online?

You can earn a DSW online. Schools likeTulane University of Louisiana offer online programs that follow a nearly identical format to in-person programs. Students complete required courses and typically a capstone project during their final semesters.

Online programs typically allow for more scheduling flexibility. Even if yours doesn’t, not having to travel to and from school can be a significant time-saver, allowing more opportunities to pursue your interests, study, or relax. Additionally, attending an online program provides more options to earn your degree—you won’t be limited to locations within commuting distance.

Consider the DSW program at Tulane University of Louisiana, the only school in Louisiana that offers a DSW. Until recently, you would have had to relocate to New Orleans to attend this program. The school’s online option means students anywhere in Louisiana—indeed, anywhere in the world—can enroll in the program and study under Tulane’s faculty.

Ultimately, what you do with your degree is the most important thing. Landing your dream job in social work is about more than completing a degree program. Networking is essential in any career, including social work. One downside to an online program is that you won’t be able to naturally strike up conversations with professors and other students before and after class. However, you will have ample opportunity to network online, in live online classes, Zoom-facilitated study groups, and virtual office hours with faculty.

Additionally, social work professional organizations like the NASW or CSWE offer conferences that work as networking opportunities—plus ways to continue your education. Social media sites like LinkedIn and Twitter are better than ever for reaching out to other professionals. Tulane requires that each student complete an “immersion weekend” in Louisiana, which allows students to network; many other online degree programs provide this type of experience.

Earning a DSW can help advance your career uniquely and powerfully—no matter the program format. You’ll gain the theoretical and practical skills needed to make a substantial difference in the lives of your patients and in the field of social work itself.

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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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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