10 Best Online Doctorate in Social Work in 2023 – Best Schools and Info Guide

Social workers who want to access excellent career advancement opportunities through higher education should look into an outstanding online doctorate in social work programs! But these programs aren’t limited to social workers either, as most online DSW programs accept professionals interested in a doctorate degree in social work. These include human services, social services, and social development professionals with the right educational and professional credentials.

What is the Doctor in Social Work (DSW) degree in the first place? This is a professional practice degree that emphasizes social work practice and leadership combined with applied research. Students are usually engaged in social work practice as licensed social workers who want to boost their career advancement opportunities in leadership positions.  

Note that online doctorate degrees in social work come in two types – the Doctor in Social Work and the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Social Work – that have significant differences. Ph.D. in Social Work degree programs enable students to develop their knowledge and skill of advanced research methods (i.e., research-centric curriculum), while DSW programs may or may not have research elements. 

Social workers and other professionals interested in an online doctorate degree in social work must be aware of the risks and challenges involved in its pursuit. While most online DSW programs allow students to maintain their full-time employment, there are online programs that require full-time commitment (i.e., no external employment). The expensive costs of earning a doctor of social work degree is a difficult challenge, too, although financial aid can result in significant savings. 

Many doctorates in social work programs offer specializations, too, for social workers and other related professionals to choose from. According to the NASW-National Association of Social Workers, students in DSW programs may choose from 16 identified specializations, including: 

  • Mental health and clinical social work 
  • School social work 
  • Public welfare 
  • Advocacy and community organization 
  • Developmental disabilities 

Few online programs, however, offer these concentrations. But when choosing from among online DSW programs, reviewing the specializations and determining if these align with your goals is worthwhile. 

Furthermore, DSW programs aren’t a pathway for licensure as social workers. Instead, many DSW programs require applicants to be a Licensed Master Social Worker, or LMSW, or a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW). In both cases, a master’s degree in social work is among the minimum licensing requirements for social workers. 

Admission requirements into a doctorate in social work online programs include a master’s degree in social work or a related field from an accredited institution with a minimum GPA, GRE scores, relevant work experience, and letters of recommendation. Even licensed social workers aren’t guaranteed admission due to the competitive nature of the terminal degree in higher education. 

The Lowdown

The top online Doctorate in Social Work programs (DSW) train social workers and other professionals for leadership positions in a wide range of settings. These include hospitals and other healthcare settings, community and nonprofit organizations, and government agencies, as well as advanced clinical practice as private practitioners. 

Methodology

Social workers agree that a doctorate in social work from online programs provides the same quality of instruction and academic rigor as their on-campus counterparts. Plus, there are several benefits to online learning, including the opportunity to maintain full-time employment and meet personal obligations, thanks to self-paced study. 

The best online Doctorate in Social Work or DSW programs featured on this list were chosen based on the following criteria: 

  • Offered by regionally accredited colleges and universities; programmatic accreditation is a bonus,
  • Delivered in an online or hybrid learning format via a learning management system (LMS), such as Blackboard and Canvas, which allows for flexible scheduling; in-person sessions, including clinical externships, are common in these online programs,
  • Features a contemporary curriculum that emphasizes evidence-based practice as well as skills development in both the technical and transferable aspects, 
  • Provides easy, accessible, and efficient student support services, including IT help desk, enrollment counselors, and academic advisors,
  • Offers financial assistance for online post-graduate students.

Please visit our Methodology page for a more detailed look at our Online DSW ranking process.

10 Best Online Doctorate in Social Work Schools

University of Pennsylvania

University of Pennsylvania - Social Policy and Practice

Hybrid Doctorate in Clinical Social Work Program

The Doctorate in Clinical Social Work Program is touted as the first doctorate of its kind with an exclusive focus on evidence-based practice. Students are social workers with master’s degrees who want to advance their education while continuing with their full-time careers. Graduates who earn a doctor of social work degree become highly regarded educators, clinical experts, and professionals engaged in scholarly research in public service and private practice. 

The online doctorate in social work has the following features: 

  • Students, most of whom are working professionals, engage in online evening classes for the didactic coursework and on-campus immersion experiences. Students complete a dissertation as a culminating requirement.  
  • The curriculum places equal emphasis on theory and practice as well as scholarly research and real-world applications. Courses are taught by experienced faculty members, including clinical experts. 
  • The courses include research methods, applied social statistics, and trauma-informed interventions that prepare students for real-world challenges. 
What Makes This Program Unique: 

The doctorate in social work program encourages students to use on-campus facilities and meet with faculty members not just on their on-campus immersions but throughout their studies. The first two years in the online doctorate program are spent on didactic courses, while the third year is for the dissertation phase. The social work degree program, however, can be completed in two years. 

Did You Know? 

Many graduates of the online social work program combine jobs in academia and social work practice. Their high level of training makes it possible to maintain high-pressure jobs simultaneously. 

University of Southern California

University of Southern California - Online

Online Doctor of Social Work Program 

Offered at the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, the online Doctorate of Social Work program prepares students for leadership in social justice, change, and innovation. Students gain effective skills in the development of practical solutions for the social challenges of our times, particularly in addressing the issues affecting disadvantaged, marginalized, and underserved communities. 

  • Doctoral students must complete 42 units of courses to earn the doctoral degree, and the coursework emphasizes research methods and social change management. 
  • The online doctorate in social work program has three focus areas, namely, problem definition as defined by the 12 Grand Challenges of Social Work, executive leadership in the community and human services, and innovative design. 
  • Applicants to the online doctorate program must have a master’s from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) and at least five years of post-master’s work experience.  
What Makes This Program Unique: 

Doctoral students in this DSW program choose from two types based on program length, namely: 

  • The Standard Track is a 36-month (9 semesters) program where students complete 2 courses in 6 semesters and a capstone project in 3 semesters. 
  • The Accelerated Track lasts for 7 semesters with students enrolling in 3 courses for 4 semesters and the last 3 semesters are devoted to the capstone project. 

Both tracks, however, have the same coursework. The courses include Financial Management for Social Change, Data-Driven Decision Making in Social Services, and Executive Leadership. 

Did You Know? 

Students in the doctor of social work program complete a capstone project that should be ready for implementation in the public sphere. The capstone project is a demonstration of the student’s abilities in influencing social justice and innovation, and it may be a large-scale contract proposal, a business plan, or a product prototype. 

State University of New York – University at Buffalo 

State University of New York at Buffalo-School of Social Work

Online Doctor of Social Work Program

SUNY’s Online DSW students have an abiding commitment to the advancement of social work theoretical perspectives and their applications. The program of study emphasizes bridging the gap between research and practice through the effective use of implementation science, too. Students benefit from the trauma-informed and human rights (TI-HR) approach and its applications in addressing the needs of vulnerable populations. 

  • Students complete 39 credit hours to earn the online doctorate in social work degree. The time-to-completion varies – 3 years for part-time doctoral students; 2 years for full-time students. 
  • The fully online doctorate in social work program features courses that enable students to develop their knowledge and skills in evidence-based practice, including implementation strategies and interventions. 
  • The capstone project is the culminating requirement in the doctor of social work program, and it allows students to demonstrate their advanced competencies in direct practice settings. 
What Makes This Program Unique: 

Students gain a new perspective of their clients that enables them to make profound changes in their social work practice, thanks to the strong emphasis on the TI-HR approach. The TI-HR perspective in social work considers the influential roles that traumatic life events have on individual development. 

The program also uses state-of-the-art digital technologies, including virtual reality, in the improvement of social work practice and in the development of a global professional network. 

Did You Know? 

Selected courses in the social work doctoral program are eligible as contact hours for license renewal under NYSED rules. The courses are delivered via Blackboard, known as UBLearns, and accessible 24/7 but can have both synchronous and asynchronous components. Students have access to free academic and productivity software, too.

University of Alabama

University of Alabama - School of Social Work

Primarily Online Doctor of Social Work Program

With accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), among other credentials, the University of Alabama offers many top-ranked online programs. Among these is the primary online doctorate in social work that prepares working professionals in advanced social work leadership and practice. Graduates are sought-after by the public and private sectors, including nonprofit organizations. 

