Social Work

Who Has the Top Doctor of Social Work (DSW) Programs

Who Has the Top Doctor of Social Work (DSW) Programs
A DSW continues the work you started as an MSW, enabling you to reach even more advanced leadership and policy positions. Image from Unsplash
Lucien Formichella profile
Lucien Formichella June 30, 2021

A Doctor of Social Work from an accredited program qualifies you for the best leadership and academic positions in the field; earning this degree from a top school can provide an even greater advantage.

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If you’re a social worker aspiring to a high-level position in social work leadership, policy development, teaching, or research, a doctorate can be your ticket to success. Whether you’re a clinician seeking to develop a highly focused specialization or an aspiring policy, teaching, social justice, or research executive, a doctorate will augment your impact in social work.

What’s more, a social work doctorate can lead to $25,000 more in yearly earnings than you can expect to earn with a Master of Social Work, according to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW).

Social work offers two doctorate degree options—the PhD and the Doctor of Social Work (DSW). PhD programs, which take longer to complete, are the more popular choice. However, the Doctor of Social Work has increased its popularity in recent years, especially for those seeking clinical leadership positions. As a professional doctorate, a DSW is the degree you can earn and put to use more quickly.

Continue reading to learn who has the top Doctor of Social Work (DSW) programs and how you can put this degree to use. This article covers:

  • What is a DSW? (200)
  • Why should I get a DSW?
  • Top DSW Programs (1000-1500)
  • Can you get a DSW online? (200)

What is a DSW?

A doctorate is the highest social work degree you can earn (this is why it’s called a terminal degree). DSW programs typically last three years and lead to the highest-paying social work jobs. The decision to acquire a DSW typically follows several years of work experience and previous education.

In a DSW, you’ll study subjects like:

  • Program evaluation
  • Research ethics
  • Social statistics
  • Social work education
  • Social work history
  • Social work leadership
  • Social work theory


DSWs have many uses, but they are primarily practical degrees that lead to careers in administration, policy, and social work leadership—often managing clinical social workers. It can also lead to teaching and research careers, though not as frequently.

How a DSW differs from an MSW

According to the NASW, a master’s in social work leads to the Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) credential. It allows you to open a private practice and can qualify you for supervisory and social policy positions.

A DSW continues the work you started as an MSW, enabling you to reach even more advanced leadership and policy positions. Your work in a doctoral program will typically involve digging deeper into a specialization, perhaps producing original research in your area of expertise.

How a DSW differs from a PhD

There are a few ways these doctoral degrees differ, though they cover many of the same subjects. First, PhD programs typically take longer—typically five to seven years. PhD study is more likely to focus on research, theory, and forward-thinking practice. A PhD requires a dissertation, an extensive research paper that the candidate must defend before a panel of experts to earn the degree. PhD students are more likely to pursue academic and research careers than clinical leadership.


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Why should I get a DSW?

Earning a DSW can help you develop expertise in your chosen area of social work. Having a DSW can put you in a position to implement changes to social work, which you may struggle to do with an MSW.

DSW jobs

Having a DSW can lead to excellent jobs working for:

  • Advocacy groups
  • College or universities
  • Employee assistance programs
  • Government agencies
  • Healthcare organizations
  • Nonprofits
  • Research institutions
  • Social service organizations
  • Welfare agencies
  • Yourself (private clinical practice)

You don’t need to limit yourself, either. Jennifer Plumb, who attended the University of Pennsylvania program, used her DSW to become Outreach Core Director at the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute. She also launched a career in teaching and applied research, using research methods to improve her performance.

Developing a field of specialization

According to an article in Social Work Today, “The DSW looks to assist professionals in improving their practice by offering a depth and breadth of education simply not available through other means of learning.”

There are 16 social work specializations. You’ll likely know your discipline before entering a DSW program. You’ll have already completed years of work experience and fieldwork throughout your BSW and MSW programs. You may not complete specific specialization coursework in a DSW program, though it’s possible to take electives. You’re more likely to conduct social work research and complete a dissertation in the subject of your choice. Penn’s dissertation “provides an opportunity to gain deep knowledge and become a content expert in a particular area, as well as contribute to the social work knowledge base.”

Top DSW programs

The list below draws from US News & World Report‘s rankings of top social work schools that offer a DSW. These are the top-ranked programs that offer a DSW.

Rankings only provide a starting point, especially in a field like social work. Geography can play a critical role in the program you attend—primarily because of the way social work licensure hinges on state preferences (though there’s more wiggle room at the doctoral level). Your state may only have one DSW program, catapulting it to the top of any ranking.

New York University

NYU is US News & World Report‘s 13th-ranked program and the top school on the list that offers a DSW program. The school’s Doctor in Clinical Social Work is designed to “enhance students’ clinical knowledge as it pertains to advances in theoretical and practice models, clinical research, and policies that directly impact practice.” Recent graduates have gone on to careers in academia, clinical practice, and more.

This is a working-student-focused DSW that does not require a dissertation. Instead, students write two papers for publication, then present at a social work conference.

Rutgers University – New Brunswick

Rutgers distinguishes its DSW program with a focus on digital techniques. Doctoral students build and maintain a website to showcase their work. They also complete a multimedia project. Previous projects include:

  • Digital Life: Helping Teens Navigate a Digital World
  • Reentry, Grief and Loss: Addressing Unmet Mental Health Needs of Women Offenders​
  • School Social Workers: Operating at the Intersection of Education and Mental Health

Classes convene on campus. Students complete nine residencies plus two online residences designed to enhance learning. Residencies can focus on writing workshops—Rutgers emphasizes writing for publication—faculty and advisor meetings, and presentations.

