Ask an Expert: Do You Need a Degree to Be a Social Worker?
March 10, 2021
MSW Expert Sarah Barry on social work licensure, degrees, and career paths.
Dear Expert: I am a 34-year-old mom of two with a high school diploma and several college credits, but no degree. I have worked in daycare and as a caretaker, and I am passionate about working with people. Family and friends regularly tell me that I should become a social worker because of how often I help those around me, but with no degree I am not sure what my options are. Do I need a degree to get social work jobs? If so, what kind of degree should I pursue? — Social Work Hopeful
It sounds like social work could be a great career for you! The social work field can be incredibly rewarding, especially if you love helping people.
The short answer is yes, you will need a specific degree from an accredited college to practice social work. Almost all social work positions require licensure, particularly those with government agencies. While licensure varies slightly from state to state, all types of licensure require a degree from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). Which degree path is the best fit for you depends on your career goals. Let’s explore the different types of licensure, their education requirements, and what career path each can lead to.
The two main social work degree programs are a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) and a Master of Social Work (MSW). There are several key differences between the two degrees, but it is most important to note that you need an undergraduate degree before you can pursue a master’s degree. Both degree programs include field experience—this may be called a field placement, a practicum, or an internship—that will allow you to explore social work career paths and gain a deeper understanding of what social workers do. This field experience is important for accreditation and licensure. Make sure that any school you consider has an accredited program.
A BSW will allow you to earn the lower level of licensure in most states, often called a Registered Social Worker, an Associate Social Worker, or something similar. After graduating with a CSWE-accredited BSW, you can sit for the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) exam. Upon passing and paying all associated fees, you become licensed to practice social work in your state. This allows you to access many entry-level social work positions, such as becoming a case manager. Many of these positions are in family and child services, social services, or healthcare settings.
An MSW opens doors
An MSW opens the door for more opportunities within the field of social work. Many social work programs, such as Tulane University and Virginia Commonwealth University, do not necessarily require a BSW and will accept students with a range of bachelor’s degrees, particularly those in the social sciences, such as psychology or human services. However, earning a BSW with a strong GPA could allow you to enter an MSW with advanced standing, exempting you from some coursework and hastening your graduation. Some programs require the GRE; others do not. Most do not require work experience within social work or a related field, but it can be a plus. MSW programs tend to offer some flexibility, allowing you to choose between generalist practice and a specialization.
After earning a CSWE-accredited MSW, you can sit for the appropriate ASWB exam to become either a Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW) or a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW). The LMSW allows you to take on positions with more responsibilities and autonomy, including case management, advocacy, and outreach. These can be in social services, mental health, healthcare, school social work, or anywhere else where talented social workers are needed to connect individuals to crucial resources.
The LCSW requires additional supervision with a Board Approved Clinical Supervisor (BACS), because it allows you to practice clinical social work. LCSWs can provide counseling and therapy to a range of groups and individuals, addressing human behavior and implementing treatment plans. They work largely in the mental-health field and can focus on issues such as substance abuse or PTSD. Many LCSWs go on to open their own private practice.
Though it does not have a corresponding licensure, some MSWs go on to get a Doctorate in Social Work (DSW). This degree path allows social workers to expand their practice further. Many with a DSW go on to teach social work at the master’s-level with an accredited school or start their own nonprofit organizations.
Whether you’re interested in school social work, social welfare, or clinical practice, licensure and an accredited degree are vital to your social work practice. The social work license brings increased job security and income for your social work career. Choosing the appropriate licensure and education is the first step towards a long and rewarding career helping individuals live their best, healthiest lives. I would encourage you to explore the website for your state’s Board of Social Workers, as well as the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) website, for more information about state-specific licensure and the continuing education opportunities available to social workers.
Best of luck,
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Sarah Barry is an Enrollment Advisor in Philadelphia working with Tulane School of Social Work. She joined Noodle from Temple University's Masters of Education Higher Education Access and Success Program. Sarah spent two years as an Americorps member working with college students from low-income backgrounds in the Philadelphia area through College Possible. As a Tech-Connected College Coach, and later an Enrollment Specialist, she learned to foster relationships with students from a distance, which helps her to better serve students in her current role as an Enrollment Advisor. She brings a drive for connecting students with resources and helping them navigate online learning. She is committed to removing barriers to access to higher education for students of all backgrounds and values the learning environment that is created when everyone has a seat in the classroom (physical or virtual).