Our Guide to Becoming a Doctor of Social Work

If you’re ready to take the next step in your social work career, a Doctor of Social Work (DSW) program may be a good fit for you. In this guide, we explain how to become a Doctor of Social Work—from admissions requirements to post-graduation job opportunities—so you have an idea of what to expect on the journey ahead.

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Why Obtain Your Doctor of Social Work?

There are a number of reasons why you may want to obtain a DSW degree. Unlike Ph.D. in social work programs, DSW degree programs heavily emphasize the practical aspect of social work. They help you hone technical skills for conducting advanced, novel research, and prepare you to leverage existing clinical knowledge and experience to become an expert in the field.

A DSW degree may also open doors to management positions—at your current workplace or another clinic, hospital, agency, or nonprofit. Luckily, you don’t have to sacrifice your full-time employment to pursue a DSW. There are a plethora of online social work degree programs that may allow you to keep your job while furthering your education outside of work hours.

Social Work Doctorate Job Duties and Responsibilities

What does a Doctor of Social Work do? While specific responsibilities depend on the position and work environment, there are a number of commonalities across roles. With a DSW degree, you may be eligible to hold leadership positions in clinical settings, universities, nonprofits, and government agencies. In any one of these roles, you may find yourself addressing the problems that impact your organization or finding ways to scale effective programs and serve more people.

DSW degree jobs generally require extensive clinical knowledge and an advanced understanding of social work research. In addition to clinical techniques, DSWs may use soft skills like strong communication, teamwork, organization and problem solving, on the job.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the field of social work is experiencing faster than average expansion, with a projected growth rate of 13 percent between 2019 and 2029. The number of opportunities on the horizon makes a career in social work a potentially rewarding choice for those interested in dedicating their life to helping others.

What are the Education Requirements for a Doctor of Social Work?

DSW degree education requirements vary by school—but they generally share a few common criteria. Before applying to a DSW program, you’ll likely have to meet the following educational requirements:

  • Complete a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree program. An MSW degree is required by all states to become a licensed clinical social worker. Certain positions like a school social worker, may be viable with a Bachelor of Social Work. Still, some states require the completion of a master’s in social work program. An MSW is also a common requirement for admission to doctoral programs. Some universities or colleges have a minimum GPA requirement, as well.
  • Post-MSW experience. Working in the field for a few years after completing your MSW degree may help inform your academic work, as you pursue your DSW. Some programs require at least two years of post-master’s experience, but students may have more.

What Licensure is Needed for a Doctor of Social Work?

In order to pursue a doctorate degree, you’ll first need to become a licensed social worker. A number of social workers complete their Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW) or related certification after graduating with an MSW degree and passing the national Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) examination. While some states offer social work licenses at the bachelor’s level, in states like California, you need to complete at least an MSW program to pursue licensed positions in the field.

Note that there is no such thing as a Doctor of Social Work license or DSW licensure on the state level. However, after working in the field for a few years or becoming a DSW degree holder, you may wish to pursue an advanced license. Advance licencing requirements and titles vary by state, so be sure to check your specific state’s requirements. Below are two examples of advanced licences.

  • Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW). LCSWs are more specialized than LMSWs and, in some states, LCSWs can practice clinical social work without supervision. In addition to holding an MSW degree, prospective LCSWs have to complete several hours of supervised clinical practice, among other LCSW licensure requirements.
  • Licensed Advanced Practice Social Worker (LAPSW). Some states, like Tennessee, offer LAPSW licensing. While LAPSWs cannot conduct unsupervised clinical work, they can administer programs, manage cases, and offer counseling—among other responsibilities. Like LCSWs, LAPSWs need to complete a certain number of supervised work hours after earning their MSW degree, in order to qualify.

3 Common Steps to Earning a Doctorate in Social Work

We’ve outlined three common steps to earning a DSW degree, but don’t fret if your journey doesn’t match the path below. Everyone’s process to becoming a social worker is different—and it’s possible to transition into the social work field a bit later in life.

Step 1: Complete a Master’s Degree in Social Work

DSW programs typically require that prospective students complete an MSW before applying. You can enroll in certain MSW programs without a bachelor’s degree in social work—making the degree an accessible pathway to switch careers and enter the field regardless of your educational background.

Step 2: Earn Your LCSW or LMSW License

Before practicing in the field, you’ll need to become licensed by the ASWB. With an MSW under your belt, you can apply for LMSW licensure. Although not typically required by DSW programs, some students achieve an advanced license (like an LCSW).

Step 3: Complete Two Years of Postgraduate Experience

Once you earn your master’s degree, it’s time to get licensed and gain some postgraduate experience in the field. You may gain two or three years of this before enrolling in a doctoral program—although certain schools may prefer five years of professional experience, depending on the program.

Doctor of Social Work Specializations

You may be curious about DSW degree specializations, like social work administration, criminal justice, or medicine. While not all doctorate programs allow you to specialize, some offer the opportunity to take classes and conduct research in your preferred practice area. In the following sections, we’ve outlined a few potential specialty areas for a DSW degree.

Even if you don’t specialize in a particular area during your DSW program, you may still be able to pursue employment in your area of interest after graduating and apply your degree toward a range of social work specialties.

Doctorate in Clinical Social Work

There are a host of DSW degree specializations to choose from. Clinical social work is one of the many social work specialties to consider, whether you’re just entering the field or have held an baccalaureate-level position for some years. A number of DSW programs focus on clinical social work, meaning they further your clinical practice skills and prepare you to conduct clinical research. Admission into these programs tends to follow the guidelines we previously discussed, but they may vary by school.

Mental Health and Substance Abuse Doctor of Social Work Specialization

With several DSW degree specializations available, which one is the right one for you? A DSW in mental health and substance abuse will prepare you to work with clients suffering from mental health and substance abuse issues, like depression, alcoholism, or drug addiction. You may take classes in treating addictions or forensic populations, and managing cases.

If you’re interested in related social work specialties, you can explore areas like clinical social work, medical social work or specialize in working with children and families.

Medical Social Work Specialization

Perhaps you’re wondering if there are any DSW degree specializations that can prepare you for jobs in hospitals and other health care facilities? Yes, there are. Some DSW programs offer medical social work specializations. In medical DSW programs, you’ll take specialized courses in addition to your core DSW courses. This combination will help you understand best practices for supporting terminally ill and disabled patients, and ways to collaborate with health care professionals. Social work specialties, like medical social work, may be a fit for professionals with a medical background or those interested in working at the intersection of medicine and social work.

Disaster, Crisis and Intervention Doctor of Social Work Specialization

What other DSW degree specializations are available to you? With a disaster, crisis and intervention specialization, you’ll learn how to support people who have experienced trauma due to natural disasters or other large-scale crises. This pathway differs from other social work specialties in that it involves creating crisis plans and studying crisis intervention theories.

Administration Doctor of Social Work Specialization

Other DSW degree specializations include social work administration. Social work administrators oversee the day-to-day processes that allow clinical social workers to do their jobs properly, like managing budgets, evaluating programs, and leading departments. In this specialty, you’ll cover topics such as human services administration and leadership development.

Remember that this is one of many social work specialties, that may open doors to a range of positions and work settings.

Criminal Justice Doctor of Social Work Specialization

A criminal DSW program teaches you how to support offenders and their loved ones through therapy, programming and restorative justice. This specialty may be a fit for law enforcement and other public safety professionals. Some programs also offer the opportunity to conduct a research project on a criminal justice topic of your choosing. While pursuing other DSW degree specializations may lead to jobs in hospitals and mental health facilities, those who graduate with a DSW in criminal justice can expect to work in nonprofits, city and county jails, and state court systems, among other settings.

This is not a comprehensive list of DSW social work specialties. As you conduct some research of your own, you may find more options. As you think through which specialty you’d like to pursue, keep your professional goals and interests at the forefront of your decision.

What are the Continuing Education Requirements for DSW Degree Graduates?

Most states require that you fulfill continuing education requirements to maintain your social work license. The education requirements generally involve completing 36 hours of continuing education every two to three years, but remember to check your state’s specific guidelines.

The continuing education hours must be offered by an accredited body. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) and ASWB offer lists of approved CE courses. You can also pursue continuing education credits through a Council of Social Work Education (CSWE)-approved institution. For more information about continuing education, check out our social worker resource guide.

Skills That Can Help as You Become a Doctor of Social Work

In this section, we discuss a few social worker skills that may come in handy as a DSW. While these won’t guarantee your success as a DSW, they may help you on the road to completing your degree and once you’re working in the field.

As you embrace a career as a Doctor of Social Work, certain soft and hard skills may prove useful while working with clients, conducting research, and completing managerial responsibilities. These include:

  • Communication skills. Social workers help people with many different types of challenges. In order to best serve clients, social workers often make use of listening and communication skills—this way, they can understand the issues facing the populations they’re working with and better meet their needs.
  • Leadership skills. After completing doctoral programs, graduates often assume leadership positions in the social work field. Having confidence in your leadership abilities may help you organize and rally teams to accomplish goals within your organization.
  • Critical thinking skills. Analyzing existing research and proposing original theses will be part of completing your DSW degree—and they tend to require critical thinking. Once in the field, you’ll also have to make unbiased assessments and decisions regarding your cases, which may call for critical thinking.

Keep in mind that all of these skills may be sharpened over time with dedication and persistence. If social work is your passion and you’re ready to assume more responsibilities at your workplace, you may want to consider pursuing a DSW degree. While completing an advanced degree might be a big commitment, it may help move you toward your goal of helping people and making a difference in the world.

Last updated February 2021.