Best Online PhD in Social Work Programs

ASO Staff Writers
Updated September 15, 2023
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Earning an online PhD in social work gives students the chance to not only be part of, but spearhead processes for major social changes. Students learn to recognize a personal or widespread social problem and exploring solutions through safe, ethical methods. Graduates bring their knowledge and experiences into the practice of clinical social work, engage with social issues on a political level through policy changes, or teach future generations of social workers about best practices in the field. See what kinds of options are available to those interested in pursuing an online social work PhD.

Best Online PhD Programs for Social Work

Students seeking an online doctoral degree in social work need to find a program that fits within their level of time commitment and budget. Determining those two factors can give a baseline for what to expect when going back to school. Students can use this information along with the following list; a ranking of the best accredited social work PhD programs currently available online. Students can sort them by factors such as cost, graduation rate, and student to teacher ratios.

Baylor University
LocationWaco, TX

The PhD in social work is designed to prepare students for roles as educators, leaders and researchers in the field of social work through positions in governmental agencies and private groups. Although online courses are taught in virtual classrooms, distance learners will have to occasionally attend meetings in person. Courses are synchronous, meaning students and instructors have to be online at the same time. Students can complete the 60 credit hour program in three years plus an additional summer of study. The program is highly competitive, admitting no more than seven new students every two years. Those with a master's degree in social work are usually given preference.

Fordham University
LocationBronx, NY

Students can choose from a program emphasis on either social work policy and implementation or social work practice. No matter which emphasis they choose, students may focus on a specific field of study including children and family, health and mental health, and gerontology. Fordham's School of Social Services has been cited by the Council on Social Work Education for "esprit de corps of the faculty and the interaction of the faculty and students." Some students will have the opportunity to teach students in the master's degree program. The PhD program uses the multicultural nature of the New York Metropolitan area to prepare students for work with diverse populations.

The University of Tennessee
LocationKnoxville, TN

The PhD in social work degree is designed to build on the education graduate students have already achieved by supplementing it with studies based on the scientific method. The program includes not just electives and foundational courses, but also doctoral research and advanced seminars. Upon graduating, program participants will be prepared for roles as policy makers, educators, practitioners and administrators. The Intercollegiate Graduate Statistics Program is one of the advanced research curricula available to those who are accepted into the program. Distance learners can choose from either part-time or full-time options.

Featured Doctorate Programs in Social Work

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Application Process

Applying to a doctoral program in social work requires years of preparation, both in academic and professional settings. Applicants must be prepared for the competitive nature of an online PhD program, as grooming begins far before students start the program.

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    Social work PhD programs are interested in an applicant’s work experience and the path that they have taken professionally. A resume contributes information to help build a professional picture of the applicant.

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    Relevant Experience

    Many online doctoral programs require a minimum of three years’ experience working in the field of social work, either as a professional or academic.

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    Statement of Goals

    Because online social work doctoral programs are intensive, students must be self-motivated and have the ability to define their own interests and pursue them diligently. Applicants must clearly state their plan and goals in the application process prior to entering a program.

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    Master’s degree in social work

    A PhD builds on previous knowledge, so applicants must have a completed graduate degree in social work before pursuing a more specialized, in-depth doctoral degree through an online program.

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    Technology requirements

    Because some coursework requires an oral or face-to-face component in addition to other distance learning standards, applicants will need to be able to access technology that meets all technical criteria for their social work program.

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    Transcripts and GPA

    Programs will require official transcripts sent from all previous higher learning institutions. They will make sure applicants meet minimum grade point average requirements, and be sure pre-requisites for social work education are met.

Advanced Programs, Milestones and Resources for Social Work Students

Social workers with a lot of experience in their field are most often the ones seeking a PhD. They have recognized the need for leadership and change within the field, and may want a way to explore how they can fill that need. In addition to specializations in areas such as substance abuse or crisis management, PhD programs prepare graduates to lead the social work industry and encourage and enact change. Here are some of the major milestones students can expect during their social work doctorate education.

Year 1 Milestones

Accepted students should enter a PhD program with a solid idea about the area of social work they want to focus on. This first year is the time to dig deeper, and change paths if their interest or findings change. It’s the time for students to explore precise facets of the field deeply.

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    Foundational Course

    Programs have course requirements to ensure that all PhD students begin the social work program with the same base knowledge and research experience. These requirements are usually based around research methods and writing, and may be split up into several courses or be taught as a single seminar.

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    Social work in context

    Students will complete classes in different areas of social work such as the history of social work, contemporary issues and how technology is being used in social work. This gives students a richer understand of social work and what a higher degree in this field can be used for.

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    Course of study

    A student’s faculty advisor will help them begin the process of mapping out a plan of courses to fulfil degree requirements. This will become more focused as a student moves into their chosen specialization within the field of social work. Specializations may range from clinical social work to policy practice.

Year 2 Milestones

A final dissertation looms at the end of any PhD program. After completing initial core requirements, doctoral level social work students should have narrowed their focus and set their sights on their dissertation topic, which is the culmination of their academic career.

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    Students should begin working in their chosen fields of interest. This may involve taking elective courses agreed upon with a faculty advisor that guide them towards an area of social work study they wish to explore with their dissertation, or it can involve following a set track of classes established by their college or university.

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    Leadership methods

    Because students are expected to have previous experience with social work, classes explore theories, approaches, methods and techniques of social work, as well as ethical implications and legal issues. These topics prepare students to make and defend any choices they may have to make in their field.

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    Beginning dissertation

    As a student moves more deeply into their chosen specialization within social work, they should begin to gather ideas and research for their dissertation topic. Some programs offer courses that prepare students to write a dissertation proposal and prospectus.

Year 3 Milestones

The final year of an online social work PhD program may require remote students to come on-campus for an intensive dissertation-writing retreat, or complete an ethics review application if their research involves human subjects. Students take the final steps towards earning a doctoral degree with the completion of their dissertation.

  • Program coursework requirements

    PhD programs have hourly requirements that students must fulfill before graduating. Most programs accept a certain number of transfer credits, and some may accept experience in social work as credit towards a degree. There may also be residency requirements, even with an online degree.
  • Apply to the IRB

    Most social work PhD dissertations will draw from outside people’s experiences for support. The body in charge of reviewing and approving research involving human subjects is the Institutional Review Board . Graduate students will need to submit their work to the IRB and earn its approval before pursuing a dissertation involving human subjects.
  • Dissertation completion

    After approval from the IRB, students may proceed with their dissertation if it involves other people. Whether or not human subjects are involved, students will finish an original research project that addresses an area of social work that they wish to develop, explore or improve.

Graduation Requirements

Students may take varying amounts of time to complete their online PhD program, but there are standards for graduating that they all must meet in order to earn a doctoral degree in social work.

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    Completed coursework and tests

    Online PhD programs may have weekly, monthly or end-of-course requirements that can range from hands-on participation to essays. Students must complete all coursework satisfactorily to graduate.

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    Minimum GPA

    Because PhD programs are so intensive and require self-motivation, students should make sure that they prove their commitment to social work throughout the program by maintaining a grade point average that meets or exceeds minimum standards.

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    Comprehensive exam

    Some doctoral degree programs require students to complete exams at different stages in the program, or a final exam may be taken at the end of the program that addresses how well a student has learned within their area of social work.

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    Social work dissertations may involve research with human subjects. Some online degree programs may require students to defend their research orally before an academic council, either in person or via video conferencing. All dissertations are scholarly papers that contribute to a student’s chosen area of specialization within social work.

Principles Learned in an Online Social Work PhD Program

PhD in Social Work

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    Critical evaluation

    Social work PhD students learn to critically evaluate the history of social work, its mission and its core values. They can assess how research and evaluation may be used to improve social interventions and advance theory development, and they can apply theory, knowledge and research to develop innovative approaches to social issues.

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    All doctoral social work programs teach students to apply their knowledge and strategies in ethical, professional ways. Social workers interact with vulnerable people and populations, and anyone trained in this field understands how to maintain impeccable ethics and boundaries in whichever area of social work they may choose to work in.

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    Issue intervention

    Doctoral degree graduates are able to explore current research, gather data using research and statistical tools, and utilize best practices and theory to address social needs. They can then come up with prevention and intervention strategies that address these problems and advocate for various social groups.

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    Promote social change

    Online social work PhD graduates have learned leadership skills as well as compassion for and attention to the many levels of the human condition. These graduates are equipped to promote social change as they collaborate with leaders, agencies and universities, advocating for social justice and policy changes that advance the economic and social well-being of culturally diverse populations. Their leadership promotes sustainable changes that improve the quality of social work everywhere.

Master’s in Social Work

Bachelor’s in Social Work

What Can I do with a PhD in Social Work?

Doctoral social work graduates have demonstrated their commitment to furthering the field, and their leadership skills, knowledge of ethical practice and theory, critical consideration of policy and pledge to help others can be of use in many different areas of the workforce. The following are a few options available to PhD graduates.


Clinical Social Worker

Social workers help groups or individual people solve and cope with problems in their everyday lives. Clinical social workers in particular diagnose and treat mental, behavioral and emotional issues. Clinical social workers often work in private practice but may also work in mental health clinics, hospitals, schools and universities.

Job Growth (2014-2024): 12%
Median Annual Salary (May 2015): $45,900

Behavioral Disorder Counselor

Behavioral disorder counselors, also known as substance abuse or addiction counselors, advise people who suffer from alcoholism or drug addiction. They provide treatment and support individually or in group sessions. Clients learn to cope with life’s problems in ways that help them recover, and to recognize and avoid problem behaviors. These counselors also help clients rebuild professional and personal relationships.

Job Growth (2014-2024) 22%
Median Annual Salary (May 2015) $47,190

Social Scientist

Social scientists are researchers who plan, design, conduct, manage and report on social research projects. They investigate the attitudes, behavior and experiences of population samples on specific issues using a variety of methods, such as interviews, survey questionnaires and focus groups. Their research findings may be used to shape policy or to examine the effectiveness of existing policy.

Job Growth (2014-2024) 7%
Median Annual Salary (May 2015): $80,650

Social Work Professor

Professionals in this field educate new generations of social workers at the associate, bachelor’s or post-graduate level. They may also conduct research, either privately or through the institution where they are employed, and publish papers on new topics related to the field of social work such as health policy, child welfare or mental health.

Job Growth (2014-2024): 13%
Median Annual Salary (May 2015): $69,030

Additional Resources

Graduates from PhD programs in social work have a range of career options, and if they choose to join the field of social work, there are still many different ways to engage with clients as individuals, within a specialized group, as a community, or as a population. Here are several reputable organizations designed for those interested in social work and leadership within this field.

This organization sets standards for clinical social workers. They set and promote national social work standards, publish position statements, and certify clinical social workers, supervisors, children/families practitioners, and psychoanalysts.
This membership organization seeks to strengthen community organization and social administration. They offer networking opportunities and promote information about social work and community organization.
This membership coalition of professional social workers seeks to enhance the professional growth and development of its members, to create and maintain professional standards, and to encourage and promote sound social policies.

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