Earning an Online Ph.D. in Social Work

Professionals with an online Ph.D. in social work pursue careers as social work professors, directors of social work organizations, and researchers. While earning a Ph.D. in social work online, doctoral students conduct advanced research within their specialization.

A Ph.D. in social work qualifies graduates for academic positions and helps candidates stand out in the job market. The flexibility and accessibility of social work Ph.D. programs online appeal to many students. This article provides an overview of online Ph.D. programs in social work, including degree requirements, career paths with a doctorate in social work, and scholarship opportunities.

Why Get a Ph.D. in Social Work?

Pursuing Specialization

A doctorate allows social work professionals to specialize their skills in a particular area, such as social welfare policy, social work finances, or problems facing marginalized populations. With a specialized doctorate and extensive research experience, professionals with a Ph.D. qualify for advanced social work positions. A specialization also lets graduates pursue opportunities in policymaking and social work management.

Career Advancement Opportunities

As the highest degree in social work, a doctorate prepares graduates for leadership positions. Many director, executive, and administrative positions prefer candidates with a doctorate. The degree can lead to higher responsibility and higher-paying opportunities. Some fields, including academia, require a Ph.D. for many positions. For example, college professors and administrators often need a Ph.D. in their field.

Online Learning Technology

Online students rely on the latest communication technologies when earning their degree. Depending on the program, students participate in virtual classroom experiences and use other online learning technologies to coordinate with faculty advisers and students. Familiarity with these online learning technologies helps professionals in the job market and in their profession. Social work organization directors, for example, may use these technologies to carry out their job responsibilities.

Prerequisites for Online Social Work Ph.D. Programs

Prospective students must meet the prerequisites before gaining admission to social work Ph.D. programs online. Many schools require a master's degree in social work or list prerequisite classes, for example. Each school sets its own prerequisites, application processes, and deadlines; as such, applicants should carefully research programs before applying.

  • Work Experience: Some social work Ph.D. programs prefer candidates with professional experience in social work. Work experience helps candidates meet certification requirements and identify research areas for doctoral research. However, applicants with limited professional experience can also gain admission to social work doctoral programs.
  • Exams and Test Scores: Many social work graduate programs require GRE scores to determine an applicant's likelihood to succeed at the doctoral level. Schools may set minimum scores for admission. Some doctoral programs provisionally admit students who do not meet the GRE minimum. Other programs do not require GRE scores.
  • Coursework: Doctoral programs in social work typically require incoming students to hold a master's or bachelor's degree in social work or a related field. Programs may set prerequisite courses, which prospective students must take before enrolling in the doctoral program. Most programs set a minimum GPA and request transcripts to assess an applicant's preparation for graduate school.
  • Recommendations: Applicants typically submit 1-3 letters of recommendation. These letters should come from faculty members or social work supervisors who can speak to the candidate's qualifications, academic abilities, and likelihood to succeed in a doctoral program. Prospective students should give their writers three weeks' notice to complete the letters.
  • Essays: Many programs require an essay, statement of purpose, or writing sample as part of the admission process. Programs may ask applicants about their goals in a doctoral program, preparation for doctoral-level study, and research interests. Programs may also request writing samples to assess applicants' analytical, research, and writing abilities.
  • Interviews: Some programs conduct interviews as part of the application process. During the interview, applicants meet with one or more faculty members or an admission adviser to discuss the program and the applicant's academic and professional record. Online programs may use the interview to assess the applicant's fit with the program.
  • International Students International students typically submit additional materials, including proof of English language proficiency. Most programs require TOEFL scores from international students, and many set a minimum score for admission. Programs may also ask for writing samples and translations of foreign language transcripts.

How Much Can I Make with a Ph.D. in Social Work?

Professionals with a Ph.D. in social work pursue careers as policy leaders, social welfare managers, and clinical directors. With a doctorate, graduates also qualify for academic positions, including positions as social work professors and academic administrators. Many of these fields offer above-average salaries and a high level of responsibility. Social science doctoral students gain valuable research, organizational, and analytical skills, which prepare graduates for careers in a variety of fields.

Traditional Careers for Social Work Ph.D. Graduates

Careers Stats Description

Postsecondary Teachers

Median Pay: $76,000

Job Growth: 15%

Postsecondary teachers, also known as professors, work at colleges and universities. Social work professors teach classes to undergraduate and graduate students. They create syllabi, teach classes, and assess student learning. Professors often conduct research and publish their findings in scholarly journals. Many positions require a Ph.D.

Social Scientist

Median Pay: $70,228

Job Growth: N/A

Social scientists conduct research on social welfare, social policies, and other areas. Many social scientists publish their research and make recommendations based on their findings. They may work for nonprofit organizations, government agencies, private businesses, or colleges and universities.

Clinical Supervisor

Median Pay: $56,756

Job Growth: N/A

Clinical supervisors oversee operations within a clinic. They take a managerial role, supervising employees and directing activities. Clinical supervisors may also monitor the clinic's equipment and undertake administrative tasks. They may also oversee patient care, ensuring that clinic policies provide the best care possible.

Clinical Director

Median Pay: $73,953

Job Growth: N/A

Clinical directors oversee an organization's clinical departments. They play a role in hiring, supervising, and evaluating staff members. Clinical supervisors set goals and strategies for their department, including patient care policies. They may also take on financial and budgetary responsibilities within the clinic.


Median Pay: $77,030

Job Growth: 14%

Social workers with clinical training may qualify for positions in psychology. Psychologists diagnose patients, provide psychotherapy, and create treatment plans. They work in many settings, including private practice, schools, and healthcare organizations. Psychologists typically need a doctoral degree.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Nontraditional Careers for Social Work Ph.D. Graduates

Earning a Ph.D. in social work online also prepares graduates for nontraditional career paths. Social work doctoral students may work as directors in social welfare organizations, as executive-level healthcare professionals, or as policymakers. These career paths draw on many of the skills gained during a doctorate in social work.

Career Stats Description

Executive Director, Nonprofit Organization

Median Pay: $65,069

Job Growth: N/A

Executive directors in nonprofit organizations oversee daily operations and create long-term strategies for organizations. Acting in a similar role to a CEO, executive directors set the vision and direction for the organization. They may work with a board of directors to manage the organization.

Skills Overlapped: Organizational skills, self-direction

Wellness Director

Median Pay: $55,612

Job Growth: N/A

Wellness directors create guidelines and policies to improve the mental and physical health of a company's employees. They develop and implement programs based on research. Wellness directors must identify risks and problems faced by employees to create plans to improve employee wellness.

Skills Overlapped: Research skills, critical thinking, empathy

Chief Nursing Officer (CNO)

Median Pay: $126,322

Job Growth: N/A

Social workers with a healthcare background may qualify for chief nursing officer positions. CNOs direct nursing activities in a hospital or other healthcare organization. They adhere to safety protocols, work with hospital leadership to create patient care policies, and manage department staff.

Skills Overlapped: Organizational skills, management abilities

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Paying for a Ph.D. in Social Work Online

Doctoral students in social work programs pay for their degree with a mix of savings, scholarships, and loans. Schools and professional organizations may provide funding opportunities, such as scholarships, grants, and fellowships. Students pursuing a doctorate also qualify for federal financial aid, which includes grants, scholarships, loans, and work-study opportunities. Students can save money by researching tuition rates, study timelines, and accelerated degree options.

Scholarships for Online Social Work Ph.D. Students

Doctoral students in social work qualify for multiple scholarship opportunities through professional organizations and private foundations. Many funding opportunities require a competitive application process where students submit personal statements, transcripts, and letters of recommendation. Some scholarships also require membership to professional organizations.

What to Expect from an Online Social Work Ph.D. Program

Online social work programs train students for careers as social work leaders and professors. Doctoral students in social work spend several years completing coursework requirements. After passing an examination, students complete a dissertation based on original research. Some programs incorporate a capstone project or an internship. Most social work doctorates take 3-5 years to complete.

Major Milestones

  1. Orientation

    Online programs often begin with an orientation where students meet with faculty members and other doctoral students virtually or in person, depending on the program.

  2. Coursework

    Doctoral programs require 40-60 credits of coursework. Incoming students with a master's degree in social work may apply some graduate credits toward doctoral requirements.

  3. Qualifying Examination

    Most doctoral programs include qualifying examinations, which students complete after meeting the coursework requirements. After passing the examination, doctoral students begin their dissertation or capstone project.

  4. Capstone Project

    Some DSW programs incorporate a capstone project, which may include an internship or clinical experience. Doctoral students may conduct research and write an analysis as part of the capstone.

  5. Dissertation

    Social work doctoral students, particularly those in a Ph.D. program, typically complete a dissertation based on original research. Students defend their dissertation before a faculty committee.

  6. Filing for Graduation

    In their final semester, doctoral students file their intent to graduate. Students may need to provide signatures from their faculty adviser and committee. Online students can often participate in the on-campus graduation ceremony.


The coursework in a doctoral social work program prepares graduates for advanced positions. Courses vary by program, but common social work doctoral courses are outlined below.

Social Work Theory and Practice

Doctoral programs train students in social work theory and practice. Students analyze social work theories and their applications. The course may also cover evaluating policy outcomes and assessing intervention methods.

Social Policy

Policy courses examine the development of social welfare policies, including implementation and outcomes. Students may design a social welfare policy or conduct research on a policy's impact. The course prepares graduates for careers as social welfare leaders.

Quantitative Methods in Social Work

Doctoral students learn the necessary quantitative skills to conduct social work research. The course trains students to design original research projects, perform research, and analyze the results.

Financial Management in Social Work

Social work leaders rely on financial management courses to gain the skills needed to run a social work organization. Students learn about financial decision-making, revenue sources, and budget planning.


Many social work programs incorporate a dissertation or a capstone project. During the dissertation, doctoral students conduct original research, review literature, and write a report of their findings.

Degree Timelines

Doctoral students in social work benefit from flexible schedule options when completing their degree. Many programs offer part-time, full-time, and accelerated tracks.

Enrollment Status Time to Complete Description


5+ years

A part-time option lets social work doctoral students complete their coursework and dissertation in five or more years. Part-time students complete the 40-60 required credits by taking one or two classes per term. This option appeals to students balancing doctoral work with a full-time job.


3-5 years

Most full-time social work Ph.D. programs take 3-5 years to complete. A research-based Ph.D. may take closer to five years, while a practice-based DSW may take three years. Some online programs allow full-time students to balance school with a job.


2-3 years

Accelerated programs can take as little as two years for a DSW or three years for a Ph.D. to complete. On an accelerated path, doctoral students complete 40-60 credits, taking as many as three or four classes each term. Doctoral students typically cannot work while enrolled in an accelerated program.

Licenses and Certifications

Licenses and certifications demonstrate competencies to potential employers. Professional social workers need a state license to practice in most states. The requirements vary by state, though most states require an accredited social work degree and a passing score on a licensing examination. In addition to licenses, social workers pursue certifications to demonstrate their expertise. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) offers several certifications for social work professionals.

  • Licensed Clinical Social Worker: In most states, clinical social workers must obtain licensure to practice. Licensed clinical social workers typically need a master's degree or higher in social work, passing scores on an examination, and two years of clinical social work experience.
  • Certified Social Work Case Manager: Offered by the NASW, this credential recognizes experienced case managers. Applicants must hold an accredited social work degree and at least three years of professional experience in case management.
  • Clinical Social Worker in Gerontology: Social workers with a graduate degree from an accredited program meet the educational requirement for this credential. Candidates must also hold two years of experience working with aging populations and 30 contact hours of professional education in the field.
  • Certified School Social Work Specialist: School social workers with an accredited graduate degree in social work qualify for this credential. Candidates must hold two years of paid school social work experience and a current state social worker license or an exam-based school social work license.

Professional Organizations and Resources

Doctoral students earning an online Ph.D. in social work rely on professional organizations for scholarships, networking opportunities, and career development resources. Many professional organizations offer career centers with job banks, and some provide career mentoring or advocacy services. These resources help doctoral students transition from graduate programs into the workforce. Professionals in social work also use resources, like scholarly journals and magazines, to stay current in the field.

  • National Association of Social Workers Founded in 1955, the NASW represents social workers nationwide. The association offers membership discounts for students, provides scholarship opportunities, and hosts conferences and events with networking opportunities.
  • School Social Work Association of America: Doctoral students considering careers as school social workers join SSWAA to receive discounts on conferences and publications, professional development resources, and tools for social workers. Members also receive access to professional advocacy services.
  • Association of Oncology Social Workers: A specialized professional organization for oncology social workers, AOSW publishes research; hosts conferences; and provides professional development support, such as webinars, online learning opportunities, and a career center.
  • National Association of Black Social Workers: The NABSW represents black social workers and provides publications and a career center to advance members' careers. The association also offers several scholarship opportunities for students.
  • Council on Social Work Education: The CSWE provides accreditation for social work programs. The council also provides scholarship opportunities, individual membership, and resources for students.
  • Association of Social Work Boards: The ASWB creates and proctors exams for social workers to earn a state social work license. The association also offers resources for students and information about regulatory boards.
  • Journal of Social Work Education: Published by the CSWE, the peer-reviewed journal offers information on social work education, including doctoral programs. Academics and professionals can also publish research in the journal.
  • The New Social Worker: A social work careers magazine, The New Social Worker provides articles on social work education, ethics for social workers, and practice specialties. The articles appeal to students and graduates.
  • Social Work Today: Social Work Today publishes articles on social work news, education, and professional practice. The magazine also hosts a job bank for social work career opportunities.
  • Social Work: A scholarly journal published by the NASW, Social Work publishes research and articles on social work practice and policy. Doctoral students and graduates can publish work in the journal.