Doctorate in Social Work Online

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), positions in social work are growing. Professionals in the field will find an abundance of available positions at varying levels. A doctorate in social work (DSW) is the most advanced degree a social work practitioner can earn. Those who earn a DSW are considered subject matter experts and conduct extensive research to discover new information that will help other practitioners. This degree path suits professionals who are practice-focused. DSW graduates are often prospective scholars who pursue teaching in universities to help groom the next generation of social workers. Practitioners with a doctorate also have a competitive advantage over their peers: with a DSW, higher-level positions are available outside of clinical practice and teaching. Graduates qualify for administrative roles such as clinical director, executive director, nonprofit executive, or human services director.

Median Salary for a Social Worker by Degree

Bachelor's Degree in Social Work $40,000
Master's Degree in Social Work $50,000
Doctorate (Ph.D.) in Social Work $54,573
Source: BLS

What Can You Do With an Online DSW?

DSW practitioners can work in clinical settings as an advanced practice clinical social worker, and they can also serve their community in an administrative role for a nonprofit as a social and community service manager.

Desirable candidates should be meticulous, passionate about advocacy, and feel comfortable monitoring or intervening in intimate aspects of people’s lives. Because social workers influence vital outcomes in the lives of their clients, upper-level positions require that practitioners are prepared for what they may encounter in the field, which is why employers value a DSW over those who hold a master’s degree in social work (MSW).

Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers: Practitioners provide counseling sessions to educate clients on effective treatments regarding mental illness and addiction. Settings vary from residential treatment centers to outpatient clinics. Practitioners tend to work with families and court officers.

Social and Community Service Managers: These professionals organize outreach activities. Practitioners develop creative ways to engage with clients while adhering to budget requirements and policies.

Medical and Health Service Managers: Improving efficiency in healthcare services is a primary objective. This can be achieved by examining the impact of new laws and regulations on a facility. Professionals also manage other administrators and finances.

Clinical Director: Professionals have extensive education and experience. They are responsible for the quality of care clients receive from other incumbents. Work settings include research firms, educational organizations, or health clinics.

Nonprofit Executive Director: As the head of the organization, directors work closely with the board and oversee the heads of each department. In this role, there are public relations responsibilities that extend beyond standard business hours.

Salaries by Experience for Social Workers with Doctorates

Entry Level (0-5 Years) $55,375
Mid-Career (5-10 Years) $49,197
Late Career (20+ years) $80,802
Source: PayScale

Social Work Internships and Fellowships

Internships and fellowships are valuable for those pursuing an online doctorate in social work given the lack of hands on experience that those who are on-campus have access to. A fellowship tends to focus on professional development and research and provides opportunities for networking, mentorship, and a stipend to help students through their program. Work is typically independent and project based. By contrast, an internship provides professional experience by working for an organization that typically hires practitioners with extensive experience. Unlike fellowship applications (which are similar to scholarship applications), applications for internships mirror entry-level job applications. These experiences may offer a small hourly wage, though many internships are not paid.

To apply for either program, students can look on their school’s website or reach out to their counselors and success coaches. Counselors will be able to match a student up to specific programs based on their experience and academic standing.

What Can You Expect From an Online DSW Program?

Social work is a hands-on field, which is why experience is vital. The execution of online social work programs vary. It is important that students examine the structure of the program to ensure that it will meet their needs. Course often offer virtual classrooms and require occasional on-site meetings.

How Much Is an Online DSW?

Online programs are designed with working students and students with families in mind. While professors tend to be accomodating, online programs can also be more cost effective. Online students do not use the same facilities or equipment that on-campus students do, such as meal plans, housing, gym fees, and parking packages. What’s more, students who have families and attend on campus often have to pay additional child care fees. However, online students may have additional technology fees due to the maintenance required to keep sophisticated learning systems up-to-date and functional.

Another factor to consider with online programs is residency. Some programs have a flat cost regardless of where the student lives. However, some programs charge students who are not residents significantly higher tuition rates. Therefore, students may want to consider local online programs prior to exploring out-of-state options. Online students should also consider accreditation. Some online programs can be alluring due to its inexpensive tuition. However, in the field of social work, it is important that schools are approved by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE).

What Will I Learn in an Online DSW Program?

  • Leading and Managing Complex Systems: Students acquire a set of actionable tools and methods for leading change in complicated situations such as the phase-based change model. Students will explore nonlinear relationships and unpredictability. This course involves experiential learning and real-world application and is useful for exploring frameworks for investigation and organizational structure.
  • Implementing Evidence-Based and Evidence-Informed Practices: This course teaches students how to promote efficiency and effectiveness within their workspace by applying objective and well-documented strategies. Students explore theories of changes that lead to positive outcomes, while identifying activities that are associated with those outcomes. Principles of scientific reasoning are emphasized for examining case studies.
  • Leading Public Discourse: DSW professionals are often involved with civic engagements. This course teaches students how to lead public discourse to increase and improve public participation and interaction. Students read about historical and contemporary examples of public discourse that they apply to the current and future paths of social work.
  • Financial Management for Social Change: Students design approaches that will fix and improve fiscal decision-making processes. Coursework includes many exercises that sharpen students’ financial management and budgeting skills. Students must draw on business, economic, and sociological principles to reach a deep understanding of negotiation and impact planning. This requires students to develop complex problem-solving skills.
  • Qualitative Research Methods: This course is a combination between examining qualitative research strategies and applying strategies to appropriate situations. Students learn how administrative and policy sciences are affected by qualitative research. Coursework also requires students to demonstrate skills associated with managing design, data collection, and analysis.

How Long Does It Take to Get an Online DSW?

Online doctoral programs in social work are designed for students who are also working professionals. Because of this, programs provide flexibility to accommodate varying schedules. It is possible to complete the program in three years. The first two years focus on general coursework and the final year is dedicated to the dissertation. However, many students take up to six years to complete their DSW.

Factors that influence program length can be linked to structure. Some programs are cohort-based, while others cater to the pace of the student. A cohort program provides students with weekly deadlines and often requires students to interact through discussion boards and group activities. On the other hand, self-paced programs have no set due dates and students can get to the work at their convenience.

Social Work Concentrations and Specialties

Social work is a diverse field that allows practitioners to choose from various work environment settings and client populations. Common roles filled by social workers are counselors, community development organizers, and intervention specialists. Practitioners also hold government jobs working from a macro level or even military jobs to meet the unique needs of soldiers and veterans. With a DSW, practitioners have unlimited access to a variety of career paths in social work.

  • Child and Family Social Worker: Practitioners provide assistance to children and their families with the child’s well being as a primary objective. Practitioners develop intervention plans or educate parents on rearing skills.
  • School Social Worker: Practitioners are trained to assess and address mental health concerns in children. They examine behavioral concerns and academic performance to identify support strategies, including collaboration between teachers, parents, and administrators.
  • Healthcare Social Workers: This specialty is in high demand due to a growing elderly population and a lack of understanding regarding specific needs. Practitioners must educate clients and their families on strategic methods to provide quality care and cope with terminal illnesses.
  • Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers: Practitioners provide counseling sessions that educate clients on effective treatments regarding mental illness and addiction. Settings vary from residential treatment centers to outpatient clinics. Practitioners tend to work with families and court officers.

Median Salaries For Social Work Specialties

Clinical Social Worker $55,326
Medical Social Worker $51,148
School Social Worker $48,281
Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Worker $42,700
Child and Family Social Worker $39,925
Source: PayScale, BLS

Are Online DSW Programs Accredited?

At all other degree levels of social work, looking for a program that is accredited by the CSWE is important. However, DSW programs are not accredited by the CSWE because the organization focuses on accreditations that prepare students for professional social work practice, which extends to the master’s level. Still, students can assess the quality of programs through the Commission on Educational Policy (COEP) and Commission on Accreditation (COA), both of which are affiliated with the CSWE and have worked to develop a framework for evaluating DSW programs.

Prospective students should search for a regionally accredited school with a strong reputation. Additionally, while it is not an accrediting organization, the Group for the Advancement of Doctoral Education in Social Work (GADE) is an organization that has created procedures and policies that programs should follow. GADE membership alludes to the rigor and processes of the DSW program, and many schools choose to affiliate themselves with GADE. Students can use GADE's website to see which schools are affiliated.

Licensure With an Online DSW

In the United States, clinical social workers must be licensed to practice. An MSW is the first level of an advanced social work degree that leads to licensure. This program can be completed in two years. After graduation, MSW practitioners must acquire a certain number of experience hours before qualifying to take the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) clinical license exam. The amount of experience hours necessary varies depending on what state a professional wishes to be licensed in. Students can begin a DSW program directly after graduating from an MSW program. Some students may want to focus on gaining experience and their licensure first. While a DSW is not required to be clinically licensed, it is the most advanced degree a social worker can obtain. It is important to note that most states require social work professionals to be licensed even if they are not at the clinical level. The ASWB offers a license to BSW graduates but they must practice under a licensed social worker.

Social Work Licensure

  • Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW): Candidates must have a master’s degree and a certain number of experience hours under a licensed supervisor. After all experience hours have been completed, students pay an application fee of $260 for the ASWB exam. A minimum score of 96 is required. Upon passing, they must pay $250 to the board to receive the license.
  • Licensed Bachelor Social Worker (LBSW): Candidates must have a bachelor’s degree in social work from a regionally accredited or CSWE-accredited program. Students apply for the ASWB and pay an exam fee of $230, and a background check must be submitted. The license itself is $100. This exam does not qualify professionals to practice clinical social work.
  • Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW): Degrees should come from accredited programs. Supervised hours must be completed prior to applying for the ASWB. The exam fee is $260 in addition to the background check. An LMSW qualifies candidates to engage in supervised social work that have higher responsibility and wages than the LBSW. MSW candidates qualify to take the clinical exam.
  • Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW): Candidates should have a master’s degree or doctorate. Practitioners are required to have a certain amount of experience hours depending on what state they are in. The exam fee is $260 and the license fee is $250. This license signifies that practitioners are subject matter experts.

Professional Organizations for Social Workers

Practitioners should consider aligning themselves with organizations that keep them up-to-date on the latest practices and policies in the field. National organizations tend to focus on broader aspects of social work, but smaller organizations can assist in specialty areas. Social work organizations provide practitioners with professional networks, and this can open up opportunities for collaboration and potential employment.

  • The National Association of Social Workers (NASW): NASW is the most acknowledged program of membership social workers in the U.S. They have over 120,000 members, and the primary mission is to uncover and support elite professional standards. Members have access to career services, consultation opportunities, cutting-edge information in social work, and much more.
  • School Social Work Association of America (SSWAA): The SSWAA helps professionals working in schools promote the social and emotional development of children and adolescents.
  • Social Work Helper: Dedicated to providing tools and current information related to social work, Social Work Helper takes an interdisciplinary approach to discuss relevant topics and spread news. Professionals are welcome to submit articles, resources, and provide feedback to improve the quality of the newsletters and website.
  • Society for Social Work and Research (SSWR): The SSWR strives to advance social work research. Members include professionals who have or are pursuing advanced degrees in social work. Members get access to annual conferences, online journals, and a vast network.
  • Clinical Social Work Association (CSWA): The CSWA is a national organization that provides vital services, products, and support for social workers on the clinical path. Members of this organization consist of professionals at varying levels of their career, which makes it a great resource for networking and mentoring.
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