Social Work

Should You Get a Master’s Degree in Social Work?

Should You Get a Master’s Degree in Social Work?
Earning an MSW can open a lot of doors. Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry November 21, 2019

You don't need a master's degree to succeed in social work, but getting an advanced degree can only enhance your prospects. Outside the cost, there are basically no downsides to pursuing a Master of Social Work. You may even be able to earn your degree in less than two years.

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The stereotype of the underpaid, overworked social worker is especially true when you’re looking at entry-level, nonclinical positions. Earning a master’s degree is one way social workers motivated by a desire to help people live their best lives can help themselves do the same. A Master of Social Work (MSW) degree can be your ticket to higher-paying, less-stressful roles in social work. It creates opportunities in fields that aren’t open to bachelor’s degree holders.

You don’t already need to be a social worker to pursue your MSW. According to the Council of Social Work Education‘s 2018 survey of social work graduates, 66 percent of MSWs hold bachelor’s degrees in an area other than social work. The majority of MSW programs include foundational coursework in addition to coursework covering advanced practice topics, allowing non-Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) students to catch up fairly quickly.

You can pursue an MSW as a career changer or as a social worker looking to advance your career. In this guide to a master’s degree in social work, we’ll cover:

  • Possible fields and career paths for a master’s degree in social work
  • What you’ll study in an MSW program
  • Prerequisites for a master’s degree in social work
  • Top schools for a master’s degree in social work
  • Commitment required for a Master of Social Work degree
  • Exams and certifications to complete a master’s degree in social work
  • Employment outlook for MSW holders
  • Should you get a Master of Social Work degree?

Possible fields and career paths for a master’s degree in social work

Earning an MSW can open a lot of doors. With a Master of Social Work, you can become any of the following:

Medical social worker

As a medical social worker, you’ll provide support and resources to patients with traumatic, chronic, or terminal conditions. In this role, you’ll work directly with patients and their families to help them come to terms with illnesses and other maladies, and you’ll advocate for those patients to ensure that they’re getting the best possible care. The average medical social worker salary is about $60,105.

Substance abuse counselor

As a substance abuse counselor, you’ll help people with drug or alcohol abuse disorders recover from their addictions. You may counsel people individually or facilitate a psychotherapy group or support group at a nonprofit, prison, or private practice. The average substance abuse counselor salary is about $41,608.

Mental health counselor

As a mental health counselor, you’ll give people the support they need to cope with mental illness and challenging life events. The average mental health counselor salary is about $56,000.

School social worker

As a school social worker, you’ll support students through academic and personal problems. Social workers in schools work as guidance counselors and mental health counselors. In this role, you might also work with students with disabilities to ensure they are getting the resources they need to thrive. School social workers earn on average about $49,194 a year.

Clinical therapist

As a clinical therapist, you’ll work directly with patients to provide effective psychotherapy treatments in mental hospitals, schools, community health centers, and private practices. To work in this role, you will likely need additional licenses and certifications. The average clinical therapist salary is about $49,461.

Social work planner

As a social work planner, you’ll work at the macro level to help entire populations or create programs that change the lives of people living in a specific area. It’s an important job, though not a lucrative one. The average social work planner salary is just about $51,294.

These are only a handful of the many career pathways that will be open to you if you earn an MSW. With the degree, you’ll probably earn between $59,675 and $72,784, regardless of the specialty you choose.

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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. (source)

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. (source)

- 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

University and Program Name Learn More

What you’ll study in an MSW program

What you’ll study in your MSW program depends on the program and on which specialization you choose. There are Master of Social Work programs focused on micro-level social work (working with individuals), mezzo-level social work (working with groups and communities, or doing a mix of micro and macro work), and macro-level social work (working with populations or systems). MSW students can further customize their degrees by choosing a concentration or track related to a specific practice area. You could, for instance, specialize in:

Child welfare and family social work

This concentration focuses on children specifically and individually, and within their position in the family unit.

Community and social systems

This mezzo-level focus area will allow both one-on-one interaction, but with a wider community scope helping communities navigate systems of bureaucracy and aid.

Behavioral health

The connectedness of body and mind are key to understanding behavioral health and the unique treatments available to promote total well-being.

Mental health

In individual practice or in a hospital setting, dealing with mental healthcare is a one-on-one relationship with a client, helping organize medications, therapy and relationships within the family.

Death and dying

Dealing with end-of-life issues is a unique focus, and one that involves not only the client’s comfort, but with the family’s needs dealing with loss and grief as well.

