DSW: Doctor of Social Work Degree Programs

Last updated January 15, 2024
DSW: Doctor of Social Work Degree Programs By Alyssa Middleton
Alyssa Middleton
Ph.D. in Social Work, focus Psychosocial Oncology and Palliative Care (University of Louisville) MSW (Washington University in St. Louis).

If you are currently earning your MSW degree, some of your professors may have earned their Doctorate of Social Work (DSW) degree, and you might be curious about what this means. You may be an existing social work practitioner, wanting to further your education to be eligible for promotions and higher levels of responsibility in your career, but are unsure if a DSW is right for you.

Perhaps you want to teach BSW or MSW classes, but aren't interested in getting a Ph.D. This guide provides detailed information about the DSW degree, including the benefits, ways in which you can earn the degree, admission requirements, examples of courses within the program along with potential career opportunities. If you are considering gaining additional education and training for increased leadership or teaching opportunities, then read on to learn more about this unique degree that can be completed in the evenings or weekends, around your work schedule.

Are there online DSW programs?

Yes, there are many online DSW degrees available. Many DSW programs are actually hybrids, meaning that the majority of the instruction is done online, but there are a few in-person, on campus meetings throughout the program, which is called residency. These occasional residencies can range from a weekend to a two-week stay on campus, and are typically manageable for students to travel to meet and network with others in their cohort, attend live seminars, and meet with program faculty for planning and advising purposes.

School Program Admissions
University of Kentucky Doctorate of Social Work
Select one of four concentrations: Administrative Leadership, Clinical Social Work, Military Behavioral Health, and Social Work Education.
Simmons University Doctorate of Social Work (DSW)
No GRE scores required. Complete in less than two years full time or less than three years part time.
i sponsored

Click to view online MSW programs that are taking applications for 2024.

Why Would You Want a DSW?

The DSW is considered a practice degree, meaning it prepares clinical professionals for the highest level of social work practice along with preparation for higher levels of leadership and administrative roles in addition to teaching practice courses in schools of social work. The DSW is a 'step up' from an online MSW degree, and is the highest degree available for social workers (it is considered to be on par with a Ph.D). The DSW degree allows graduates to take on more responsibilities, earn more money and be prepared for executive-level positions in the field.

You can specialize in different areas of focus

DSW programs have different areas of focus, so students will develop different skills depending on which school they attend. DSW students can gain in-depth knowledge and experience in newer treatment modalities that may not have been covered in their MSW program. DSW students also focus on leadership, both developing leadership skills in themselves and others.

You can impact policy change

DSW graduates are prepared to enact change through guiding and influencing the development of organizational and practice policies. DSWs often have years of clinical social work experience prior to entering a DSW program, so they have unique insight as to how various organizations run and ideas for improvement at various levels within an organization. DSWs also teach practice skills to the next generation of social work students.

Regardless of their area of focus, DSW graduates are poised to be action takers and change makers for programs and policies that serve and affect the most vulnerable of populations. If you are interested in leading a social service organization, having extensive knowledge and skills for your own clinical practice, or shaping the future of social work practice education, the DSW degree might be a good fit for you.

DSW vs Ph.D. in Social Work: What is the Difference?

As previously stated, the DSW is a practice degree, which focuses on supervision, leadership and teaching in social work practice. A DSW graduate is likely to be employed within the community, for example, at a nonprofit organization, working in executive-level management or administration positions, or at a university, teaching BSW or MSW students social work practice skills. In contrast, the Doctor of Philosophy in Social Work (Ph.D.) is a research-focused degree. A Ph.D. graduate would likely be employed at a university or research center, focusing on teaching and conducting research.

The DSW program takes less time to complete than the Ph.D., on average, 2-3 years. The DSW degree typically requires a capstone project to graduate, which is discussed in more detail later in this guide. This is in contrast to a Ph.D., which can take five or more years to complete and requires a dissertation to graduate, which is a much longer and more detailed project than a capstone.

Both DSW and Ph.D. graduates are able to teach at the undergraduate or graduate level, but the types of courses each teach tend to differ. While this is not an absolute, DSWs tend to teach human development, practice skills and policy coursework. Ph.Ds would more likely be found teaching theory and research courses. Either type of graduate could be found teaching social work ethics.

