Ph.D. in Social Work Online

2020 Online Ph.D. in Social Work

Last updated: May 2020

Why do students and professionals opt to pursue a Ph.D. in social work? A doctorate in philosophy, or Ph.D. — prepares individuals for positions in research, clinical settings and higher education. Those who successfully complete coursework for Ph.D. in social work programs develop a unique, in-depth understanding of real-world issues that affect vulnerable or at-risk populations and are able to position themselves at the forefront of influencing treatment, policy and best practices through their evidence-based research. 

Direct practice social workers rely on research to guide them in maneuvering and solving challenging situations in their everyday work. Research will remain key to this practice for many more years as new bills are passed, financial markets evolve, and communities respond to major events such as natural disasters and viral outbreaks.

Learn more about this academic path, areas of concentration and licensing options for Ph.D. in social work graduates. 

All Online Ph.D. in Social Work Programs

From the comfort of your home, you can pursue a Ph.D. in social work. An online social work degree may be a good option for working professionals or those with family obligations. While coursework is self-paced in an online program, it takes discipline to stay on track. No two online Ph.D. in social work programs are identical, but admissions requirements for these programs may share similarities. Spend time researching your desired program to know what to include in your application, and more importantly whether that program will help you achieve your professional goals.

Consider the following Ph.D. in social work programs offered online:  

Baylor University

Waco, TX

Program Name: PhD in Social Work (PhD) at Baylor University
Institutional Accreditation: Baylor University is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges to award bachelor's, master's, specialist, and doctoral degrees.
Program Length: 10 semesters (3-4 years)
Admission Requirements:

  • Resume or CV
  • Application fee
  • GRE scores
  • Three letters of recommendation
  • Accredited master’s in social work or related field
  • TOEFL or IELTS for foreign nationals and permanent residents

Dual MSW/PhD: No, but an accredited online MSW at Baylor, a 2U powered program, is available.

Our Lady of the Lake University

San Antonio, TX

Program Name: Online PhD in Social Work at Our Lady of the Lake University
Institutional Accreditation: Our Lady of the Lake is accredited by the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools to award bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees.
Program Length: 54 credits (3 years)
Admission Requirements:

  • Curriculum Vitae
  • Application fee
  • GRE scores
  • Three letters of recommendation
  • Accredited master’s in social work or related field
  • Two to three years post-MSW direct practice experience
  • Licensure at the advanced clinical practice level
  • Scholarly writing sample
  • TOEFL or IELTS for foreign nationals and permanent residents

Dual MSW/PhD: No, but an accredited online MSW at Our Lady of the Lake University is available. 

The University of Utah

Salt Lake City, UT

Program Name:  The University of Utah College of Social Work Ph.D. Program
Institutional Accreditation: The University of Utah holds accreditation through the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU).
Program Length: 37-39 credits (3-5 years)
Admission Requirements:

  • Application fee
  • GRE scores
  • Three letters of recommendation
  • Accredited master’s in social work or related field
  • Minimum two years post-MSW social work or related practice strongly recommended
  • Personal statement of purpose
  • TOEFL or IELTS for foreign nationals and permanent residents

Dual MSW/PhD: No

University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Knoxville, TN

Program Name: Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Social Work at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Institutional Accreditation: The Bachelor’s and Master’s degree programs of the UT College of Social Work are accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). Though CSWE does not accredit doctoral programs, the college’s doctoral programs receive national recognition from the National Association of Social Workers (NASW).
Program Length: 42 credits
Admission Requirements:

  • Curriculum Vitae
  • Application fee
  • GRE scores
  • Three letters of recommendation
  • Accredited master’s in social work or related field
  • Professional statement
  • Sample of scholarly writing
  • TOEFL or IELTS for foreign nationals and permanent residents

Dual MSW/PhD: No, but an accredited online MSW from the University of Tennessee is available. 

Ph.D. in Social Work vs. DSW

There is a distinct difference between a Ph.D. in social work and a Doctor of Social Work (DSW). While there may be some overlapping coursework within the curricula, it is important for graduate students to know what work environment they prefer and aspire to be in when deciding upon a doctoral program in social work. 

Ph.D. in social work programs have coursework geared toward advanced research methods that help to develop social work-related policy and programs. While Ph.D. students can go on to rewarding social work careers outside of academia through research, many Ph.D. graduates pursue careers in universities and other institutions that involve teaching and high-level clinical investigation.

A DSW is also a graduate-level degree, but while a Ph.D. in social work focuses on research in an academic setting, a DSW program trains students to work in a variety of other settings, including K-12 schools, social services and hospitals. DSW programs focus on leadership and management. Students pursuing a DSW should hold a master’s degree, but requirements can vary from school to school. If you’re interested in pursuing advanced or supervisory work, a DSW might be a good fit for you. 

  • Earn a Doctorate of Social Work in an accelerated 28-month program or a standard 36-month program.
  • DSW@USC prepares experienced professionals to develop practical, applied solutions to large-scale social challenges.


More Information on Ph.D. in Social Work

Once you have decided to pursue a Ph.D. in social work, you may be considering a number of factors before selecting a program, such as coursework loads, dissertation parameters, the accreditation of the program, whether a master’s in social work is a prerequisite, and other application requirements.

Accreditation of Social Work Degrees

While the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) gives institutional accreditation for Bachelor in Social Work (BSW) and Master's in Social Work (MSW) programs, currently there is no accrediting body for Ph.D. in Social Work or DSW programs. The CSWE is reviewing the possibility of accrediting doctoral programs in the future. 

The council is a partnership of educational and professional social work institutions, social welfare agencies and private citizens that is recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation as the sole accrediting agency in the United States for all social work education. CSWE accreditation signals that an undergraduate or graduate social work program satisfactorily meets the council’s standards for student competencies, institutional policies, curricula and more.

