Online PhD in Social Work 2021

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Social work involves supporting individuals, families, and communities with problems such as poverty, homelessness, and unemployment. Clinical social workers may also help clients with mental health and substance abuse issues. Social workers earn an annual median salary of $51,760, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The BLS projects careers in the field to grow 13% from 2019-2029, a rate much higher than the national average.

A Ph.D. in social work degree prepares graduates to pursue leadership roles in management, clinical practice, research, and education. This guide ranks the best online Ph.D. in social work programs. It also covers other important information for prospective students, such as common courses and scholarship opportunities for social work students.

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1 The University of Tennessee-Knoxville Knoxville, TN

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Questions People Ask about Ph.D in Social Work


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

    Doctorate in social work programs prepare students for top-level positions in fields like research, academia, and social work, making it a worthwhile investment for many students.


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

    A Ph.D. in social work can lead to careers in academia, research, clinical practice, and social work program management.


  • How long does it take to get a Ph.D. in social work?

    A doctorate typically takes 3-7 years to complete, though the average candidate takes under six years to complete their studies.


  • How much does a social worker with a Ph.D. make?

    Social workers earn an annual median salary of $51,760. Ph.D. graduates may pursue higher-paying careers, such as social and community services manager. These professionals make an annual median salary of $69,600.


Why Get a Degree in Social Work?

Ph.D. in social work programs build advanced knowledge in social work theory and practice. This degree prepares graduates for top positions in research, education, clinical practice, and social work program management. Many of these positions offer above-average salaries. For example, postsecondary teachers at colleges and universities earn an annual median salary of $80,790.

Many colleges offer online social work degrees, which give students the flexibility to balance their studies with other responsibilities. While Ph.D. candidates must complete clinical practicums or other experiential requirements in person, many online programs allow students to meet these requirements locally.

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How Much Does a Social Work Degree Cost?

Many schools offer full funding to doctoral candidates, meaning students pay no tuition in return for completing teaching or research duties while they earn their degree. In fact, most Ph.D. candidates receive full funding and graduate without student debt. However, fully funded programs attract top students, which leads to highly selective admissions standards.

Some Ph.D. in social work programs may lack full funding opportunities, requiring candidates to finance their own studies. Tuition rates vary widely, but public schools typically offer lower tuition rates than private schools. Students can take advantage of financial aid opportunities to help lower the cost of their degree, such as fellowships, scholarships, and grants.

Calculating the Cost of a College Degree

Our college affordability calculator factors in tuition, cost of living, textbooks, and expected financial aid to help prospective students determine how much they can afford to pay for an online Ph.D. in social work.

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How Much Do Social Work Majors Make?

Salaries vary by factors like experience, location, and role, but a doctoral social work degree prepares graduates for high-level jobs that often offer above-average salaries.

All types of social workers earn an annual median salary of $51,760. Earning an advanced online social work degree prepares graduates for top managerial and administrative positions that offer higher salaries. For instance, social services and community managers earn an annual median salary of $69,600. The BLS projects these careers to grow 17% between 2019-2029.

Many Ph.D. graduates also pursue careers as postsecondary teachers, earning an annual median salary of $80,790. Graduates can also pursue careers as psychologists, earning an annual median salary of $82,180.

Courses in Social Work

Online Ph.D. in social work programs often emphasize one or more social work areas, such as research, education, program management, or clinical practice. Ph.D. programs tend to focus on research, while doctor of social work programs tend to focus more on clinical practice. In all types of programs, candidates demonstrate their learning through a culminating capstone, thesis, or dissertation.

Courses vary by program, but the following list outlines several courses commonly found in social work Ph.D. programs.


  • Social Work Program Evaluation

    Program evaluation focuses on assessing the effectiveness of social work programs and improving outcomes for social work agencies. The course covers key topics including evaluation models, evaluation design and planning, the professional role of evaluators, and evaluation ethics.


  • Quantitative Research for Social Work

    Social work often involves the use of quantitative data to analyze the effects of social programs and practices. The course highlights major research techniques and methodologies, giving students the skills needed to evaluate published studies and conduct their own quantitative social work research.


  • Social Work Education

    Many programs include courses that focus on the theory and practice of social work education. The course often explores educational philosophies, curriculum models, teaching methods, and content delivery for social work programs at the undergraduate and graduate level.


Certifications and Licensure for Social Work

Social workers can use licenses and certifications to demonstrate professional competencies and qualify for various career paths. Licensure requirements for social workers vary among states, so students should consult the Association of Social Work Boards to identify specific eligibility requirements. This list highlights three common professional social work credentials.

Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)


One of the most common social work credentials, the LCSW enables recipients to provide clinical therapy and other mental health services to patients. LCSW candidates must complete at least a master’s in social work, perform a set number of clinical practice hours, and pass a licensure exam.

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Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW)


Similar to the LCSW credential, the LMSW prepares recipients for advanced social work practice. However, LMSWs cannot provide clinical mental health services unless supervised by an LCSW or another licensed mental health professional. Not all states recognize the LMSW credential.

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Certified Advanced Social Work Case Manager (C-ASWCM)


Preparing recipients to manage complex social work cases, the C-ASWCM credential serves candidates with at least a master’s in social work and two years of post-master’s experience in a professional social work setting.

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Scholarships and Fellowships for Social Work

Students can reduce their educational expenses by pursuing scholarship and fellowship opportunities. Providing financial assistance that never requires repayment, scholarships and fellowships lower tuition expenses and offer recognition for outstanding student work.


  • Leopold Schepp Foundation Scholarship

    Who Can Apply: The Leopold Schepp Foundation offers this scholarship to doctoral students in social work. The award considers character, academics, and financial need. Applicants must attend classes full time.

    Amount: $9,000

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  • Jane B. Aron Doctoral Fellowship

    Who Can Apply: The National Association of Social Workers Foundation awards this fellowship to doctoral candidates whose dissertation research relates to healthcare policy and practice.

    Amount: Up to $6,000

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Online Ph.D. in Social Work 2021

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  • The University of Tennessee-Knoxville
    Location

    Knoxville, TN

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