School Program Admissions
University of Kentucky Doctorate of Social Work
CSWE Accredited
Simmons University Doctorate of Social Work (DSW)
CSWE Accredited
i sponsored

Click to view all online MSW programs that are currently accepting applications.

Top Online DSW Programs

University of Kentucky Doctorate of Social Work
University of Kentucky (Online)

Select one of four concentrations: Administrative Leadership, Clinical Social Work, Military Behavioral Health, and Social Work Education. 2 year accelerated program, total of 42 credits.

Click for more information from the University of Kentucky website.

CSWE Accredited

University of Kentucky Doctorate of Social Work

Visit the University of Kentucky admissions website securely. Click "Learn More" to securely visit the University of Kentucky admissions website.

Simmons University Doctorate of Social Work (DSW)
Simmons University (Online)

Simmons University offers an online Doctorate of Social Work (DSW) — MSW required; no GRE required. The program prepares you to become a well-rounded scholar-practitioner through a curriculum focused on three key areas: inclusive leadership, advanced clinical practice, and teaching and education. Apply now.

Click for more information from the Simmons University website.

CSWE Accredited

Simmons University Doctorate of Social Work (DSW)

Visit the Simmons University admissions website securely. Click "Learn More" to securely visit the Simmons University admissions website.

i sponsored

University of Southern California Online DSW

  • Length of Program: Accelerated Track: 28 months, Standard Track: 36 months
  • Program Start: January, May and August
  • Number of Credit Hours: 42 credits
  • Focus: Social Change and Innovation, focused on the Grand Challenges for Social Work
  • Course Delivery: Online program with mostly asynchronous content
  • Additional Notes: Admits students with a variety of Masters degrees. Requires a capstone to graduate.

University at Buffalo Online DSW

  • Length of Program: 3 years (7 semesters), part-time
  • Program Start: Fall semester only
  • Number of Credit Hours: 39 hours
  • Focus: Trauma-informed and human rights (TI-HR) perspective, utilizing implementation science strategies to translate research into best practice interventions
  • Course Delivery: Online program with both synchronous and asynchronous delivery
  • Residency Requirement: A few days in August prior to the first semester

University of Pennsylvania Online DSW

  • Length of Program: As little as 2 years, but typically takes 3 years to complete
  • Program Start: Fall semester
  • Number of Credit Hours: 12 (each course is 1 credit)
  • Focus: Advanced social work practitioner and educator
  • Course Delivery: Online program with synchronous content, two evenings per week for two hours
  • Residency Requirement: Five-day immersion experience at the start of their first semester. During the summer following their first year, students return to campus for another five-day residency.
  • Additional Notes: Requires a dissertation to graduate

University of St. Thomas Online DSW

  • Length of Program: 3 years
  • Program Start: July
  • Number of Credit Hours: 45 hours
  • Focus: Teaching, Scholarship, Service and Leadership to prepare graduates to begin a career as tenure-track faculty.
  • Course Delivery: Online program, courses completed one at a time in successive 8-week sessions
  • Residency Requirement: 2 week on-campus residency each summer
  • Additional Notes: Requires a banded dissertation to graduate, which is three related articles in a specific area of scholarship, along with an oral defense of the work.

University of Tennessee Knoxville Online DSW

  • Length of Program: 3 years (8 semesters)
  • Program Start: Fall semester
  • Number of Credit Hours: 48 hours
  • Focus: Advanced clinical practice, leadership and applied research
  • Course Delivery: Online, 2 courses per semester
  • Residency Requirement: 1 week on-campus residency each summer

Studying a DSW Online vs. On Campus

The primary benefit to earning a DSW online vs. on campus is convenience. You can take classes from a renowned school of social work that is across the nation, while you stay at home and continue to work in your current position. There is no need to uproot your life and move in order to earn a degree. Many DSW programs are actually hybrids, meaning that the majority of the instruction is done online, but there are a few in-person, on campus meetings throughout the program, which is called residency. These occasional residencies can range from a weekend to a two-week stay on campus, and are typically manageable for students to travel to meet and network with others in their cohort, attend live seminars, and meet with program faculty for planning and advising purposes.

Online DSW and on campus DSW programs are quite similar, with the primary distinction being the method by which the courses are taught. They have the same number of required courses and credit hours and graduation requirements. Online students may have a brief introduction course to the school’s online learning management system, but that would be the only difference in courses offered.

How Long Does it Take to Complete an Online DSW?

On average, DSW programs require 40-50 credit hours of coursework, with most classes being 3 credit hours each. This can be completed in as little as 28 months if taking classes full time. Most online DSW programs take three years to complete, with some allowing up to five years to complete the degree.

Typical Admission Requirements for DSW Programs

Though requirements for admission to a DSW program vary, the typical requirements include:

  • A MSW degree from a CSWE-accredited institution. Some programs accept students with a Master’s degree in a related field such as psychology, but may require that these students complete additional MSW-level courses as part of their DSW program.One notable exception to this is the University of Southern California. They accept applicants with a variety of masters and doctoral degrees, as their program focus is on leadership rather than clinical practice development.
  • Official transcripts for all undergraduate and graduate coursework taken.
  • An average Grade Point Average (GPA) of 3.0 to 3.5 out of a 4.0 scale.
  • GRE Scores (International students will likely have to submit Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) scores to demonstrate their English proficiency)
  • Letters of recommendation by past professors and/or social work supervisors or employers that can speak to your ability to successfully complete doctoral level coursework and serve the field in a professional and ethical manner
  • Personal statement. The admissions committee evaluates whether your writing is at a graduate school level and that you have carefully considered your career aspirations and have conveyed why their DSW program is a good fit for helping you achieve those goals.
  • Writing sample. The application may have one or more questions that you are required to answer so that your writing skills can be evaluated.
  • A resume, detailing your professional clinical experience.
  • Some schools also require that you have a valid and active social work licensure in the state in which you are practicing.

Professional Experience Requirements

Since the DSW is a practice degree, it is expected that applicants have significant clinical experience in the field prior to applying to their program. On average, programs require three to five years of post-MSW experience, meaning that practicum fieldwork completed for the MSW program does not count toward this requirement. The University of Tennessee in Knoxville reported that, though it is not a requirement, on average, their DSW students have been out of their MSW program for 12 years, and have been Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSW’s) for nine years.

DSW Degree Requirements

To successfully complete a DSW degree, students must pass all courses, often with a grade of B or better. Since the majority of students continue to work in professional practice while in the program, the DSW does not have fieldwork requirements.

A distinct graduation requirement of the DSW program is the capstone project. The capstone is a written paper that requires intensive literature research and is combined with the student’s practice experience to identify, analyze and offer reasonable solutions to a current social work-related problem. The paper is written at a level to where it could be publishable in an academic journal. The student must also create a presentation and defend the research project to a committee of advisors, or sometimes, to their cohort and program faculty.

A few DSW programs require a dissertation rather than a capstone. A dissertation is a larger, more in-depth research project on a specific topic. The dissertation also must be of publishable quality, and must be presented/defended to a dissertation committee, which often consists of five faculty members.

Typical DSW Coursework

Coursework will vary depending upon the DSW program focus, if it is centered around leadership or is a more generalized curriculum, or if it offers areas of specialization. Below are some examples of courses that could be found in an online DSW program.

Concepts in Implementation Science

This course grounds students in the principles and practice of implementation science, and provides the foundation to develop strategies designed to advance the successful adoption and use of evidence-based interventions. Students will be introduced to terminology commonly used within implementation science and models that guide the process of translating research into practice. The course will explore theories and frameworks that are frequently applied to guide implementation planning and evaluation, and to identify barriers and facilitators to successful implementation of evidence-based interventions. We will consider strategies used to promote the uptake of interventions, and measures designed to assess key determinants of implementation strategies. Challenges faced in implementing evidence-based practices, programs, and polices within the context of a trauma-informed human rights (TIHR) perspective will be considered. We will also explore how professional collaboration networks (PCNs) can be used when translating evidence into practice.

Neurobiology and Psychopharmacology in Social Work Practice

This course will focus on the neurobiological bases of problem behaviors across a variety of areas including but not limited to major mental and health disorders, alcohol and drug addictions, risk taking, and impulse-control disorders. Students will develop knowledge of common pharmacological interventions and relevant debates. The course will highlight how to incorporate research pertaining to brain dysregulation, neuroendocrine functioning, medications, and disease processes into the assessment and treatment process.

