DSW vs. Ph.D. in Social Work: What’s the Difference in 2023?

DSW vs. Ph.D. in Social Work: What’s the Difference in 2023?

Students interested in pursuing advanced academic and research opportunities in social work can choose between taking up a DSW vs Ph.D. The Doctor of Social Work (DSW) degree and Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Social Work will allow graduates to land various jobs in humanities and social sciences. However, they differ in program structure, research requirements, and career opportunities.

Regardless of the type of doctoral degree program students want to pursue, social work is one of the fastest-growing employment in the United States. That is because demand for social workers is projected to grow by 9% between 2021 and 2031 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2023).

That said, we will explore the key differences between DSW and Ph.D. in social work in the following sections. This is to help students determine which degree is the best fit for their academic and career goals.

DSW vs. Ph.D. in Social Work Table of Contents

Differences Between DSW and Ph.D. in Social Work

The main difference between DSW vs Ph.D. in social work is the program's core principles. One focuses on practice, and the other on theory. DSW programs prioritize social work practice, applied research, and supervision, while Ph.D. programs emphasize scholarly and theoretical study and educational courses.

Doctor of Social Work (DSW)

The Doctorate of Social Work (DSW) focuses on advanced practice, leadership, and applied research. DSW programs prepare graduates for leadership positions in the field of social work. This includes providing them with the knowledge and skills necessary to advance the field by developing and implementing evidence-based practices.

DSW programs typically emphasize the integration of research, policy, and practice. As such, this program may include specialized coursework in advanced clinical training, organizational leadership, community development, and program evaluation.

Graduates of DSW programs may choose to work in different settings, including academia, healthcare, government, and nonprofit organizations. Working in this sector will allow them to use their expertise to improve social services and policies.

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

The Doctor of Philosophy or Ph.D. in Social Work prepares students for academic and research careers. Ph.D. programs typically focus on developing advanced research skills and creating new knowledge in the field of social work.

As such, a Ph.D. program in social work may include coursework in theory development, research methods, and data analysis. This doctoral degree also provides opportunities for students to conduct independent research under the guidance of faculty mentors.

Graduates of Ph.D. programs in social work may pursue careers as postsecondary teachers or field researchers. Doing so will allow them to make significant contributions to advance the field of social work or improve community welfare policies.

Source: National Center for Education Statistics, 2021

Choosing Between DSW vs Ph.D.

For students asking, "what degree do I need to become a social worker?" The answer depends on their personal and professional goals. A DSW may suit those who want to specialize in a particular practice area, while a Ph.D. may be appropriate for those who want to shape the future of social work.

Regardless of the difference between DSW and Ph.D., graduates of these programs can be crucial in promoting social justice and improving people's lives. Thus, our researchers gathered all the valuable information a student will need when choosing between DSW vs Ph.D.

Focus and Emphasis

One of the significant differences between DSW and Ph.D. is their focus. DSW emphasizes clinical practices and applied research. As such, graduates can be expert clinicians or welfare managers. These careers allow them to use their knowledge and skills in a practical setting.

On the other hand, a Ph.D. in Social Work focuses on social work theory and academic research. This program prepares students to become postsecondary teachers or researchers, enabling them to improve social work policies through research and policy development.

Specializations and Concentrations

Social work students choosing between DSW vs Ph.D. can pick a doctorate based on their preferred specializations. These concentrations will allow them to apply their skills to specific passions and interests.

DSW students can specialize in any of these concentrations:

  • Clinical Practice and Supervision. This focus area has to do with developing clinical skills. It allows students to apply evidence-based practices to complex social work cases.
  • Leadership and Administration. This concentration teaches students how to develop social programs, manage staff, and do high-level advocacy work. This includes leveraging social work practices to address systemic issues.
  • Mental Health and Substance Misuse. This prepares students to work with mental health and substance abuse patients. Thus, social workers with this specialization can work in a hospital, treatment center, or social service organization.

Meanwhile, Ph.D. students can consider these specializations:

  • Teaching Methods and Training. This focus area is suitable for graduate students to want to work within the education sector. It teaches them various teaching methodologies, allowing them to become influential social work professors.
  • Research Methods and Data Analysis. This concentration emphasizes using multiple research methods to acquire and analyze data. It is designed to evaluate the effectiveness of a program, develop new knowledge, or improve an existing policy.
  • Social Welfare Policies. This specialization allows students to identify interdisciplinary education around a population or social issue. Also discussed in this area of focus is developing new policies based on people's needs and improving existing ones to ensure that every participant receives their benefits.

