Best Online Doctorate in Social Work 2021

| TBS Staff

Are you ready to discover your college program?

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.

Featured Online Schools

The Best Online Doctorate in Social Work Programs


Baylor University

Waco, TX

Chartered in 1845, Baylor offers a Baptist education to nearly 20,000 students.

Baylor's doctor of philosophy in social work program develops graduates to be leaders and educators in service programs and social work education. Courses cover research and analysis methods, religious and cultural diversity, and leadership and administration.

Faculty research interests include grief and loss, child welfare and adoption, and professional ethics and development.

Classes take place in an online, synchronous format spread across 10 semesters.

Applicants should submit a 7-10 page personal statement, a scholarly writing sample, and a statistics exam. New cohorts are only admitted in odd-numbered years.

Accreditation: Baylor University is regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC).

  • Graduation Rate: 79%
  • Receiving Loans: 42%
  • Online Enrollment: 5%

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The University of Tennessee-Knoxville

Knoxville, TN

Founded in 1794, UT Knoxville teaches more than 30,000 students across more than 900 programs of study.

UT Knoxville's doctor of social work degree focuses on clinical practice and leadership, while the doctor of philosophy in social work prepares students to improve the well-being of vulnerable groups through advanced research and program creation.

Applicants must hold a master's in social work and three years of post-MSW clinical practice, as well as submit GRE scores and official transcripts showing a 3.0 GPA.

Accreditation: University of Tennessee, Knoxville is regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC).

  • Average Net Price: $$$$$
  • Graduation Rate: 73%
  • Receiving Loans: 42%
  • Online Enrollment: 35%


University at Buffalo

Buffalo, NY

As the largest school in the State University of New York system, UB boasts research-intensive programs across 450 degree programs.

The UB doctor of social work degree teaches from a trauma-informed, human rights perspective. Courses include technology and human behavior, concepts in implementation science, and organizational characteristics.

The part-time program takes place fully online and consists of 39 credits. Students typically complete the program in three years.

Applicants must hold an MSW with a 3.0 GPA for graduate coursework and an active social work licensure, as well as three years of post-MSW work experience.

Accreditation: University at Buffalo is regionally accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE).

  • Average Net Price: $$$$$
  • Graduation Rate: 76%
  • Receiving Loans: 47%
  • Online Enrollment: 17%


University of Pennsylvania

Philadelphia, PA

Founded in 1740, Penn now enrolls more than 26,000 students across four undergraduate and 12 graduate schools.

Penn's doctor of clinical social work program prepares students to design and implement evidence-based programs and interventions. Courses cover clinical theory, research methods, and different types of therapy.

The part-time program takes place in a fully online and synchronous format, although two five-day on-campus immersion experiences are required. Students typically complete the program in three years.

Applicants should obtain an MSW and three years of post-graduate work experience.

Accreditation: University of Pennsylvania is regionally accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE).

  • Graduation Rate: 95%
  • Receiving Loans: 14%
  • Online Enrollment: 2%


University of Southern California

Los Angeles, CA

Founded in 1880 with just 53 students, USC now serves over 46,000 students each year.

USC's online doctor of social work program is designed around the 12 Grand Challenges of Social put forth by the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare. Through coursework, students learn to manage complex systems, make data-driven decisions, and lead public discourse.

Rather than a dissertation, students complete a capstone project that yields a prototype for an organizational plan or contract proposal, among other options.

Applicants should hold a master's degree from a CSWE-accredited program, although it does not need to be an MSW. They should also demonstrate five years of post-master's work experience.

Accreditation: University of Southern California is regionally accredited by the WASC Senior Colleges and University Commission (WSCUC).

  • Graduation Rate: 92%
  • Receiving Loans: 29%
  • Online Enrollment: 18%


University of St Thomas

Saint Paul, MN

A Catholic university, UST enrolls more than 10,000 students across 150 programs each year.

UST's doctor of social work program prepares graduates to teach social work practice at the university level. Coursework covers topics like social work education, writing for publication, and curriculum development.

Coursework takes place fully online through synchronous and asynchronous courses, and students must attend a two-week on-campus residency each summer.

Applicants should hold an MSW with at least two years of post-MSW work experience. Transcripts should show a GPA of at least 3.0.

Accreditation: University of St. Thomas is regionally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC).

  • Graduation Rate: 77%
  • Receiving Loans: 49%
  • Online Enrollment: 13%
Best Online Doctorate

Online Doctorate in Social Work Programs Ranking Guidelines

We selected these degree programs based on quality, curricula, school awards, rankings, and reputation.

Our Methodology

Here at TheBestSchools.org, we take the trust and welfare of our readers very seriously. When making our school and program rankings, our top priority is ensuring that our readers get accurate, unbiased information that can help them make informed decisions about online education. That's why we've developed a rigorous ranking methodology that keeps the needs of our readers front and center.

Our proprietary, multi-criteria ranking algorithm analyzes key data indicators — as collected by the federal government — for each school or program. What data we use depends on the focus of each specific ranking, but in all cases, our ranking methodology is impartial: Schools cannot buy better rankings at TBS.

While specific criteria under consideration can vary by ranking, there are a few data points that we value most highly. They are affordability, academic quality, and online enrollment. Below, we break down our algorithm to help you understand what you're getting when you use one of our rankings.

  • Academics
  • Affordability
  • Online Enrollment

Data Sources

The data used in TBS rankings comes primarily from the federal government, and much of it is provided by the schools themselves. We aggregate and analyze this data to build our rankings.

The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) is our primary source. Its data comes from annual surveys conducted by the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Every college, university, or technical school with access to federal financial aid must participate in these surveys, which include questions about enrollment, graduation rates, finances, and faculty qualifications. This is publicly available data, which you can access yourself through the College Navigator.

Additionally, because we value a personal touch and the professional experience of our staff and Academic Advisory Board, we vet all results and adjust rankings as necessary based on our collected knowledge of schools and degree programs. Depending on the ranking, we may obtain additional input from AcademicInfluence.com, subject matter experts, prior TBS ranking lists, or other sources we deem relevant to a particular ranking.

Breakdown of Our Rankings Methodology

About Our Ranking Factors

Here at TBS, we value what you value: quality education, affordability, and the accessibility of online education. These factors guide all of our program rankings.

Each of these factors are further broken down into weighted subfactors. For example, retention rates are weighted more heavily than availability of program options because they are a better indicator of student success.

We chose the following factors for our rankings because of their influence on learning experiences and graduate outcomes. However, students should always balance our rankings against their personal priorities. For instance, a learner who needs a fully online program may prioritize online flexibility more than our rankings do. Our rankings are designed to help you make a decision — not to make a decision for you.

Academics - 75%
Affordability - 15%
Online Enrollment - 10%

In all our school rankings and recommendations, we work for objectivity and balance. We carefully research and compile each ranking list, and as stated in our advertising disclosure, we do NOT permit financial incentives to influence rankings. Our articles never promote or disregard a school for financial gain.

If you have questions about our ranking methodology, please feel free to connect with our staff through contact page.

We thank you for your readership and trust.

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.

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.

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.

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
Median Salary (2019): $46,890 Projected Job Growth (2019-2029): 16%

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.

Community Service Manager
Median Salary (2019): $64,680 Projected Job Growth (2019-2029): 18%

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.

Top Executive
Median Salary (2019): $103,950 Projected Job Growth (2019-2029): 8%

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.

Post-Secondary Teacher
Median Salary (2019): $75,430 Projected Job Growth (2019-2029): 15%

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.

School Social Worker
Median Salary (2019): $43,250 Projected Job Growth (2019-2029): 14%

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.

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
Source: BLS

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.

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. 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. 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.

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