Integrating Technology and Teaching in Academic and Agency Settings

This course will focus on developing students’ roles as future leaders and educators in the social work field. Students will analyze theories of adult learning for the purpose of teaching in academia and creating professional development trainings in agencies. Students will also evaluate technology tools used in leader/educator roles and apply the NASW code of ethics and standards for technology to course content.

Grant Writing and Administration

Students in this course will develop skills for the identification, writing, management, and evaluation of grants. Students will learn to apply grant writing skills as social work leaders, create mission and vision statements, develop logic models, plan budgets, and analyze evaluation plans. Students will also asses how social workers in settings including academia, agency administration, and community development create funding sources, ethically manage and administer the funds, and evaluate the proposed outcomes.

Data-Driven Decision Making in Social Services

This course provides students with the practical and conceptual skills needed to manage, analyze, interpret and present quantitative findings from data generated through agency operations. Learning how to interpret statistics and the visual presentations of statistics, and conceptualizing the measurement and rigorous assessment of new innovations and policy change initiatives, will be emphasized. Ethical considerations and practical issues on using data originally collected for non-research purposes will also be discussed. The course also introduces students to developments in data science and artificial intelligence that are emerging as new methods to analyze big data within social work.

Leading Public Discourse

This course will prepare students to develop a range of skills in leading public discourse for the purposes of increasing civic engagement and public participation, building broad-based public support, and enabling competencies including utilizing knowledge to generate change for the benefit of vulnerable and at-risk populations and the social work profession; facilitating social connectivity; constructing and defining critical perspectives; ensuring transparency and accountability; and strengthening civic agency. A necessary focus of the course is to effectively navigate and understand social media, how to build social media marketing strategies to communicate and how to track their effectiveness (message management).

Financial Management for Social Change

This course will prepare students to apply effective financial management and planning skills in human service organizations. The skills they will develop will emphasize fiscal approaches that maximize revenue, control costs, allocate resources, improve decision-making and support successful social programs and social change.

Leading and Managing Large Complex Systems

This course examines large-scale national, state and local social intervention programs (e.g., income security, housing, health, justice and child welfare programs). Implications for fiscal and outcome accountability, inclusion and exclusion criteria, political considerations, funding, social program implications, and interoperability of design are of critical importance.

Writing for Publication

This course serves as a project-focused seminar with the goal of preparing students to write for scholarly publication. Building on previous coursework, the seminar takes the form of a writing group and emphasizes later parts of the writing process (i.e. writing as rewriting, refining, and finalizing). The seminar will give attention to topics such as ways to strengthen one’s methodology and considerations in choosing and writing with a journal’s focus and specifications in mind. The seminar focuses on one paper, offers a social context for writing, and culminates in the finalization of a manuscript, suitable for publication, that can serve as one of the three scholarly products required for the banded dissertation.

Career Options for DSW Graduates

DSW graduates have a number of career options available to them. Some may decide to remain with their current employer, but with a promotion to a position with more leadership responsibilities. Others may continue with their clinical practice, but expand to hiring other LCSWs to provide more services. DSWs can become consultants, directors of nonprofit organizations, social work administrators, or even scholar practitioners, employed as professors of professional practice in BSW or MSW programs.

Our research of employment listings found the following job titles suitable for DSW graduates:

  • Mental Health and Substance Abuse Teaching Professor
  • Social Responsibility Consultant
  • Remote Telehealth Clinician
  • Director of Provider Integration
  • Field Education Office Coordinator
  • Operations Manager
  • Executive Director
  • President(non-profit organization)Chief Financial Officer

An online DSW degree is a great option for experienced clinical social workers desiring more practice and leadership skills. The program can usually be completed within three years, and is offered with a flexible schedule to allow students to continue working and gaining clinical experience while they complete the program. DSW graduates can continue their clinical practice, lead social services organizations, become consultants to companies and organizations needing organizational restructuring or policy revision, or teach in a school of social work, training the next generation of clinical social workers. If any of these options sound intriguing to you, check out the top online DSW programs listed above.

CSWE Accredited Programs

CSWE (Council on Social Work Education) is the top accrediting board for Master of Social Work programs. Below, you will find a list of all of the CSWE accredited social work programs.