Scholarship and Financial Aid

The tuition and fees for graduate studies are between $19,700 and $26,700 (National Center for Education Statistics, 2022). The cost varies depending on the program, specialization, and the university. Luckily, DSW vs. Ph.D. in social work students can apply for various scholarships and financial aid.

For DSW students, they can look for colleges and universities that offer fully funded DSW programs. Students admitted to a fully funded DSW program get access to full tuition. They may also receive a cash stipend for their on-campus living expenses, depending on the school.

On the other hand, Ph.D. students may reach out to organizations that provide scholarships to graduate students of social work. The Jane B. Aron Doctoral Fellowship coordinates with the National Association for Social Work (NASW) and the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) to provide grants to doctoral fellows. In exchange, the candidates' dissertations must focus on health policy and practice.

Licensing and Continued Learning

After obtaining their ASW degree or bachelor's degree in social work, social workers choose to start their journey to get licensed. Not all social work roles require a license to practice. However, it is a common requirement for social workers who work directly with people. Luckily, students choosing between DSW vs Ph.D. can expect the same process for licensing.

The standard path to becoming a licensed social worker is to complete a bachelor's degree in social work, pursue a master's degree in social work or an MSW-equivalent program, and complete the fieldwork hours requirement as determined by the state board.

Once completed, students should pass the licensure exam administered by the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) before they can obtain their license to practice. They can then choose to pursue a doctoral degree (be it DSW or Ph.D.) or a certification program to advance their social work practice. Moreover, state boards often require a certain number of continuing education hours as part of the license renewal process.

Aside from choosing between DSW vs Ph.D., there are various continuing education that licensed social workers can pursue. What programs they will pursue will depend on the state and their level of licensure. This can include individual professional activities, formally organized learning events, and professional meetings.

Salary and Career Outlook

More than 700,000 social work jobs are projected to be available between 2021 and 2031 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2022). Whether graduate students pick between DSW vs Ph.D., pursuing a doctorate will allow them to work in various industries. These include local and state government offices, relief centers, and rehabilitation centers.

Also, the average annual salary of a social worker is at least $50,000 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2022). It can reach to $74,000 annually for licensed clinical social workers with advanced degrees in social work and decades of experience (Indeed, n.d.). You can compare the types of social workers and salary rates in our social worker 2023 salary guide.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2022

What can I do with a DSW vs. Ph.D. in Social Work?

We wrote in our post on how to become a social worker that most students choose to take on graduate studies to advance their careers as social workers. Completing DSW vs Ph.D. in social work allows graduates to pursue various high-demand careers in healthcare. They can also specialize in specific areas like social work education, social work leadership, or advanced clinical practice. These include focusing on areas like children and family welfare or mental health.

DSW Careers

Licensed Clinical Social Worker

Becoming a licensed clinical social worker is suitable for graduate students wanting to pursue a counseling career path. One reason is that this profession allows them to offer emotional and mental health services to patients. Licensed clinical social workers also help people identify their needs. Hence, they can work with people or families in a treatment center or social service organization.

Median salary: $74,040

Social and Community Service Managers

A social and community service manager assesses a participant's living conditions and makes recommendations based on their best interests. For instance, a community service manager may investigate allegations of child neglect or abuse. Hence, they can decide what actions to take to ensure a child's safety. This may include locating a foster home, conducting interviews with potential adoptive parents, and providing testimony in court.

Median salary: $74,000

Nonprofit Program Director

A nonprofit program director is responsible for overseeing a charitable organization. A charitable or nonprofit organization offers services to the community, like a shelter for people without homes or a foster care service. As nonprofit program directors, part of their responsibility is to hire staff, devise organizational policies, cooperate with state and federal regulators, and secure funding for the organization.

Median salary: $66,291

Ph.D. in Social Work Career

Postsecondary Teacher

A social work professor teaches and conducts research within the field of social work. They teach undergraduate and graduate courses in social work, develop curricula, advise and mentor students, and engage in scholarly research and writing.

Some postsecondary social work teachers may serve on university committees, supervise students in field placements or internships, and provide consultation and training to organizations and agencies. This is because their role is to prepare the next generation of social workers and advance the understanding and application of social work practice and theory.

Median salary: $79,640

Field Researcher

A field researcher uses various research techniques to generate valuable and relevant data. They may analyze policies, conduct surveys, or interview participants to lead innovative developments in the field of social work. Hence, field researchers are crucial in helping social workers and organizations provide better social welfare services.

Median salary: $73,521

Policy Analyst

A public policy analyst researches and analyzes current policies in the social work field. This is to provide recommendations to amend existing ones or create new policies.

Public policy analysts typically work in the government since they can directly impact local and federal policies. This reflects a statement written in the paper titled "Now Is the Time for a Rights-Based Approach to Social Work Practice," published by the Journal of Human Rights and Social Work.

The paper states that "through a rights-based lens, we see that in many societies, access to healthcare, unemployment benefits, housing, social security, education, etc.—the social and economic rights first promised in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations 1948)—are actually privileges reserved for some rather than rights guaranteed to all. Shifting the focus from human needs to human rights requires social workers to see their clients' concerns in larger sociopolitical context and to assess for political issues beyond the standard social or psychiatric ones (McPherson, 2020)."

Median salary: $75,763

Source: US Census Bureau, 2022

DSW vs Ph.D. Application Requirements

Application requirements between DSW vs Ph.D. vary depending on the school. It also differs based on the degree type students want to pursue. To help improve their chances of getting accepted into a DSW or Ph.D. in Social Work program, our research experts collected some of the standard application requirements.


Colleges and universities require aspiring doctorate students to earn a master's degree in social work. Fortunately, there are plenty of affordable accredited online MSW programs that students can pursue. There are also doctoral programs that admit students with a master's degree in a relevant field, such as psychology.

Relatively, CSWE accredits bachelor's and master's degrees in social work. The professional organization does not accredit doctorates in social work, although they launched a pilot program in the fall of 2021 for a professional practice doctoral program accreditation. However, the pilot program is meant to develop accreditation standards and curriculum guidelines for DSW programs only. This is why students must be thorough when searching for DSW vs. Ph.D. in Social Work programs.

Source: Council on Social Work Education, n.d.


Applicants must submit a copy of their official transcripts to prove they have completed their undergraduate and master's studies from an accredited college or university. It is also vital for them to have a minimum undergraduate GPA of 3.0. Some academic institutions may require students to submit their Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) score, which varies by college or university.

Field-related Work Experience

DSW and Ph.D. in Social Work require applicants to have field-related work experience. This entails holding full-time employment and doing volunteer work as a social worker. The number of hours varies depending on the college or university and specialization.

Other Requirements

Regarding application requirements, the difference between DSW and Ph.D. are the recommendations and essays. Students who want to pursue a DSW only need to submit letters of recommendation. This can come from their professors or clinical supervisors.

Meanwhile, students who want to take a Ph.D. in Social Work must submit a resume, recommendation letters, and writing samples. The samples should showcase their research and data analysis skills.

What are the DSW and Ph.D. in Social Work requirements to graduate?

DSW and Ph.D. programs take two to four years to complete. This includes accomplishing 40 to 60 credits worth of coursework. In addition, DSW students must submit a capstone project, while Ph.D. students must submit their dissertations.

A capstone project demonstrates the practical application of advanced knowledge and skills in social work. On the other hand, a dissertation involves original research that can contribute to the body of knowledge in the field. These final projects may take one to four additional years to complete, depending on various factors.

Colleges and universities may also require DSW vs Ph.D. students to complete field education placements. This is to gain practical experience in social work settings like hospitals, schools, or community organizations. Aside from getting advanced education in social work, these programs also prepare students for their preferred career path.

Source: National Center for Education Statistics, 2022

Choosing the Doctorate Program That is Right for You

Social workers devote their careers to helping others. However, they might wonder if any type of social work degree will allow them to do more. This is where choosing between a DSW vs. Ph.D. in Social Work can help.

Both require heavy academic lifting. However, a doctorate in social work allows students to pursue some of the in-demand healthcare careers.

Deciding whether to take DSW vs Ph.D. will depend on their career goals. For students who want to devote their careers to furthering the field of social work, a Ph.D. in social work can be a good choice. Meanwhile, students who wish to become expert clinicians or step into leadership roles can choose DSW.



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