Social Work

Best MSW Career Paths: What Are the Highest-Paying MSW Jobs in 2021?

Best MSW Career Paths: What Are the Highest-Paying MSW Jobs in 2021?
Social work isn't for everyone, but it's an excellent job for the right kind of person. Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry December 27, 2019

A Master of Social Work (MSW) offers a pathway to some of the highest-tier social work jobs—and the highest salaries, too. Below you'll find some of the best MSW career options and paths for 2021.

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To most laypeople, social workers are professionals who work with the poor and the marginalized to secure needed assistance from the government, social service agencies, and healthcare providers. These are the social workers we see in popular movies and television shows, and they form the public image of the profession.

However, social work encompasses a much broader range of activities and careers at the micro, mezzo, and macro levels. When you earn a Master of Social Work, you might work in social services, but you also might work in psychology and counseling, administration, politics, advocacy and community organization, or policy development. While many MSW graduates spend their careers as clinical social workers working directly with clients (for instance, as mental health and substance abuse social workers), many others work in social service management, socioeconomic and epidemiological research, or the corporate sector.

It is possible to secure a job in social work with nothing more than a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW). Still, there are many compelling reasons to go back to school after your bachelor’s for an advanced degree. The most compelling reason, however, is probably that an MSW opens many doors closed to bachelor’s degree holders. A master’s degree in social work means more career options and greater earning potential. It’s not hyperbole to say that this degree can transform your career.

Thinking about getting an MSW? In this article about the highest-paying social work jobs and career paths in 2021, we’ll cover:

  • Why earn an MSW?
  • How a master’s degree affects salaries in the social work field
  • Career options for those with a master’s degree in social work in 2021
  • The highest-paying MSW jobs and career paths in 2021
  • Employment outlook for MSW holders
  • How to decide if an MSW is right for you

Why earn an MSW?

With a master’s degree-level social work education, you will have access to better job opportunities and a higher lifetime earning potential. You’ll also acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to help more people and to assist specific populations.

On-campus and online MSW programs typically permit students choose concentrations related to their professional aspirations, such as:


This specialty prepares MSW students to assist and advocate for those struggling with issues related to aging.

Behavioral health

Behavioral health is a popular specialty that involves diagnosing and treating mental illness and addiction.

Community and social systems

According to Fordham University, “Community social work is a term used to describe focused efforts that promote the health of a larger community.” School systems, neighborhoods, or even states can be considered communities.

Death and dying

Navigating death can be challenging. This social work specialty helps patients and their families come to terms with dying. Professionals provide counseling and assistance to their clients during their final days.

Family social work

Family social work involves connecting struggling families with resources. It also can mean removing children from parents who cannot care for them, including if the parent(s) have chemical dependencies.

Health and healthcare

Medical social work means assisting clients in transitioning from a care facility, especially after a significant injury or illness. Professionals can further specialize in emergency and trauma, mental health, neonatal care, and transplants.

Mental health

According to the Rutgers University School of Social Work, coursework in this specialty “prepares students to employ evidence based interventions…to promote, restore and maintain behavioral health.”

Military social work

Learn to help current and past armed service members do things like reintegrate into society, recover from trauma or substance abuse, and cope with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

School social work

School social work means providing children’s services in the school system. These social workers may help children cope with bullying, address behavioral issues, and deal with home issues like abuse.

Social work planning and management

This specialty prepares graduates for organizational leadership roles. You may direct the implementation of policy for governmental, nonprofit, and private sector organizations.

Substance abuse disorders

A substance abuse specialization qualifies you to work with people suffering from substance abuse, including alcohol, drugs, and other addictions. Professionals typically work for outpatient centers, individual and family services, and governmental agencies.

Trauma and violence

Trauma can have many different causes, including combat, sexual violence, and natural disaster. Beyond trauma intervention and prevention, this specialty can cover trauma-related policy.

While very few people choose careers in social work for the money, your MSW concentration and the hands-on experience you get while completing your social work program can help you find employment in one of the higher-paying specialties in the field.


