There are two social work degrees available on the doctoral level. The Doctor of Social Work (DSW) is usually undertaken by those who intend to use their doctorate to deepen their practical skills and enhance the quality of work they do for clients. The Doctor of Philosophy in Social Work (PhD) is more focused on research and is often pursued by those who want to teach on the postsecondary level or engage in research that will further the field of social work.

Steps to Getting into a Doctorate Social Work Program

Whether the goal is a DSW or PhD, getting into competitive graduate programs is dependent upon doing all the right things by the appropriate deadlines. The following steps are typically required in order to gain acceptance into an on-campus or online PhD social work program.

Application Statement

A compelling reason why a student wants the PhD degree can make a strong impression on the admissions committee. A strong, well-considered essay or application statement can make the difference in receiving an acceptance letter.

References and Recommendations

The PhD program is highly competitive, so glowing recommendations from former professors and employers, and well as an impressive list of references, often helps students rise above the pack of applicants.

Undergraduate or Master’s Level Performance

Some PhD programs will only accept those who have earned their master’s degree and have work experience, while others may accept those with a BSW who have shown exceptional performance during their undergraduate years. How well a student did in their previous degree programs can help determine whether they will be accepted.

Test Scores

The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is typically required to enter a doctoral program. If the test was taken before entering a master’s degree program, it is typically sufficient for the doctoral program as well.


Many doctoral programs in social work want to see proof of someone working in the profession before allowing admission. A detailed resume of all work history, including current experience, internships and volunteer work, can help an applicant shine during the competitive process.

Writing Sample

Some applications require a writing sample, usually no more than 25 pages, in addition to the personal statement. Schools may also allow a list of a student’s publications as proof of in-depth research and commitment to the field.

PhD in Social Work Program Requirements

Those entering a PhD level social work program are required to meet certain milestones and learning objectives in order to graduate. These program requirements are designed to ensure students are qualified to use their newfound knowledge and skills in pursuing the highest levels of employment in the field. The requirements vary from one program to another, but the sample below gives students an idea of what they may encounter during the application process and course of study.

Completion of a master’s degree in social work. Some dual-credit opportunities allow entry for students who have earned a bachelor’s degree, but these are rare.
Completion of the doctoral seminar and other keystone classes.
Completion of the core or fundamental courses.
Completion of electives, including those within concentration guidelines.
Licensure as a clinical social worker (required by many programs, but not all).
Successful passage of comprehensive examination after all courses are complete.
Successful completion and defense of a dissertation.

There may be other requirements focused on hours of real-time experience, such as internships, working as an assistant to professors, and supervised clinical work (especially if the student is not yet licensed).

Goals of the PhD in Social Work

A PhD in social work catapults the degree holder into the highest levels of the profession, opening doors for a wide variety of career opportunities, promotions and higher pay. Since the degree is so prestigious, strong goals are set by colleges and universities to help students graduate from the program at the top of their game. Below are some of the most common goals a student should work toward during the course of their PhD program.

  • Prepare to move into or advance in the field as a well-educated professional
  • Demonstrate significant understanding of the breadth and scope of social work
  • Engage in and conduct original research that furthers the field
  • Attain significant research skills and abilities that aid future endeavors in social work
  • Gain advanced knowledge of pertinent issues in social work, such as social welfare policy
  • Gain exposure to related fields of practice, including theories and research
  • Understand how to apply theory, knowledge and research to clinical practice

Social Work PhD Program Description

Whether students pursue a traditional or online PhD, the chosen program should have certain similar points. Students are required to complete core courses and electives, with the goal of reaching a certain amount of credits – usually 72 in total – as well as complete a significant research project and dissertation. During the course of earning those credits, students may have the opportunity to explore cross-disciplines to enhance their social work future, such as courses in psychology or public health.

Professors with extensive knowledge of the field almost always teach courses at the doctoral level. Most of them will have substantial experience, several publications, and ongoing research projects. This real-world experience puts faculty in an excellent position to serve not only as professors, but also as mentors.

Some colleges require students to work outside of the program as well, usually in a research internship offering real-world training. Students may find these internships on their own, or they may be assigned to a particular placement depending upon their concentration, dissertation topic and available opportunities.

In addition to dissertation and research requirements, students usually complete a comprehensive examination at the end of their core courses and electives. This in-depth testing helps ensure students garnered certain knowledge and skills from their classroom time, and that they are prepared to put those important qualities to work in a social work career.

Social Work PhD Coursework

Doctoral level social work programs consist of foundation or core courses, as well as electives chosen by the student. These electives typically fit into the social work program, but students are free to choose a few courses in a related field, such as psychology or political science. Sample courses students might expect include:

  • Statistics
  • Research Methods
  • Theory Development
  • Social Policy Analysis
  • Conceptual Foundations in Social Work
  • Perspectives in clinical Theory
  • Capstone Seminar
  • Social Welfare History
  • Economics and Social Change

The dissertation makes up a significant amount of credits, which vary depending upon the program. Rutgers School of Social Work allows students to earn 36 credits in doctoral coursework, while another 24 credits are devoted to the dissertation and research internship. This is in addition to the 12 transfer credits for students who earned their master’s degree in social work.

No matter which school a student chooses, they will be expected to work very closely with advisors before and during the PhD pursuit to ensure they choose electives suited to their future career path.