  • Admission into the cohort-based doctorate in social work program is highly selective. Applicants must demonstrate not just academic proficiency but the commitment to completing the graduate degree program. 
  • Students must participate in on-campus residency programs during the summer term, as well as work or volunteer in identified practice locations. 
  • The culminating requirement is a capstone project that students must present in their third year of studies. 
What Makes This Program Unique: 

Students can tailor their doctor of social work program of study by choosing a concentration in the 45-credit curriculum. The choices are in Organizational Leadership and Advanced Clinical Practice. While the core courses are the same for each concentration, which includes Advanced Theories in Oppression and Disparities, the concentration courses are different. 

The coursework for the Organizational Leadership track focuses on leadership and management skills appropriate for community and organizational settings. The courses for the Advanced Clinical Practice track emphasize research methods, advanced implementation theory and techniques, and clinical supervision and practice.  

Did You Know? 

The online doctorate in social work program requires students to have the appropriate technology setup before the formal start of classes. This is among the most affordable social work programs, too, with tuition at $440/credit hour and with financial aid available. 

University of Louisville

University of Louisville - Online Learning

Online Doctor of Social Work Program

With its accreditation from the SACSCOC-Southern Association of Colleges & Schools Commission on Colleges, the University of Louisville is in an excellent position to grant top-notch undergraduate and graduate programs. Among its best online programs is the doctorate in social work program geared toward experienced social workers with ambitions to become respected practitioner-scholars. 

  • Graduates become respected leaders in social services programs in the public and private sectors in capacities like program directors and policy practitioners. 
  • Students complete 44 credit hours to earn the advanced degree. Students learn from faculty members with extensive experience in their field, particularly in social work. 
  • The thesis/capstone course is the culminating requirement in the online degree program.  
What Makes This Program Unique: 

The online doctorate program is offered by the Kent School of Social Work, which has CSWE accreditation, a mark of its commitment to and compliance with the highest standards of social work programs. The online doctorate in social work program requires students to undergo a teaching practicum and a leadership practicum in addition to the 14 didactic courses. The time-to-degree is eight semesters or three years. 

Did You Know? 

Students in the doctor of social work program train for success in the various fields of social work. Many graduates become school social workers, with other popular occupations being policy practitioners and directors in social services programs. Active-duty military personnel gets significant tuition discounts (i.e., as much as $525/credit hour off). 

Simmons University

Simmons University

Online Doctor of Social Work Program

The doctorate in social work program at Simmons University has its roots in the country’s first school of clinical social work established in 1904. In the 21st century, the DSW program is known for its strong emphasis on a multicultural approach and on the values of social justice. 

  • Applicants to the highly selective online doctorate in social work program are usually working professionals whose aspirations include leadership positions in social work, be it in ideas or in practice. 
  • Students must have a master’s degree in social work from a CSWE-accredited program and at least three years of relevant post-master’s degree experience. The combination ensures that students are well-prepared for the advanced theories and practices discussed during coursework. 
  • Graduates are qualified for private practice, academia, and leadership positions in a wide range of settings. 
What Makes This Program Unique: 

The online doctorate in social work program adopts current social justice values in its curriculum development and, thus, ensures that its students are well aware of their importance. Students choose from three concentrations, too, namely: 

  • The Leadership track is where students train to become visionary leaders in implementing social change. 
  • The Advanced Clinical Practice track appeals to licensed clinical social workers due to its emphasis on novel approaches. 
  • The Teaching and Education track is for individuals interested in a successful career in social work education. 

Clinical social workers will find that the online doctorate program suits their varied personal and professional commitments, too. Part-time and full-time enrolment is possible, and time-to-degree can be in as little as three years. 

Did You Know? 

The doctor of social work program has multiple start dates, but students learn in a cohort-based learning environment. Aside from the live weekly classes, in-person networking events are also offered. Students complete a capstone project that demonstrates their advanced understanding of social work. 

Tulane University

Tulane University - School of Social Work

Online Doctor of Social Work Program

Tulane University, an institution accredited by the SACSCOC-Southern Association of Colleges & Schools Commission on Colleges, offers an online doctorate in social work program that trains the next generation of leaders. Students are encouraged to maximize their professional impact in the field of social work through visionary leadership. 

