Master of Social Work Degrees: Everything You Need to Know
Social work is an in-demand career with a bright job outlook. Social workers provide many vital services to the community and are 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.
What Is an MSW Degree?
An MSW is a professional degree that prepares you for licensure. The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) accredits MSW programs in the U.S. and ensures that high standards are being met.
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).
Is an MSW the same as an MS in social work?
Yes. You might see a school offering a Master of Social Work, 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 of these programs will cover the standard coursework.
Any major differences among these programs might simply come down to general education requirements dictated by the schools. While those may vary, any of these degrees will prepare you to work at the same level, as long as the program is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education. The CSWE accredits master’s programs with any of these 3 titles.
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.
Careers 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 16% growth in social work jobs by 2026—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 children and family social workers earn an average annual salary of $48,430.
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 $60,230.
Criminal justice social workers who are employed by local and state government facilities 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 $53,760.
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 $42,700.
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 $59,080.
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.
Academic Requirements Before Starting an MSW
Do you need a BSW?
Having a Bachelor of Social Work can be an advantage, but it’s not required. Many programs welcome students who are changing careers.
Requirements for non-BSW students
You might need to take some prerequisites 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.
BSW-to-MSW advanced standing programs
Many programs grant advance 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 gives experience that counts toward MSW fieldwork requirements
Do you need to take the GRE?
For many programs, you’ll need to take the GRE, 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.
How Long Does It Take to Get an MSW?
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.
The Master of Social Work Curriculum
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.
What core classes are involved?
Your program will vary depending on your school and concentration. Core classes commonly cover the following topics:
- Research methods
- Human behavior
- Social justice
- Social welfare policies
- Social work practice with individuals or families
- Social work practice with organizations and organizations
- Leadership practice
- Theory in your specialty or concentration
Number of course credits
Most accredited MSW programs consist of 60 credits. This typically breaks down into 42 credits of coursework and 18 credits of fieldwork.
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.
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.
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.
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?
You can. MSW programs are available in multiple formats throughout the United States. But remember that even with an online program, you’ll still need to complete the required fieldwork hours.
Online programs must meet the same standards as traditional programs in order to be accredited. Programs are available on both a full- and part-time basis.
Accredited MSW programs are offered at over 275 universities across the country. Programs at some schools can be done part time. Some might also be designed with working professionals in mind.
A hybrid program mixes online and classroom learning. In these programs, you might watch lectures online, but attend smaller classroom sessions on campus.
Many MSW programs can be accelerated for students who already hold a BSW, since certain coursework will have already been covered in a BSW education.
How to Pick an MSW Degree Program
You’ll need to look for an MSW program that suits your lifestyle and career goals. Some important questions to ask yourself include:
- Is this program CSWE accredited?
- Does this program offer the concentration I’m interested in?
- Is there an accelerated option with this program?
- What financial aid is available?
- Can I take classes online?
- What kind of fieldwork placements are available?
- How does the social work program interact with the community?
Financial Aid for Social Work Graduate Students
MSW students can be eligible for many kinds of scholarships, fellowships, and loans. You might be able to find scholarships from your university, state, or a private organization. The first step to receiving aid is completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
Does Social Work Qualify for Student Loan Forgiveness?
Several types of student loan forgiveness are available to social workers. You can qualify for loan forgiveness under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF) if you have direct federal loans. To qualify, the PSLF requires that you’re employed full time at a non-profit or government agency.
You might also qualify for loan forgiveness from your state. Some states with a high need for social workers offer loan forgiveness programs, especially for people who work with underserved communities.
What Professional Organizations Are There for Social Work?
There are several professional organizations for social workers. Joining these organizations can help you make connections and advance your career. Prominent organizations include:
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