Home  |   Subscribe  |   Resources  |   Reprints  |   Writers' Guidelines

Evolving Education: The DSW and PhD Degrees — Goals and Choices
By Sue Coyle, MSW
Social Work Today
Vol. 18 No. 2 P. 8

When Dotti Bailey, LICSW, PIP, decided to go back to school for an advanced degree beyond her MSW, she had a choice to make: a PhD in social work or a Doctor of Social Work (DSW).

A few years ago, this would not have been a decision at all. While DSWs were once the more common doctoral degree, PhDs rose to prominence starting in the 1970s. The PhD rather than the DSW became what was offered at universities throughout the country—until recently.

DSW programs are experiencing resurgence—a revival that turned Bailey's next step into a more complicated decision than it may have been 10 years ago.

"I explored several options, including the PhD program," she says. "I first met with one of my mentors who was a professor (PhD) in my undergraduate program. We discussed the pros and cons of pursuing a PhD and how the program aligned with my professional goals. Next, I met with a UT [University of Tennessee] DSW alumni, learning more about the DSW program, and immediately knew the DSW was the right choice for me."

Bailey isn't alone in her decision. An increasing number of practicing clinical social workers are choosing to pursue DSWs, as they consider what the degree means for their education and careers.

The Degree
So, what's the difference between a PhD and a DSW? Both are doctoral degrees. Both advance an individual in their social work education and, ideally, careers. The difference lies in the focus of the programs.

"A DSW is a practice doctorate in social work, including practice at the leadership or management level. It differs from a PhD in social work/social welfare in that a PhD is focused more on developing [the student] as a researcher," explains Nancy J. Smyth, PhD, LCSW, dean and a professor at the University at Buffalo School of Social Work.

The DSW looks to assist professionals in improving their practice by offering a depth and breadth of education simply not available through other means of learning, such as continuing education courses. "We have this myth in the profession that once you get your degree, continuing education is adequate and sufficient," says David Patterson, PhD, a professor and director of the DSW program and KnoxHMIS at UT-Knoxville College of Social Work. "The problem with most CEUs is that it's a unidirectional flow of information. You go, you sit, someone talks at you, you leave. Our DSW program is highly interactive. Students are the cocreators of their educational experience."

Patterson adds that the DSW program at UT-Knoxville rose out of recognition that clinical social workers felt that their education—after years of practice—could use a brush up, as well. "We started our program because we thought that there were a lot of midcareer clinical social workers who were trained when there was little emphasis on clinical neuroscience, DBT [dialectical behavior therapy], acceptance and commitment therapy, a whole spectrum of information in advance practice and clinical science that typically people did not get in their MSW program and MSW programs still aren't offering," he says.

Jo Ann Regan, PhD, MSW, vice president of education at the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) agrees, adding that DSW programs offer an "extension of additional training and expertise." She notes, however, that there may be some overlap between PhD and DSW programs. "Most PhD programs focus on rigorous research methods, but the DSW also may have some research aspects to it."

The Students
According to Regan, the CSWE 2017 Annual Survey indicates there are currently 12 practice doctoral programs in the country that also have a baccalaureate and/or master's program accredited by CSWE. There are also more in development. Smyth notes that the University of Buffalo has submitted a proposal for a DSW to the New York State Education Department for review. Growth means that there is a demand for these programs. Understanding who is applying and earning the degrees provides an even better overview of what a DSW means.

To some extent, student composition is dictated by the requirements of the individual programs. "Students must have at least two years of post-MSW clinical experience," Patterson says of the UT-Knoxville program. "Typically, on average, our students have been out [of their master's program] for 12 years and have been LCSWs for nine years."

On the other hand, the University of Southern California does not require an MSW. The program describes itself as accepting students from a variety of professional backgrounds, ranging from business to public health and family therapy. The online program focuses on leadership and advance management practice.

Regardless of requirements, DSW students are not fresh from graduate school. They are individuals like Bailey, who, while earning her degree, is also working as the executive director of SafeHouse of Shelby County. The programs are, in fact, designed to allow students to continue working throughout their education.

For the most part, the students have been working specifically in clinical practices. "These are midcareer, highly skilled clinicians. We have people coming out of mental health systems, hospitals, private practice," Patterson says. "There are a lot of people who are in the military, DoD [Department of Defense] contractors, and VA employees." He adds that there are some who come from case management, though that is less common.

Their plan after earning their degree will vary from student to student. But CSWE found in a survey of the then 11 DSW programs that a majority of May 2016 graduates went to private clinical practice (25%) or a faculty position (tenure and nontenure) at a CSWE-accredited program (33.9%). Comparatively, more than 50% of PhD students take on faculty positions postgraduation.

Meeting Educational Needs
Given the career paths that DSW students tend to come from and go to, what feeds into their decision to pursue a DSW? First, it's whether or not a doctoral program truly suits their educational needs.

"There are many, many ways to learn, and getting a degree is just one of them," Smyth says. "Sometimes there are certificate programs, which are a much better way to demonstrate that you have knowledge that is very specific and will allow employers to see what your knowledge is.

"I do think students need to consider the cost. What are you investing in the degree?" she continues. "What are you hoping to get out of this in terms of your own income? Degrees will vary widely in terms of what they cost, and you really want to make sure that what you expect to get out of it in terms of benefits, whether that's income or more flexibility in terms of job options, [are what you will get]."

Additionally, what are the demands of the program? Many of the DSW options are online with brief on-campus weeks/residencies over the course of the program. Internships are not commonplace. The students are typically already clinically active. But, the programs do take several years. This is not a one-semester commitment. "The DSW curriculum is an intensive, full-time, hybrid/online program allowing students to meet degree requirements for a doctorate of social work in clinical practice and leadership in three years (eight semesters)," Bailey says of her program.

One element that students cannot use as a guide for choosing a DSW program is accreditation. At present, none of the DSW programs are accredited by CSWE. BSW and MSW programs are (or can be) accredited because they are tied to practice. Licensure typically requires that the professional has graduated from an accredited program. "CSWE is moving forward with developing a process for the accreditation of practice doctoral programs in social work to protect and enhance the preparation of social work practitioners in specialized social work practice," Regan says. "Practice doctorates in every other field of professional practice are accredited by the respective accrediting bodies." (PhD programs are not accredited, which is common across multiple disciplines.)

CSWE released a timeline for the accreditation process, which culminates in the council accepting the first applications for pilot reviews in the fall of 2019.

In the interim, the DSW programs are embracing the ability to determine what works best for their students. "We are in a period of innovation and really trying to understand how we can advance social work education," Patterson says. "The ongoing challenge is to understand what is at the forefront of clinical practice and leadership and to continually evolve curricula so that we are offering a set of skills and knowledge that students aren't getting in their master's programs. The intention is to be disruptive innovators."

— Sue Coyle, MSW, is an award-winning freelance writer, a social worker in the Philadelphia suburbs, and a frequent contributor to Social Work Today.