Doctor of Social Work Degrees: Everything You Need to Know

In the field of social work, the right education and experience are paramount to finding the best opportunities. While a Master of Social Work (MSW) is considered the most commonly earned degree, pursuing a doctorate in social work can help you stand out in the highly competitive field.

Wondering if a Doctor of Social Work (DSW) is right for you? Read on to find out what you can expect regarding requirements, admissions, curriculum, and career opportunities.

What Is a Doctor of Social Work (DSW) Degree?

A DSW degree represents the highest level of education in the field of social work. The degree is sometimes referred to as a Doctorate in Clinical Social Work.

While a DSW demonstrates an expanded level of knowledge and expertise, it isn’t a requirement for licensure or certification. Since so many professionals in the field have a Master of Social Work due to state requirements, a DSW can help distinguish you from your peers.

DSW vs. PhD in social work: How are they different?

The DSW and the PhD are both social work doctorates. The DSW emphasizes social work practice, administration, and leadership, while the PhD concentrates on research and educational practices.

Careers with a Doctor of Social Work Degree

While few jobs require a DSW degree, an advanced education can make you more competitive for careers in human services organizations. You may also be able to earn a higher salary if you hold a doctoral degree.


Medical or health services administrator

Medical or health services administrators plan, manage, and direct services for organizations such as hospitals and clinics. Key responsibilities include identifying and enacting policy changes to comply with laws and regulations.

Salary

According the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average salary for a medical and health services manager is $111,680 per year.

Other requirements

Related clinical experience is necessary so administrators can understand how their decisions impact those receiving services.


Social advocacy organization executive

Leadership roles in social advocacy organizations such as religious, civic and professional groups vary, but typically require managing administrative duties while meeting the unique needs of those served by the organization.

Salary

For a top executive in a social advocacy organization, the BLS list the average annual salary to be $115,890.

Other requirements

To advance the specific purpose of their organization, leaders must understand the unique mission through direct or related experience.


Manager of government agency

Managers of government agencies plan and coordinate the federal, state, or local services allocated to specific populations. Responsibilities include appropriate utilization of funds and delivery of services.

Salary

According to the BLS, the average annual salary for all management occupations within a government agency is $99,470.

Other requirements

Qualification as a government employee may be necessary.

Academic Requirements Before Starting a DSW

The academic requirements for starting a DSW program differ by institution. Since the DSW is intended for experienced social work professionals, most programs require at least an MSW and 2 years of professional practice.

Do you need a BSW and MSW?

Most DSW programs require an MSW degree from a program accredited by the Council of Social Work Education (CSWE). However, it’s possible to earn an MSW without having a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW), so a BSW typically isn’t required.

Requirements for non-MSW students

Non-MSW students may need to hold a master’s degree in a related field such as nursing or public health. Professional doctorates in related fields also may be accepted for DSW admission.

Are GRE/standardized tests required?

Not all DSW programs require the GRE or other standardized tests. Of the programs that do need GREs, some require scores that are less than 5 years old.

How Long Does It Take to Get a DSW?

The amount of time required to earn a doctorate in social work varies. Most DSW degrees can be completed within 2–3 years on a part-time basis while you continue to work. Programs that require a doctoral dissertation may require a longer time for completion.

The Doctor of Social Work Curriculum

The Doctor of Social Work curriculum is designed to prepare students for advanced clinical practice and leadership. The curriculum emphasizes this body of knowledge, often with options for specialization. A dissertation, capstone project, or portfolio presentation is usually required.

What core classes are involved?

Common core classes for social work doctoral programs include the study of:

  • Advanced social work theory and practice
  • Research theory and methodology
  • Organizational leadership and administration
  • Qualitative and quantitative research
  • Social policy
  • Technological fluency
  • Ethics

Number of course credits

The number of course credits for a Doctor of Social Work degree varies by institution, though programs generally require between 42 and 54 credits.

Is a practicum or fieldwork required?

Most DSW programs don’t require a practicum or fieldwork. However, you might have to participate in related onsite work while researching your capstone project or dissertation.

Popular doctoral concentrations

  • Addictions
  • Children and families
  • Clinical social work/clinical practice
  • Community services
  • Corrections/criminal justice
  • Mental health and trauma
  • Military/veterans issues
  • Public policy administration

Can I Get an Online Doctorate in Social Work?

It’s possible to get an online doctorate in social work, but it’s likely you’ll have to attend some type of in-person seminar, class, or presentation before you’re awarded your degree. Here’s what you can expect:

Online

Since the majority of DSW students are working professionals, most programs offer some portion of their curriculum online. Whether you’ll have to participate actively at a set time or can access the content at your convenience will vary.

Classroom

Some programs offer classroom instruction at the institution’s campus or at regional satellite locations. Programs that are 100% classroom-based may offer weekend classes to allow students to continue working during the week.

Hybrid

Most Doctor of Social Work programs can be categorized as hybrid. You’ll typically complete core courses online, with brief attendance required at periodic classes or seminars. Some schools offer these events at several regional locations so students can choose the most convenient one. Capstone projects or portfolios also are presented in person.

Accelerated

With most DSW students working while completing their degrees, there’s less demand for accelerated programs. Where available, accelerated programs typically require students to attend onsite classes on a full-time basis.

How to Pick a DSW Degree Program

To pick a DSW degree program, you’ll want to consider factors such as qualifications, cost, timing, and curriculum. There are no accredited DSW programs because the CSWE doesn’t offer accreditation at this level. However, finding a DSW program in a school with accreditation for its MSW program likely indicates that its doctoral degree meets quality standards.

Some DSW program directors are members of the Group for the Advancement of Doctoral Education (GADE) in Social Work an organization committed to promoting excellence in doctoral work. You can also verify that the institution has regional or other accreditation can attest to its overall governance.

Financial Aid for Social Work Doctoral Students

You may qualify for financial aid as a social work doctoral student. While some financial aid is need-based, you might qualify for awards based on academic merit or other criteria. Some sources include:

  • Federal student aid
  • State incentive programs
  • Professional social work organizations
  • Private businesses and organizations
  • Financial awards from your educational institution
  • Nontraditional student scholarships and grants
  • Employer tuition reimbursement
  • Military scholarships
  • Student loans

Does Social Work Qualify for Student Loan Forgiveness?

In certain circumstances, you might qualify for student loan forgiveness following graduation from your program. Most programs require you to work in a government or non-profit agency for a specific period of time in locations where access to social workers is limited.

Depending on your situation, you may qualify for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, the Federal Perkins Loan Cancellation Program, or the National Health Services Corp Loan Repayment Program. In addition, many states sponsor individual student loan forgiveness programs that have similar employment and location requirements.

What Professional Organizations Are There for Social Work?

Professional organizations are valuable resources for staying informed on social work news and trends. Many also offer opportunities for professional development, networking, mentoring, and job searching. Some professional organizations to consider are:

American Clinical Social Work Association (ACSWA)

The American Clinical Social Work Association (ACSWA) is open to all clinical social workers, from graduate students to senior practitioners.

Clinical Social Work Association (CSWA)

The Clinical Social Work Association (CSWA) is open to Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSWs), promoting “identity, integrity, and parity” for LCSWs.

National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW)

The National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW) is committed to advocacy, human service delivery, and research.

National Association of Puerto Rican Hispanic Social Workers (NAPRHSW)

The National Association of Puerto Rican Hispanic Social Workers (NAPRHSW) is comprised of social workers and other human service professionals focused on the welfare of Puerto Rican and Hispanic families.

National Association of Social Workers (NASW)

With more than 120,000 members, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) promotes professional development, sets professional standards, and works in advocacy.

Society for Social Work Leadership in Health Care (SSWLHC)

Members of the Society for Social Work Leadership in Health Care (SSWLC) are dedicated to promoting the psychosocial components of health and illness in healthcare.

Society for Social Work and Research (SSWR)

The Society for Social Work and Research (SSWR) supports social workers, social welfare professionals, and students, faculty, and researchers in social work and related fields.

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