Simmons University

Simmons is not the top-ranked social work program in Massachusetts, but it is the highest-rated school offering a DSW. This online program focuses on four areas:

  • Advanced clinical practice
  • Education
  • Inclusive leadership
  • Teaching

Simmons students can complete their degree in less than two years of full-time work. They work in cohorts, enabling them to build professional networks. All learning in this program centers around clinical practice, meaning even students pursuing careers as academics or educators do so through a clinical lens.

Tulane University of Louisiana

Tulane University of Louisiana offers the only DSW program in Louisiana—though the program is housed online, meaning you don’t need to travel to complete it. According to the School of Social Work website, “Students prepare for executive-level positions through a curriculum developed to foster the critical thinking skills that are necessary to design, evaluate and implement effective programs and policies.”

The program contains a weekend residency in New Orleans, where you can meet classmates and faculty. However, most of the program takes place online, allowing students to maintain a work-life balance. Students complete coursework in subjects like:

  • Advocacy
  • Ethics
  • Grant writing
  • Peer review

The University of Alabama

The Alabama DSW “is designed to be rigorous, stimulating, and relevant for today’s MSW-level social workers who want to become leaders and more independent professionals in the field.” Students can choose from two track options:

  • Advanced Clinical Track
  • Organizational Leadership Track

The former prepares students to continue their clinical careers at a higher level, including practicing clinical research and advocacy. Students also study pedagogy and policy in this track. The latter takes a macro focus on designing policy, conducting administrative research, and learning theory. To complete their degrees, students must write both a “comprehensive paper” (a meditation on their first two years in the program) and complete a capstone project.

Alabama’s program is delivered online, which offers flexibility to students looking to complete their degrees. The school has one of the lowest tuition rates ($420 per credit) of all the programs on this list. All students pay in-state tuition, regardless of whether they live in Alabama.

The University of Tennessee – Knoxville

This program is designed for working professionals who want to pursue advanced clinical practice or leadership roles rather than focus on policy or research positions. Students complete two classes per semester and can expect to maintain their current careers while studying.

The University of Tennessee boasts a flexible online learning format that allows students to collaborate outside of class times. Students are also required to attend annual week-long summer residency programs to work with classmates and professors. Most schools look for applicants with two or more years of practice experience, but this DSW is designed to attract more experienced social workers. School data indicate that students typically have at least nine years of work experience as LCSWs.

University at Buffalo

Students in this online, part-time degree study everything with a trauma-informed and human rights (TI-HR) focus. Like the University of Tennessee program, this program’s goal is “to build knowledge and learn to more effectively incorporate these concepts into the implementation and evaluation of evidence-based treatments with vulnerable populations.” Students can live anywhere as long as they’re “experienced social work practitioners with access to a client population.”

Students complete contact hours for licensure purposes. Live video-based coursework and flexible assignments enhance student convenience.

University of Louisville

Another online program, the Louisville DSW is primarily designed to prepare graduates for advance practice leadership or teaching roles. Unlike many other online degree programs that have in-person components, this degree is delivered completely online. Students are divided into cohorts and work together to complete coursework.

The University of Louisville is an R1-designated research institution, meaning it has “very high research activity” according to the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. The school does not require applicants to submit GRE scores, making the admissions process a little simpler. However, it does require a capstone or thesis project to graduate.

University of Pennsylvania

The Penn program combines online and in-person learning to prepare students for careers in leadership, teaching, policy, and research. Classes are structured with working students in mind and, thanks to distance learning, taught by “renowned faculty from all over the world.”

This program is designed to be completed in three years. The first two are filled with classes, while the third focuses exclusively on the dissertation. Students who move quickly can complete their education in two years. According to the website, “Students are actively engaged in learning about and critiquing the latest developments, discoveries, and best practices in evidence-based social work practice and teaching.”

University of Southern California

This online DSW “prepares experienced professionals with the skills to develop practical, applied solutions to large-scale social challenges that directly impact vulnerable, marginalized or otherwise disadvantaged populations.”

Coursework focuses on innovative design, executive leadership, and USC’s 12 Grand Challenges for Social Work. Students center their capstone project around a Grand Challenge. After graduation, students should be able to utilize their projects in practice. The Grand Challenges are:

  • Achieve Equal Opportunity and Justice
  • Advance Long and Productive Lives
  • Build Financial Capability for All
  • Close The Health Gap
  • Create Social Responses to a Changing Environment
  • End Homelessness
  • Ensure Healthy Development for All Youth
  • Eradicate Social Isolation
  • Harness Technology for Social Good
  • Promote Smart Decarceration
  • Reduce Extreme Economic Inequality
  • Stop Family Violence

Can you get a DSW online?

There are many online DSW options that you can choose from. The real question is: should you get your DSW online?

Many online programs include in-person components: residencies, weekend meetups, or in-person classes a few nights per week. While not always completely online, these programs can still provide a better option for working students than in-person programs. With tuition as high as $1,000 per credit, it makes sense to continue working while you earn this degree if possible. Note that most schools offer financial aid, scholarship, fellowship, or even employer payment program options to help cover costs.

An online DSW may be your best choice if you live in a state that doesn’t offer many options. The online Tulane University of Louisiana program serves all of Louisiana; attending in-person would be challenging for social workers on the north end of the state. While social work credentialsf are state-specific, DSW programs are more likely to encourage out-of-state students to apply. Online programs broaden your options significantly.

(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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