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Online Doctor of Social Work (DSW) Programs

Learn what to expect in online Doctor of Social Work (DSW) programs, including classes, on-site requirements and program length. Explore financial aid resources, career opportunities and professional organizations for students and graduates.

Admissions Requirements for Online DSW Programs

Admissions requirements can vary by school, but students typically need to have a master's degree in social work or a related field. Some online DSW program admissions require incoming students to have a Master of Social Work that is accredited by the CSWE (Council on Social Work Education). In addition, students may need to meet some of the following requirements.

  • Qualifying work experience in an applicable field (such as 2-5 years)
  • A minimum GPA in a prior graduate program (such as 3.0)
  • Personal essay/statement of goals
  • Active licensure in social work
  • Earned a qualifying score on graduate entrance exam (such as the GRE)

Overview of Online DSW Programs

Online Doctor of Social Work programs prepare social work professionals and other students for advanced practice and leadership in social work and related fields. Some of the key characteristics of online Doctor of Social Work programs are discussed below.

Learning Format

Most courses in online DSW programs can be completed entirely online. In these courses, students may use one or several websites and computer programs to complete assignments, review lectures and communicate with their peers and instructors. Depending on their school, students may be able to complete all or most of their assignments asynchronously (at times convenient to them), although some programs and courses might require some synchronous (scheduled) components, such as live lectures or discussions.


For most online DSW programs, students will need to attend at least one on-campus residency. Some schools require one residency at the beginning or end of a program while other schools require several on-campus sessions (such as one week each summer). During residency experiences, students may participate in a variety of activities such as networking, advanced study or practice hours.

Common Courses

While the courses included in online DSW programs vary by school, many include some of the courses listed below.

  • Advanced Social Work Practice - This course provides an overview of doctoral-level social work practice topics, such as social work issues at various levels and theories.
  • Neuroscience - In this class, students learn about the functions and topics of neuroscience through various stages of development, including disorders, attachment and addictions.
  • Diversity - Students explore the ways in which ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation and age affect society and typically examine oppression, self-awareness and causes in social justice.
  • Leadership - This course provides students with an understanding of effective and ineffective leadership practices, including topics such as communication, team-building, conflict resolution and andragogy (adult learning).
  • Trauma in Social Work - In this class, students review various types of trauma (such as PTSD and rape) and learn appropriate methods for identifying and addressing traumas.
  • Social Work Research - This class explores quantitative and qualitative research methods and teaches students how to collect, review and communicate scholarly research.
  • Evidence-Based Social Work - Students explore historical interventions and programs and use data collected (evidence) to develop strategies and plans for improving practice today.
  • Program Planning and Implementation - In this course, students develop theoretical programs and services and provide customized variations for people with specific needs (such as trauma victims).

Program Length

Online DSW programs vary in length; the course load and credits required will play a big role in how long it takes to graduate. Students may be required to complete courses at a specific rate in a predetermined order. Other programs allow them to take courses at their desired pace. Many programs are specifically structured for working professionals, enabling them to earn their degree while still maintaining their careers. DSW programs can include around 40 to 45 credit hours of coursework and take 3 or more years to complete.

To shorten the length, you might consider a program that allows you to transfer credits from previous programs or even for life/work experiences. Another option is to look for programs with shorter class lengths (such as 4, 6 or 8 weeks).

Cost of Online DSW Programs

Tuition is typically the largest part of online DSW costs and is normally charged per credit hour. The cost per credit can range from around $400 to more than $1,000 per credit hour. For a 40-credit-hour program, that would mean a total tuition of $16,000 to $40,000. In addition, students usually have other expenses such as registration fees, online learning fees and course materials fees.

Online learning might also require students to purchase a newer computer and pay for fast, reliable internet access.

Differences Between DSW and PhD in Social Work Programs

Although social work PhD and DSW programs have similarities in content and career outcomes, they have some notable differences. Some of the similarities and differences are explored in the table below.

Doctor of Social Work PhD in Social Work
Degree Type Terminal degree Terminal degree
Completion Time 3 or more years 3 or more years
Credits Required 40 to 60 50 to 70
Program Format Online with residency Online with residency
Program Focus Advanced practice Research and theory
Career Outcomes *Social services administrator
*Nonprofit administrator
*College professor

Accreditation for Online DSW Programs

Unlike bachelor's degrees and master's degrees in social work, doctoral social work programs are not eligible for specialized accreditation from the CSWE. However, schools that offer online DSW programs can be accredited by several organizations. Students who attend accredited institutions can qualify for more types of financial aid than those that do not.

Accreditation means a school has met standards set by an accrediting body. These standards include quality metrics relating to things like graduation rates, faculty and curriculum. Attending an accredited school greatly increases the chance of receiving a quality education and experience.

Accreditation might also be important for careers that require or prefer licensure or certification.

Financial Aid for Online DSW Students

There is a multitude of financial aid resources available to students of online Doctor of Social Work programs, including loans, fellowships, scholarships and more. Students should fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) when beginning their school search and admissions process. After completing the FAFSA, students can see several types of aid that they can qualify for. In addition, some private scholarships, such as those offered directly by schools, use information from the FAFSA to determine student eligibility. Several types of aid available to online Doctor of Social Work students are discussed below.

