No one goes into social work expecting to be highly compensated. Social workers do what they do because they want to help people improve their lives. However, even the most altruistic social worker needs a home and sustenance. Compensation may not be the driving motivator for social workers, but it’s still something they need to consider.
Social work salaries vary depending on job responsibilities, the social worker’s area of specialization and degree level, and location, among other factors. Entry-level jobs in social work require only a bachelor’s degree but pay less than most jobs available to those with a Master of Social Work (MSW). Additional certifications can also improve your employment prospects and boost your salary.
So, how much money do you earn as a social worker? This article answers that question by discussing:
In social work, where you practice has a big impact on how much you earn. Top paying states include Nevada, Hawaii, Virginia, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, where social workers earn an average salary of about $77,000 to $86,000. Cities and major metropolitan areas that offer higher annual salaries in social work include Los Angeles and Long Beach (California), Newark (New Jersey), Portland (Oregon), Danbury (Connecticut), as well as New York City and the District of Columbia. Salaries in these cities can range from $82,000 to around $100,000 annually. A word of caution: those extra dollars may be eaten up by the cost of living in those areas.
It’s also true that a setting impacts social workers’ take-home pay. Research by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) shows that healthcare social workers who practice in hospitals (local, state and private) make more than those in on individual and family services, or who work with individual patients as mental health and substance abuse social workers. Social workers employed by state and local government and in ambulatory healthcare services rank somewhere in the middle.
There are a couple of significant practical considerations:
- A Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in social work
- A license to practice or required social work certification
Credentials vary among careers, states, and territories. Licenses include:
- Certified Social Worker (CSW)
- Clinical Social Work Associate (CSWA)
- Licensed Advanced Practice Social Worker (LAPSW)
- Licensed Advanced Social Worker (LASW)
- Licensed Baccalaureate Social Worker (LBSW)
- Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
- Licensed Graduate Social Worker (LGSW)
- Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW)
- Licensed Mental Health Professional (LMHP)
- Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW)
Most of these licenses require a Master’s or Doctorate, along with additional coursework or clinical internships. ( )
A survey of 2017 social work graduates by the National Social Work Workforce Study found that social workers with Master’s degrees and Doctorates made substantially more than those with no advanced degree. ( )
- People with MSW degrees made $13,000-plus more than those with only BSW degrees
- MSWs make more in large cities or urban clusters
- People with doctorates earned $20,000 to $25,000 more than people with only MSW degrees
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Common social work areas of practice include work in the military, public schools, elder care, healthcare, and social service organizations. Roles in these areas include substance abuse counselor (with average base pay $41,610), school social workers (with a median salary of $49,471), medical social worker in nursing or home care (with a salary range of $55,000 to $75,000), and social work planner or case manager (with a national average of $51,300). Many licensed clinical social workers work in private practice.
Some of the highest paying jobs you can land with an advanced MSW degree include clinical social work in private practice (with a median annual salary of $100,000) and a social work administrator (also $100,000). Shifting to academia and becoming a professor of social work (though you may need a social work doctorate (DSW)) can pay well into six-figures.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the largest segment of social workers is employed in individual and family services (at 18 percent), followed by local government, ambulatory healthcare, and state government listed (all at around 14 percent each).
The BLS anticipates that there will be a 12 percent increase in job growth for social workers through 2030, which equals about 90,000 new jobs created during this period. The National Association of Social Workers projects a 19 to 20 percent growth in both healthcare-related social work and mental health and substance abuse positions through 2026.
While it’s possible to be a social worker with only a BSW, most advanced and higher-paid positions require an MSW—and this social work degree is required if you intend to be a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW).
A Master of Social Work (MSW) is a graduate-level degree that prepares students to pursue licensure to practice in advanced-level positions in their state. These master’s programs are accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), which oversees standards for licensure and ethics and is the sole social work accreditation agency in the US.
Typically, it takes two years to complete an MSW, although some schools offer accelerated programs that allow you to reach your goal more quickly. If you already have a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW), you should look into advanced standing programs, in which you can apply credits from your BSW toward your master’s degree—and save some time and money in the process. Tulane University’s online advanced standing MSW program takes 12 months to complete full-time or 24 months part-time.
Applications often need to include undergraduate transcripts with a minimum GPA of 3.0, letters of recommendation, a resume/CV, and a personal statement demonstrating how their course of study will help you meet your career goals. Some programs also require Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) test scores.
Social work students can expect to begin their studies with foundational courses on individual, family, and group practice, then continue to advanced levels in chosen concentrations of micro, mezzo, and macro areas of work.
Foundational courses focus on the history and philosophy of social welfare and social work, systems theory, human behavior, ethics in practice, racism in social work practice, and research. Advanced courses explore issues of race and gender and the impact of environment on social systems. These classes often move beyond classroom theory to fieldwork placement.
In their second year of study, students in many programs may select an area of specialization. These choices will be specific to each school and should be part of your research into social work master’s programs.
For example, at the Stony Brook School of Social Welfare, second-year students may choose among three areas of specialization: Community, Policy, and Political Social Action; Families, Youth and Transition to Adulthood; and Integrated Health.
Top schools that offer a master’s in social work include:
The big names carry weight, and depending on your career plans, may be the list of schools you are after. There are many more excellent programs to choose from, so make sure to look into the offerings of others like University of Texas at Austin, Washington University in St. Louis, and Case Western Reserve University.
If you’re currently working full-time or need a more flexible course of study, you may want to consider some of the competitive online and hybrid MSW programs, like those at Tulane University of Louisiana, Rutgers University, Simmons University, or Virginia Commonwealth University.
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