Health and healthcare

Examining individual health in the larger healthcare system is critical to treatment of patients in the larger scope of public health.

Adulthood and aging

Aging is a process with many complications and challenges, and work with an older population will include a focus on both mental and physical issues.

Trauma and violence

Specializing in trauma means understanding the ongoing process of recovery and healing that survivors must work through, and providing appropriate resources and sensitivity.

Military social work

Working with veterans and active duty personnel requires a unique understanding of stress and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and how to navigate bureaucracy to secure the resources each client needs.

Substance abuse disorder

Working with clients on substance abuse includes addressing any associated psychological, social, and medical issues that are related to the client’s life, and must involve a multifaceted approach to treatment.

School social work

Working with young people within the school system will incorporate resources to help the child within the larger framework of both family and community.

Human service management

This specialization includes understanding the variety of support organizations for people and communities, and how to manage service delivery.

Social work planning and management

Social work planning and management requires organization and a detailed understanding of community needs and the resources available to them.

No matter what MSW concentration or track you choose, you’ll take core classes like:

Introduction to Social Work

An overview of the wide range of social work and the populations they work with.

Assessment and Diagnosis

The foundation of treatment begins with solid assessment and diagnostic technique.

Direct Practice with Individuals, Families, and Small Groups

Learning the distinctive and focused treatment opportunities on a smaller scale.

Social Work Practice with Individuals and Families

Recognizing the patterns in families and the impact of the family on the individual.

Group Theory and Practice

Studying group dynamics in theory and practice, and how the group’s complex systems influence the individual.

Theories for Clinical Social Work Practice

Determining how to incorporate components of different clinical theories into treatment plans by examining the basic tenets of each.

Comparative Psychodynamic Theories

Study of the many related theories of human development and incorporation into treatment processes like talk therapy and dream analysis.

Human Behavior and the Environment

Using environmental psychology to understand the forces of how our surroundings impact our health and behavior.

Agency and Community Practice

Using a macro component to study the process of community development, organizing, and change.

Social Work Research Methods

Introduction of the evidence-based research model and general social work research methods as applied to clinical practice.

Evidence-Based Practice in Social Work

Evidence-Based Practice (EBP) steps and methods are explored in the context of social work and its goals.

Prerequisites for a master’s degree in social work

You’ll need to attend a graduate school to complete a Master of Social Work program, meaning you need to earn a bachelor’s degree first. A Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) from a school accredited by the CSWE is optimal, but people enter MSW programs with degrees in psychology, sociology, and even unrelated disciplines like theater or business.
Most BSW programs can be completed in four years of full-time, on-campus or online study. We’ve listed eight excellent affordable BSW programs below:

Boise State University

“Students are prepared to work with individuals, families, households, groups, organizations, and communities to address issues of coping and emotional support and also deal with broader challenges such as violence and social inequality that affect all people…”

CUNY Hunter College

“The BSW program offers students the opportunity to link theory and practice by participating in a robust curriculum and established field placements. Students will learn the core skills of assessment, engagement, intervention, advocacy, and documentation through a generalist practice lens..”

Rutgers University – Camden

“Rutgers offers the Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree with a social work major through the School of Social Work and the Camden College of Arts and Sciences and the New Brunswick School of Arts and Sciences.”

Rutgers University – New Brunswick

“This outstanding professional degree program prepares graduates for foundation-level social work practice. The major in social work is equivalent to the BSW, BASW, and BSSW degrees and is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE).”

San Diego State University

“The School, with over 600 students, is one of the largest professional schools on campus. The School of Social Work has graduated over 7,000 social workers who carry professional leadership responsibilities in the social service arena not only in California but also around the world.”

Univeristy of Alabama at Birmingham

“Our rigorous academic program prepares graduates for generalist social work practice, graduate study in social work, and careers that require skills in critical thinking, problem-solving, communication, and inter-professional collaboration. The program emphasizes the value of diversity and the importance of promoting social and economic justice.”

University of Central Florida

“Students from across the globe come to UCF to experience academic achievement — getting hands-on experience inside and outside of the classroom before graduation. Leave here prepared for a rewarding lifelong career, and make a difference in the community and beyond.”

You can also earn your BSW through an online program. Some of these programs require multiple on-campus sessions, so do your research before enrolling. Some, like The University of Tennessee – Knoxville, are only open to in-state students.

