If you’re a licensed clinical social worker or working in a related field, pursuing a doctorate in social work (DSW) is the next step toward expanding your career options, increasing your earning potential, and gaining the skills needed for advanced leadership positions. If you’re interested in having your own practice or being in charge of a community program, a DSW equips you with the credentials and updated skills to make a difference. Whatever your goals, choosing the right online DSW program is the next step.
This guide features a list of this year’s best online DSW programs. The social work programs that top our list provide top-notch instruction, flexible course schedules, and valuable student services spanning from career assistance and tutoring to mental health counseling and alumni connections. Each DSW program has its own identity and offers unique coursework, so research is essential in finding the program that aligns with your academic and career goals.
In addition to our ranking of standout online DSW programs, we spotlight the coursework you can expect to take and answer common questions from prospective students just like you. Keep reading to see which schools top our list and, most importantly, which is right for you.
- Institutional accreditation from an organization recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.
- At least one program in subject area offered partially or fully online.
- Number of online programs in subject area reported by school to the U.S. Department of Education. Because exact numbers change often and can be difficult to verify, we use a range-based scoring system: 0-5 online programs = 1 star; 6-10 = 2 stars; 11-15 = 3 stars; 16-20 = 4 stars; 21+ = 5 stars. In our design, laptop icons = stars.
- Cost – Relative cost of attendance compared to peer schools on the list. Based on tuition and fees per academic year.
- Students w/ Institutional Aid – Percentage of students who receive financial aid from the school itself.
- Academic Counseling – Existence of this service on campus or online.
- Career Placement – Existence of this service on campus or online.
Boston, MAPrivate not-for-profit $$$$$
For those looking to be seen as leaders in the social work field, the DSW program from the Simmons University School of Social Work would be a great fit. The program focuses on inclusive leadership, advanced clinical practice, and teaching/education to prepare graduates to be advance the field as a whole. To be accepted into the program, applicants must have already have an MSW and three years of relevant post-MSW work experience. One element of this program that makes it stand out from others is how it’s delivered through a cohort-based model with live, online classes. So while the program is delivered online, there is a lot more collaboration and connection-building compared to other online programs. Students can complete the program on a full- or part-time basis.
Doctorate of Social Work
- Credits: 48
- Length: 2-3 years
- Cost: $1,170/credit
- Mode: Online
- Accreditation: CSWE
Tuscaloosa, ALPublic $$$
Students wanting a future in a specialized practice, public and nonprofit agency management, or in teaching the future of social workers should consider the DSW program from The University of Alabama. Depending on a student’s goals, they can enroll in either the organizational leadership track or the advanced clinical practice track. While this program is delivered primarly online, students will be required to come to the UA campus 4-5 days each summer to participate in residency programs. The only other time students will have to be on campus is for the required one-day, on-campus orientation. To be accepted into the program, students must already hold a MSW degree and have at least 3 years of post-MSW experience.
Doctor of Social Work
- Credits: 45
- Length: As little as three years
- Cost: $440/credit hour
- Mode: Primarily Online
- Accreditation: CSWE
Miami, FLPrivate not-for-profit $$$$
The online DSW from Barry University is made for those looking for a doctoral-level, practice-focused degree in trauma-informed leadership and practice. Although the program is delivered online, it prides itself on providing students oppporunities to receive personalized attention from faculty and to build longlasting relationships with peers. Applicants must have a MSW and three years of post-MSW experience to be accepted to the program. After graduating from the program, graduates will be experts in trauma-informed clinical practice, and program and organizational management.
Doctorate in Social Work
- Credits: 48
- Length: 3 years
- Cost: $595/credit
- Mode: Online
- Accreditation: CSWE
Knoxville, TNPublic $$$
Those who already have a MSW can get their DSW from the University of Tennessee – Knoxville to become a leader in clinical practice. This program is designed for experienced mental health practice social workers who are interested in becoming scholar-practitioners. Working professionals will be able to complete this intensive, accelerated program without having to take a break from their careers. Students can expand their knowledge of their current area of practice, whether that be mental health, trauma, developmental and physical disabilities, substance abuse, or gerontology.
Doctor of Social Work
- Credits: 48
- Length: 3 years
- Cost: $700/credit (in-state) | $775/credit (out-of-state)
- Mode: Primarily Online
- Accreditation: CSWE
Base Methodology for OnlineColleges.me’s 2023 Online College Rankings
1. Create List of Eligible Schools and Programs
To be eligible for this ranking, schools were required to meet the following criteria based on government data provided by The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS).
2. Assign Weightings
After creating the list of eligible schools, OnlineColleges.me data scientists assigned weights and ranked schools based on a mix of affordability, support services, and online program availability metrics. Online program availability and overall affordability metrics received the heaviest weightings.
Online Program Availability
About Our Data
OnlineColleges.me’s rankings use the latest official data available from The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). Most recent data pull: July 2022
What You’ll Take Away from Your Online DSW Program
Each online social work doctoral program has its own unique identity, learning outcomes, objectives, goals, and curriculum. At the same time, all the programs share a dedication to teaching students how to improve social welfare and access to vital social programs. From building social work expertise to honing leadership skills, we spotlight common learning outcomes for online DSW programs.
Completing your online DSW program puts you at the top of your field. Throughout a doctorate in social work program, you hone the knowledge and skills necessary to take on leadership roles and teach the next generation of social workers and leaders. The best online programs challenge you to gain expertise in areas like public policy, the history and theory of social work, and financial management for social programs.
Social programs, nonprofits, and public organizations all perform best with strong leaders at the helm. A DSW degree encourages you to hone the essential skills for leading and managing various organizations. Throughout your program, you’ll be introduced to financial management fundamentals, learn the best practices necessary to leading complex organizations, and build a deep understanding of the laws and ethics of social work.
Forward-looking social work professionals utilize technology to maximize the effectiveness of their services and broaden their reach. During a DSW program online, you’ll learn how technology has transformed the field of social work and how to best integrate technology into day-to-day programs. Plus, online students learn how to maximize the potential of social media platforms while taking a data-based approach to analyzing social programming.
Students in online DSW programs know that advocacy is at the heart of social work. Throughout an online doctorate in social work program, you’ll learn to channel your passion for service into effective advocacy. Whether it’s understanding the value of political relationships, enhancing communication skills, or fundraising, you’ll gain an expansive toolbox of skills so you can influence policy while building awareness of various social issues that impact diverse global communities.
Common Classes in Online DSW Programs
Before you choose an online DSW program, you’ll want to get a handle on the academic ins and outs. While course requirements may appear similar between schools, as you look deeper, you’ll see that each program has its own personality, philosophy, and areas of specialization. The typical online DSW program requires 45-60 credits, and full-time students often graduate in three years. Keep reading to learn about standard classes you can expect when tackling an online DSW program.
Technology and Professional Practice
This course explores how the internet and various technological advancements have influenced the practice of social work. Students in DSW programs online investigate the ways the evolution of technology has impacted society, human behavior, and interpersonal relationships. Plus you’ll dig into how today’s social workers utilize the internet and information and communication technologies to enhance and expand access to services.
Trauma and Human Rights
In this class, you’ll delve into the theories and research that inform the study of trauma and its relationship to human rights. You’ll look critically at the various causes and consequences of trauma on individuals and communities and the implications over time. Alongside more theoretical trauma research, you’ll explore multiple interventions and best practices used to address trauma and prevent it in the future.
Evidence-Based Practice in Social Work
Throughout this course, online social work doctoral students are introduced to foundational principles and mechanics of evidence-based practice as used in social work. You’ll gain the skills to effectively and systematically review academic literature, evaluate data, and critically evaluate the effectiveness and shortcomings of research. You’ll also gain insight into how biases in research impact vulnerable populations.
Data-Driven Decision-Making in Social Work
Effective, forward-looking social work relies heavily on data. This course introduces students in DSW programs online to how social work leaders use data to direct decision-making, track program performance, recognize trends, and evaluate effectiveness. Additionally, because many social programs rely on funding, data is used to provide evidence of the program’s value to those it serves. You’ll become familiar with various methodologies and learn to effectively present data using reports and visuals.
Leading Public Discourse
Throughout this course in your online social work doctoral program, you’ll develop various skills vital to expanding community engagement and participation in civic discourse. Learn about social media and how to effectively navigate multiple platforms, create marketing strategies, and track engagement via data analytics. You’ll also examine political and public communication through the lens of diversity, inclusion, and ethics.
