How to Choose an Online PhD in Social Work

This article provides information about online Ph.D. degrees in social work. We will advise you on what to look for, why you might want to earn one, and how to choose the best social work degree program for your interests and needs. We also offer information about good online Ph.D. programs that are worthy of consideration.

What Is An Online Ph.D. in Social Work?

A Ph.D. degree in social work is a postgraduate degree that is a good choice if you are considering a career as a professor, instructor or researcher in social work. Having a doctorate in social work is important if you are interested in this career path.

The Council on Social Work Education or CSWE is the major accreditation body for social work programs in the US. The CSWE strongly considers the number of faculty the program has with doctoral degrees. Therefore, having a doctorate in social work is a critical factor to earning a higher level position in education, such as a professor.

As you consider earning your doctoral degree in social work, you should know that there are two types of doctoral degree: the Ph.D. and the Doctor of Social Work or DSW. The Ph.D. in social work is more of a research and education career oriented degree. You will learn about the theories behind social work and work a great deal on scholarly research.

The DSW degree is a more practical degree for the social work professional who wants to continue to work at a high level in the social work field. The DSW degree is often chosen by those who want to be administrators or executives in a social work setting.

If you choose to earn a Ph.D. in social work, you can work in some of these exciting careers:

  • Professor: Many highly experienced social workers with a master’s degree have years of experience working as social workers, and now want to teach at the university level. In fact, most doctoral students in social work want a career in academia or research. You will likely teach undergraduate, graduate and even doctorate social work students.
  • Researcher: Others want to work in social work scholarly research, which involves looking in detail at the factors that affect social policy, social welfare and social work practice. The social work research field is growing quickly that often focuses on issues including child welfare, health policy, mental health and gerontology.
  • Administrator: You can work as a high level administrator or executive in a social work facility. You could be a director of a social services agency, an executive director of a nonprofit organization or a clinical director in a mental health center.
  • Clinician: If you want to continue to practice in social work, earning a Ph.D. or DSW will build upon and grow your social work and clinical skills. You will learn about new developments in the social work field and new cutting edge research in social work.

Why Earn an Online Ph.D. in Social Work?

Many professionals choose a career in social work because the employment trends in this field look positive in the US in the coming decade. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the field will grow by 12% by 2024. When compared to other professions, this is faster than average.

Experts in the social work field believe that employment growth in the social work field is going to be driving by more health care and social services demand from an aging population.

Demand for child, family and school social workers will grow only by 6%, as employment in this field is somewhat influenced by budget constraints at the local and state levels. However, employment for clinical social workers and healthcare social workers will grow by 19% by 2024, which is much faster than average. Healthcare related social workers will be needed as they help our aging population to adjust to new treatments, medications and ways of living.

Also, demand for mental health and substance abuse social workers will grow by 19% by 2024. Employment will grow as people are getting more treatments for mental health and substance abuse issues. Drug offenders are sent to drug treatment programs rather than to jail, so this should weigh heavily in the employment picture too.

As demand increases for various types of social workers, it is only natural that there will be more need for social work professors, instructors and researchers, as well. New social workers need to have skilled teachers providing them with the latest information about social work education.

With the higher demand for social workers comes higher pay. While the median salary for all social workers is only $45,900 per year, the top 10% with advanced degrees earn more than $76,000 per year. For the best pay, practicing social workers should work in a state, local or private hospital. Social workers with a Ph.D. will often work in a college or university and may enjoy a higher salary than the median.

Choosing Online Ph.D. in Social Work Path

Earning a doctoral degree in social work can take one of two paths:

  • D. in social work: Best suited for careers in academia and research
  • DSW: Best suited for social work professionals who want to continue to practice in the field but in an administrative or executive position

The majority who choose a Ph.D. in social work will ultimately work in academia or research.

Online Degree Options

For students considering their Ph.D. in social work, we recommend the dual MSW/Ph.D. degree that is offered by the University of Southern California. This doctoral program is a product of the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work which established the very first such program in the western US in 1953.

The doctoral program is highly interdisciplinary in nature, and the intent is to produce social work graduates who can produce high quality research, and have passion to advance the knowledge base in the social work field.

Your coursework and independent study in the school will provide you with the intellectual grounding you need in social science theories, advanced statistics and research methods, global social justice issues, and challenges in the social work field.

The program is intended to produce scholars in social work who have a mastery of vital social work core competencies that are essential for creating original research that will advance the profession to new levels. The course work below will provide you with an excellent foundation in policy advocacy, analysis of policy and practice issues and advanced research methods.

Your required core classes include:

  • 702 Theories of Human Behavior in the Contexts of Social Environments
  • 703 Explanatory Theories for Larger Social Systems
  • 733 Policy Analysis and Advocacy in a Comparative Social Policy Context
  • 743 Theories for Practice with Small Systems
  • 744 Theories for Practice with Large Systems
  • 760L Introduction to Social Work Statistics
  • 761L Multiple Regression in Social Work Research
  • 762 Social Work Research Methods I
  • 763 Social Work Research Methods II: Issues in Research for Social Work Practice
  • 764 Advanced Multivariate Statistics


Choosing your doctoral social work program is a big step. As you consider your online degree options, we recommend that ensure that the program is accredited by the CSWE. The CSWE is the premier accreditation body in the social work field. When you see it is accredited by the CSWE, you can be confident that your degree will be highly respected by potential employers.


The social work profession is expanding and more Americans are seeking their services to deal with their problems and needs. Therefore we expect that doctoral degree holders in social work will enjoy a fruitful career for years to come.