DSWs most often return to clinical practice or organizational leadership roles after earning their degrees. PhDs are more likely to enter academia or advanced research positions.
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Ginny Bartolone
Noodle Expert Member

August 11, 2022

If you're looking to become a thought or practice leader in your social work specialization, a DSW or PhD can help you reach your goal. Earning a social work doctorate can take two to seven years.

As an experienced social worker, you already play a significant role in your community. However, earning a doctorate in social work puts you on the front lines of this constantly changing field.

Doctor of social work programs take—at minimum—three years to complete. Expect two years of coursework and one-to-two years of independent study or dissertation research.

Add in the flexibility of a part-time or online doctorate program, however, and a DSW or PhD can extend up to seven years—or longer, if the university allows it.

Understandably, such lengthy programs can lead to some attrition issues. Don't let that discourage you, though. Pursuing this level of education can significantly impact your career and empower you to mitigate social inequities.

Modern economic and social challenges call for dedicated and trained leadership. Take a look at the demand for everyone from mental health professionals to substance abuse managers recently reported by the New York Times, for example.

Social workers in all areas are in high demand. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a 13 percent career growth. That's nearly four times the growth rate of the overall job market.

So, how long does it take to get a doctorate in social work? We'll cover a few pressing questions about the length and structure of these degrees by discussing:

  • Why get a doctorate in social work?
  • DSW or PhD: What's the difference?
  • How long does it take to earn a DSW?
  • How long does it take to earn a PhD?
  • DSW or PhD: What's the best for you?

Why get a doctorate in social work?

Social work doctoral programs attract students from across the field. Community advocacy specialists, mental healthcare and clinical social workers, and social justice professionals benefit from a terminal degree.

While DSW students focus on advanced clinical practice, the PhD centers on in-depth research and pedagogical tactics.

Both PhD and DSW programs highlight:

  • Policies around social welfare
  • Quantitative and qualitative research methods
  • Study of pedagogy and teaching tactics
  • Social welfare study tailored to the student's area
  • Theories and methods of leadership

Both pathways typically offer capstone, immersion, or thesis projects tailored to the student's career goals; in PhD programs, these usually take the form of a dissertation. Most important, you can find both on-campus and online programs to mold around a busy career.

Either doctorate degree allows students to transform their advanced clinical practice into concrete research that pushes the field's boundaries.

Leadership roles and opportunities

The majority of doctorate candidates already hold an advanced degree and have full-time social work practice on their resumes. So, why take this extra step?

A doctoral degree encourages students to emerge as leaders in the field of social work. They may choose to become educators at the college or postgraduate level. Others strive to lead nonprofits that address a range of social issues, often in the role of executive director. Many PhD students focus on gaining expertise in the area of social services research.

Additionally, various industries benefit from these specializations, even those beyond the nonprofit field. Roles in the military and the for-profit sector look for candidates with a social work education to shape mental health initiatives and company culture.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the highest ten percent of social work earners earn annual incomes of $85,820. Glassdoor notes that executive directors of large nonprofits (over 500 employes) earn a median income of over $100,000.

DSW or PhD: What's the difference?

The DSW and PhD mark where a social worker's career splits in one of two directions.

Take the DSW path, and you're more likely to head back into clinical social work in a leadership role. The PhD sends students in toward high-level research and teaching in an undergrad, master's degree, or PhD program.

Admission requirements

Both social work doctoral programs traditionally require an MSW for admission, but there are exceptions. Some schools consider students with a BSW or significant experience in a particular field. For this reason, many prospective doctoral students already hold licensure, either as an LMSW or an LCSW.

Other admission requirements include:

  • 3.0 or 3.5 GPA
  • Graduate-level coursework in a specific topic
  • GRE scores
  • Non-BSW bachelor's degree with related experience
  • Statement of purpose
  • Two-to-three letters of recommendation

Course of study

As we mentioned above, there are plenty of crossovers in the two programs. PhD students, however, spend more time honing their research, presentation, and analytical skills. The first two years of their program tackle specialized coursework before the student launches full-time into their dissertation work. A dissertation is an extended written research essay that culminates in an oral examination before a panel of experts in the dissertation's subject.

DSW candidates receive hands-on clinical training to apply back in the field. Classes cover applied topics like leadership theories and administrative strategies. DSW programs offer training in specific areas like trauma, substance abuse, or food insecurity.

The DSW requires a capstone project as well, but its structure is a bit more flexible than an extensive dissertation.

Career paths

Leadership roles open up to both groups of graduates. PhD students often pursue macro-level positions such as teaching in higher education. Nonprofits and government agencies hire advanced researchers as well.

