Online Doctor of Social Work (DSW) Degree Programs

Doctor of Social Work (DSW) degree programs offer social workers the highest level of advanced, practice-based academic training in clinical and administrative areas of the profession. The DSW degree is designed to provide professional social workers with the tools and knowledge to move into administrative positions and take on additional responsibilities in areas like social program management, social justice leadership, and social reform research and advocacy. Graduates from DSW programs are also qualified to teach at the bachelor’s and graduate levels, where there is demand for doctoral-trained professionals to provide instruction in the clinical and community practice of social work.

What Is a DSW Degree Program?

The DSW is a professional degree that addresses advanced topics in the practice of social work, including the administration of social service programs, data-driven innovation in social policy, and leadership in the promotion of social welfare and justice. DSW programs are designed for social workers who hold a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree or a master’s in a related area, such as public administration, public health, public policy, counseling, and psychology. Students who enter DSW programs typically have some experience working in the health and human services sector as well.

DSW programs focus on clinical aspects of social work as well as organizational management and leadership in the field. Students in a DSW program spend the equivalent of two-to-three academic years studying advanced topics in social work and completing an independent capstone project in which they apply what they’ve learned to addressing a relevant social issue or problem, often by conducting research into a particular issue in social work and preparing a paper for publication.

Note: For students who hold a master’s degree in a field other than social work, completing a DSW program in lieu of an MSW program is not the typical path for students interested in becoming Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSWs). However, graduates from DSW programs who do not already hold an MSW may be eligible to apply for licensure as an LCSW in some states, depending on the requirements in that state. Students who choose to pursue a DSW for this reason should thoroughly research the licensing requirements for their state of residence to confirm that a DSW will make them eligible for licensure. In addition, DSW graduates may need to complete clinical hours and specific course requirements outside of their DSW program. Students who wish to pursue this path towards licensure should reach out their state’s social work licensing board for the most up-to-date information.

Online DSW Programs

Online DSW programs provide the same training and instruction as their campus-based counterparts but do so using distance-learning technologies. All or most of the classes in these programs are held online and made accessible to students through a learning management system (LMS), which allows students to contact professors, submit assignments, and participate in discussion groups. Some online DSW programs may require students to attend a limited number of in-person sessions on campus or at another designated location. However, the majority of the coursework and instruction in an online DSW program takes place through an LMS that students can log on to from any place with an Internet connection.

How OnlineEducation.com Identifies and Classifies Online DSW Programs

OnlineEducation.com conducts independent research into online DSW programs and classifies these programs based on set criteria. Programs included on the site must be offered by a regionally accredited, non-profit college or university. These programs must also provide most of their instruction online. While there are programs that are 100% online, many programs do require that students come to a campus location for a limited number of instructional sessions. Currently, we do not include any DSW programs that require more than two campus visits per academic year. In addition, it is important to note a DSW degree is separate and distinct from a PhD in social work. A PhD in social work is an academic research degree; DSW programs focus on the clinical and community practice of social work. While they are both terminal doctorates and there is some curricular overlap between the two, this page is dedicated to DSW programs.

What Students Learn in Online Doctorate in Social Work Programs

DSW curricula vary by program, in part because the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) does not accredit or set curricular standards for social work programs at the doctoral level. These programs are meant to provide social workers who have already completed master’s level training with additional proficiencies in areas of clinical and community practice, as well as in research, data systems, and organizational management and leadership. Students in a DSW program are taught to evaluate, conduct, and apply research in the field of social work, and to integrate this research into the design and assessment of social service policies.

DSW programs with a focus on macro or community practice include courses that examine various issues related to funding, sustaining, and improving social welfare programs, and managing human and material resources in social work organizations. DSW programs with a clinical focus generally stress subjects relevant to direct client care, which may include neuroscience, psychopathology, psychopharmacology, cognitive behavioral therapy, and intervention strategies for populations suffering from trauma and other complex problems. Many DSW programs offers a mix of both types of coursework.