Do I Need an MSW to Get a Ph.D. in Social Work?

Generally speaking, an MSW is needed for admission into many Ph.D. in social work programs, although there are some that will also accept a master’s degree in similar areas of study like the ones below:

  • Public Administration (MPA)
  • Public Health (MPH)
  • Nursing (MSN)
  • Public Policy (MPP)
  • Business Administration (MBA)
  • Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT)

A professional doctorate will often also be an acceptable prerequisite for a Ph.D. in social work program, and there are dual MSW/Ph.D. in social work programs available for students interested in pursuing that track.

Factors to Consider Before Applying

Different institutions may specialize more in one aspect of social work than another, or some may provide financial assistance programs that interest you. These are some factors to keep in mind as you are making a choice. The size of the faculty as well dissertation requirements can also play a role in your decision process.


Earning a Ph.D. is a significant financial investment and prospective students might feel some concern about funding their education. If you’re considering a Ph.D., you likely have hopes of advancing your career in social work. Don’t let the price tag derail you or put you off. Identify a program with a price that falls within or close enough to your budget. The cost of online social work doctoral degrees varies, depending upon variables such as books, state residency, and technology fees. 

For those that are currently employed within the social work profession, some employers offer tuition reimbursement programs to incentivize employees to further their education. You can check your employee handbook or speak with your human resources department to see if such an option is available to you. Student federal loans are another option, and one that many people take, such as the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program and the Federal Perkins Loan Program

Scholarships, grants and fellowships are also available to qualified candidates who apply. Here are a few:


Concentrations and specializations in Ph.D. in social work programs vary from school to school, and some overlap with those available in MSW programs. Some concentrations you will find available in online Ph.D. in social work programs include:

  • Addictions and Social Work
  • Clinical Practice Expertise
  • Social or Criminal Justice
  • Disaster, Crisis, and Intervention
  • Family Studies and Interventions
  • Medical Social Work
  • Administration of Human Services
  • Social Work Administration

Coursework and Dissertation

What should someone studying for their Ph.D. in social work expect when it comes to coursework? The Group of Advancement Doctorate Education in Social Work (GADE) notes that graduate students have many different types of Ph.D. programs in social work to choose from, most offering research-focused coursework within social work as well as other disciplines and practicums in teaching. Dual or interdisciplinary degrees are also an option that enhance a program’s course offerings, often with a choice of full or part-time online programs.

Topic areas covered in an online program may include:

  • Quantitative Research for Social Work
  • Measurement in Social Work
  • Academic Leadership and Administration in Social Work Education

Students pursuing their doctorate in social work will most likely have to write a dissertation (also called a doctoral thesis) that is the culmination of years of graduate-study research work.

What a Strong Ph.D. Candidate Looks Like

Candidates for Ph.D. in social work programs often have a strong academic background, an MSW or related master’s degree and a few years of research or policy experience within the field. While every program’s admissions requirements are different, doctoral program candidates should generally have a clear affinity for pursuing a research-focused or scholarly-based career path.

Beyond the expected admissions requirements, a Ph.D. in social work candidate is likely dedicated to solving complex social issues. Having strong organizational skills may help with your work in this field. 

Should You Get a Ph.D. in Social Work?

A Ph.D. in social work is the doctoral track for those whose career interests and goals lie in research and college-level education. According to GADE, this degree is focused on preparing students to become faculty members at a university, or to join research organizations working on social and health problems, or to take on leadership positions requiring advanced research skills.  

What Can You Do With a Ph.D. in Social Work?

Professionals with Ph.D. in social work have many career choices to pursue including tenure-track research and teaching positions are an option. There are also professional research opportunities within government agencies, independent research centers, nonprofits and the military. Individuals in these positions help conduct research that informs practice, provides analysis of policies, and guides social programs with data-driven analyses.

Some positions that are available to individuals with Ph.D.s in social work include:

  • College or University Professor
  • Academic Researcher
  • Clinical Director
  • Human Services Director

Ph.D. in Social Work Salary

Many factors come into play when trying to quantify salaries in the social work field, such as where you live, if you work in the private or public sector, and your depth of experience within a particular discipline. 

Below are the 2019 national median estimates of annual salaries for different positions in the field from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS): 

Pursuing Licensing With a Ph.D.

State licensing boards are responsible for setting the standards for licensure for social workers serving the public, and every state has different types of licenses for these professionals. Some states even require multiple licenses in order to become a specific type of social worker, such as a clinical social worker. To find out what the licensing requirements are in your state, you can review our complete list of state-specific social work licenses. 

Ph.D. in Social Work FAQs

Here are some frequently asked questions prospective graduate students have about pursuing a Ph.D. in social work.

How long does it take to get a Ph.D. in social work?

As a full-time student, it can typically take anywhere from three to five years to obtain a Ph.D. in social work degree, in a traditional setting. Part-time curriculums offer alternative options, and online programs offer additional flexibility for those who continue to work or have family commitments, such as young children at home. Online Ph.D. in social work programs also offer accelerated tracks, which can take just two years to complete.

How much does a professional with a Ph.D. in social work make?

Apart from location and job title, many factors come into play when employers look at compensation. An advanced degree such as a Ph.D. may be another one of those factors. The top 10 percent of social work teachers, postsecondary earned an annual salary of $128,350 or more in 2019, according to the BLS..

What’s the difference between a DSW and a Ph.D. in social work?

Ph.D. in social work programs are strongly research-based, while DSW programs focus on leadership and management for careers in a variety of settings, schools and hospitals. A DSW program tends to be a more hands-on experience in a specialized area of social work.