Experienced social workers earn doctoral degrees for many reasons, including career advancement and personal ambition. In each case, doctoral students gain in-demand skills that prepare them for the next steps in their profession. Doctoral graduates in social work have the tools to make significant, lasting impacts not only on the people they supervise, but also the entire field.
Prospective doctoral students have two academic options: doctor of social work degrees and Ph.D. in social work degrees. Although the two degrees cover much of the same content, Ph.D. programs prepare students for careers in academia by emphasizing research, analytics, and writing skills. Doctor of social work programs teach leadership and management skills that graduates can employ as senior managers at social work organizations. This article focuses on doctorate in social work programs.
As you start researching potential doctorate in social work programs, ensure that every program holds regional accreditation.
As you start researching potential doctorate in social work programs, ensure that every program holds regional accreditation. Also, if you hold a master's degree from a school accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), you may discover that very few doctoral programs have this industry accreditation. CSWE accredits programs that prepare students for state licensure. As most doctoral students either already hold licensure or plan for careers that do not require licensure, doctoral programs rarely seek out CSWE accreditation.
Keep reading to learn the latest information on how to choose an excellent doctorate in social work program.
Best Online Doctorate in Social Work Programs
University of Pennsylvania
The University of Pennsylvania's School of Social Policy and Practice (SP2) works toward social change and justice through research and practice. Formerly Penn Social Work, SP2 offers an online doctorate in clinical social work for professionals who want to combine social work practice with teaching. Distance learners complete both online courses through videoconferencing and attending immersion experiences on Penn's Philadelphia campus. Students also begin dissertation work during the first semester.
SP2's Doctorate in Clinical Social Work
Credits and courses: Degree candidates take synchronous classes, which involve live videoconferencing. Learners must also complete two, five-day on-campus immersion experiences at the start of the first year and the following summer. Online classes take place on Tuesday and Thursday evenings.
How long does it take?: Full-time students who take their courses while writing their dissertation can complete the program in just two years. Most learners graduate in three years.
Transfer credits: Penn accepts doctoral transfer credits on a case-by-case basis. Learners must submit transcripts for transfer credit evaluation.
Online student support: SP2 offers online writing tutoring. Appointments take place through Zoom software.
Cost: $6,144/course unit.
Admissions requirements: Degree candidates must hold a master's degree in social work from an accredited program, plus two years of post-graduate practice experience. Applicants must submit an essay and three letters of reference, including one from an academic supervisor.
Accreditation: The University of Pennsylvania is accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE).
University of Southern California
USC's Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work offers an online doctor of social work, which helps learners develop solutions to practical problems. As part of the doctorate in social work, degree candidates complete the 12 grand challenges, an initiative led by the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare. Students meet each challenge through residencies, coursework, and a capstone project. This doctorate in social work online still requires two in-person residencies in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.
USC Online's Doctor of Social Work
Credits and courses: USC's online doctor of social work requires 42 units of coursework focused on two primary content areas: innovation and leadership and advanced management practice in complex systems. Learners complete synchronous classes. They must also attend two in-person residencies during their third and sixth semesters. Each six-day residency takes place in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.
How long does it take?: Full-time students can finish the degree in two years.
Transfer credits: USC accepts some transfer credits after evaluation.
Online student support: Distance learners receive access to USC's online library services. They may also attend one-on-one video office visits with professors.
Cost: $28,628 for 15-18 units.
Admissions requirements: Applicants must hold a master's degree from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education. USC prefers candidates with at least five years of post-master's degree experience.
Accreditation: USC is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC).
University of Buffalo SUNY
The UB school of social work offers an online, part-time doctor of social work for experienced social workers. This online doctor of social work builds on the school's trauma-informed human rights perspective. Students may use some UB courses for New York State Education Department social work contact hours to renew licensure or certification. State license requirements vary by state, but UB courses may also qualify for social work contact hours outside of New York.
UB's Doctor of Social Work
Credits and courses: This doctor of social work degree requires 39 credits and an on-campus orientation session in August, before the program starts. Each course includes both synchronous and asynchronous sessions.
How long does it take?: UB offers this program in a part-time format only. Students can complete the program in three years or seven semesters.
Transfer credits: UB does not accept transfer credits for the doctor of social work.
Online student support: Distance learners receive tech support help for the Blackboard online platform.
Admissions requirements: Applicants must hold a master's degree from a Council on Social Work Education-accredited program; a minimum 3.0 GPA in graduate and undergraduate coursework; at least two years of post-graduate degree, direct client-based practice in a social work setting; valid social work licensure, certification, or registration; and experience with a practice population.
Accreditation: UB is accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE).
Located in Waco and Houston, Texas, BU offers doctorate programs to develop leaders and educators. Offered through BU's Diana R. Garland School of Social Work, the Ph.D. in social work integrates religion and faith with social work ethics, values, and practices. This online doctorate in social work prepares graduates for academic research, teaching, and leadership positions. Approximately 5-7 students move through the program in a cohort format, beginning in an odd-numbered year.
BU's Ph.D. in Social Work
Credits and courses: Students complete synchronous classes using video-conferencing technology. Each class meets on Monday or Thursday evenings. Degree candidates must attend a four- to five-day summer session on-campus in Waco before classes begin.
How long does it take?: Full-time students can complete the doctorate in social work online in 3-4 years, including a summer session at the start and a dissertation defense in the fourth summer.
Field education: Learners must complete social work teaching practicums.
Transfer credits: BU accepts transfer credits. Learners must earn a "C" grade or higher in all transferable courses. Students must earn at least 60 semester hours at BU.
Admissions requirements: Applicants must submit a personal statement; a sample of scholarly writing, resume, or curriculum vitae; GRE test scores from the last five years; three letters of recommendation; and a master's degree transcript from an accredited university.
Accreditation: BU is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC).
University of St. Thomas
Formerly St. Catherine University, the University of St. Thomas offers an online doctor of social work degree to prepare social work faculty specifically for university-level teaching and leadership. Approved by the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, this doctorate in social work helps learners gain transformative teaching and writing skills. Students move through the university's school of social work (SSW) program as a cohort, forming professional connections in a group setting.
Learners also complete a banded dissertation, which involves three critical works of scholarship linked by a theme, issue, pedagogy, or population.
St. Thomas SSW's Doctor of Social Work
Credits and courses: This online social work doctorate requires 45 semester credits and a two-week, on-campus residency each summer in St. Paul, Minnesota. Distance learners complete both synchronous and asynchronous classes. Each fall and spring semester includes two eight-week sessions.
How long does it take?: Full-time students can complete the online doctorate in social work in three years.
Online student support: The SSW offers online writing support for graduate learners. Distance learners may also receive online tutoring by appointment.
Admissions requirements: Candidates must hold a master's degree from a program accredited by the Council of Social Work Education, two years of post-graduate degree social work experience, teaching experience in higher education, and a minimum 3.0 GPA. Applicants must submit three letters of recommendation, a writing sample, and a personal statement.
Accreditation: The University of St. Thomas is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC).
The University of Tennessee-Knoxville
Founded in 1794, UT Knoxville offers several programs for working professionals, including an online doctor of social work degree in clinical practice and leadership. Administered by UT's college of social work, a member of the Group for the Advancement of Doctoral Education in Social Work, this doctorate in social work online prepares students for advanced clinical practice and leadership.
An intensive accelerated program, the degree focuses on evidence-based practice, clinical science and leadership, and applied research. Degree candidates complete two capstone projects, which involve writing a paper for publication.
UT's Online Doctor of Social Work
Credits and courses: Distance learners complete synchronous and asynchronous classes. Students complete two three-credit courses each semester. This doctorate in social work requires 48 total semester hours and a one-week, on-campus study each summer.
How long does it take?: Full-time students can complete the intensive, accelerated program in three years. UT does not offer a part-time option for this degree.
Transfer credits: UT accepts transfer credits from other social work doctoral programs on a case-by-case basis.
Online student support: Learners receive access to online tech support.
Admissions requirements: Applicants must hold a bachelor's degree from a college or university accredited by a regional agency. Candidates must also possess a minimum 2.7 GPA, or a 3.0 GPA during the learner's senior year of undergraduate study.
Accreditation: UT is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC).
Institute for Clinical Social Work
Located in Chicago, Illinois, ICSW offers a Ph.D. in clinical social work on campus and a distance-learning option. Designed for working clinicians, this doctorate in social work emphasizes the application and practice of psychodynamic theory. The only accredited, independent institution to offer a doctoral program in clinical social work in the country, ICSW works to prepare leaders for clinical counseling and psychotherapy roles.
The doctorate in social work requires a dissertation for completion.
ICSW's Ph.D. in Clinical Social Work
Credits and courses: For the distance-learning option, students take synchronous classes using video conferencing. Degree candidates must also visit ICSW's Chicago campus twice per semester for weekend classes.
How long does it take?: Full-time students can complete the program in three years.
Transfer credits: On an individual basis, ICSW accepts transfer credits from equivalent courses from the past five years in other accredited master's or doctoral programs. Learners must complete at least 80% of program coursework at ICSW.
Online student support: Distance learners receive access to ICSW's digital library.
Admissions requirements: Candidates must hold a master's degree from an accredited graduate school of social work, counseling, or psychology, or a graduate degree in a closely related field. Applicants must also demonstrate a minimum 3.0 GPA, an active weekly clinical caseload, and a baseline license in the state where the learner practices social work. ICSW prefers candidates with personal therapy experience.
Accreditation: ICSW is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC).
Things to Consider When Choosing an Online Doctorate in Social Work
When comparing doctorate in social work programs, consider their concentrations, program requirements, and learning formats. These three factors can affect your educational experience, future career, and eventual doctorate in social work salary.
Your doctoral program may offer one or more concentrations. Like in master's programs, concentrations in doctoral programs help you narrow your career focus to specialize in a field that matches your interests.
As doctorate in social work programs prepare students for managerial-level positions rather than careers in academia, expect concentrations in counseling best practices, mobilizing communities, and other topics that social work administrators need to lead their teams and organizations. Students gain this knowledge through in-depth coursework during the first two years of their programs.
The following section covers program requirements in greater detail.
If you plan to study full time, expect to complete courses during the first two years of your program. If you study part time, it may take 3-4 years to earn your degrees.
In class, students complete foundational studies in areas such as social welfare, social work research, and human behavior. During their first two years, students begin field experiences, which help them choose a topic for their doctoral dissertations.
Before students can start their dissertation research, they must pass a comprehensive exam, which may include an oral component. Dissertation research lasts 1-3 years after coursework is complete. Just writing the dissertation can require over a year. Before graduating, students defend their dissertations in front of their advisers and other faculty members.
Prospective students who plan to earn a doctorate in social work online should pay close attention to how programs deliver content. Online programs use either synchronous or asynchronous learning.
Synchronous learning resembles on-campus courses in that students and professors meet online at set times, typically in the evenings or on weekends. In asynchronous courses, you can view recorded lectures at any time of day, but must still meet set deadlines. The latter appeals to prospective students who work full time or have other responsibilities like raising children.
Determine which learning format works best for you before submitting applications.
Online Doctorate in Social Work Careers
Before starting a doctorate in social work program, research careers that match your interests and goals. Although many graduates pursue postsecondary teaching positions, you can use your education in many fulfilling ways. The careers below represent two popular alternatives to teaching.
Postsecondary Education Administrator
Postsecondary education administrators ensure that their colleges or universities provide the best educational experiences for students. Typical administrators act as deans, provosts, or chancellors. These professionals oversee academic departments, recruitment, and athletic programs. Other administrators work directly with students, advising them on how to navigate college life and succeed academically.
Most postsecondary education administrators have some college or university teaching experience.
Clinical directors with clinical social work backgrounds work in a variety of settings, including at major hospitals. Within their organizations, clinical directors hire and mentor staff, develop new ways to deliver healthcare services, and ensure that employees follow laws.
A doctorate and a clinical social worker license provide these professionals with the knowledge, skills, and experience to lead employees and ensure that clients receive the best care possible. Clinical directors can further advance their careers by pursuing executive director positions.