Online Doctorate in Social Work Courses

The table below offers an overview of the advanced coursework that is commonly part of an online DSW curriculum. The courses and descriptions are derived from actual online DSW programs.

Course Title
Course Description
The Science of Social WorkResearch methodologies and the evaluation of data in social work research at the doctoral level.
Epistemology & Evidence-Based PracticeAn examination of the accepted knowledge in the field of social work, and the application of new research to evidence-based innovations and tailored interventions in social work practice.
Leading Public Discourse in Social WorkStrategies for creating civic engagement around issues of social justice and social policy in communities and organizations.
Clinical Leadership in Social WorkStrategies for the effective management, supervision, and assessment of clinical teams in the practice of social work.
Informatics & Social InnovationThe use of big data and advanced IT systems in the field of social work to improve social programs and services.
Individual & Group Practice with Diverse Populations in Complex SystemAdaptive, evidence-based interventions with individuals and groups in diverse and multi-problem populations.
Leading & Managing Complex SystemsThe fiscal, political, and organizational challenges of managing social intervention programs, including funding strategies, outcome measurement, staffing issues, and data information systems.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in Social WorkThe theories and protocols for the use of cognitive behavioral interventions in the field of social work. 
Social Program Research & FundingThe process of writing grant proposals and offering oral presentations in order to secure and maintain funding for social work research and initiatives.

Admissions Criteria for Online DSW Programs

Admissions policies and criteria vary by program, but all online DSW programs require applicants to hold a master’s degree in social work or a related field. Some programs only accept candidates with a designated MSW degree from a CSWE-accredited program, while others may accommodate candidates who have a master’s or a doctorate in a related field. In addition, some DSW programs require or prefer candidates to have two years of professional work experience in social services, and programs with a clinical focus may require candidates to be licensed. Applicants to DSW programs are commonly asked to furnish two or three letters of recommendation and a short essay or personal statement, transcripts from prior degree programs, and/or GRE test scores.

Online DSW Program Format Options

Online DSW programs are designed to accommodate those who are working and have significant professional commitments outside of school. However, there are several variables that can impact the relative convenience and flexibility of an online program. The three primary areas of differentiation in program structures that applicants should be aware of include: method of online instruction; enrollment options; and campus visits.

Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Instruction: Online programs that utilize synchronous instruction offer courses that require students to be logged on to participate in live lectures and other instructional activities at set times. Programs that utilize asynchronous instruction do not include classes with designated meeting times. Instead, asynchronous instruction allows students to access lectures and other course materials by logging on to an LMS at any time of the day. Students who prefer a more structured learning environment may be better suited in a program that utilizes synchronous instruction. Students who anticipate scheduling conflicts may prefer a program that utilizes asynchronous instruction. However, programs with asynchronous instruction typically require more self-discipline as students are responsible for meeting deadlines and keeping up with lectures and assignments.

Part-Time vs. Full-Time Enrollment: A typical DSW program encompasses between 12 and 20 courses, including a capstone project. The degree requirements can be completed two to three years of full-time, year-round enrollment, which generally entails taking three or four courses per semester. However, many online DSW programs offer part-time enrollment options that allow students to take fewer courses per semester, thereby lengthening the time to graduation by one or more years. Prospective applicants should review the enrollment options carefully to ensure they are prepared to handle the course load, and identify enrollment formats that will allow them to earn a doctorate in an acceptable amount of time.

Campus Visits: Most online DSW programs have an on-campus component that students are required to attend. These campus visits, which may be held on campus or at another designated location, typically last for between two and ten days. They may include orientation sessions, seminars, and other types of instructional activities. The number of required campus visits varies by program. Prospective applicants should review these requirements carefully to determine both the number of required visits and when they are scheduled, to ensure that they will be able to attend these required sessions. Currently, OnlineEducation.com does not include online DSW programs that require more than two campus visits per year.