Social Work

What Can You Do With a Doctor of Social Work (DSW)?

What Can You Do With a Doctor of Social Work (DSW)?
DSW graduates prime themselves for careers in public policy, clinical settings, public health, and beyond. Image from
Alfred Heekin profile
Alfred Heekin February 13, 2023

Career options for DSW graduates are bountiful and varied for those who earn a Doctor of Social Work (DSW), a terminal social work degree. This article covers career paths for those holding this advanced degree.

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If you’re a social work professional looking to reach the upper echelons of your field, you should seriously consider a terminal degree program. A Doctor of Social Work (DSW) opens doorways to top-tier career opportunities across social work practice fields. Unlike a social work Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D. for short; the field’s other terminal degree), a DSW isn’t targeted primarily to academic and research roles. This doctoral degree’s applications are much broader.

Social workers in the United States enjoy superb job prospects. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a formidable nine percent job growth for social workers between 2021 and 2031. With DSW degrees, these professionals place themselves head and shoulders above the competition and qualify themselves for better-paying, more-impactful leadership roles.

A Doctor of Social Work focuses on practice rather than pedagogy. DSW graduates prime themselves for careers in public policy, clinical settings, public health, and beyond. They can work as program administrators, college professors, mental health clinicians, medical social workers, and field researchers. The DSW is a versatile degree.

If you’re considering a DSW program, you are likely in the midst of a social work career and looking to make your social work practice more effective and fulfilling. So, what can you do with a Doctor of Social Work (DSW)? This article explores that question along with the following topics:

  • Top career paths for Doctor of Social Work (DSW) graduates
  • DSW versus Ph.D. career paths
  • Is a DSW right for me?

Top career paths for Doctor of Social Work (DSW) graduates

A DSW confers expertise and knowledge qualifying degree holders for leadership roles in many fields. Part-time and online DSW programs enable working students to continue practicing clinical social work while pursuing their degrees. Excellent career paths include the following.

Administrative leadership

DSW graduates can manage social service organizations, public welfare agencies, nonprofit advocacy groups, Employee Assistance Programs, clinics, treatment centers, and healthcare facilities. These professionals utilize their knowledge to influence social work policy, advancing the nature of their field.

The pay scale for these roles varies according to employer and position.

Clinical therapist

The DSW is a practice doctorate, perfect for those who hope to continue in clinical practice upon graduation. Clinical therapists with DSW degrees can pursue complex work in psychology, counseling, and client advocacy.

Clinical therapists with DSW degrees incorporate diverse skillsets into their practices, employing highly developed understandings of theoretical practice models, policies, and clinical research. The DSW also provides a valuable credential should they transition to educator roles later in their careers.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), therapists in the U.S. earned a median annual pay of just over $81,000 in 2021.

Policy leadership

Obtaining your DSW provides the knowledge and skills to address major social issues within your local or larger community. If you are passionate about creating change on a macro level, a DSW can help you become a leader in policy change. In this position, you might manage a government department or advocate for increased funding in particular social welfare or social justice areas. Policy leaders work with local governments, community organizations, and businesses to craft appropriate solutions to community problems on mezzo and macro levels.

The pay scale for these roles varies according to employer and position.

College professor

Many schools welcome highly trained field practitioners like DSWs into their classrooms. Many doctoral-level social work professionals conclude their careers in front of the classroom after retiring from field practice. Professorships allow those with postsecondary social work degrees to share their passions and experiences with students, likely shaping conceptions of the field and future practice.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), postsecondary teachers in the U.S. earned a median annual pay of just under $80,000 in 2021.


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DSW versus Ph.D. career paths

While the DSW and the Ph.D. in social work are both terminal doctoral programs, they differ significantly in their content and application. The focus of the DSW is to help social work professionals develop their skills as practitioners as clinicians, leaders, managers, and administrators. It’s a professional degree, in contrast to the Ph.D., which veers toward the academic—typically educating future professors and researchers.

There is some overlap between the two, both in curricula and outcomes. Some DSWs teach, and some Ph.D.s lead social work organizations. Even so, as a general rule, DSWs enter the professional world, Ph.D.s the ivied halls of academia or the musty libraries of research institutes.

Both the DSW and the Ph.D. offer students the opportunity to specialize. Earning a Ph.D. without developing a finely honed and individually customized specialization is nearly impossible. DSW students, by contrast, are more likely to complete a partially or entirely fixed curriculum. In addition, students in both types of programs can choose from part-time or full-time options, and most receive some financial assistance through awards, teaching assistantships, and instructorships. Because the DSW is targeted at working professionals, more opportunities to pursue this degree on a part-time basis exist. Networking and relationship building are huge components of Ph.D. programs, making full-time residential study the preferred choice of many.

If you’re hoping to continue working in the field and furthering your career in leadership, applied research, and advanced social work practice, a DSW is the higher education degree for you. If you find yourself yearning for academia and advanced knowledge of various research methods, you’ll likely choose a Ph.D. .

Is a DSW right for me?

When considering a DSW, let your career goals be your guide. You can undoubtedly get a job in social work with a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) or a Master of Social Work (MSW). But if you hope to ascend to a top leadership position, a DSW is a much likelier ticket.

With a BSW, you’ll qualify for entry-level positions in mental health clinics, residential services, and residential treatment. Becoming a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) means providing clients with one-on-one psychotherapy and advanced clinical services, holding a management/supervisory position in social work, or working in social justice politics. It also means you’ll need to obtain an MSW degree. If you’re hoping to advance to a professorship or research position, consider a Ph.D. in social work.

However, if you’re a social work professional seeking advanced training in private practice, supervision, and policy analysis, a DSW can propel you to your goals. Likewise, if you’d love to expand your knowledge of social work practice and its many applications, including theoretical implications, an in-person or online DSW is the optimal choice for you.

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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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