  • Students of the online doctorate program complete 54 credits of coursework beyond a master’s degree. Full-time students can earn the advanced degree in three years or seven semesters. 
  • Graduates are well-equipped for executive-level positions with their strong technical and transferable skills, including communication and critical thinking skills. 
  • The cost of attendance ($1,195/credit) can be significantly reduced with financial aid, including graduate assistantships. 
What Makes This Program Unique: 

Students learn from the best faculty members whose first-hand knowledge and practical skills are passed on to them. The doctorate in social work program provides students with learning opportunities to serve the diverse peoples and communities of New Orleans and beyond. 

Students gain mastery in evidence-based practice that results in transformational improvements in social services. These include the ability to evaluate research studies with a critical thinking mindset. 

Did You Know? 

Students who want to earn a doctor of social work degree must attend an in-person immersion weekend that enables them to interact with their peers and faculty members. The curriculum emphasizes social justice with courses in leadership in social work, as well as its theories and practice models. 

University of Kentucky

University of Kentucky - College of Social Work

Online Doctor of Social Work Program

Accredited by the SACSCOC-Southern Association of Colleges & Schools Commission on Colleges, the University of Kentucky offers an online doctorate in social work for current practitioners with leadership aspirations. Students also aspire to make significant contributions to the body of knowledge in social work. 

  • Students who want to earn a doctorate in social work must complete 42 credits of coursework. The courses cover supervision and ethics, advanced policy, and statistics for social workers. 
  • This is among the more affordable online programs due to UKY’s public land-grant research university status and its financial aid options. 
  • Admission is on a competitive basis. 
What Makes This Program Unique: 

The online doctorate in social work program uses UKY’s Core Plus model. Students benefit from the combination of an asynchronous learning environment and the synchronous residency week. The cohort-based model enables students to progress as a group and, thus, fosters camaraderie. 

This is one of a handful of online doctorate programs that offer multiple concentrations – Clinical Social Work, Administrative Leadership, Social Work Education, and Military Behavioral Health. 

Did You Know? 

Students who want to earn a doctoral degree must meet the requirements related to the scholarly products, which are considered as among the culminating requirements. 

Walden University

Walden University

Online Doctor of Social Work Program

The program of study in the online doctorate in social work program doesn’t waste time – students engage in advanced skills development from the first day! Students learn the knowledge and skills vital for the creation and implementation of policies and programs designed for social change. Graduates with a doctorate in social work degree make their mark in social work education, administrative leadership, and private practice. 

  • The online learning experience includes state-of-the-art technologies that combine asynchronous classes and online simulations. 
  • Students can transfer up to 20 credits, thus, enabling them to earn the online doctorate in social work degree in less time. 
  • The curriculum consists of 58 quarter credits. 
What Makes This Program Unique: 

Students can customize their doctoral degree based on their career goals by choosing from among three specializations – Advanced Clinical Practice and Supervision; Impact Leadership in Social Work Administration; and Social Work Education. 

Walden University provides great student support services via its Doctoral Degree Course app. Students can track their milestones, connect with faculty members, and access useful resources and services. 

Did You Know? 

The online doctor of social work program requires students to complete an academic residency that enables them to connect with faculty members and peers, demonstrate their clinical social work skills, and get ideas for their capstone research study. 

University of Tennessee – Knoxville

University of Tennessee - Knoxville - College of Social Work

Hybrid Doctor of Social Work in Clinical Practice and Leadership Program

The partly online Doctor of Social Work in Clinical Practice and Leadership program emphasizes the students’ professional skills in advanced clinical practice. The ideal candidates are working professionals with at least three years of post-master’s degree clinical experience, meaning supervised direct work experience with vulnerable populations. 

  • This is an accelerated doctorate in social work program that can be completed in three years and that allows students to maintain their full-time external employment or private practice. 
  • Students in the doctoral degree program complete two classes every semester for a total of 48 credit hours. 
  • The courses must be followed in sequential order, and there are two capstone papers for submission. Students are allowed to pursue their research interests in the capstone papers.
What Makes This Program Unique:

The online doctor in social work program features advanced social work coursework with an emphasis on evidence-based practice, applied research, and clinical science and leadership. Doctoral students benefit from the small class sizes (i.e., no more than 25 students) and the opportunity to apply their lessons to their social work practice. 

Did You Know?

Students in the online DSW program are eligible for a wide range of financial aid options, including the College of Social Work Graduate Research Assistantships, the federal work-study program, and graduate fellowships. 

What to Expect from Doctor of Social Work Online Programs

Indeed, students pursuing an online doctoral degree in social work have plenty of great things to look forward to! 

Salary

Being a holder of a doctoral degree in social work opens up opportunities for high-paying jobs in academia as well as in the public and private sectors. College professors teaching social work earn an average base salary of $102,900, but their salaries can be as high as $146,600 per year. Directors of social work and social services programs earn between $68,000 and $94,000 per year, with top-level directors earning as much as $117,000 annually. 

Suffice it to say that while online DSW programs vary in their cost of attendance, graduates can recoup their costs in a short period of time with their better compensation packages! 

Job Opportunities

Social workers with a doctorate in social work who want to treat mental health disorders must have a license. Known as clinical social workers, their official designations include licensed clinical social workers, with each state having different titles. Among their duties include providing therapy for individuals, families and couples, and groups; working with clients in the development of treatment plans; and working with other mental health professionals for their client’s benefit. 

Aside from being a licensed clinical social worker, you can also look into the following career paths with your doctorate of social work degree: 

  • Child and family social workers whose main duties revolve around the protection of vulnerable children and families, as well as in finding suitable social services for them (e.g., housing and childcare). 
  • School social workers collaborate with parents, teachers, and school administrators in the improvement of student’s academic performance and other developmental aspects. 
  • Social work educators are involved in curriculum development for undergraduate and graduate degree programs that train the next generation of social workers. 
  • Executives in public agencies, private organizations, and private clinical practice engaged in social work are likely to have gained advanced training in doctoral degree programs. Many are in policy development initiatives, too. 

Emphasis must be made that many high-paying jobs in the social work sector don’t require a doctorate of social work degree, but it’s certainly a competitive edge! 

Job Stability and Outlook

Labor Statistics show that the projected job growth rate for social workers is 9% (2021-2031). With about 74,700 job openings projected every year, on average, holders of online doctorate degrees in social work have plenty of opportunities! 

The wide range of workplaces where experienced social workers are in great demand contributes to the exciting opportunities, too. These workplaces include individual and family services; federal, state, and local government agencies; ambulatory healthcare services; institutions of higher education; hospitals and healthcare facilities; and mental health organizations. 

Performance

Most students in DSW programs online prepare for jobs in office settings, but many also prepare for field work, particularly in terms of the implementation of programs at the community level. Since most students are already practicing professionals in social work, social services, or human services, they are well aware of the risks that come with the job. This is particularly true for licensed clinical social workers who deal with clients diagnosed with mental health disorders, alcohol abuse, and substance abuse. 

The rewards, however, can offset the risks! Social workers have opportunities to make a positive impact on their clients’ lives, perhaps even changing the direction of their lives. The more individuals and families that social workers can have a positive impact on, the better our society can be. 

Best Online Doctorate in Social Work - fact

Frequently Asked Questions

What’s the typical time-to-degree for online Doctor of Social Work programs, and how much do they cost? 

While the online DSW programs vary in their time-to-degree, most DSW programs have a three-year completion rate in a traditional format. Accelerated programs can be finished in as little as two years, but the intensive program of study poses more difficult challenges. 

As for the cost, earning a doctorate in social work degree can cost an average of $103,700, but it varies depending on whether it’s offered by a public or private institution. Fortunately, most online DSW programs offer financial aid options, including federal aid, institutional scholarships, assistantships and fellowships, and private loans. 

What competitive advantages come with earning a doctorate in social work degree? 

Graduates of online doctoral programs sharpen their time management and organizational skills, thanks in part to the need to juggle personal and professional commitments. These professional social workers also possess complex problem-solving, decision-making, and critical-thinking skills that enable them to find answers.

Their training also empowered them to learn from failure, be comfortable with uncertainty, and create information – all of which are highly sought-after by employers and clients. 

Summary Points

  • While there are academic and monetary challenges involved in pursuing an online doctorate in social work, the rewards, including excellent career advancement opportunities, make it worthwhile. 
  • Social workers with a doctorate degree can pursue diverse career paths in academia, business, and public service, among others. Leadership positions are easier to come by, too, because of their advanced degree and training.

Additional Information: