Doctorate in Social Work (DSW) Guide - 2024

Social Worker License

by Social Worker License Staff

Updated: September 8th, 2023

To reach the highest levels in the social work field, many seek out a doctoral degree. They can either go for a DSW degree or a Ph.D. Ph.D. programs prepare students for academic careers as professors or researchers. DSW degrees focus more on the leadership skills needed for advanced fieldwork. For the purpose of this article, we’ll cover the information for DSW programs. 

To gain entrance into a DSW program, the candidate will need to possess an MSW. Some programs allow a master’s in public health (MPH) or master’s in family therapy (MFT) degree to qualify for entry. DSW candidates must also have at least two years of practice as an MSW under their belt. 

You may have to take the General Record Examination (GRE) to assess whether you’re academically ready for graduate school, but many will bypass this requirement if you have an MSW. The test evaluates your knowledge of biology, chemistry, psychology, physics, English literature, and math. Many, but not all, schools also require a GPA of 3.0 or 3.5. 

General application requirements include three professional letters of recommendation, a current resume, a personal essay, and all official transcripts from schools you’ve attended. An in-person interview will also be conducted by a qualified member of the admissions board. You must also provide a writing sample for the board to review. The school will instruct you as to the subject for the sample.

Expected Competencies Before Entering a DSW Program

Going into the DSW program, you’re expected to bring all of the competencies of social work you’ve learned on your academic journey. They are the following:

Technical Knowledge

Social workers are both mental health and social service providers. Therefore, their technical knowledge in assessment, psychology, sociology, and human development are extremely important to their work.


Empathy is a cornerstone in the field of social work. Clients seek out social workers to help them get through traumatic life events and other emotional challenges they are experiencing. Because DSWs provide clinical services, they must connect with and understand their client to develop treatment plans with successful outcomes.


A huge part of being a clinical social worker is listening and taking notes to refer to when developing treatments. The notes have to be detailed and thoroughly outline the patient’s problem, assessments, diagnosis, and treatment. These notes will be used to track the patient’s progress and determine if the treatment should continue as is or be adjusted.


Working with health care providers will be necessary for many instances to provide the patient with all the resources needed to navigate their problem. There will also be times when medical or psychiatric treatment that DSW can’t provide is needed. The social worker will have to reach out to a qualified specialist and work together to help the patient.

Knowledge of Interventions

There are several different strategies to implement interventions, and clinical social workers must be aware of them. Whether they’re providing information to help patients cope or which community programs or services offer the resources they need, the social worker must be knowledgeable of the different avenues they can take to increase the effectiveness of their plan.


Reflecting on which processes were successful and which should be tweaked is one of the most important aspects of a DSWs work. They have the ability to treat patients autonomously and, therefore, a responsibility to evaluate the outcome of any treatment they implement.


While being self-aware is needed for each level of social work practice; it is especially necessary for clinical social workers. Since they do a lot of one-on-one work with patients, they need to pay attention to their body language, tone, and reactions to clients. If any of those things are perceived by the clients as negative, it will have an adverse effect on their treatment. Being self-aware and open to constructive criticism go hand in hand. This knowledge will only help the social worker grow in the profession and provide a high level of service.


Clinical social workers spend their days showing compassion to others. It’s important there are also compassionate to themselves, so they can continue to be competent providers for their patients. There will be days when you’re emotionally and physically drained after helping others cope with their problems. Give yourself the time you need to rejuvenate and participate in activities that keep you centered. You’ll find this will help you serve your clients at an optimal level.

Common Core Courses in DSW Programs

The core courses for DSW programs are:

Research for Clinical and Community Practice I & II

These courses give students the knowledge they need to implement clinical practices to collaborate with doctors, state agencies, policymakers, and patients and their families. They’ll examine different ways that can go about establishing relationships with the communities they collaborate with regularly. Students will learn how to read their research and translate it into evidence for their practice.

By the end of the course, students will be able to explain the concepts used to engage communities in developing, implementing, interpreting, and disseminating research. They’ll have the ability to examine and discuss the effectiveness and implementation of their research and how to improve their study designs.

Advanced Advocacy and Policy Practice

This is where students will learn to analyze policy and advocate for social and economic justice. They’ll understand how to advocate for policy changes, develop coalitions, and how to get involved with the political process. this class addresses three of the core competencies, demonstrating ethical and professional behavior, advancing human rights and social, economic, and environmental justice, and engaging in policy practice.

Students will demonstrate an understanding of the information by confidently engaging with clients and colleagues, showing the ability to deconstruct situations where basic rights are violated, and evaluate the effect global policies have on social work.

Teaching Social Work Practice

This course involves completing hours in the field at an organization or agency approved as a practicum site. Students will be taught how to supervise and provide productive feedback to up-and-coming social workers so they can improve their skill set. They’ll then demonstrate the professionalism social work requires, explain the structure and function of social service agencies, and employ advocacy to push toward the goal of social, economic, and environmental justice.

