Many social workers who already have their master’s degree may find that an online PhD in social work, or an online DSW program (doctor of social work), gives them the flexibility that they need to further their education while also holding down a job.
While a doctorate level degree is not strictly necessary to pursue a career as a social worker, in many cases it is a prerequisite for advancement to the highest positions in the field, and for career tracks such as program director, community program administrator, researcher, professor, etc.
Throughout this guide we will mainly refer to a DSW degree rather than a PhD It’s important to understand the differences between the two.
Both are doctoral degrees and both require a dissertation or dissertation equivalent, including real-world case studies and solution proposals or residency. An online PhD in social work is designed to prepare the candidate for an academic career as a professor or researcher. An online DSW teaches leadership skills and prepares the candidate for advanced, hands-on work in the field.
Both programs typically require three years of study (or longer for a part-time program) and have similar tuition costs. The choice of program will depend on what aspect of social work a candidate is interested in.
Steps in choosing the right online PhD degree program
When evaluating potential programs the following steps may prove useful in making a choice.
Every DSW program is different and as such each has unique admission requirements. That being said, most programs do have a couple of requirements that tend to be universal. For starters, a master’s degree is required.
Some DSW programs only accept candidates with a MSW (master’s of social work) while other programs are more flexible and accept MFT (master’s in family therapy), MPH (master’s in public health), or a MPP (master’s in public policy) degrees. Certainly those candidates with a MSW have the most options but there are many degrees which can allow a candidate to pursue a DSW.
In addition, the following are some of the most common requirements for an online-based DSW or PhD in social work.
- At least one to two years of experience as a social worker. In our research, we didn’t find a single DSW program that accepts applicants without practical experience.
- About half of online-based DSW programs require a minimum master’s degree GPA of 3.0 while the other half require a GPA of 3.5 or higher.
- Programs often ask either for references or reference letters.
While there are dozens of PhD and DSW programs in the United States, many of these programs are campus-based and cannot be taken online. Students who require an online program may find their options somewhat limited.
The upside is that many online-based DSW programs have a high acceptance rate, some as high as 70 percent or 80 percent. That means that a dedicated applicant is likely to find a program that will accept them. For those with a stellar record there are more prestigious schools like UPenn and the University of Southern California which have a much lower acceptance rate, around 20 percent.
Campuses hosting the online DSW program are spread all around the United States, from Texas to Virginia to California. Some programs offer a hybrid model that combines online teaching with classroom instruction. Other programs have all of their classes online. A potential applicant can decide which option is best for them and their schedule.
Most degrees require three years of continuous study in order to graduate. A part time program may stretch on for as many as six years. Some programs require a dissertation while others feature a residency. Most programs require between 38 to 42 credit hours in order to graduate.
The application process
Most programs require students to have their application finished sometime in the early spring. For instance, UB’s program has an March 16 deadline and the University of Tennessee’s deadline is April 1, or February 1 for international students. DSW and Ph.D. applications typically have an earlier deadline than MSW programs.
Most applications have a fee, typically around $75, that must be paid at the time of applying. Applicants should expect to receive a response from the school within one to two months.
While an online DSW isn’t as expensive as a class-based DSW, the program can be costly. An inexpensive program may cost $25,000, an average program $50,000 and some of the most expensive programs can cost more than $100,000 in tuition fees.
Financial aid & scholarships
In terms of financing an education the following three methods are the most common.
- University based scholarships – Many universities offer scholarships based on diversity standards or academic excellence. These can help to offset the cost of an online DSW program.
- Federal aid – This most often comes in the form of grants and other low interest loans which are guaranteed by the government.
- Assistantships and teaching – Admittedly teaching and/or working in a lab somewhat defeats the purpose of an online education and the flexibility it offers. Nonetheless, if visiting campus is possible students may find work that pays a stipend and/or reduces the cost of tuition.
As mentioned, one of the most universal requirements for an online DSW or PhD in social work is experience in the field. Many programs stipulate that applicants should have at least two years of experience in the social work field, although some programs will accept applicants with just one year of experience.
Typically DSW programs require a candidate to have had a 3.5 or higher GPA for their master’s degree, as is the case with the Phyllis and Harvey Sandler School of Social Work DSW program. Some DSW programs will accept a GPA of 3.0 or higher. For example, the University of Tennessee Knoxville accepts any applicants with a graduate GPA anywhere between 3.0 and 4.0.
The most common testing requirement is the GRE (Graduate Record of Examination) although programs don’t always have minimum test scores that must be met. For example, looking at the University of Tennessee Knoxville again, their GRE requirement merely states that the applicant should have a “competitive score.” Other programs, like the DSW at the University of Southern California and Florida Atlantic University’s program have no GRE requirement at all.
Across the board the only requirement that’s demanded in just about every online DSW is one to two years of relevant work experience. Without that experience a candidate will likely find it nearly impossible to be accepted to a program.
Finally, there are a handful of other prerequisites that some programs ask for, and others don’t. A candidate should investigate their desired online DSW or PhD program to find out if any of these requirements apply.
- High TOEFL or IBT score for non-native English speakers
- History of research or academic writing
- Clinical practice license and/or other applicable licenses
Online social work degree curriculum
Candidates pursuing their DSW or PhD in social work can expect to be exposed to any number of advanced topics within the field of social work. Some examples may include,
- Advanced theory – A deep dive into topics like social justice, the effect of social services on the family and community, racial injustice as well as other modern social theory. For example, first year DSW candidates at the University of Buffalo will take a course entitled, Technology, Human Behavior and Professional Practice, where they will study how technology impacts social relationships.
- Social work history – Students can expect to learn how modern social work has evolved and why today’s practices are more beneficial and effective than what was practiced in the past.
- Management practice – A DSW is designed to prepare the candidate for a leadership position in the field of social work. As such many DSW programs place a heavy emphasis on leadership and managerial development. The University of Tennessee Knoxville has a third year program called Clinical Management and the University of Southern California hosts an Executive Leadership class for third year DSW candidates. These are just a handful of examples and many online DSW programs have similar classes.
Tuition for online PhD programs in social work
As with any degree there is a huge variation in how much a program costs. For example, Florida Atlantic University has an extremely affordable online DSW program that’s estimated to only cost $25,000 for Florida residents (The degree may cost twice as much for out of state or international students). That being the case, FAU’s degree is new and does not carry the same weight as a degree from a more August institution.
For example, the University of Pennsylvania offers an online-based DSW program that is much more well-known. That prestige comes at a cost, however, and the U Penn degree can exceed $100,000 in tuition costs. USC’s DSW program costs an estimated $80,000 in tuition. University at Buffalo charges $800 per credit hour for in-state students and $1,050 per credit hour for out-of-state and international students. Given that their program requires 39 credit hours that leads to a total tuition (excluding other fees) expense of $31,200 and $40,950, respectively.
On average an online-based DSW program is likely to cost $50,000 in tuition. More online-based DSW degrees, including their respective tuition costs, can be found here.
In terms of scholarships it’s difficult to provide definitive information. Unfortunately there just aren’t that many national scholarships available to cover educational costs for doctoral candidates. What there are, however, are scholarship opportunities available at many schools which can help to defer the expense of a DSW program.
For example, for their online DSW program St. Thomas offers a diversity grant which is, “a university funded grant available to assist with tuition expenses for students who bring distinctive personal characteristics to St. Thomas and/or who have overcome significant obstacles or hardships.”
St. Thomas is not the only school with a diversity grant. UB has the Arthur A. Schomburg Fellowship and the University of Tennessee has the Access and Diversity Graduate Fellowship. Naturally other scholarships and fellowships are available. UB has several grants for students with outstanding academic records. A candidate should check with their preferred graduate school to find out which scholarship programs are available.
FASFA is a federal program offering grants and low interest loans to undergraduate and graduate students. For example, government backed, low interest Stafford Loans are available for up to $7,500 per academic year.
In addition to loans, grants and scholarships, some doctoral candidates fund their education by teaching or completing a research assistantship. The University of Tennessee’s graduate research assistantship is just one example of such a program. Whether teaching or working in a lab, students will receive a stipend and usually also a discount on their tuition.
The career outlook for social workers is good! The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) believes that, “Overall employment of social workers is projected to grow 11 percent from 2018 to 2028, much faster than the average for all occupations.”
One of the great things about a DSW degree is the flexibility that it offers graduates. Employment opportunities abound in the educational system as a guidance counselor, in community driven social centers, in academia and especially in upper management in any of the number of diverse fields where social workers are employed.
For example, another BLS estimate states that, “Employment of social and community service managers is projected to grow 13 percent from 2018 to 2028.” The demand for managers (primarily those with a PhD or DSW) is expected to grow even 2 percent faster than the already high demand for social workers!
It’s clearly a good time to pursue a doctoral degree in social work and an online DSW or PhD offers flexibility, a great educational experience and all of that at a smaller expense than a campus-based degree.