DSW graduates typically become community managers, directors of nonprofits, and advanced clinical workers. While they can choose to teach if they wish, many focus less on full-time academic work in their long-term career goals than do PhDs.

How long does it take to earn a DSW?

Universities typically design doctorate in social work programs for mid-career professionals looking to elevate the details of their daily work. The DSW encourages students to transform real-world problems into research-backed solutions they can immediately take back into their communities.

Full-time programs aim to move quickly. Tulane's full-time DSW program, for example, wraps up in as little as 16 consecutive months. Students complete 60 credit hours, 12 of which consist of field practicum work.

At the end of the program, students present a capstone project in their chosen field, typically as a peer-reviewed publication and presentation.

Tulane's part-time program is a bit more typical of those completed by working professionals. Classes and a capstone project extend to around 32 months (about two-and-a-half years). This allows students to complete the program in tandem with a busy job.

Common program structure

Depending on the length of the DSW program, students may spend the first three or four semesters covering standard coursework, including:

  • Community organizing
  • Diversity and social justice
  • Evidence-based social work and data analytics
  • Human behavior and social environment
  • Pedagogical tactics

As the program advances, advisors help students hone their studies with electives and special projects. Some programs, such as the Rutgers DSW, also require peer-reviewed casework and a focus on scholarly writing in their first year.

Capstone project

DSW programs often require students to present a tangible project immediately relatable to their current careers. This may include a:

  • Community engagement project
  • Peer-reviewed publication or case study
  • Presentation prepared for a national conference
  • Qualitative research paper

Here's a practical example. A student in the UPenn DSW program was hoping to use applied research to better understand her role at a regional autism center. Not only did an online DSW allow her to keep working, but she moved up into a director position a few years later.

How long does it take to earn a PhD?

Students passionate about pursuing a life of research may choose the PhD—or Doctor of Philosophy—in social work. Instead of sticking to applied research for the field, the curriculum prepares students to become:

  • Academic researchers
  • Directors in socially focused nonprofits
  • Government and military leaders
  • Professors and teachers in social work
  • Research think tank directors

Like the DSW, PhD programs take between three and seven years to complete. The main difference here is the latter part of the degree concentrates almost solely on writing and defending a dissertation.

Prospective students usually hold an MSW degree from a university with accreditation by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE).

Common program strcuture

Consider Columbia's PhD program, which has been around for over 70 years. The school estimates two years of course work over a minimum of three semesters before shifting toward dissertation work.

Students can choose one of three specializations:

  • Advanced practice
  • Social policy and administration
  • Social policy and policy analysis

Nearby New York University offers students multiple specialization options, including:

  • Children, youth, and families
  • Global social welfare and public health
  • Mental health and clinical science
  • Poverty and socioeconomic disadvantage

Graduation requirements

You can also take a look at University of Southern California's program for a typical PhD program structure. Students at USC complete a total of 45 units within two years. During this time, they build relationships with professors and mentors, develop their research area, and master analytical skills.

The third and fourth year then turns toward teaching and the dissertation. To graduate, students must:

  • Complete all doctorate-level coursework
  • Maintain a GPA of 3.0
  • Submit and defend a dissertation
  • Take a qualifying examination (which includes an oral defense)
  • Teach for at least two semesters

DSW or PhD: Which is best for you?

One of the most interesting things about following a career in social work is its flexibility. Not all students start out with a traditional BSW and work their way up the social work degree ladder.

By the time you're ready to choose which doctorate of social work is right for you, you'll have extensive experience in the field itself. In other words, choosing between a DSW and PhD comes down to finding your dream job in social work.

The DSW track

DSW programs are best for those looking to stay in the field. You'll keep working with the community face-to-face, even if you're in a higher leadership position or shaping public policies.

You will also have the opportunity to teach, complete advanced research, or even open a private practice.

The PhD track

Do you see yourself in the classroom half the week and tackling research during the other? The PhD social work degree shapes master researchers, professors, and presenters in the study of social work itself.

You may not spend as much time working directly with at-risk populations, but you will expand and perfect the systems that support them.

The bottom line

If time is the primary factor, consider this: both programs can take anywhere between three and seven years to complete. However, the PhD program does require a dissertation, which can take far more time than a capstone project.

Dive in full-time, and you'll likely land on the shorter end of this scale, but an online program offers more flexibility with your career.

Most importantly, choose a program that excites you enough to take the next step in your career. After all, a life in social work elevates communities and helps them adapt to change. Both degrees place you at the top of the field to advance this essential work.

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