Private Aid: Scholarships and More

Students can obtain financial aid in the form of scholarships, grants and fellowships from countless private organizations. Many schools offer these types of aid directly to their students, so students should check with their student aid representatives to find out what is available to them. In addition, students can find external aid through a number of resources, including the U.S. Department of Labor's Career One Stop Scholarship Finder search tool as well as the CSWE's student funding tool.

  • The David-Putter Scholarship Fund - $15,000 in funds is awarded to qualifying students who are actively engaged in a progressive movement promoting justice and peace.
  • Eileen Blackey Doctoral Fellowship - $4,000 to $6,500 is awarded to qualifying social work doctoral students who are focusing their research on welfare policy and practice.
  • CSWE Scholars Program - This fund provides financial assistance to faculty members and doctoral students to assist with research projects relating to the field of social work.
  • Social Work HEALS - Up to $17,900 is awarded to students who demonstrate a commitment to the field of social work and health policy, practice or education.
  • Doctoral Training Grants in Oncology Social Work - The American Cancer Society awards two-year grants ($20,000 per year) to students pursuing research and roles related to oncology social work.
  • Health and Aging Policy Fellowship - This program offers a residential track as well as a non-residential track, and awards students various amounts (up to $100,000) based on their interest and commitment to aging populations and health.
  • Fahs-Beck Scholars - This grant program awards up to $5,000 to doctoral students whose research relates to improving the wellbeing of adults, children, families, couples and communities.


Work-study is offered by some employers as well as the federal government. It involves students working part-time during their programs and earning money to be used for their expenses. When possible, students can work in fields relating to their program. Money earned through work-study programs is paid directly to students who can then use it towards expenses as needed (including living expenses).

Student Loans

Student loans can be obtained through private and government providers, although private loans should only be used as a last resort. Federal and state loans have well-regulated interest rates and typically offer flexible, income-based repayment plans. For example, Direct Unsubsidized federal loans are available in amounts up to $20,500 per year with interest rates 6.08% (as of the 2019-2020 school year).

Online DSW students who have taken out federal loans can have some (or all) of their loans forgiven. The Public Service Loan Forgiveness program allows graduates who work in qualifying public-service positions to have the balance on their loans forgiven after they have made 120 qualifying payments (10 years).

Careers for Online Doctor of Social Work Graduates

Graduates of online Doctor of Social Work programs can pursue several different types of careers, some of which are discussed below.

Social Workers

Social workers help a variety of people overcome the issues that they face in their lives. Some social workers are considered clinical social workers; they can also treat and diagnose various behavioral, mental and emotional problems. Social worker duties often include finding resources for people (such as childcare), talking with clients to assess and address specific needs, developing community programs and responding to emergency situations (such as abuse). Although a doctoral degree is not required for most positions, those with a DSW may have opportunities to work in higher-level positions. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the top 10% of social workers had a salary of over $81,400, as of 2018.

Top Executives

Top executives oversee entire organizations and make sure that desired goals are met. Their duties can include developing goals, overseeing financial activities, consulting with other organizational leaders and appointing department heads. They may also review financial reports to determine ways to reduce costs and improve company programs and performance. Graduates of online DSW programs with social work experience may choose to pursue roles as executives of nonprofit organizations.

Social and Community Service Managers

Social and community service managers oversee community groups and organizations as well as social service programs. Their duties can include working with members of the community to develop needed services and programs, overseeing program implementation and reviewing data to assess the effectiveness of services and programs. These managers can work for various organizations and work with various demographics; some work with specific populations, such as the elderly or children. Most social and community service managers have related experience, and the educational requirements vary by professional; those with a DSW might have opportunities to work in higher positions. In 2018, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the highest-paid 10% of these managers make over $111,150.

Postsecondary Teachers

Postsecondary teachers educate students beyond high school, in settings such as universities and community colleges. Their duties can include conducting research to maintain current knowledge of their field, developing curriculum and syllabus structure, delivering lectures via in-class or online format, and providing guidance and support to their students. Graduates of online DSW programs can be qualified to teach at community colleges and universities; those working at universities as professors may also conduct and publish scholarly research in their field.

Job Title Median Annual Salary (2018) Estimated Job Growth (2018-2028)
Social Workers $49,470 11%
Top Executives $104,980 6%
Social and Community Service Managers $65,320 13%
Postsecondary Social Work Teachers $68,300 8%

All career data provided by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Organizations for Social Work Professionals

There are several professional organizations that offer membership to graduates of online Doctor of Social Work programs, some of which are discussed below.

  • The Association for Community Organization and Social Action (ACOSA) - This organization is made up of nonprofit executives and administrators, policymakers, social workers, and many more. Membership benefits include publications, networking, leadership opportunities, job boards, news and more.
  • National Association of Social Workers (NASW) - NASW membership benefits include connection to local chapters and professionals, software and entertainment, publications, online library resources, professional development/continuing education and legal resources (including advocacy).
  • Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) - CSWE offers membership to individuals and institutions/organizations. Individual membership benefits include publications, discounts, event invitations (including volunteer opportunities), advocacy and more.