The Best Online Doctorate in Social Work

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If you want help make a positive impact on the lives of others, then consider pursuing a doctoral degree in social work online.

A social work degree can lead to specialized and high-level careers in social work, nonprofit management, community leadership, research, and academia.

Professionals with a Ph.D. or doctor of social work (DSW), state licensure, and many years of experience have a wide variety of career options available to them. They qualify for management positions within a company or organization, top research opportunities, and teaching jobs at postsecondary schools. Additionally, a strong demand for health and social services employees is driving employment in this sector; the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that job growth for social workers will grow 16% by the year 2026 — much faster than the economy as a whole.

The Best Online Doctorate in Social Work Programs

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The University of Tennessee - Knoxville 

Knoxville, TN

About this school

Founded in 1794, the University of Tennessee offers students an online DSW in Social Work to prepare them for high-level work in clinical practice. Designed for working clinical social work professionals, the program comprises 48 credit hours that can be completed in three years at an accelerated pace with minimal careers disruption. UT’s DSW in social work online program includes both synchronous and asynchronous components as well as a required week-long on-campus session each summer at Knoxville.

Out-of-state students in UT’s social work DSW program online must pay out-of-state tuition. However, residents of some southeastern states may be eligible for in-state tuition through the Southern Regional Education Board’s Academic Common Market. Applicants must demonstrate a GPA of 3.0 or better on previous graduate work and have a competitive GRE score.

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Ranking Guidelines

We selected the following online social work degree programs based on the quality of the program and the types of courses offered. We examined the faculty, rankings, awards, and reputation of each school as well as its reputation for providing quality online degree programs.

What is the Difference Between a Social Work Ph.D. and a DSW?

The difference between a social work Ph.D. and a doctor of social work (DSW) is that social work Ph.D. programs tend to be oriented towards research, while DSW programs tend to be oriented towards clinical practice. However, both degrees share significant overlap when it comes to their curriculum and educational requirements. Regardless of which degree is earned, the holder of the degree has a doctorate in the field of social work. If you are interested in the research-side of social work, then you might want to look at social work Ph.D. programs. If you are interested in leading social workers in a clinical setting, then consider a DSW.

What Can I Expect from an Online Doctorate in Social Work Program?

When researching online social work degrees, you may find that they are as unique as the schools that offer them. However, most curricula feature courses and topics common across all DSW and online Ph.D. in social work programs. Generally, Ph.D. students explore advanced theoretical concepts, while those earning a DSW online pursue more practical objectives through applied learning coursework.

Curriculum for an Online Doctorate in Social Work

  • Advanced Research Methods and Statistics: Usually a requirement for earning a Ph.D. in social work online, this course emphasizes research over hands-on practice in the field. Coursework promotes advanced skills in data collection and analysis, research design, and problem formulation. Coursework stresses analytical thinking abilities, preparing students for their dissertation to conclude the degree.
  • Social Science Theories: This course explores both traditional and contemporary theories of social science, primarily through professional publications on the practice of social work, field journals, and public policy literature. Students expand existing theories to influence policy reform and social justice in the public service field.
  • Grant Writing: Successful grant writing is essential for productive social workers. Students in this course locate, draft, budget, track, and manage grant funding opportunities. This is especially valuable to aspiring nonprofit directors, community organizers, and top executives in any field.
  • Teaching in Higher Education: This course combines universal skills in pedagogy, curriculum development, and instructional design with teaching methods specific to social work. Students learn to lead a college-level course in social work, and topics emphasize an industry-relevant curriculum aligned with evidence-based social work principles.
  • Social Welfare Policy Analysis: A research-intensive course, social welfare policy analysis examines the current state of social welfare policy in the United States. Students conclude this course with an empirical policy study in which they pose questions and formulate hypotheses in a focus area of their choice.

How Long Does It Take to Get an Online Doctorate in Social Work?

Most students complete a doctorate in social work in two to three years. However, several factors can affect completion times, including whether a student attends full-time or part-time, how often classes are available, and how a program is structured.

Programs also differ by format. Students seeking maximum flexibility may prefer a self-paced program they can complete in their own time. Others may benefit from a cohort arrangement, which assembles students into groups to facilitate a collaborative learning environment.

Students enrolled in social work Ph.D. programs online typically complete 48-72 credit hours, culminating in a graduate thesis or dissertation. Like other doctoral programs, students may be eligible for independent study opportunities or can work with an advisor to customize their social work curriculum.

Employment Outlook for Social Work Graduates

Graduates of social work Ph.D. programs online are eligible for the field’s most advanced employment opportunities. While many entry-level jobs in social work require only a bachelor’s degree, Ph.D. or DSW graduates with licensure and experience qualify for executive positions that span social work, education, and management fields. Depending on whether a candidate holds a Ph.D. or DSW, they may also pursue a career in research or practice social work in various professional settings. Below are some of the most common careers for social workers:

Social Worker

Social workers advocate for and treat clients who need help with a range of employment-related, financial, and/or behavioral issues affecting the client’s quality of life. These professionals may focus on child and family, school, healthcare, or mental health and substance abuse social work. Graduates of a social work doctoral program qualify for licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) status and are eligible for their choice of specialties in the field.
  • Median Annual Salary: $46,890
  • Projected Growth Rate: 16%

Community Service Manager

Social and community service managers oversee programs and workers that deliver social services to local communities. These professionals coordinate outreach and promotional efforts, recruit and hire staff, develop and implement new programs, and propose funding for community projects. Jobs in this area of management typically require an advanced degree in social work or a related field, and many years of work experience.
  • Median Annual Salary: $64,680
  • Projected Growth Rate: 18%

Top Executive

Top executives manage all aspects of day-to-day operations for an organization or business. They may supervise  —  or delegate to department heads  —  various administrative, financial, legal, and HR tasks for the organization. Graduates of an online Ph.D. in social work may be especially well-suited to CEO or COO positions for nonprofit organizations or human advocacy groups.
  • Median Annual Salary: $103,950
  • Projected Growth Rate: 8%

Post-Secondary Teacher

Postsecondary teachers are not only qualified professors at universities, community colleges, and technical schools: they also conduct scholarly research and/or publish their findings in professional journals. Generally, postsecondary teachers need a Ph.D. in social work to teach in a four-year university.
  • Median Annual Salary: $75,430
  • Projected Growth Rate: 15%

School Social Worker

School social workers develop methods of improving a student’s academic performance and help them maintain healthy social relationships within a school environment. School social workers usually have a graduate degree and at least two years of experience to qualify for LCSW certification in this specialty.
  • Median Annual Salary: $43,250
  • Projected Growth Rate: 14%

Doctorate in Social Work Salary

Graduates from Ph.D. in social work online programs can earn a range of salaries depending on their area of focus. While both Ph.D. and DSW holders are highly qualified in the basic principles of social work and its services, there are a wealth of job options across a variety of fields that offer ways for graduates to apply their skills. Licensed clinical social workers with a doctoral degree possess an edge on their competitors for social work jobs, while graduates with a doctor of social work may be uniquely prepared to apply their social work skills to a teaching or managerial position. As shown in the table below, most jobs in social work offer attractive compensation to students with advanced qualifications, especially nonprofit managers and college professors.

Median Annual Salaries

Job Title Overall Median Salary Entry-Level Employees Mid-Career Employees Late-Career Employees
Licensed Clinical Social Worker $55,473 $50,000 $56,000 $64,000
Social or Community Service Manager $48,595 $41,000 $51,000 $60,000
CEO, Non-Profit Organization $104,495 $77,000 $97,000 $130,000
Professor of Social Work $87,546 $60,000 $71,000 $99,000
School Social Worker $48,349 $45,000 $49,000 $63,000

Paying for Your Online Doctorate in Social Work

Students should begin the financial aid process by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which is used by most schools and private lenders to determine eligibility for scholarships, grants, and loans. While many doctoral programs, including the online Ph.D. in social work, offer financial aid to graduate students, the FAFSA is still required to assess all funding options.

Among the nation’s fastest-growing employment sectors, social workers need an advanced education to gain a competitive edge and qualify for top jobs in the marketplace. The demand for social workers increasingly requires scholarships, loans, grants, and work-study awards to fund a student’s degree. The field often directs funding opportunities to students in various specialty areas of social work  —  such as school or healthcare  —  or targets underserved demographics.

Social Work Professional Organizations

Social work is a multifaceted discipline that blends human relations with public service, and many professional organizations offer advocacy, networking, and continuing education resources to support their members in the field. These associations offer affordable options and perks to their members, including legal support, online courses, and networking and funding opportunities. Benefits also include access to exclusive workshops and seminars, subscriptions to member publications and industry journals, and mentoring and referral services for advanced job placement.

  • National Association of Social Workers (NASW): The NASW is the oldest and largest professional social workers' organization in the world, boasting a membership over 120,000. In addition to offering career, legal, and legislative support and advocacy programs, the NASW Foundation is the profession’s most prominent provider of scholarships, grants, and other financial awards to social work students.
  • Council on Social Work Education (CSWE): The CSWE Commission on Education is the nation’s only agency to provide programmatic accreditation to more than 800 social work degrees. The organization advocates for social work research and education, promotes faculty enrichment among academic programs, and drives professional social workers to achieve a communal goal of social and ethical justice in the field.
  • School Social Work Association of America (SSWAA): As the nation’s only organization dedicated to promoting social work occupations among students, the SSWAA helps current college students in social work locate academic and financial resources to complete their education, and secure certification in their state.

Accreditation for Online Social Work

Prospective students wanting to enroll in a social work Ph.D. program online should first ensure their selected schools are accredited. As with any college degree, the school should hold accreditation from a regional agency, such as the Higher Learning Commission, Middle States Commission on Higher Education, or the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. Though accreditation is awarded through a regional or national agency, regionally accredited institutions usually undergo a more rigorous process to obtain accreditation and, therefore, are more common among colleges.

Transfer students should pay attention to the credit-transfer policy of their college of choice. It is not uncommon for nationally accredited institutions to accept credit from regionally or nationally accredited institutions, and for regionally accredited schools to only accept credits from other institutions that have regional accreditation.

The accreditation process in the United States is overseen by regional or national agencies that are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education (ED) and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), both of which oversee all postsecondary accreditation in the country. Some bachelor’s and master's degrees in social work may also receive special program-specific accreditation from the Council on Social Work Education. Be sure to look for your school on the ED or CHEA website.

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