Social Work

What You’ll Learn in a Social Work DSW Program—And Why

What You’ll Learn in a Social Work DSW Program—And Why
DSW programs equip students with advanced clinical social work skills and managerial concepts. Their curricula build on students' existing knowledge of theory-based approaches, clinical research, and practice models. Image from Unsplash
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Isabelle Doyle April 27, 2021

What skills and knowledge will you gain when you acquire this professional doctorate in social work? We review the Tulane DSW curriculum to find out.

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A Doctor of Social Work (DSW) is a professional doctorate designed to meet the needs of practicing clinical social workers seeking to advance their social work education and careers. This focus distinguishes the degree from a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Social Work, which primarily serves those interested in academic and research careers.

Social work’s first doctoral degrees were PhDs; Bryn Mawr College and University of Chicago were among the first schools to offer this option, starting in 1920. Noting the need for a professional doctorate and hoping to “increase the status” of the profession of the practicing social worker, schools like Catholic University of America, University of Pennsylvania, and Smith College introduced their Doctor of Social Work degree programs in the late 1940s.

From the 1970s through the 1990s, the PhD was considerably more popular than the DSW. Some schools even dropped their DSW programs. Since then, however, the DSW has rebounded, likely in response to the trend of many allied professionals’ moving towards a terminal practice degree at the doctorate level, including nursing (DNP), psychology (PsyD), physical therapy (DPT), and nutrition (DSN). Today, a doctoral degree is regarded as a valued professional credential above and beyond the master’s degree (MSW) and not merely a certification of research and teaching skills. Universities have revived and expanded their DSW programs to meet the increased demand.

If you’re considering a DSW, you may be wondering what you’ll learn in a DSW program. This article addresses that question by exploring:

  • What is a DSW in social work?
  • Who typically gets a DSW degree?
  • How is a DSW different from a PhD?
  • What you will learn in a DSW
  • Example: Tulane University
  • Is a DSW right for you?

What is a DSW in social work?

A PhD in social work prepares students for careers in research and academia. In contrast, DSW programs equip students with advanced clinical social work skills and managerial concepts. Their curricula build on students’ existing knowledge of theory-based approaches, clinical research, and practice models. DSW candidates typically accrue this knowledge through a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW),a Master of Social Work (MSW) or a master’s in a field related to social work) and field experience.

While PhD students focus on developing as researchers, the DSW is a practice doctorate. It helps students develop skills in actual social work practice at an individual and leadership/management level. If you’re a social work professional hoping to pursue advanced training in the clinical practice of social work, you will likely find a DSW a valuable addition to your CV.


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Who typically gets a DSW degree?

Every practicing social worker needs two things to enter the field: a passion for helping others, and a degree that leads to licensure. The level of education required depends on your ultimate career goals. With an MSW, you can offer clinical counseling, case management, and other social services. With an MSW and a strong professional background plus significant experience, it’s possible for practicing social workers to move into administrative roles in social work practice. Any higher education degree toward terminal accreditation is a boon.

The DSW bolsters students interested in pursuing more advanced clinical roles. These include:

  • Practicing social workers hoping to take on supervisory roles at organizations and institutions
  • Social workers seeking to provide higher-level guidance about social welfare and social justice to nonprofit organizations
  • Clinical specialists who work with especially challenging clients

What you will learn in a DSW

The coursework in a DSW program prepares you to solve small-scale and large-scale social challenges, engage in public discourse and policy on social issues, and positively and consistently impact the well-being of individuals and communities.

DSW programs are available to full-time and part-time students, both on-campus and online. Online doctorate programs can be a great option offering unmatched convenience through the delivery of asynchronous content. Many top universities offer online DSW programs.

Some DSW programs offer one program track only. Others give students the option of choosing a specialization such as:

  • Administration
  • Child and family social work
  • Criminal justice
  • Disaster, crisis, and intervention
  • Medical and public health
  • Mental health and substance abuse
  • Military and veteran affairs
  • Policy and advocacy

Whichever school of social work you choose, make sure it offers the specialization you’re interested in if you have one. A doctoral program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) enables you to work with educators with premier academic and nonprofit backgrounds.

Example: Tulane University

Tulane University’s Doctorate in Social Work is DSW programs is designed for social work practitioners hoping to impact policy and practice to foster a more equitable world. The program is designed for social work professionals aspiring to executive-level social work positions.

Below, we review all coursework required to complete the online Tulane DSW program.

Leadership in Social Work and Evidence-Informed Practice

Coursework in this class explores various theoretical and evidence-based leadership frameworks of leadership and applies evidence-based leadership practices to real-world situations. Students study various leadership styles from a multicultural perspective and identify and evaluate their preferred leadership style. Students also learn valuable self-evaluation skills and techniques.

Social Work Theory, Practice Models & Methods

Students examine theoretical bases for social work practice, research, and values. They identify social issues integral to their professional focus and develop critical facilities to evaluate and apply social systems theory to practice and research.

Portfolio Planning Seminars

Students learn how to create a comprehensive and professional online portfolio and develop a CV draft reflecting their professional accomplishments to date. They also learn how to identify potential practice areas based on the portfolio they create.

Historical and Current Policy Approaches to Social Welfare

Students delve into social policy background and history, critically analyzing policies by applying Bardach’s “Eightfold Path” model. Students develop an understanding of policy, service delivery, and the nature of power and control in the political and legislative process with a focus on how disenfranchised populations are impacted.

Quantitative Methods and Measurement for Services Outcome Research

Candidates survey best practices in quantitative measurement, including how to locate, analyze, and design experimental measures and research designs. This course figures prominently in students’ development of their Applied Practice Project (APP).

Program and Clinical Evaluation

This four-day summer residency imparts skills essential to community organization research, enabling students to apply evaluation and research-design skills to work with a local agency.

Introduction to Qualitative and Interpretive Approaches to Human Inquiry

Qualitative data introduces a tricky element of subjectivity to social work research. This course explores the attendant issues and how to manage them. It also discusses the need for qualitative and interpretive approaches in social work research and discusses best practices for producing reliable, replicable results.

Social Work Pedagogy and Curriculum Development

As its name suggests, this course focuses on teaching social work, covering philosophies of adult education, classroom strategies, and the importance of diversity content and conflict resolution. Candidates develop skills in curriculum design and preparation for lectures, assignments, and student evaluation.

Research Ethics

Ethical research practices are essential to the mission of social work. Candidates learn best practices in research proposal development and literature review and familiarize themselves with the Institutional Review Board (IRB) process.

Applied Social Statistics

Data management, storage, and ethics occupy center stage in this course on social statistics. Candidates explore questions concerning appropriate variables and measurement levels as well as descriptive and inferential statistics.

Nonprofit Management, Fundraising, Board & Workforce Development

Nonprofits occupy a prominent space in the social work world. Some DSWs will manage nonprofits after earning their doctorate of social work. Nearly all others will interact with nonprofits at some point in their professional careers. Students in this course familiarize themselves with nonprofits’ various processes and institutions, including boards of directors. Issues surrounding fundraising ethics and strategic planning are also explored.

Community Advocacy and Participatory Research for Applied Practice

Students examine theories and models for community organization and advocacy, including the community-based participatory research (CBPR) approach. Students debate the pros and cons of CBPR in studying and addressing social issues.

Grant Writing

Any doctoral degree—even a professional degree like a DSW—involves a strong research component. On the graduate level, research often requires grant funding, which necessitates writing grant proposals. This course covers the process, from abstract to objectives to methodology, budget, and potential impact assessment.

Is a DSW right for you?

If you’re a social work professional looking to advance your career in clinical social work and you’re hoping to gain the skills to fill leadership roles in your field, chances are a DSW social work program is right for you. You’ll be able to strengthen your skills, learn from clinical experts, and pursue an extraordinary career in clinical social work. Whether you’re hoping to develop an advanced clinical practice or ascend to upper-level social work management, a Doctor of Social Work program can provide a critical boost to your credentials.

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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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