In This Article
Guide to a Career in Social Work
Degrees in Social Work
- Associate’s Degree in Social Work
- Bachelor of Social Work (BSW)
- Master of Social Work (MSW)
- MSW Online Programs
- Doctor of Social Work (DSW)
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Take the next step with a Master of Social Work degree (MSW)
The Master of Social Work (MSW) degree is a well-respected and sought-after program that can equip students with the knowledge, skills, and values necessary to become effective social justice-focused and community-based clinical social work practitioners.
Social workers provide many vital services to the community and are some of the leading providers of mental healthcare in the United States. Earning your Master of Social Work (MSW) broadens your scope of practice and allows you to advance your career.
This guide will provide an overview of the MSW degree, including typical program duration, who the degree is best suited for, typical coursework, what it takes to complete and any prerequisites for admission, how to choose the right program, and the various career paths available to MSW graduates.
Overview of a master’s in social work
At a glance
Online, classroom, and hybrid
Usually 2 years
BSW or a Bachelor’s
Yes, for accredited programs
What is an MSW degree?
MSW stands for Master of Social Work. It is a graduate degree that prepares you for state licensure and professional careers in social work. The coursework typically focuses on advanced knowledge of social welfare policy, human behavior in social environments, social work practice, and research methods. The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) accredits MSW programs in the U.S. and ensures that high standards are being met for skills, licensure, and professional ethics.
Who is an MSW degree for?
The MSW program is designed for people who are passionate about making a positive impact in their communities and in empowering the lives of individuals and families. For prospective students who want to understand how oppression is shown and how it works. Those seeking to learn how to work together with communities to support and push for laws and actions that improve human rights and fairness in social, economic, and environmental areas.
Should YOU pursue an MSW degree? If you’re someone who highly respects human diversity and critically considers the impact intersectionality can have on human development and functioning, an MSW program may be for you.
What’s the difference between a MSW and LCSW degree?
You’ll be eligible for a temporary license in most states after completing your MSW. You’ll need to take your state’s exam in order to obtain this license. Once you do, you can work under the supervision of a fully-licensed social worker. After completing a set number of hours required by your state and passing additional exams, you’ll be able to apply for your full clinical license.
The naming of licenses varies from state-to-state, but generally falls into 1 of 2 categories:
- Licensed master social worker (LMSW): This is the name given to a social worker who has graduated from an accredited MSW program and passed their state exam. LMSWs need to be supervised by a fully-licensed clinical social worker. This license is sometimes referred to as a licensed social worker (LSW) or associate social worker (ASW).
- Licensed clinical social worker (LCSW): This is the name given to a social worker who has graduated from an accredited MSW program and completed a set amount of supervised work time, normally around 2 years. LCSWs are able to practice independently and can even open private practices. In some states, this license is referred to as a licensed independent clinical social worker (LICSW).
In summary, an MSW is a degree, while LCSW is a license that one can earn after completing the degree and meeting additional requirements. You can check the licensing rules and titles in your state using the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) license requirement tool.
Is an MSW the same as an MS in social work?
Yes. You might see a school offering a Master of Social Work (MSW), a Master of Science in Social Work (MSSW), or a Master of Science in Social Administration (MSSA). While the names may have particular meanings for the individual schools, each of these programs will cover the standard coursework.
The main differences between MSW, MSSW, and MSSA programs are the general education requirements set by the schools. However, all of these degrees prepare you for the same level of work, as long as the program is accredited by the Council of Social Work Education. One thing to note is that you’ll likely need to earn one of these degrees if you plan to pursue a Doctor of Social Work (DSW). Most DSW programs require a master’s-level education, either with a concentration in social work specifically or a related field such as nursing or public health.
Do you need to take the GRE?
For many programs, you’ll need to take a standardized test such as the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) or the Miller Analogies Test (MAT), but this isn’t always the case. Some schools require alternate tests, while others don’t ask for scores at all. You can check the requirements for your top choice schools on their admissions pages.
Do you need a BSW?
Having a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) can be an advantage, especially for those looking at advanced-standing MSW programs, which are shorter in duration (less than 2 years). But many standard MSW programs don’t require it and welcome students who are changing careers.
How much does a master’s in social work make?
The number of social worker jobs is projected to increase 9% from 2021 to 2031, according to the BLS profile for social workers, which is much faster than average. The median salary for social workers was $50,390 per year, but that includes entry-level social workers who only have a bachelor’s in social work.
An advanced degree may lead to higher pay. The BLS reports those with a master’s degree may earn more than $200 more a week than those with an undergraduate. And the highest earners make a median of $82,840, which is more reflective of a master’s in social work salary.
How to pick an MSW degree program
Now that you know what an MSW degree is, you can proceed to decide which social work degree programs to apply to. First and foremost, it’s a great idea to reach out to program directors and speak to current students or alumni to get a better sense of what the program is like. Here are five steps to help you in reaching a decision.
1. Choose an MSW program type
There are quite a few types of MSW degrees to choose from, your specific situation will dictate which one is best suited for you.
- Accelerated MSW:
- A program that may take as little as a year to complete and does not require a BSW degree for enrollment, but having one and fieldwork experience can make it easier to enroll.
- Advanced Standing:
- A program that takes less time to complete, requiring a BSW from a CSWE-accredited program for application.
- Clinical MSW:
- A program that focuses on one-on-one client work, requiring classes and fieldwork before obtaining LCSW licensure.
- Dual SW:
- A program that allows for the study of two social work fields and expands career opportunities, taking less time than earning two separate degrees.
- Macro Social Work:
- A program that focuses on macro-level social work, including working on a community, state, and national level, preparing for work with advocacy groups, nonprofits, think tanks, and universities.
- Post-Grad Certificate:
- A program for those who already have an MSW, allowing for further education and research-based knowledge to enhance job prospects.
- A program that combines online and offline learning, with a mix of online classes and on-campus coursework.
2. Look for program accreditation
The MSW program you choose needs to be accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). All 50 states require a social worker who is sitting for a licensing exam to have graduated from a CSWE-accredited program.
To become accredited, schools have to go through a multistep process that includes meeting benchmarks, site visits, self-studies, and Council on Accreditation reviews.
3. Choose a concentration
There are several concentrations for MSW candidates to choose from—it all depends on the program. You could focus on direct and clinical practice, which will prepare you for working with families and individuals in a therapeutic setting. You may want to work in administration instead or become more of a leader in a private or public setting. Common areas of practice include geriatrics, children, families, school, healthcare, community and social systems and mental health. Read on to discover more career paths with an MSW degree.
4. Questions to ask yourself
You’ll need to look for an MSW program that suits your lifestyle and career goals. Encompassing all of the above, some important questions to ask yourself include:
- Is this program CSWE accredited?
- Does this program offer the concentrations and topics I’m interested in?
- Is there an accelerated option with this program?
- What financial aid is available?
- Can I take classes in non-traditional formats?
- What kind of fieldwork placements are available?
- How does the social work program interact with the community?
5. Consider joining professional social work organizations
There are several professional organizations for social workers. Joining these organizations can help you make connections and advance your career. Prominent organizations include:
Earning your MWS: Coursework and concentrations
Now, let’s find out what it takes to earn your MSW degree.
How long does it take to get a master’s degree in social work?
Completing an MSW degree can take anywhere from 1–4 years, but generally takes 2. As previously discussed, you may be able to fast-track your MSW education if you already hold your bachelor’s in social work.
BSW-to-MSW advanced standing programs
Many programs grant advanced standing to BSW students. You might be able to complete your MSW in a single year when you come into a program with your BSW. There are 2 primary reasons for this:
- Some required MSW classes are covered in BSW programs
- Working at the BSW level offers experience that counts toward MSW fieldwork requirements
Requirements for non-BSW students
You may need to take some prerequisites, such as psychology, sociology, and statistics if you have a bachelor’s degree in another area. This will depend on what classes you took in your undergraduate program. Many schools also require a minimum GPA.
Number of course credits
Most accredited MSW programs consist of 60-62 credits. This typically breaks down into 42-44 credits of coursework and 18-20 credits of fieldwork.
What core classes are involved?
The coursework for an MSW is more advanced than that for a BSW and is focused more on larger social frameworks. The first year of your program will likely cover these broader topics, while your second year will be dedicated to the concentration you’ve chosen.
Your program will vary depending on your school and concentration. Core classes commonly cover the following topics:
✍ Research methods
This course can teach you how to design and conduct research studies in social work and analyze data to contribute to the field’s body of knowledge.
✍ Human behavior
This course helps students understand the social, psychological, and biological factors that influence human behavior, and how to apply this understanding in their social work practice.
✍ Social justice
This course teaches about the concepts of social justice and social inequality and how you can use your social work skills to promote social change and address issues such as poverty, discrimination, and oppression.
This course can help students understand how to take into account the diversity of clients and communities in their social work practice, including issues of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and ability.
✍ Social welfare policies
This course teaches about the history and current state of social welfare policies and programs in the United States, and how these policies shape social work practice. It also teaches you about the political and economic factors that influence the creation and implementation of social welfare policies.
✍ Social work practice
This course teaches the basic skills and knowledge needed for social work practice, including assessment, intervention, and evaluation, and will also cover the ethical and legal issues that social workers must navigate in their practice.
This course covers the principles and practices of leadership in the field of social work, including topics such as organizational management, supervision, and advocacy. It can help you develop the skills needed to be an effective leader in the field of social work.
Concentrations can determine the work you end up doing as a professional social worker. Learn more about popular concentrations below.
✍ Clinical social work
In a clinical social work specialization, you’ll focus on important skills needed to care for clients. You’ll learn techniques for interviews and assessments, as well as how interventions such as counseling and behavior modification plans can improve client well-being.
✍ Public policy administration
Social workers looking to pursue leadership roles often choose a concentration in public policy administration. With this concentration, you can prepare to work at the administrative level, helping organizations serve clients in need and campaigning for social change.
✍ Child and youth services
A concentration in child and youth services can prepare you to assist children in multiple ways. You’ll learn about child development and about how circumstances such as placement in foster care, poverty, family dysfunction, or traumatic events can affect that development.
✍ Community services
Social workers who want to work with underserved populations might select a concentration in community services. With this concentration, you’ll learn how services such as homeless shelters or community drug treatment centers can save lives.
✍ Aging services
Seniors have unique needs, and a concentration in aging services can prepare you to help them meet those challenges. You’ll learn about the issues that affect older adults, including decreased health, financial concerns, and social isolation.
✍ Mental health services
Prepares students to work with individuals, families, and communities to address various mental health issues in settings such as hospitals, schools, private practices, and mental health centers.
Is a practicum or fieldwork required?
Fieldwork is a vital part of any accredited MSW degree program. As an MSW student, you’ll complete between 1,000 and 2,000 hours of supervised clinical fieldwork. Your fieldwork will be completed in the area that you’re specializing in and will allow you to gain experience.
Can I get an online master’s in social work?
MSW programs are available online, and to be accredited they must meet the same standards as traditional programs. Accredited MSW programs are offered at over 275 universities across the country. Some schools offer part-time or hybrid programs designed for working professionals.
What can you do with a master’s in social work?
With an MSW, you can find employment in a variety of fields. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts a 15% growth in social work jobs by 2030—a number that’s more than twice that of the national average for all occupations.
The largest percentage of social workers provide services to children and families in need. More information on that and on other master’s-level social work careers can be found below.
Children and family social workers
Children and family social workers play a vital role in the lives of the people they serve. As a child and family social worker, you might specialize in advocating for children in court, finding foster care placement for children in need, helping parents connect with resources, or guiding prospective parents through the adoption process.
The BLS reports that in 2021 child and family social workers earn a median annual salary of $49,150.
Many jobs for children and family social workers have an experience requirement. You might be able to use the fieldwork done during your degree program to meet this requirement.
Criminal justice social workers
As a criminal justice social worker, you’ll work with people affected by crime. This can include victims of crime, incarcerated people, or ex-offenders. You’ll provide counseling and aid that aims to reduce crime and improve communities.
The BLS doesn’t track data for criminal justice social workers specifically. Instead, it classifies them under all other social work designations. The median annual salary for these social workers is $61,190.
Criminal justice social workers who local and state government facilities employ have to complete additional training and may need to take exams.
Medical social workers
Medical social workers provide services to patients across healthcare settings. As a medical social worker, you might work with patients on hospice or those who are looking for long-term care, having surgery, or dealing with a medical crisis.
The BLS reports that the median salary for healthcare social workers is $60,840 in 2021.
You’ll likely need to be an LCSW in order to work as a medical social worker. Some employers may have opportunities for LMSWs who are working to become LCSWs.
Mental health and substance abuse social workers
Mental health and substance abuse social workers provide services to people seeking diagnosis and treatment for mental health concerns or addiction.
According to the BLS, mental health and substance abuse social workers earn a median annual salary of $49,130.
For many jobs in mental health, you’ll need to be an LCSW. Many substance abuse jobs also require additional state licensing.
School social worker
School social workers serve as advocates for students. As a school social worker, you’ll connect families and students in grades K-12 with the resources they need to succeed.
The BLS reports that the median annual salary for a school social worker is $49,150.
Other requirements to work as a school social worker will vary based on employer. Working in schools often requires a criminal background check and other clearance measures.
Whether you are a recent college graduate or a working professional looking to advance your career, the MSW degree can open doors to a fulfilling and rewarding career in social work.
Use our find schools widget to find accredited MSW degree programs in your state, or even ones you can complete remotely.