The Online PhD Degree in Social Work

The nature of social work requires a great deal of face-to-face interaction with clients. Even those who are firmly on the research track find themselves working with individuals and focus groups. With so much in-person communication happening in the field, how does an online program prepare students to meet the rigors of the social work profession?

Fortunately, the online PhD in social work is designed to allow students to earn the hands-on experience they need while completing coursework entirely online. Here’s how it works:

Virtual Classrooms

Students listen to or watch lectures through high-quality video streaming, putting them on the front row for every class session. Through video conferencing, students taking courses synchronously can also ask questions and participate in discussions with professors and peers.

Flexible Scheduling

Though some courses have particular dates and times during which a student must log in and be ready to pay attention, most courses follow an asynchronous format. This allows students to fit courses into their busy schedule at a convenient time, and makes it possible for them to continue working in their established jobs while attending school.

Occasional On-Location Meetings

Many PhD programs require students to meet at certain locations from time to time. These in-person meetings allow students to work closely with peers and professors, usually in three or four day segments.

Top-Notch Faculty

Those who teach social work PhD programs are not only at the top of their field, they are also well aware of how to tailor their teaching to online learning platforms. Most faculty members at online schools are well versed in technologies used to communicate with students, and they understand how to use message boards and chat rooms to their advantage.

Intensive Dissertation Assistance

Though the dissertation is often a more solitary pursuit, online schools make certain that students are never entirely alone. Dissertation assistance may include peer reviews, the use of an extensive library system, exposure to the top-notch researchers, and access to publications in the field. Mentors and advisors are also an email or phone call away.

Online Social Work Doctorate Q&A

Students weighing the pros and cons of online programs might have several questions. Getting the proper answers is vitally important, especially when students will be spending so much of their time and hard-earned money in the pursuit of a PhD. Below are answers to the most common questions about the online PhD in social work:

Are online programs recognized by social work licensing bodies?

Yes. Online education is just as acceptable as traditional college work and the degree is just as relevant. Those who earn a PhD in social work online should be prepared to sit for the licensing board in their state.

Is the academic quality the same?

As long as the school is accredited, students can rest assured they are getting the best education possible. The PhD program in social work will be just as rigorous through online means, and some students claim online work is actually more challenging than assignments delivered in traditional classroom settings. Keep in mind when searching for accreditation that there is currently no accrediting body for social work PhD programs, so students should look for accreditation on the school level rather than the program level.

How do I get the face-to-face experience required for this degree?

At the PhD level, most students are already well engaged in the field of social work and have an established position in a clinic, hospital, private practice, or agency. Those real-world experiences provide plenty of face-time with clients, and that is often enough to meet any experience requirements for the program.

What about accreditation?

There is currently no accrediting body for PhD level degrees in social work. The Council on Social Work Education accredits bachelor’s and master’s level programs and works closely with GADE, or the Group for Advancement of Doctoral Education in Social Work. This organization limits membership to programs that have met certain quality standards. In addition to looking for GADE membership on the program level, students should research accreditation on the school level to ensure they are receiving the top-notch education they expect.

How Online Programs Provide Face-to-Face Experience

Many programs require students gain face-to-face experience with clients, usually while under the supervision of a licensed clinical social worker. How can someone earn that experience if they choose to go to an online program? There are many plans in place allowing students to complete all the requirements. Some of these include:

Supervised internships

Those who are not currently working in the field can take advantage of internships, which can be completed in the student’s local area. The internship supervisor is in regular contact with the degree program administrators to ensure students are fulfilling all the requirements for graduation.

Academic residencies

Residencies are available to help students achieve ample face-to-face experience. For PhD students, residencies may be completed virtually through scheduled online events with peers and professors. Some students opt for in-person residencies occurring over the course of four or five days at various locations around the country.

Virtual field experience

Virtual field experience involves watching streaming videos of professionals engaged in social work. The instructor or subject of the streaming video will then speak to students about how they applied social work theories to the practice of working with clients.

Online PhD in Social Work Program: What to Look For

Numerous colleges and universities, the vast majority of which are competent and competitive, offer the online PhD in social work. How can a student narrow down the options? Here are a few things to look for when figuring out which school might be the best for a doctoral degree.

Notable Faculty

Those pursuing PhDs want to be taught by the best, and that means finding teachers who have many publications or credits to their name, have done extensive research, and have a booming private practice.

Alumni: Where Are They Now?

Those who graduate with a doctorate should make waves in the social work field. Look for notable alumni that are proud to mention their alma mater on their resumes.

Graduation Rate

How many enrolled students fulfill their dream and leave college with a degree in hand? The graduation rate for a PhD program should be competitive. Be wary if the graduation rate seems too good to be true, as that might indicate a program is not rigorous enough.


When researching online PhD programs, certain names will come up over and over, and with good reason. Look for schools with rave reviews from former students that tend to attract not only the best faculty, but also the highest number of applicants. Remember that the best programs have very competitive acceptance rates.

Most Suitable Format

No matter how good a program is, it doesn’t matter much if a student can’t complete it in a timely manner. The format of an online school is a good indication of whether a student can get through the program. If traveling is impossible, look for a program that is truly online, and requires no on-location meetings.

Social Work Student Resources

From scholarships to credentials, students need to be aware of the best resources out there. The following list is a sampling of fellowships, scholarships, and internships to help students pursue a degree in social work at the doctoral level.