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How a master’s degree affects salaries in the social work field

Social work is not a high-paying career. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median salary for social workers across the board is $55,350.

The good news is that a Master in Social Work program can provide the qualifications you need to transition into higher-paying, less-stressful roles in social work.

That said, your chances of earning a comfortable living in social work definitely improve with an MSW. The National Association of Social Worker’s National Social Work Workforce Study Nationwide Survey of 2017 Social Work Graduates found that MSW salaries are $13,000+ higher than BSW salaries. The group’s earlier Compensation and Benefits Study found that BSW holders make at least $15,000 less than social work graduates with an MSW. You’ll probably earn between $59,675 and $85,754 once you complete your graduate social work program.

Obviously, salaries in social work are affected by many factors, including role, years of experience, geographic location, even gender. Regardless of these variables, only the highest-paid 10 percent of social workers ever earn more than $85,820. Below, we’ll look at roles that can put you into the top 10 percent, along with other better-paying career options for MSW holders.

Career options for those with a master’s degree in social work in 2021

Social workers with master’s degrees work in many roles. You don’t even necessarily need to be an licensed social worker with an LCSW or LMSW. There are jobs for social workers in:

Corporate responsibility

Social workers can obtain jobs in private companies, typically as a human resource manager, a high-paying position. Tasks for HR managers bridge the gap between managers and workers. Responsibilities may include hiring and firing employees, and addressing workplace issues and policy.

Criminal justice

Prison social work is one of the few areas in the criminal justice system that genuinely focuses on rehabilitation. Professionals in this subspecialty can advocate for inmate rights, provide counseling for people with substance abuse and mental illness issues, and assist those re-entering into society.

Gerontology care

Gerontological social workers help clients through the process of aging. They are therapists and advocates for older patients.

Healthcare administration

It’s possible for social workers to move into healthcare administration positions. According to Healthcare Facilities Today, social work professionals are well-equipped to “identify gaps in patient education that can be filled via hospital programs, or help streamline paperwork log jams that lead to delayed admissions, discharges, or procedures.”

Nonprofit administration

Similar to healthcare administration, social workers can take on administrative positions in the nonprofit sector. The University of Pennsylvania even offers a dual MSW and MS in Nonprofit Leadership.

Policy and planning

These professionals can design policy or oversee its implementation. They may hold supervisory roles at clinics or other macro-focused institutions, such as government agencies.


Research is needed in all aspects of social work, including effective implementation and management techniques. While you can perform research at the MSW level, most researchers are faculty members or in a PhD program.

High-paying MSW jobs and career paths in 2021 include:

Director of corporate social responsibility ($110,000)

Social workers in the corporate world often work in social responsibility roles, and at the top of the pyramid, you’ll find directors of corporate social responsibility. As a director, you’ll oversee the development and implementation of initiatives and policies to meet your company’s social responsibility goals. You’ll also have a hand in branding and PR.

Therapist in a private practice ($100,000+)

There’s no limit to what a licensed social work therapist working in private practice can earn other than what clients (or insurers) are willing to pay. In this role, you’ll also have a lot more flexibility and autonomy than you would in an agency role. ZipRecruiter lists the average salary for private practice therapists as nearly $98,000.

_Professor of social work ($105,898)

To land a tenured professorship, you’ll probably have to earn a PhD in Social Work, but you may be able to get a job as an adjunct professor of social work with just an MSW. You won’t be helping people directly in this role, but you’ll help many indirectly by training the next generation of social workers.

Social work administrator ($101,258)

When you become a social work administrator, you’ll steer the direction of your organization and represent the needs of the populations you serve in policy discussions. You’ll also be able to work in a variety of settings, from universities and federal welfare centers to hospitals and law firms, and help thousands of people over your career.

Employee Assistance Program (EAP) counselor ($77,606)

In this nontraditional social work role, you’ll provide counseling and resources to employees dealing with substance abuse issues, mental health issues, financial issues, domestic violence, or family issues. You might help people work through an emotional crisis, refer them to other providers, or help them access financial assistance.

Veteran’s affairs social worker ($84,697)

Army social workers are commissioned officers in the service’s Medical Service Corps. They must hold an MSW to practice. In this role, your duties will involve coordinating discharge planning, case management, and clinical treatment. Your earning potential will be determined by your rank.

Social work policy analyst ($96,920)

Social workers don’t always work directly with patients—they can also take a broader approach and focus on social issues at the policy level. Social workers who advocate for more comprehensive policy reform pave the way forward for their peers in every field of social work.

Social science researcher ($94,500)

These researchers are focused on topics related to social science. The work they do can shape social work policy. When you become a social science researcher, you’ll dig into issues like healthcare, population structures, education, human behavior, social welfare, child welfare, social justice, jobs and unemployment, the environment, gender, and families.

Executive director of a nonprofit organization ($85,230)

As executive director of a nonprofit, you will be responsible for overseeing everything related to what your organization does. You’ll have a hand in program administration, strategic planning, fundraising, marketing, and community outreach.

Community service manager ($74,240)

In this role, you’ll organize and oversee one or more social services programs operating in a specific community. This can include managing staff, creating budgets, and assessing outcomes.

As high these salaries are, the reality is most positions in social work for MSW holders pay around $55,000 or less. Top Master of Social Work career options at this level include:

Group social worker

The definition of a group social worker is less about the specialization and more about the setting: a group. These professionals work in places like substance abuse facilities, domestic violence shelters, and nursing homes. According to PayScale, the average MSW with group therapy skills earns around $49,500 per year.

Hospice social worker

Hospice social workers work with clients and families as they go through the dying process. According to PayScale, the average hospice social worker earns around $59,000 in annual salary.

Mental health counselor

These professionals use therapy to help clients through mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and eating disorders. With a Licensed Clinical Social Work credential, social workers can open a private practice and set their own rates.

School counselor

School counselors can work with elementary through college-aged students. Responsibilities are diverse, depending on where they work, and may include addressing behavioral issues or helping with the college application process. According to PayScale, the average school counselor earns around $55,249 per year.

School social worker

You’ll work with students, teachers, families, and administrators to facilitate positive classroom outcomes in this position. Job duties may include performing mental health interventions and assisting with discipline. The average school social worker earns just over $52,836, according to PayScale.

Social work planner

Social work planners focus on policy creation, implementation, and evaluation. They typically don’t work with clients on an individual basis. According to PayScale, social workers with a Master of Social Work with administrative positions earn an average yearly annual salary of $76,000.

Substance abuse counselor

As a substance abuse counselor, you’ll work with people struggling with addiction. These professionals typically work in rehab clinics, outpatient clinicals, or hospitals. They also can be a resource for families. PayScale says that addiction counselors earn nearly $40,000 per year.

It’s worth noting that these are only a handful of the many career pathways open to you when you earn an MSW. Keep in mind, salary often depends more on factors like experience level and geographic location than specialty.

Employment outlook for MSW holders

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the employment outlook for social workers at every level is good, with 89,200 new jobs for social workers over the next decade. Many of these jobs will be for child, family, and school social workers, but there will also be new jobs in healthcare, mental health support, substance abuse, and other areas of social work.

How to decide if an MSW is right for you

The question you need to ask yourself is whether you think you’ll derive the personal and professional satisfaction you need while working in any of the above careers. You’ll make more money in the roles listed above than you will in the kinds of positions open to BSW holders, but you won’t ever become a millionaire. Of course, you probably wouldn’t have read this far if your ambitions included earning vast riches. All the above career options and professional pathways outlined above will allow you to help more people overcome tougher challenges than you could in case-management or bachelor’s degree-level social worker role.

Social work isn’t for everyone, but it’s an excellent job for the right kind of person. If you’re one of them, earning an MSW degree and looking into the roles we’ve outlined here will be one of the best things you ever do.

(This article was updated on January 10, 2024)

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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