Clinical Supervision and Ethics

This is where supervisors are trained in the knowledge and skills needed to administrate and supervise counseling. The relationship between the supervisor and social worker being trained is explored, as well as the process for supervising individuals and groups. The student will be observed and given feedback on their supervision sessions.

At the end of the course, students will be able to discuss and depth the reason counseling supervision is needed in the field. They will demonstrate knowledge of several different supervision methods. They’ll also know how to use technology to help with conducting and collecting information from supervision sessions.

Cognitive Behavioral Theory

Knowledge about different cognitive-behavioral models of psychological disorders will be gained in this course. Students will be taught to create a complete cognitive-behavioral case which will be the basis for monitoring treatment plans. Available data on the psychotherapies for cognitive-behavioral disorders will be reviewed for efficacy, with an emphasis on integrating clinical expertise, patient preferences, and evidence-based strategies. 

The students will be able to speak to common cognitive-behavioral models are depression and anxiety disorders and the strategies used for clinical monitoring. They will also give a presentation at the end of the course on evidence-based treatment that incorporates the cognitive formulation, interventions, and resources that should be implemented.

Assessment and Diagnosis and Evidence-Based Clinical Practice

Common mental disorders and evidence-based treatments are explored in this course. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) is used to examine treatments among diverse populations. 

Once the course is complete, students we’ll be able to administer a mental disorder diagnosis utilizing the DSM-5. They’ll apply evidence-based processes during assessments, diagnosis, and treatments for emotional or behavioral issues. Students will employ different diagnostic skills for adequate treatment planning among the various populations regardless of age, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and other distinctive factors.

Social Work and Emotional Trauma

This course covers the frameworks and skills needed to understand how trauma impacts individuals, families, and communities. Theoretical frameworks are analyzed to gain a better understanding of what trauma is and how multicultural issues factor in. at the end of this course, students Ken assess trauma reactions across different cultures and use the assessment to formulate and deliver culturally relevant interventions. They’ll be able to define different kinds of trauma and understand the difference between interpersonal trauma and situational trauma. Strategies to prevent and manage trauma will also be developed.

Finding the Best Doctor of Social Work Programs

A quality DSW program has many of the same characteristics as the other social work programs. The focus here should be on the curriculum that is offered. The following are the aspects that make a DSW program stand out from the others.

Data-driven courses where you can develop your data collection and analyzation skills are necessary for a good DSW program. You want a school that focuses on organizational leadership and how organizations operate and facilitate change. Innovative courses that provide the latest information and study new trends and theories that adapt social work to today’s world are important. The school should be a leader in public discourse and be open to developing new perspectives to assist the public. 

DSW programs are completed with a capstone project rather than a dissertation. The capstone project should be detailed and encapsulate all of the knowledge you’ve learned along the way. That way, you know you are fully prepared upon graduation to enter the field confidently. 

Once you earn a DSW, you’ve achieved the highest level of education a social worker can accomplish, so there are no other degrees to earn. However, continuing education (CE) is an ongoing part of any social worker’s career. If you become licensed, which is the reason most people pursue a DSW, you will be required to take CE courses to maintain licensure. The courses can consist of workshops and other approved academic learning to ensure you are using the most relevant and updated information in your practice. The courses must be completed before it’s time to renew your license; otherwise, you risk suspension of your practice.

DSW programs take about two years to complete, and graduates earn $20,000 to $25,000 more than MSW graduates. Many DSWs choose to go into private practice, where they can administer independent clinical services to clients. Unlike social workers employed by government agencies, DSWs who own or work for a private entity have flexibility in how they perform their services. 

Even though the focus of DSW programs is not on academia, many still go into the classroom when they want a change of pace. You will find many college professors have a DSW degree. They may also become field researchers and look for find solutions to issues using empirical data analysis. Research is always needed to push the goals of the profession further. 

Mental health clinicians are widely needed, and with a DSW, you can fill the position. They are often found in clinical settings like hospitals or other healthcare facilities. As a mental health clinician, you’ll assist clients as they work to establish a stable lifestyle. DSWs can also work as counselors or psychologists in the mental health field. This is usually done in private practice as they help clients work through tough emotional and mental health issues. 

Community program administrator is another title many DSW graduates hold. In this capacity, your work is done on a macro-level with communities. You assess the community’s needs by speaking with its members and using your knowledge of social work and access to resources to fill those needs. These social workers typically assist specific populations, such as the homeless, veterans, children, and others. 

The social work profession was started to fill in gaps between individuals, communities, and government agencies to ensure citizens received the help they needed when it was required. Fortunately, the profession’s scope has grown and is projected to continue expanding as more social issues are realized.