Doctor of Social Work (DSW) Degree Programs

The social work discipline is defined by a commitment to social justice and equality, and to improving the well-being of vulnerable populations. Social workers achieve this mission through both direct work with individuals and broader work in social service program development, administrative leadership in human services, political advocacy, teaching, and other responsibilities that have macro-level impact. In general, Doctor of Social Work programs (also known as Doctorate of Social Work, or DSW programs) are designed to help students prepare for social work leadership, program development, macro-level social work policy analysis and advocacy, and/or advanced social work research.

DSW programs build off of the foundations that students develop in both their academic and professional experiences in social work, and as such the vast majority of DSW programs require their students to have previously earned a Master of Social Work (MSW) from a Council on Social Work Education (CSWE)-accredited institution. (Note: Most programs require applicants to have at least two years of post-MSW experience as well, and some programs require students to be licensed in their state of residence.) The programs that do not require an MSW typically require students to have completed a master’s degree in a related healthcare field. While the CSWE is the sole accrediting body for all bachelor and master of social work programs in the US, at present, the CSWE does not accredit Doctor of Social Work programs.

In general, DSW programs are comprised of 45-65 course credits, which students complete over the course of two to three years. DSW programs tend to vary in terms of their specific course content, but typically include courses on the major theoretical and practical frameworks for social work leadership, leadership skills within complex human services and social justice contexts, and graduate-level research for the purposes of establishing or improving social work best practices. Some DSW programs allow their students to specialize with formal concentrations, while others only offer one program track. As a result, students should always thoroughly research DSW programs before applying to identify ones that offer the curriculum that will best help them meet their educational and professional goals.

Regardless of their course content or available specializations, the vast majority of DSW programs require students to complete a dissertation or other advanced research project that requires them to apply the skills and knowledge they learned in their classes to investigate an issue that is relevant to social work practice. Unlike BSW and MSW programs, however, most DSW programs do not require the completion of field practicum hours in a clinical or other social work setting, for they generally assume students to have completed sufficient field practicum hours during their MSW and subsequent professional experience in the field.

Currently, based on a report conducted by the CSWE, there are approximately 20 schools in the US and Puerto Rico that offer DSW programs. The majority of these programs are hybrid programs that combine on-campus and online instruction. However, there are programs that are mainly offered on-campus and programs that are completely or primarily (with a limited number of campus visits) offered online. For more information on online DSW programs, see the section below.

This page outlines important considerations for students who are interested in a DSW program, including the typical curriculum for these programs, campus-based residency requirements and what they might entail for online programs, and the DSW dissertation or capstone research project.

Note: For students without an MSW who are considering a DSW program, see our note at the bottom of this page for important information about licensure in clinical social work*.

Curriculum for Doctor of Social Work Programs

Most DSW programs are comprised of 45-65 course credits that are divided between core courses, specialization courses, research courses, electives, and a dissertation or capstone project. As mentioned previously, DSW programs generally do not have a field education requirement. However, they typically have courses, seminars, and trainings in areas such as clinical supervision, program development and administration, and social work research and education. Furthermore, the majority of DSW programs require a culminating project, such as a dissertation or a capstone project.

DSW programs can vary significantly in terms of their specialization options and curricular content. For example, the University of Southern California’s (USC) online DSW program does not have a specialization, but is designed to train students to become executive leaders in human services and social justice, using the 12 Grand Challenges of Social Work to structure the curriculum. On the other hand, there are also online DSW programs with specializations, such as the University of Tennessee at Knoxville’s Doctor of Social Work in Clinical Practice & Leadership and the University of Pennsylvania’s online DSW in Clinical Social Work. Due to the variance in course content and sequencing, as well as specialization options available amongst DSW programs, students should thoroughly research the DSW programs that interest them in order to identify which programs best serve their needs, interests, and goals.

Below is a sample curricular plan for a typical DSW program. Please note that the following table is meant for informational purposes only, and is not representative of any specific DSW program.

Semester 1
Semester 2
Year 1
  • Advanced Research for Social Work Practice
  • Intersections of Social Work Theory, Policy, and Practice
  • Advanced Theories of Social Work Leadership
  • Social Work Interventions in Complex Systems
Year 2
  • Social Work Leadership Through Civic Engagement
  • Organizational and Executive Leadership in Human and Social Services
  • Dissertation Seminar
  • Communication and Messaging for Social Justice
  • Financial Management for Human Services Systems
  • Dissertation Seminar
Year 3
  • Foundations of Social Work Pedagogy
  • Independent Dissertation Work
  • Adaptive Leadership for Change Management
  • Independent Dissertation Work

Examples of DSW Courses:

Below are sample courses students might take in a DSW program. Prospective students should note that these courses are meant to serve only as examples, and are not illustrative of all DSW programs’ curricula.

  • Advanced Research for Social Work Practice: The advanced quantitative and qualitative research methodologies that empower social work practitioners to develop effective, empathetic, and ethical interventions and programs at the individual, group, organizational, and community levels.
  • Intersections of Social Work Theory, Policy, and Practice: In this course, students investigate how the principal theories of social work inform all levels of social work practice, from the clinical/micro to mezzo and macro-level. Students discuss social work through a broader lens and examine how government policy, social movements and social justice, and the social work discipline at all levels of practice intersect, both historically and in contemporary contexts.
  • Advanced Theories of Leadership in Social Work: Students learn the conceptual frameworks of group, institutional, and community leadership, and how to apply them to various practitioner scenarios. This course also covers how leadership theories and methodologies connect to evidence-based social work practice, diversity and social justice, policy analysis and advocacy, and program development, assessment, and improvement.
  • Social Work Interventions in Complex Systems: The key theories and frameworks for evaluating and addressing large-scale local, state, and national social issues through a variety of systemic interventions. How to research the impact of these interventions and adjust programs accordingly.
  • Social Work Leadership Through Civic Engagement: How social work leaders can engage and mobilize the public and strengthen civic agency through a combination of public outreach, data gathering and analysis to identify relevant stakeholders, social media and other marketing strategies, identifying key missions and values amongst community groups, and constructing compelling messaging that helps generate positive community change.
  • Organizational and Executive Leadership in Human and Social Services: The key principles for and methods of administration in human services contexts, with a mind towards empowering social work agencies to have a greater impact on the communities they serve. How students can apply the theories and principles of executive leadership to social service initiatives and social work organizations. How to gather data, analyze information on social work agency operations, and employ data-driven decision-making in order to improve organizational workflows and impact.
  • Communication and Messaging for Social Justice: How to increase the impact of social justice and human services initiatives by using strategic communication across various channels, from mobile applications to social media, online marketing, and print publications. The process of developing effective campaigns for various stakeholders and members of the public to address the key concerns of the social work discipline.
  • Financial Management for Human Services Systems: How to apply financial management and business development principles to supporting human services organizations. Students learn the principles and strategies of budget management, fundraising and revenue generation, and cost allocation and control, and how these principles can support social service programs for positive change.

DSW Dissertations and Capstone Projects

While BSW and MSW programs typically consider field education to be students’ culminating experience (e.g. their opportunity to apply the knowledge and methods they have learned in their courses to real social work practice situations), DSW programs consider a Dissertation or Capstone Project to be the culmination of students’ learning. This independent research endeavor gives students a chance to either contribute new insight to the field of social work research or examine and develop potential solutions to pressing issues in the social work field. The Dissertation and Capstone Project enable students to apply the advanced research methods, knowledge of social welfare challenges, and leadership methods they have learned in their program to an independent project that can serve as a stepping stone into their future careers in social work research, program development and administration, and other forms of social work leadership.

The Dissertation is typically a formal, five-chapter research publication that investigates a social work inquiry using quantitative, qualitative, or mix-methods research methodologies. The aim of the Dissertation is generally not to propose targeted solutions, but rather to shed light on issues or phenomena that impact the well-being of certain populations. Examples of questions a DSW Dissertation might investigate include:

  • How do family dynamics and communication impact substance abuse behaviors in adolescents?
  • How effective are sexual health education programs in preventing STD transmission and instances of sexual violence?
  • What is the relationship between affordable housing policies in certain urban areas and the incidence of domestic violence, substance abuse, and/or other social welfare problems?

On the other hand, a Capstone Project might have a more flexible structure, and depending on the DSW program, students might choose to research and develop a plan to address a social work agency’s organizational challenges, design a potential campaign to educate the community about public health issues, or write a proposal to be submitted to a human rights advocacy group. It is important for prospective students to note that the Dissertation or Capstone Project will have different requirements depending on the DSW program.

Regardless of whether a DSW program requires a traditional Dissertation or a Capstone Project, students typically receive support from a faculty committee. In general, this committee is comprised of a Chair (who is the principal advisor to the student during their work) and two other scholars or experts who can provide valuable input as students hone their research question, conduct studies, and analyze their findings. While the precise steps to completing their culminating experience will vary depending on their program, students generally must write a proposal that they submit to their committee for approval before they embark on their primary research work.

During their quantitative and/or qualitative research, students’ faculty committee advises and supports through steps such as applying for IRB approval if students’ research involves human subjects. Upon the finalization of their Dissertation or Capstone Project, it is common for students to present their findings and conclusions (and in some cases their recommendations) to their committee, and possibly their classmates and other faculty members.

Online Doctor of Social Work Programs

For social workers who have full-time or part-time jobs, and/or who have personal obligations that make attending a campus-based program challenging, online DSW programs can be an alternative option. Moreover, while there are close to 300 schools that offer MSW programs in the US, as mentioned above, there are only approximately 20 schools that currently offer DSW programs. For students who do not live near one of these schools, attending a program online is the only way to earn a DSW without having to relocate.

Through innovative online learning management systems and faculty who are trained in effective online instruction, online DSW programs also offer the following benefits:

  • The ability to watch pre-recorded lectures (asynchronous instruction), complete assignments, and participate in online discussion forums with flexibility in terms of scheduling. For programs that mainly use asynchronous instruction, students are not required to be online at specific times.
  • The opportunity for students to directly apply what they learn to their current jobs in order to advance their careers as they complete their degree.
  • For programs that use synchronous instruction, students can engage with faculty and peers in real-time without having to travel to campus as long as they have access to an internet connection.
  • 24/7 access to course materials such as online readings, lectures, study sessions and discussions, and learning activities.
  • The ability to view course materials and recorded discussion sessions numerous times in order to better understand lectures and course concepts.

While online DSW programs offer the above benefits to students, prospective applicants should keep in mind that online learning might not be suitable for all students. For some, the structure and in-person interactions inherent to a campus-based program can prove highly beneficial, especially during the Dissertation or Capstone project phase of their program (which is typically more challenging for students who struggle with lack of structured coursework or guidance). When deciding between campus-based and online options for their DSW program, prospective students should carefully assess their preferred learning styles, their desired areas of focus in their doctorate degree, and their personal and professional obligations.


*Note about Licensure in Clinical Social Work: Social workers who wish to set up their own private practice providing clinical counseling must seek licensure from their state’s social work licensing board. The typical path to licensure involves earning an MSW from a CSWE accredited program, not a DSW. And while DSW graduates who did not earn an MSW may meet the degree requirements for licensure in some states, the DSW curriculum generally is not designed to prepare students for licensure post-graduation. On the other hand, CSWE-accredited MSW programs generally have the requisite courses and field education requirements for students to qualify for licensure in their state (although exceptions may apply depending on the program’s specialization and if students are attending an out-of-state program).

Therefore, prospective DSW students who did not earn an MSW who think they might want to pursue licensure should contact their state’s board of social work to determine if they will be able to meet the requirements for licensure post-graduation. For students with a master’s in a different field who are interested in clinical social work, it may be better to actually pursue a second masters (i.e., an MSW) as opposed to a DSW.