Financial Management for Social Change
Budgeting and various financial issues are often top of mind for those in charge of social programs. This course provides online social work doctoral students with an enhanced practical and theoretical knowledge of the economic challenges faced by public and nonprofit organizations. In addition to learning the nuts and bolts of best financial practices, you’ll also examine the necessity of establishing and nurturing political, business, and fundraising relationships. Other essential topics include budget negotiations, social program design, and problem-solving in financial management.
FAQs About Online DSW Programs
Graduate school requires a significant investment of time and money. As a result, choosing the online DSW program that’s right for you is a serious decision. Whether you’re concerned about any in-person requirements or your career options after graduating, we’ve got you covered. In the following section, we answer seven of the most pressing questions, according to our readers.
Can I earn my doctoral degree in social work completely online?
Some online doctoral degrees in social work are offered entirely online, while others may have some in-person requirements for internships, fieldwork, and orientations. When assessing prospective online DSW programs, be sure that you can manage any of the in-person requirements. Additionally, the delivery of online programs varies. Some programs rely on synchronous sessions that meet virtually at set times, while others use an asynchronous platform that allows you to complete coursework at your own pace.
What can I do with a doctoral degree in social work?
A DSW is a terminal degree, so graduates have the skills to tackle almost any job in the social work world. Unlike PhD graduates in social work who traditionally work in research and higher education, DSW grads often work in a clinical capacity or for social service organizations. Additionally, DSW graduates have the tools to take on leadership roles in any number of organizations in the public and private sectors. Common jobs for those graduating with an online doctorate in social work are
- Social worker
- Community health worker
- Correctional treatment specialist
- Social service manager
- Career counselor
What type of accreditation should an online doctoral social work degree program have?
When reviewing potential online DSW programs, be sure to prioritize schools that hold institutional accreditation. Institutional accreditation acts as a stamp of approval, ensuring you receive a quality education and access to various student and financial services. The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) offers programmatic accreditation for bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work, but CSWE does not yet provide accreditation for doctoral programs. Prioritize DSW online programs that hold CSWE accreditation for their bachelor’s and master’s social work programs.
What does the admissions process look like for online DSW programs?
When getting your applications together for various online DSW programs, you’ll notice that admission requirements look relatively similar between schools. Almost universally, DSW programs require that you hold a master’s in social work or a related field, with a minimum cumulative GPA of 3.0. Common admission materials include GRE scores, letters of recommendation, a professional resume, academic transcripts, and a personal essay outlining academic and career goals. Be sure to look at each program’s requirements carefully, as slight differences in requirements can affect your likelihood of acceptance.
How much does an online doctoral degree in social work cost?
Like admission requirements, the cost of your online doctoral degree in social work varies between schools. Attending a public institution as an in-state student is the traditional path for the most inexpensive tuition rates. Financial aid opportunities can help ease the burden of graduate school, and in some cases private schools offer more financial aid to bring down their overall cost. Scholarships, grants, work-study programs, and loans are popular financial aid options, plus online students save money on travel, housing, and various campus-based fees.
How much time does it take to earn a doctoral degree in social work online?
The time it takes to earn your doctoral degree in social work varies by school, but most programs are designed to be completed in two to three years. Some schools offer accelerated programs that allow you to complete requirements more quickly. For example, the University of Southern California’s standard academic pathway takes 36 months to complete, while its accelerated track takes 28 months.
What specializations are available for doctoral degrees in social work?
When searching for the school that best fits your academic and career goals, considering specializations is a good way to narrow your list. Alongside core requirements, the top DSW online programs offer concentrations that allow you to hone your skills and prepare you for positions in leadership or higher education. These are some of the specializations you may see:
- Trauma-informed clinical practice
- Leadership and education
- Inclusive leadership
- Advanced clinical practice
- Teaching and education
- Human rights
- Organizational leadership
- Military behavioral health
- Executive leadership
Is a Doctoral Degree in Social Work Worth It?
If you’re interested in having the top academic credential in social work while simultaneously pursuing leadership positions in the field, an online DSW program is a solid choice. Graduates pursue jobs in clinical care, higher education, and the nonprofit sector. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 64,000 social worker jobs will be added by the end of the decade. The chart below showcases various social work-related jobs, earnings potential, and projected job growth.
|Median Annual Earnings
|Community Health Worker
|Social Service Manager
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics