DSW vs. Ph.D. in Social Work: What Are the Differences?

You may need a doctorate to achieve your social worker career goals. Learn more about the differences between a DSW and a Ph.D.
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  • A DSW degree requires a capstone project, while a Ph.D. in social work requires a dissertation.
  • Experienced social workers with a Ph.D. can produce original research, while professionals with a DSW can lead a social work organization.
  • DSW programs emphasize the best social work practices and the latest applied research methods.
  • Social work Ph.D. programs emphasize the research skills you need for a career in academia.

If you want to make a lasting impact on the social work field, consider earning a doctoral degree in social work.

Professionals with a doctorate in social work (DSW) lead social work organizations, mentor less-experienced social workers, and perform other management tasks. And workers with a Ph.D. in social work can teach at the university level, inspiring the next generation.

A terminal degree can offer many benefits, including a higher social worker salary. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that postsecondary teachers specializing in social work earn about 60% more than the average U.S. worker.

DSW vs. Ph.D. in Social Work Programs: How Are They Similar?

Although these degrees can qualify you for different social work jobs, they each have a rigorous curriculum. Each program also offers concentrations, such as impact leadership for advanced clinical practice. Plus, both degrees require similar application materials that include recommendation letters and official transcripts.

If you select a doctorate in social work online program, you may need to travel to campus sometimes for in-person seminars or other educational experiences. You can find this information on a doctorate in social work program's website.

Popular Online DSW Programs

Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

What Are the Differences Between a DSW and Ph.D. in Social Work?

DSW and Ph.D. degrees have many differences, such as program focus and length. The degree you select also impacts which social worker careers you can pursue.

DSW vs. Ph.D. Differences
Factor Doctorate in Social Work (DSW) Ph.D. in Social Work
Focus DSW programs emphasize leadership skills and policies that best serve people in need. You develop these skills through intensive coursework and a capstone experience. Social work Ph.D. programs focus on experiential learning and research. Much of the curriculum trains you for your dissertation.
Career Paths A DSW prepares you for social worker jobs that include management-level positions in government agencies, higher education, and nonprofits. You may also need a lot of experience to qualify for one of these careers. Your Ph.D. in social work prepares you for a career teaching the next generation of social workers at the college level. Your education also trains you to perform original research and publish your findings.
Program Length You can complete a DSW degree in about three years if you learn full time. Part-time options take longer but may let you continue working while in school. Typical social work Ph.D. programs take four years. Degree-seekers who do not pass their dissertation defense on their first try take longer to graduate.

Coursework and Fieldwork

Classes in online DSW programs may include the inner life of the adult learner, ethics and social justice, and theories to advance practice. Ph.D. degree-seekers may take classes in data management, system dynamics, and qualitative methods. Some degrees let you personalize your education with electives and a concentration.

Ph.D. students complete clinical internships wherein they work under an experienced practitioner. Learners perform dissertation-related research during internships. DSW degree-seekers do not write a dissertation but complete other requirements and fieldwork to develop advanced social worker skills.

Job Opportunities and Earning Potential

Careers in social work vary depending on whether you earn a Ph.D. or a DSW. With a Ph.D., you may work as a postsecondary teacher. The BLS reports that social workers in this role earned a median annual salary of $71,010 in May 2021.

You can explore different careers with a DSW, such as top executive. The BLS reports that top executives earned a median salary of $98,980 per year in May 2021. Those specializing in medicine or social assistance made more.

Earning Potential

Median usual weekly earnings with a doctoral degree

Median usual weekly earnings with a professional degree

Median annual wage for social workers

Median annual wage for the highest 10% of social workers

(Data from BLS Employment Projections, BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2021)

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

The answer depends on many factors, such as if schools on your shortlist require it. Some schools consider applicants with only a bachelor's.

Consider a dual program if you hold only a bachelor's in social work or a related area. These programs take longer to complete but offer the master's and doctoral education you need to qualify for new career opportunities.

Other application requirements may include work experience as a licensed clinical social worker, a resume, and recommendation letters from work supervisors or college professors. You may also need to interview with faculty or submit a work portfolio.

Should I Pursue a DSW or a Ph.D. in Social Work?

The answer depends on your career ambitions. Professionals with a DSW degree work with clients, analyze the latest public policy initiatives, or manage a social work organization. These social work jobs let you help people at the personal and community level.

A Ph.D. in social work trains you to make an impact on the social work field as a whole. Academic and government researchers produce findings that impact social work best practices. College professors pass on their knowledge and expertise to the next generation.

Your college's career center can help you choose the right degree. Its services may include one-on-one advising sessions, career interest surveys, and other resources.

DSW Jobs

  • Mental Health Clinician
  • Advanced Practice Clinical Social Worker
  • Nonprofit Managing Director
  • Public Policy Analyst

Ph.D. in Social Work Jobs

  • College Professor
  • Field Researcher
  • Social Work Research Consultant
  • Government Researcher

Everything Else You Need to Know About Doctoral Degrees in Social Work

What can you do with a Ph.D. in social work?

This on-campus or online social work degree trains you to teach students at the college level. Research classes, student teaching, and writing a dissertation prepare you to perform original research and publish the results. The completed dissertation also helps you show off your skills to potential employers.

You should consider a DSW if you want to manage a social work organization, such as a nonprofit or government agency.

How long is a Ph.D. in social work program?

Typical social work Ph.D. programs take 3-5 years. The time required to graduate depends on how long you need for the dissertation process. Some degree-seekers take more than a year to complete the research, writing, and editing process.

You may need more than five years if you study part time. Contact schools to learn if they offer this option. Admissions advisors can explain different graduation tracks and how long each one takes.

What are the highest-paying jobs with a Ph.D. in social work?

Postsecondary teachers are one of the highest-paying jobs you can do with a Ph.D. in social work. The BLS reports that these workers made a median salary of over $70,000 per year in May 2021.

Other well-paying jobs for those with a graduate social worker degree include executive director and human resources manager.

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