The following schools offer an online BSW:

Eastern Kentucky University

“EKU’s 100% online bachelor of social work (BSW) provides students with a strong academic foundation to become ethical leaders who advocate for social and economic justice. This versatile degree opens the door to a variety of career options and builds the critical skills needed to help you advance in the field.”

Millersville University of Pennsylvania

“The social work program has been developed within the framework of curriculum content outlined by the Council on Social Work Education Accreditation Standards. The courses are carefully sequenced so that students may build upon previously acquired knowledge and have opportunities to experience the integration of various bodies of knowledge.”

University of Cincinnati – Main Campus

“UC Online’s Bachelor of Social Work degree enables students to gain the knowledge and experience needed to launch careers as community social workers. Our online BSW degree program is ideal for students who have a 2-year associate degree in pre-social work or a similar major.”

University of Louisville

“Offered by the Kent School of Social Work at the University of Louisville, this program focuses on the skills and knowledge related to the impact of social work on families, institutions and communities. By emphasizing social justice dynamics, as well as critical analysis, planning and implementation skills, this program educates and empowers you to effectively advocate on behalf of marginalized individuals, become an agent of change and help others live safer, healthier lives.”

University of Nebraska at Kearney

“UNK’s social work bachelor’s program has been accredited by the Council on Social Work Education since 1982. This accreditation allows you to classify as an advanced standing student to go onward to complete your master’s degree in social work from schools around the country in a faster and more affordable way.”

University of Utah

“The BSW program seeks to establish mutually respectful and supportive relationships with marginalized communities (e.g., people of color, indigenous and aboriginal communities, refugee and immigrant communities, LGBTQ communities, people with mental illness, and rural communities) to assist in the development of community leaders and programs needed to achieve social justice and improve the human condition of all community members.”

Western New Mexico University

“Our graduates gain the knowledge, values, and skills to practice social work in a variety of settings with people young and old. From counseling to case management and advocacy to intervention, our graduates find fulfillment in applying their skills to improve the lives of the people they serve.”

The BSW is a broad degree designed to prepare students to enter a variety of micro-level social work specialties or to enroll in an MSW program. You’ll study topics like:

Human behavior

This class will focus on human development and the impact of social and physical environments on growth and maturation.

Sociology

The study of sociology in social work offers important theories and structures of the institutions of society, allowing reflection and explanations of social interactions.

Social welfare

This course gives an overview of the values and goals of social work, and the modalities of work with communities, families and individuals in evaluating issues of financing, benefits, and the delivery of social services.

Social justice

This class may focus on issues identified by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) including juvenile, criminal, immigrant and environmental justice, as well as voting rights, education and healthcare.

Clinical best practices

This coursework helps prepare students to develop theoretical and ethical frameworks to help shape their clinical skills in treatment of individuals, couples, and families in clinical practice.

Group social work methods

Work in this class will outline methods to help enhance social functioning and highlight social responsibility and citizenship within a group setting..

You will also complete field education (sometimes referred to as a practicum or field placement) under the supervision of a licensed social worker.

Admission requirements at many MSW programs include significant related work experience. Don’t worry if you haven’t worked in social work or if your bachelor’s degree is in another discipline, though. Many universities accept students from academic backgrounds unrelated to social work and without any professional experience. If that describes you, you can give yourself a leg up over other applicants by looking for opportunities to amass volunteer hours for organizations with a connection to social work, like the Red Cross or Department of Veterans Affairs.

Top schools for a master’s degree in social work

The most important thing you can look for in a Master of Social Work degree is its accreditation status. The CSWE is the only organization offering meaningful accreditation for MSW programs. Most states actually require social workers to graduate from an accredited degree program to be eligible for licensure. If you don’t attend a CSWE-accredited program, you may have to complete additional supervised work hours before you can get your license.

After accreditation, consider curriculum and job-placement data. Do the electives interest you and fit your goals? Does the school’s career services office place social workers in positions you hope to achieve? If yes to both, it’s the right school for you.

You’ll find some great Master of Social Work programs at:

Boston College

“Our top-ranked MSW program prepares professionals to address complex social challenges by carefully integrating classroom learning with field education placements.”

Columbia University

“Since 1898, Columbia faculty and alumni have played a leading role in advancing the field of social work through scholarly and professional contributions. What began as an intervention in the conditions of urban industrial life at the end of the 19th century has evolved into a global field that impacts nearly every area of social and political life.”

Fordham University

“Top 10 percent in the nation by US News & World Report, Fordham University’s Master of Social Work (MSW) program will prepare you to engage effectively across all areas of social work throughout your career.”

University of California – Berkeley

“Each year Berkeley Social Welfare endeavors to admit the most promising master’s students who combine scholarly ability with demonstrated commitment and aptitude for a career in social work.”

University of Chicago

“The Crown Family School master’s program has been continuously accredited by the Council on Social Work Education and its predecessor organizations since 1919. The rigor and quality of a Crown Family School education have earned us a spot among the top graduate schools of social work in the world.”

University of Denver

“(O)ur courses that respond to today’s real-world needs — needs such as housing and food security, environmental justice and sustainability, and culturally competent mental health care.”

University of Michigan

“Advancing the social work profession’s vision and values, the University of Michigan School of Social Work seeks to develop a more equitable, caring, and socially just society. Such a society meets basic human needs, eliminates social and economic inequities, and empowers individuals, their communities, and institutions to reach their aspirations and potential.”

University of Southern California

“The Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work champions social justice for the well-being of individuals, families, and communities through innovative teaching of evidence-based practice and practice-based skills, pioneering transformative research, and cultivating leadership for social change.”

The University of Texas at Austin

“Join one of the top-ten master’s programs of social work in the nation, take advantage of the resources of a first-class university and graduate ready for advanced social work practice with individuals, families, groups, organizations and communities.”

Washington University in St. Louis

“The Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis offers a top-ranked Master of Social Work (MSW) program. Through course work and fieldwork, students gain the knowledge and skills needed to tackle some of society’s greatest challenges and to succeed in a variety of professional settings.”

Just because an MSW program is at a top university doesn’t mean it will be the right one for you. You should look for programs that have concentrations or tracks related to your future specialization. For instance, if you want to become a hospice social worker, you should apply to the University of Iowa School of Social Work, which is one of the few master’s degree programs that lets students choose a concentration in end-of-life care. If you think you might want to become a social work administrator, Boston University offers a macro practice major. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with earning a generalist degree if you are unsure of which field most appeals to you. Many people wait until after graduation to decide on a career direction.

The MSW is one of the most popular online graduate degrees today. Many schools offer a high-quality online Master of Social Work. Online MSW programs include:

Boston University

“This top-ranked Master of Social Work program, taught by world-class BU faculty, delivers hands-on, practical experience through field internships and an evidence-based curriculum.”

Boise State University __

“Boise State’s Master of Social Work (MSW) Online degree is designed to prepare students for advanced social work practice… students learn clinical, organizational and policy skills necessary for promoting social justice and equality…”

California State University – Northridge

“The online MSW program focuses on urban community practice and prepares students to work in a variety of settings including: healthcare centers, schools, and community and government organizations.”

Columbia University

“Columbia School of Social Work is the first among the top five social work schools (US News & World Report) to offer our MSW degree online and the first and only Ivy League school to do so.”

Temple University __

“The Online MSW is perfect for working professionals and students returning to the classroom while balancing work and family. Classes are taught by the same expert faculty as in our on-campus classes.”

Tulane University of Louisiana

“New Orleans’ unique resilience in facing disaster, its creativity and innovation, and its open and indefatigable activist community are all written indelibly into our curriculum.”

University of Central Florida

“UCF’s online MSW program is designed for maximum flexibility and optimum value. You’ll take classes when, where and how you want, and join a community of students and faculty who are just as driven to serve as you are.”

Virginia Commonwealth University_

“Online M.S.W. graduates are able to truly help their communities by taking an empathetic, personalized and trauma-informed approach to clinical social work that considers individuals’ diverse experiences.”

Commitment required for a Master of Social Work degree

MSW programs typically require two years of full-time study (in both online master’s degree programs and on-campus programs) and a fieldwork placement to complete. Most programs follow a similar structure, with a first-year curriculum focused on foundational social work concepts and a second-year curriculum devoted to advanced social work concepts and concentration coursework. If you enroll in a traditional full-time program, you will probably have the option to take electives in both years.

Two years is a long time, so you may want to look into accelerated MSW programs. Students in these programs earn a master’s degree in as little as 16 months, but there’s a catch. When these programs are open to students without BSW degrees, they usually involve studying year-round. A traditional accelerated MSW is intensive and continues through summer and winter breaks. You’ll finish much more quickly, but you won’t have any downtime.

Another popular fast-track master’s degree option for social workers is the advanced standing program. This type of full-time Master of Social Work program (check out the one at University at Buffalo (SUNY)) is only for students who have completed a BSW program. Because the first year of most MSW programs covers material also covered in BSW programs, accelerated MSWs allow BSWs to skip ahead to year two.

Some students need to work while earning a degree or have other obligations that make full-time study impossible. For those students, universities offer part-time MSW programs that can be completed on-campus or online. The University of Pennsylvania offers a three-year part-time on-campus MSW. Rutgers University – New Brunswick’s School of Social Work has a fully online part-time program. If you’re looking at part-time programs, keep in mind that every part-time program is structured differently. Some are very flexible and allow students as much time as they need to finish.

Finally, you can also earn a second degree while pursuing your MSW. There are a lot of dual-degree MSW programs that pair a social work master’s with everything from an MBA to a Master of Education (MEd) to a Master of Science in City Planning. If you can dream up a dual-degree option, there is probably a university that offers it.

Exams and certifications to complete a master’s degree in social work

There are no specific exams (beyond classroom examinations) or certifications required to complete a master’s degree in social work, but getting your master’s degree can actually help you earn the licenses and certifications you’ll need to practice. Every state has its own licensure requirements for social workers. Most master’s degree programs for social workers include elements like fieldwork hours that help you satisfy those requirements (and possibly also requirements related to earning specialty-specific certifications). Always check with your state regulatory board. In some states, clinical and nonclinical social workers hold different licenses.

With an MSW, you’ll eventually be able to become a Licensed Master of Social Work (usually abbreviated as LMSW, LGSW, or LSW) or Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) by passing the master’s level Association of Social Work Board exam and completing the required number of direct clinical work hours.

Employment outlook for MSW holders

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the employment outlook for social workers at every level is good. The bureau predicts jobs in social work will grow by 11 percent between now and 2028, much faster than the average for the entire job market.

With an MSW, you’ll be able to take advantage of more opportunities, you’ll be a more attractive job candidate, and you’ll probably make more money. In some roles, you won’t even need to be an LCSW or LMSW. There are employers ready to hire MSW graduates into social work positions in:

Program administration

This position oversees allocating funds to specific initiatives, writes grant proposals, oversees fundraising efforts and other financial aspects of running social service organizations. Average salary is $55,065/year.

Research

This job focuses on the research and evaluation of programs and practices in order to develop new and more effective care. Average salary is $57,010/year.

Gerontology care

This position coordinates the care of older patients in settings that include hospitals, outpatient or daytimes settings, community clinics, and hospice care. Average salary is $63,848/year.

Policy and planning

This job will involve analyzing regulations, programs and policies in order to plan and provide the most effective approaches to care. Average salary is $76,474/year.

Criminal justice

This position deals with case management and teaching coping skills, developing life skills and providing home visits to clients and their families. Average salary is $58,032/year.

Nonprofit administration

Depending on the nonprofit organization you work for, administration positions might involve providing direct care to individuals, or helping educate communities about services available to them. Average salary is $50,237/year.

Corporate HR

Though not everyone’s first thought for jobs in social work, the corporate world requires guidance in human resource management to provide training, designate resources, and plan for the future for both the company and employee’s success. Average salary is $67,449/year.

Should you get a Master of Social Work degree?

Getting a social work master’s degree doesn’t guarantee you’ll make a lot of money in social work. Your earning potential will depend more on the specialty area you choose and whether you get your clinical license. Even so, you’ll almost definitely make more than you would with an undergrad degree. As Reddit user MissyDeanna noted in a thread about the value of getting an MSW: “I personally would not go into the field of social work without my master’s. Prior to my MSW I was working in foster care making $13 an hour.” When she posted, she was earning $65,500 a year as a hospital social worker and well on her way toward earning more.

Of course, very few people enter the social work profession for the money. Chances are, you’re in this field (or interested in joining it) because it allows you to help people. If you do decide to pursue an MSW, you will potentially be able to help more people who are facing tougher challenges than you would with a bachelor’s degree—another big pro.
The biggest con is probably that social work master’s degree programs can be expensive. If you need to take out loans, the potential increase in salary with an MSW may not be enough to make paying off those loans easy. The best thing you can do is choose a Master of Social Work program that won’t put you deep in debt.

At the end of the day, getting your MSW will almost always improve your career prospects, but whatever degree you ultimately earn and whatever social work career trajectory you follow, you should be proud of what you do. It’s not easy being a social worker.

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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