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Social Work Degrees: What You’ll Study

Aspiring social workers can choose from an array of degree types. Read about your curriculum and program options.

social worker on laptop with elderly client
social worker on laptop with elderly client

What degree levels are available?

Earning a four-year undergraduate degree is the initial step in your education toward becoming a social worker.

Unlike most psychology and education-related specialties, in which you specialize on the master’s level, social work offers associate’s degree programs and specialized bachelor degree programs, the Bachelor of Social Work (BSW).

Then, you can go on to complete a Master of Social Work (MSW) and a doctoral program, if you choose.

Associate’s in Social Work

Though you’re limited to what you can do with an associate’s in social work, it can be a stepping stone to your bachelor’s degree or offer entry-level experience in career fields such as human services, social services, and healthcare. Most roles will focus on assistant or associate level tasks and you’ll likely need to work under a supervisor’s watch as you do your job.

Bachelor of Social Work (BSW)

The four-year Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree is commonly the base requirement for a job in social work. It prepares students for direct service positions on the individual or community level through a curriculum that may centers on basic individual and family support services, national social welfare policy, casework planning, and intervention strategies.

Accredited BSW programs also require at least 400 hours of supervised field experience. For this reason, the BSW is also the minimum qualification for most state social work licensing and certification programs.

With a Bachelor of Social Work, you’re qualified to work in the following capacities:

  • Case consultant, evaluating cases and meeting with individuals in need of services
  • Child life specialist, advocating for children in the health care system and alleviating the stress of hospitalization for children and their families
  • Child protective services worker, investigating claims of child abuse, neglect, and juvenile delinquency
  • Court-appointed special advocate, working on behalf of children brought before the court
  • Gerontology social worker, offering emotional support and helping the elderly with housing, transportation, and long-term care
  • Criminal justice social worker, providing services to inmates and their families

To outline a typical course program, we’ll use the example of the Bachelor of Social Work at the School of Social Work at Arizona State University, below.

Examples of Core Courses

  • Social Service Delivery Systems: Federal, state, not-for-profit and for-profit social service delivery system’s purpose, structure and professional roles. Includes 40 volunteer hours.
  • Foundations of Social Work Practice: Understand the theoretical foundation and skills for effective culturally competent communication and interviews with individuals, families, small groups and larger systems.
  • Micro Human Behavior in the Social Environment: Human behavior in the social environment throughout the life cycle, analyzing theories of human development within an integrative multidimensional framework.
  • Social Work Practice: Learn social work methods, with an emphasis on the following skills: relationship development, cross-cultural interviewing, communication patterns, and case-recording.
  • Research Methods in Social Work: Applies scientific principles to field practice, problem formulation, intervention procedures, and impact assessment.
  • Statistics for Social Workers: Learn how to use and interpret descriptive and inferential statistics in social work practice.
  • Macro Human Behavior in the Social Environment: Focuses on groups, organizations, and communities and examining theoretical perspectives in a macro context.
  • Diversity and Oppression in a Social Work Context: Students learn the issues of social inequality related to race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and disability.

Master of Social Work (MSW)

An advanced social work degree, such as the two-year MSW has become a standard requirement for most specialized positions in social work, such as clinical, policy and administration work.

In addition to classwork, a minimum of 900 supervised hours is required for this advanced social work degree, in the form of field instruction or an internship. Fluency in a second language is also extremely helpful.

Social workers with an MSW are eligible to:

  • Join the Academy of Certified Social Workers (ACSW)
  • Become a Qualified Clinical Social Worker (QCSW)
  • Diplomate in Clinical Social Work (DCSW) through the National Association of Social Workers (NASW)

The NASW also offers voluntary credentials that many employers find attractive when hiring. Credentials are imperative for those who wish to work in private practice, because some health insurance providers require them for reimbursement purposes.

A master’s social work degree prepares social workers for specialized work in their chosen field of concentration. An MSW is qualified in the following areas:

  • Clinical social work, providing psychotherapy and counseling services in settings such as clinics, private practices, and public agencies
  • Employee assistance program social work, helping employees with problems that compromise their job, such as trouble with coworkers, substance abuse or marital problems
  • Psychiatric social work, helping psychiatric patients adjust to daily life and re-enter the community also provides a link between medical professionals and the families of patients
  • School social work, helping students resolve personal problems and those related to school
  • AIDS and HIV services counselor, guiding patients through the testing process, as well as helping obtain further health care options and community support for patients who are HIV positive

Doctoral Programs

Doctoral social work degree programs generally take between two and four years to complete, and focus heavily on research techniques, as well as qualitative and quantitative analysis methods. All doctoral social work degree programs culminate in the presentation of a well-researched student dissertation, which can take a year or more to finish.

Social workers holding their DSW or PhD are qualified for any of the following careers:

  • Social work professors, who concentrate on preparing a new generation of social workers in our schools, while working on research and publication goals
  • Heads of social work practices (agency based or self-employed), where they oversee and guide other social workers through their caseloads
  • Policy advocates, lobbying for state and federal policies that affect the social work community
  • Policy advisors, lending knowledge of the field to elected officials who want to improve various social work systems

What certification will I need to practice social work?

The purpose of licensing in social work is to create standards for the professional practice of social work. Most professions in the health care field have standards to uphold and regulations in place to protect citizens from malpractice or professional misconduct. Social workers who complete the state licensing process demonstrate a commitment to upholding the professional codes of conduct in their field. Licensing—at different levels of social work—is mandatory in all states.

States generally regulate four main categories of social workers:

  • Those with bachelor’s degrees
  • Those with master’s degrees
  • Advanced generalists (defined as MSWs with two years post-master’s experience)
  • MSWs with two years of post-master’s direct clinical social work experience

Some states may only regulate one of these practice levels, but most will license two or more levels of social workers.

Since licensing requirements vary from state to state, it behooves you to research your state’s specifications beforehand. Most states require two years (3,000 hours) of supervised field experience in order to become a licensed social worker.

What will I learn from my courses?

The National Association of Social Workers recommends the following standards for cultural competence in social work practice:

  • Ethics and values
  • Self-awareness
  • Cross-cultural knowledge
  • Cross-cultural skills
  • Service deliver
  • Empowerment and advocacy
  • Diverse workforce
  • Professional education
  • Language diversity
  • Leadership

How long will it take?

Depending upon your level of dedication, a social work major can take the following time to complete:

  • The BSW is a 4-year general practitioner degree
  • Master’s degree programs generally require one to two years
  • Doctorate programs generally take between two and four years
  • Accredited BSW programs also require at least 400 hours of supervised field experience
  • A minimum of 900 supervised hours is required for master’s-level social work degrees, in the form of field instruction or an internship

Are online programs available?

Online programs for social workers are available for certain types of coursework and degrees, usually for bachelor’s and master’s-level programs. These courses are non-clinical and generally designed to prepare you to advance into administrative roles in the field. Online degree programs should be accredited, as almost every state requires a social work degree from a Council on Social Work Education-accredited institution in order to apply for a license and sit for the licensing exam.

How much will my education cost?

The cost of a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW) varies depending upon the type of institution you attend. According to College Board’s Trends in College Pricing 2022-22, the average annual cost for a four-year, public institution runs around $10,740 per year for in-state tuition.

The average annual cost for a four-year private non-profit school is $38,070 per year for a private for-profit school.

Attending an accredited school may allow you to apply for financial aid, whether the school you select is a traditional classroom or an online program.

Are there prerequisites?

Undergraduate: A strong college preparatory high school education is a good start for your social work degree program. Courses in sociology, science, math, child development, political science, social studies, and a foreign language are important for prospective social workers.

Graduate: A completed, four-year Bachelor of Social Work, or bachelor’s degree in psychology, education or another field will prepare you for graduate school. Any electives you’ve taken in psychology and/or education will be valuable in your graduate work.

GRE: Check with the institution and program you plan to apply to, to find out whether the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is not required for admission. If it’s not, but you’ve taken the test and have good scores, you may submit them for review with your admission materials.

Part-time or volunteer work at a social services agency can also provide a good foundation for students and prospective graduate students, and anyone interested in social work.

What accreditation is there for my program?

Increasingly, employers require that the social workers they employ be graduates of accredited programs of social work or human services. Accreditation shows that an institution or program meets standards of quality set forth by an accrediting agency, and that it is committed not only to meet those standards but to continuously seek ways in which to improve the quality of education and training provided.

There are two types of educational accreditation: institutional and specialized. The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) conducts specialized accreditation.

Institutional accreditation is provided by regional and national associations of schools and colleges. There are six regional associations, each named after the region in which it operates (Middle States, New England, North Central, Northwest, Southern, Western).

Attending an accredited school may allow you to apply for financial aid, whether the school you select is a traditional classroom or online program.