Doctorate degree in social work – full guide

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There are 2 options available for experienced social work professionals looking to obtain a doctoral degree: a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) and a Doctor of Social Work (DSW), both advance an individual in their social work education and careers.

The difference between them lies in the focus of the programs.

A DSW is more micro-level or practice-focused. It is ideal for students who want a higher clinical degree and to provide advanced clinical services to clients. This academic qualification also provides a strong knowledge base for mezzo-level social workers who assume leadership roles in guiding mental health and social service programs.

A Ph.D. is focused more on developing you as a researcher. This degree is for social workers with a macro focus who would like to progress their careers in academia or research settings where they will conduct research that guides social programs.

Either type of doctoral degree in social work prepares graduates to hold advanced positions in the clinical and research fields.

Is it worth getting a doctorate in social work?

By considering the 3 types of social work intervention – micro, mezzo, macro- it is evident that the benefits of a doctorate degree apply overall.

Micro: A doctoral degree in social work is ideal for master’s degree holders if their career goal is to hold advanced positions in their field.

Mezzo: A doctoral degree is a definite benefit if you are considering a career in advanced clinical practice or for leadership positions at a non-profit or at a clinical organization.

Macro: A Ph.D. in social work emphasizes scholarship and is ideal for those interested in a career in higher education or research.

What are the admission requirements?

Professionals with these accreditations are experts in their field. As acceptance on social work Ph.D. programs is extremely competitive, you should think about applying for a minimum of 5 or 6 programs.


  • Degree: To be eligible for a Ph.D. or DSW program, applicants typically need to have a master’s degree in social work. Some institutions will accept applicants holding a Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) accredited master’s degree in a related field.
  • Professional Experience: Some programs expect candidates to have a specific amount of field experience. Other programs only ask students to complete professional experience during the Ph.D. program.
  • Minimum GPA: Many programs require a minimum 3.0 GPA. Some programs may allow professional experience to be used to offset a low GPA.
  • License: Some Ph.D. programs stipulate that candidates must already hold a license, but others permit students to acquire licensure while studying for their degree.
  • English Level: International students must take and submit Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) scores

Admission materials:

  • Transcripts: Applicants arrange for their official undergraduate and graduate transcripts from previous schools to be submitted.
  • GRE Scores: Candidates for Ph.D. social work programs usually need to submit their GRE scores. Minimum results needed vary for different programs, and other criteria may override standardized test results.
  • Letters of recommendation: These may also be required. These should come from advisors and, or professors who can attest to the candidate’s abilities.

Online Ph.D. programs often have additional admissions requirements.

What will I study for the doctorate?

Core concepts and coursework

Doctorate of Social Work (DSW) and Ph.D. course elements can vary considerably, yet there may be similarities between the programs. Students studying for a Ph.D. will generally find that their studies are focused on advanced research methods, behavioral science, theory, policy, and teaching. DSW programs include courses emphasizing advanced clinical practice, clinical research, and advanced practice leadership.

DSW coursework

  • Social Theories and Clinical Practice
  • Social Welfare Policy
  • Social Work Administration
  • Ethics in Social Work
  • Evidence-Based and Evidence-Informed Practices
  • Neuroscience for Clinical Practice
  • Critical Analysis of Clinical Practice

Ph.D. in social work coursework

  • Quantitative Scientific Methods
  • Study of Research Methods
  • Social Work Research and Public Policy Issues
  • Statistics and Data Analysis
  • Teaching in Higher Education
  • Dissertation Direction

Will I need a social work licensure?

Because a master’s in social work is the highest degree possible for clinical practice, there is no specific licensure for doctoral graduates. Doctoral graduates will, however, be licensed to practice at the master’s level (LMSW) and clinical levels (LCSW) in most states.

What jobs are there for a doctoral degree in social work?

Graduates that hold doctoral and Ph.D. degrees in social work can find employment in a variety of fields and disciplines. Some examples include:

  • Administrator (DSW)
  • Clinician
  • Clinical Director
  • Clinical Social Worker
  • College or University Professor (PhD)
  • Executive Director
  • Human Services Director
  • Licensed Social Worker
  • Marriage and Family Therapists
  • Non-profit Executive
  • Researcher (PhD)
  • Senior Social Worker

Frequently asked questions

This is an important point to consider if you are looking at BSW or MSW degree programs. There is no official accrediting organization for either DSW or Ph.D. programs such as the Council of Social Work Education. Students should select a school with a good reputation that holds regional accreditation. Furthermore, although it is not an accreditor, schools may join the Group for the Advancement of Doctoral Education in Social Work (GADE). Membership in GADE is an indication of high standards in doctoral social work academics.

Typically, it takes a minimum of 3 years to complete a doctoral program in social work, although this is uncommon – especially for Ph.D. programs. The first 2 years are spent completing the academic coursework. After the coursework is completed, students spend the next 2 to 4 years focusing on research and writing and defending their dissertation or final project. Depending on the amount of time a student needs to complete their dissertation, it is not unusual for schools to allow up to 6 years to complete a Ph.D. or DSW.

The Bureau of Labor and Statistics shows that social work professors who teach, as well as those who do a blend of teaching and research, earn an average of $72,900 per year, while those in the top 90th percentile receive an annual average salary of $ 112,480. (As of May 2019)

Students can earn a DSW online or on campus. Online degrees are an ideal choice for working professionals, while on-campus programs might appeal to recent graduates of MSW programs.

Council on Social Work Education (CSWE)

The CSWE is the national association representing social work education in the United States. It is dedicated to advancing quality social work education and provides opportunities for leadership and professional development. The site also contains a job board and links to current research and publications, educational resources, and information on regional meetings and conferences.

CSWE’s Commission on Accreditation is recognized as the sole accrediting agency for social work education in the United States.

National Association of Social Workers (NASW)

The NASW is a professional organization of social workers in the United States. The NASW provides guidance, research, up-to-date information, and other resources for its members and social workers in general.

NASW’s primary functions include promoting the professional development of its members and establishing and maintaining professional standards of practice, and providing services that protect its members and enhance their professional status.

American Board of Clinical Social Work (ABCSW)

This is a national organization for clinical social workers – from graduate students to senior practitioners. They offer professional liability insurance to graduates. You are given space to present your personal profile and to begin to learn more about the profession by connecting with the practicing clinical social workers community.

National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO)

NHPCO provides its members with the necessary tools needed to stay up-to-date with leading practices and improve the quality of the care they provide.

The National Organization of Forensic Social Work (NOFSW)

Supports the professional development of its members by the advancement of education in the field of forensic social work. Members have access to newsletters, conferences, and networking opportunities.

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