Top 5 PhD in Social Work Online Programs

Author: Melissa Maypole/ Reviewed by: Julie McCaulley/ Publication Date: June 2024

Social work is a helping profession, and pursuing a terminal degree in this field is a noble pursuit. Noble or not, such an academic program requires a great sacrifice of time and effort. Not everyone can devote these resources to an on-campus PhD. Fortunately, over a dozen colleges and universities in America have stepped up to fill the gap with convenient social work doctorates that can be completed via distance education. In this ranking, we explore the top doctoral degrees in social work for those who want to take on influential leadership roles in this vital field.


To develop this ranking, our editors first sought to identify all colleges and universities in the U.S. offering an online doctoral program in social work. This initial search yielded 17 schools. After applying the tuition filter to ensure affordability, we were left with just 5 programs. Finally, we applied our site-wide methodology for graduate programs. What follows is our ranking of the top online doctorates in social work.

Featured Programs

#5—University of St. Thomas

St. Paul, Minnesota

Online Doctor of Social Work


Points: 6

Tuition: $21,611

St. Thomas University offers an online doctorate in social work program through its Morrison Family College of Health. Designed for students who desire to teach social work at the postsecondary level, the 45-credit hour program is comprised of eight-week online classes such as:

  • History of Social Work and Social Work Education
  • Pedagogies in Social Work Education: Theories and Practice
  • Grant Writing
  • Social Work Theoretical Perspectives

In addition to online courses, students are also required to complete an on-campus orientation as well as annual residencies. St. Thomas University is accredited at the institutional level by The Higher Learning Commission.


  • Nationally ranked best value school
  • Cohort-based


  • Multiple on-campus visits are required
  • Less affordable

#4—Our Lady of the Lake University

San Antonio, Texas

PhD in Social Work


Points: 7

Tuition: $17,658

The online PhD in social work from Our Lady of the Lake University emphasizes social work leadership within minority-serving institutions. Offered through the Worden School of Social Service, the online doctoral program features a blend of synchronous and asynchronous programming. Course titles comprising the curriculum for the program may include:

  • Social Work Policy
  • Scholarly Writing and Publication
  • Decolonized Pedagogy
  • Epistemology and Theories

Doctoral students will have the opportunity to participate in a paid teaching assistantship program. A one-week summer residency is also required in addition to online coursework. OLLU is accredited to award this doctorate in social work online by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. The school is also a member of the Group for Advancement of Doctoral Education in Social Work (GADE).


  • GADE member
  • Paid teaching assistantship
  • Top-rated graduate programs in social work


  • Residency required
  • Some synchronous elements

#3—Spalding University

Louisville, Kentucky

Doctor of Social Work


Points: 8

Tuition: $12,960

The comprehensive online doctor of social work degree from Spalding University requires 50 credit hours of online coursework. Sample course titles include:

  • Innovative Practices for Justice and Social Change
  • Teaching in Social Work
  • Grants and Financial Management
  • Research for Advanced Social Work Practice

The program is accelerated, enabling students to earn their social work doctorate in just two years of distance learning. Its format includes both synchronous and asynchronous elements. Spalding University is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.


  • No residency requirements
  • Graduate assistantships available
  • Small cohorts
  • Accelerated format


  • Low graduation rate
  • Less diverse

#2—Norfolk State University

Norfolk, Virginia

PhD in Social Work


Points: 8

Tuition: $9,084

Norfolk State University offers a flexible online PhD in social work that can be completed on a part-time or full-time basis. The curriculum for this 54-credit hour program consists of course titles such as:

  • Program Evaluation in Social Services
  • Theory for Family-Centered Social Work Practice
  • Research Methods for Social Work
  • Social Welfare History and Philosophy

A comprehensive exam and doctoral dissertation are also required as culminating elements of the program. Norfolk State holds its institutional accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.


  • Part-time option
  • Top regional university


  • Dissertation required
  • Low graduation rate

#1—University of Utah

Salt Lake City, Utah

PhD in Social Work


Points: 11

Tuition: $7,353

A new program offered by the University of Utah, the online PhD in social work, will soon be accepting applications for its first cohort. This distance-delivered offering is fully synchronous, and students will attend classes remotely at the same time as on-campus students. Courses required for the degree include:

  • Teaching and Pedagogy
  • Systematic Reviews
  • Advanced Research and Grantwriting
  • Secondary Data Analysis

During the first two years of the program, week-long on-campus visits are required each semester. The Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities has accredited the University of Utah to award this online doctorate in social work.


  • Affordability
  • More interactive
  • Top-rated public school


  • Multiple visits to campus required
  • Less flexible

About PhD in Social Work Online Programs

The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that jobs for social workers will grow by 7% between 2022 and 2032. That’s faster than average compared to other occupations in the United States. A PhD in social work can prepare social workers to take on top leadership roles in this field, including those in clinical practice, research, and teaching.

While somewhat rare, online doctoral programs in social work do exist. These convenient degree programs enable students to earn their credentials from anywhere in the world and complete their coursework on their own schedule. It’s important to point out, though, that most (not all) of these programs require on-campus residencies. Be sure to read the fine print.

