DSW vs PhD in Social Work Differences

Social worker jobs are expected to expand by more than 11% through 2028, which is more than double the projected growth rate for all jobs in the U.S. economy, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For prospective social work professionals, earning a doctoral degree is often the desired final step in their educational journey.

But just deciding to get a social work doctorate is only part of the equation. That’s because there are two possible options for social work doctorates — the Doctor of Social Work (DSW) and Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Social Work. Let’s explore key differences and other considerations prospective students should know.

Social Work Doctorate Degrees

Both DSW and Ph.D. degrees represent the pinnacle of educational achievement in the area of social work. But the programs tend to be quite a different experience from the learner’s perspective. That’s because the programs tend to have divergent educational approaches and philosophies despite being in the same field.

For the most part, DSW degrees lean harder into the practice of social work, while Ph.D. degrees will give students more grounding in the fundamentals of academics and research. There are exceptions, of course, but for the most part if you’re interested in, say, becoming a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, then a DSW degree may be your best bet. But if you want to help train the next generation of social workers as part of a college or post-graduate program, a Ph.D. would likely be the better choice.

SEE ALSO: List of Accredited Online DSW Programs

As we mentioned, there are exceptions to this, and it’s entirely possible for someone with a Ph.D. to become a clinical social worker, while a DSW-holder can certainly become a professor.

But this is a good rule of thumb to follow when researching possible DSW or Ph.D. programs.

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Social Work Career Options

We’ve touched on this briefly, but the choice of which social work doctorate is right for you may come down to your dream job.

Here’s a look at the most common career options for each degree type.

Social work career options by doctoral degree type

Licensed Clinical Social WorkerCollege Professor
Clinical DirectorResearch Director
Nonprofit CEOPolicy Analyst
Clinical PsychologistTraining and Development Manager

Licensure Requirements

Within the field of social work and the closely related field of psychology, earning professional and state licensure may be necessary for the desired job or employer. Here’s a look at the most likely professional certifications you may need to obtain even after you’ve finished a doctoral program:

Licensed Clinical Social Worker

In every state, clinical social workers must earn state licensure, and nonclinical social workers also usually must obtain a state license or certification, though the requirements generally are less strict than for LCSWs. Applicants must have a minimum of a master’s degree in social work in addition to at least two years of supervised professional experience. Check out the other requirements in your state.

SEE ALSO:How Much Do Clinical Social Workers Make?

Clinical Psychologist

Every state requires those applying for licensure in psychology to have an advanced degree, usually a doctorate in psychology, as well as up to two years of supervised professional experience. In a couple of states, students can apply for licensure with only a master’s degree in psychology, but they must meet even more demanding professional experience requirements if they lack a doctorate. Learn more about the other requirements where you live. (Visit Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards for more information).

SEE ALSO: How Much Do Clinical Psychologists Make?


Earning a doctorate in any field is an enormous achievement that serves as the culmination of an extreme dedication to education. But this big commitment of time and energy must be matched by a possibly even greater commitment to serving others through competent compassionate social and community service.