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

If you hold a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree or are a current MSW student, you may be considering earning your Doctor of Social Work (DSW) or Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in social work. While both are doctoral degrees that may help advance your social work career, they have some differences. This guide discusses the DSW versus the Ph.D. in social work and the roles you may expect to take on with either degree.

What Is the Difference?

The difference between a DSW and a Ph.D. in social work lies in the tenets of the program: practice versus theory. A DSW program focuses on social work practice, supervision and applied research, whereas a Ph.D. program’s emphasis is scholarly and theoretical research and educational practices. While it is common for Ph.D. programs to focus on rigorous research methods, a DSW program may or may not include some research elements.

Which Degree Is Right for Me?

Your personal and professional goals may help inform whether a DSW or a Ph.D. degree in social work is right for you. 

The ideal candidate for a DSW may seek to extend their work as a licensed social worker in the areas of social service leadership and management. A DSW may provide you the knowledge and skills to work in different roles such as social work administrator, social and community service manager, or advanced practice clinical social worker. 

A potential candidate for a Ph.D. program is one who may desire to influence the future of social work through education and research. This doctoral level of education may offer you opportunities to conduct research on real-world issues and teach tomorrow’s social workers. 

As a licensed social worker with a doctoral degree, whether it be a DSW or Ph.D., your fight for social justice and the improvement of the lives of people and communities around the globe is crucial for the welfare of society today and generations to come. The need for social workers continues to rise, as evidenced by a projected growth rate of 13% from 2019 to 2029, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). 

Doctorate of Social Work (DSW)

For students seeking a DSW degree, schools of social work may offer on-campus DSW programs. However, if you cannot attend on-campus classes or need flexibility in your schedule, there are several online DSW programs that you can complete in two to three years. Though ideal career paths may vary from student to student, specializations may include addiction and social work, clinical expertise, criminal justice, family studies, medical social work, social work policy, and social work administration, as well as disaster, crisis, and intervention. It may be worthwhile to review each specialization and see if it could align with your objectives.

Although requirements for entry into a Doctorate of Social Work program vary, they may include:

  • master’s in social work from an accredited institution (Some programs permit students with a master’s in an associated field like psychology from an accredited college.)
  • Transcripts 
  • GRE scores
  • G.P.A. of a least 3.0
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Field-related work experience

Coursework will likely vary from program to program. However, students can expect to use existing research and data, social work best practices, ethical decision making and advanced theory to promote prevention or intervention strategies that address the needs of a social group or social problem as they progress their education. Some programs offer various specializations, such as criminal justice and policy practice, that may help you meet your goals. A DSW dissertation, capstone research project and in-person residency are components that students are often required to complete. 

Simmons University

Simmons School of Social Work (SSW)


Doctorate of Social Work (DSW)

Simmons University offers an online Doctorate of Social Work (DSW) — MSW required; no GRE required. The program prepares you to become a well-rounded scholar-practitioner through a curriculum focused on three key areas: inclusive leadership, advanced clinical practice, and teaching and education.

  • Complete in less than two years full time or less than three years part time 
  • MSW required; three years post-MSW work experience required
  • No GRE scores required


Doctor of Philosophy in Social Work (Ph.D.)

A Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in social work may be an ideal pathway for students interested in a career in research or academia. Though social work career paths vary person to person, this degree may offer specializations such as mental health, children and families, or substance abuse. The choice is yours to make:Ensure you review the types of specializations available to see if they may align with your career goals or ideal job placements. Like the DSW, you can find Ph.D. in social work degree programs offered as on-campus or online formats. Whether you attend full time or part time, you may spend three to five years completing your degree.

Requirements for admission to a Ph.D. in social work program vary; however, the following are common:

  • A master’s degree in social work from an accredited school (Some programs accept a master’s in a related field from an accredited institution.)
  • GRE scores
  • Transcript and GPA
  • Resume and relevant work experience
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Field-related work experience
  • Writing samples

The curriculum of a Ph.D. in social work program varies between schools. However, students may expect a Ph.D. program to focus on advanced research methods and applying those skills in the real world. Some may offer research opportunities with faculty and institutes in nearby areas to focus on topics including child welfare, poverty, mental health services, addiction, gambling, health, and violence against women and children. Typical coursework may include policy, teaching methods, theory, proposal development and statistics. A dissertation is sometimes a requirement for a Ph.D. in social work.


Once you understand the differences between a DSW and a Ph.D. in social work, you can begin to ascertain what career options interest you. However, you may still have questions. We’ve covered some below for your research.

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

A Ph.D. in social work may allow a graduate to specialize in an area of interest and take on a role as researcher, educator, administrator or policy-maker. As a Ph.D. holder, your education and experience prepare you to shape the future of social work through an advanced position in higher education or a research-oriented or nonprofit organization.   

What can you do with a DSW degree?

DSW graduates may find employment in health care facilities, clinical settings and social work organizations, among others. Professionals with a Doctor of Social Work degree may pursue careers such as social work administrators, social or community service managers, advanced practice social workers or nonprofit directors.

Is a Ph.D. in social work worth it?

Education is an investment of both time and money. It is you who must decide the value of a Ph.D. in social work. While not an ideal path for all students, you should only consider accredited institutions to ensure their programs meet the highest level of quality and hold to rigorous practice standards for those who opt for this advanced degree.

Last updated in December 2020.