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Program Overview

The professional Doctor of Social Work (DSW) program at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work offers an advanced practice doctorate in social change and innovation for agency and community leaders and entrepreneurs.

Unlike other schools of social work that offer advanced practice doctorates in clinical practice or teaching, we prepare experienced professionals to develop practical, applied solutions to large-scale social challenges that directly impact vulnerable, marginalized or otherwise disadvantaged populations.

As a student in our Online Doctor of Social Work program, you will develop characteristics of both practitioners and scholars. By adopting the disciplinary habits of scholars through rigorous inquiry and use of methodological tools associated with leading and managing innovation and change, you will become an effective social change leader.

Our graduates are prepared to seek management or executive leadership positions that advance their careers in social work and related human service arenas. By leading national discourse about intractable issues affecting populations worldwide, they graduate from the program equipped to establish a legacy of social impact.

CSWE’s Board of Accreditation (CSWE-BOA) is currently piloting the accreditation of practice doctorate programs. Although there are currently no CSWE-BOA accredited practice doctorate programs, in June 2020, CSWE-BOA approved and adopted the Accreditation Standards for Professional Practice Doctoral Programs in Social Work. USC’s Doctor of Social Work program has adopted the Accreditation Standards for Professional Practice Doctoral Programs in Social Work and is prepared to undergo accreditation once it becomes available. For information about practice doctorate program accreditation and the current pilot, please visit the Council on Social Work Education website.

Grand Challenges for Social Work

The Grand Challenges for Social Work, as defined by the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare, are critical social issues that are facing today’s society. As a student in our online doctor of social work program, you will complete a capstone project that requires you to propose an innovative, actionable solution to one of the Grand Challenges:

  • Ensure healthy development for all youth
  • Close the health gap
  • Build healthy relationships to end violence
  • Advance long and productive lives
  • Eradicate social isolation
  • End homelessness
  • Create social responses to a changing environment
  • Harness technology for social good
  • Prevent gun violence
  • Eliminate racism
  • Promote smart decarceration
  • Reduce extreme economic inequality
  • Build financial capability and assets for all
  • Achieve equal opportunity and justice


DSW 704 – Strategic Innovations for the Grand Challenges (3 units)

Introduces interdisciplinary ideas and approaches for innovation and change as they address the Grand Challenges for Social Work. Students will leave the course with the ability to respond to the fast-paced and changing organizational environment with a skill set that supports new strategies and approaches for targeting “wicked problems” and managing change.

DSW 705 – Leading Public Discourse (3 units)

This course will prepare students to develop a range of skills in leading public discourse for the purposes of increasing civic engagement and public participation, building broad-based public support, and enabling competencies including utilizing knowledge to generate change for the benefit of vulnerable and at-risk populations and the social work profession; facilitating social connectivity; constructing and defining critical perspectives; ensuring transparency and accountability; and strengthening civic agency. A necessary focus of the course is to effectively navigate and understand social media, how to build social media marketing strategies to communicate and how to track their effectiveness (message management).

DSW 706 – Leading and Managing Large Complex Systems (3 units)

This course examines large-scale national, state and local social intervention programs (e.g., income security, housing, health, justice and child welfare programs) in the context of how these programs do or do not include strategies to address the Grand Challenges. Implications for fiscal and outcome accountability, inclusion and exclusion criteria, political considerations, funding, social program implications, and interoperability of design are of critical importance.

DSW 707 – Financial Management for Social Change (3 units)

This course will prepare students to apply effective financial management and planning skills in human service organizations. The skills they will develop will emphasize fiscal approaches that maximize revenue, control costs, allocate resources, improve decision-making and support successful social programs and social change.

DSW 711 – Design Laboratory for Social Innovation I (3 units)

This course integrates design thinking with a norms-driven approach for social innovation, described as the systematic disruption of social norms to effect social change. Implementing a case study method, students will assume the role of key decision-makers in actual organizational contexts in order to uncover norms that preserve social problems (emanating from the Grand Challenges) and identify or invent deviants to subvert them. Lastly, they will assess a specific social problem, diagnose norms and apply design thinking techniques to develop a proposed innovative solution corresponding to their selected social problem.

DSW 713 – The Application of Implementation Science (3 units)

Students will develop skills focused on examining challenges faced in implementing innovative and evidence-based practices, programs and policies. Furthermore, students will learn strategies, theories, models and frameworks supported by the scientific literature for overcoming these challenges in order to successfully implement and sustain these innovations. This application-focused class will also help students learn to analyze implementation barriers and facilitators, find the appropriate implementation strategies, and develop a plan to implement their innovation in order to solve their identified social problem.

DSW 714 – Executive Leadership: Leaders as Maestros (3 units)

Students will develop skills that will enable them to apply theories and principles of executive leadership, including development of personal and technical skills and skills in navigating organizations.

DSW 720 – Communication and Influence for Social Good (3 units)

This course examines how communication and messaging strategies and newer information technology — such as mobile apps, social media, Snapchat and more — can be used to craft appropriate messaging that would influence decision-makers, members of social groups, campaigns and/or members of the public to address the Grand Challenges in the interests of the public good.

DSW 721 – Data Driven Decision Making in Social Services (3 units)

This course provides students with the practical and conceptual skills needed to manage, analyze, interpret and present quantitative findings from data generated through agency operations. Learning how to interpret statistics and the visual presentations of statistics, and conceptualizing the measurement and rigorous assessment of new innovations and policy change initiatives, will be emphasized. Ethical considerations and practical issues on using data originally collected for non-research purposes will also be discussed. The course also introduces students to developments in data science and artificial intelligence that are emerging as new methods to analyze big data within social work.

DSW 723 – Design Laboratory for Social Innovation II (3 units)

This course extends the exploration of design thinking as a method for social innovation. Students are required to explore innovative solutions related to their Grand Challenge and social problem and then test their ideas through prototype development. Students will be encouraged to take audacious approaches and even fail their ideas. The course introduces new innovation tools that can be leveraged in their design, including change agents, change processes and change technologies. In the face of rapid social change and increasing social instability, students will explore how to use these elements to create greater impact.

DSW 790 – Research (6 units are required)

Research leading to the doctorate. Maximum units which may be applied to the degree to be determined by the department. Graded CR/NC.

DSW 725 a, b, c – Capstone Project (6 units total)

This intensive workshop-style course assesses and improves our students’ ability to: (a) make clear decisions informed by knowledge of key concepts and tools and (b) articulate these decisions in writing. Additionally, this course prepares students to deliver and defend a capstone project proposal, a key deliverable for achieving candidacy in the doctoral program. This course is the culmination of each student’s experience in the DSW program. As an analogue to independent study for a doctoral dissertation, Capstone Project is much more equivalent to student-guided work with faculty oversight than to a structured course with a defined series of lectures and assignments. Credit for each course is determined upon acceptance of the Capstone Project.