Types of Online Doctorates in Social Work

If you’re considering an online doctoral degree in social work, you need to know that not all of these programs are the same. Although they share a lot in common, certain details will vary from one school to the next, and these specifics could make or break your learning experience. Here are some of the different types of social work programs at the doctoral level.

PhD Versus DSW Programs

If you’re pursuing an online social work doctorate, it’s likely a PhD or DSW program. These programs are similar but have a different focus. PhD programs prepare graduates to work as researchers or professors in the field of social work. DSW programs provide the foundation for advanced social work practice in clinical settings.

Fully Online Versus Hybrid Degrees

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a doctoral degree program in social work that can be completed entirely online, though it is possible. Most programs that are advertised as online doctorates actually require some campus visits. If your schedule requires a full courseload of online classes only, be sure to confirm this with an admissions counselor prior to enrollment.

Part-Time Versus Full-Time Programs

You may find that the social work doctorate you’re considering is offered on a full-time or part-time basis. This is an important consideration as it will dictate how much time you need to spend on your coursework each week. It will also determine how long it takes you to complete your program. For instance, full-time programs require a bigger time commitment in the short term but allow you to earn your degree faster.

Admissions Requirements for Online PhD Social Work Programs

Another significant consideration when deciding which online PhD in social work to pursue is admissions requirements. It’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that all admissions requirements are the same for these types of programs, but that isn’t the case. You’ll need to visit the school’s website for specific admissions details. Still, there are some common requirements you can expect to see. These may include:

  • Master’s in social work from a CSWE-accredited program
  • Minimum GPA (usually 3.0 or higher)
  • GRE scores
  • Writing sample
  • Professional resume
  • Personal statement or essay
  • Letters of recommendation

It’s okay to apply to more than one program but keep in mind that you will need to pay application fees to each school you apply to.

Online Doctorate in Social Work: Curriculum

When considering a degree program of any kind, it’s normal to ask the question: “What will I study?” Still, it can be a challenging question to answer without knowing the exact program or school you’ll be attending. After all, curriculum details for doctoral programs in social work can vary considerably depending on the program you choose. Still, some overlap can be expected. Below, we’ll list some common course titles and topics that comprise these types of doctoral programs.

Sample Doctoral Courses in Social Work

  • Social and Behavioral Intervention Research
  • Philosophy of Science and Knowledge Development
  • Statistical Methods in Education, Psychology, and Social Work
  • Seminar in Professional Social Work Issues
  • Public Service and Social Change
  • Conceptualizing Social Problems to Inform Intervention
  • Explanatory Theories for Larger Social Systems
  • Policy Analysis and Advocacy in Comparative Social Policy Context
  • Intellectual Foundations of Social Welfare and Social Work

Online PhD in Social Work: Concentrations

One way you can customize your curriculum for a doctorate in social work is to elect a concentration. Not all programs offer this option, but some do. Here are some of the available concentrations for social work doctoral studies.

  • Advanced Practice
  • Social Policy and Policy Analysis
  • Social Policy and Administration
  • Social Work Practice Scholarship
  • Social Planning, Policy, and Administration
  • Sociology
  • Public Health
  • Social Work Education
  • Psychology
  • Family Violence

Note that this is not an exhaustive list, and not all of these concentrations will be available online.

Even if the school you choose doesn’t offer formal concentrations, keep in mind that some will allow you to design your own course of study alongside a faculty advisor.

Frequently-Asked Questions Regarding Online Social Work PhDs

If you’re thinking about pursuing a terminal degree in social work, it’s likely you have questions. Below, our editors will try to answer some of the common questions students tend to have about these types of programs. It’s best to speak to an enrollment counselor or other school officials for specific information about a particular school or program.

Q: How long does it take to earn a doctorate in social work online?

A: Time to completion will vary by program and course load. Some accelerated PhDs in social work are also available. Most programs will require between three and four years of study.

Q: How much does it cost to get a social work PhD?

A: Tuition for schools offering a doctoral degree in social work can vary widely. During the research phase for this ranking, our editors discovered programs for less than $7,500 per year as well as those exceeding $66,000 per year.

Q: Do doctoral programs in social work require dissertations?

A: Some do. It depends on the program you choose. PhD programs in social work are more likely to require a dissertation compared to a Doctor of Social Work (DSW) program.

Career Questions for Online Doctorates in Social Work

Q: How much will I make with a doctorate in social work?

A: Your exact pay will depend on your employer and where you work. Still, reports the average wage for individuals with a PhD in social work to be $95,000 per year.

Q: Are social work jobs in demand?

A: Yes! According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs in this field are currently growing faster than average.

Q: What professional organizations should I join in social work?

A: There are numerous professional associations in social work to consider. Some of the most established groups include:

  • National Association of Social Workers
  • Clinical Social Work Association
  • Society for Social Work and Research
  • Council on Social Work Education


  • National Center for Education Statistics: College Navigator
  • College ROI
  • U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook