Social Work Degrees
The first step on the path to becoming a social worker is obtaining the necessary degree. Most social work jobs require a degree in social work and most states require a social work degree to become licensed as a social worker. The right degree path depends on your personal goals as a social worker as well as your previous education and experience. This guide provides information and resources for researching the best degree path for your social work career.
What Can You Do with a Social Work Degree?
Graduates with a bachelor’s or master’s degree in social work have a great variety of career paths available to them. See our Careers page for information on specific social work jobs and settings. Social work is a helping profession working with people from all different walks of life. Some social workers serve children and families while others work with older adults or people struggling with mental health problems or chronic illnesses. Social workers also strive to improve big-picture conditions such as poverty and community violence through advocacy, organizing, and program development. You’ll find social workers in many settings including private practices, hospitals, treatment centers, schools, community organizations, and charities. Whether you are interested in clinical social work, medical social work, non-profit program development, or other social work career paths, a social work degree will be the first step in your journey.
Factors to Consider When Choosing a Social Work Program
When you are ready to choose a social work degree program, you will likely find many different options. Below are some factors you should keep in mind when making your choice to ensure that you get the best education and job preparation leading to good job opportunities later on.
The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) is the sole accrediting agency for American social work programs and has accredited over 500 Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) programs and over 230 accredited Master of Social Work (MSW) programs across the country. Choosing an accredited social work program not only ensures that the education you receive will adequately prepare you for a career in social work, but it will also be important when you apply for state licensure as a social worker.
Specialties and Concentrations Offered
Although all accredited social work programs cover similar core curricula, there are variations in electives offered, concentrations available (in master’s programs) and focus areas. Some programs focus on clinical social work skills while others are more community-, policy-, or research-focused. Choose a program that matches your interests and career aspirations.
All BSW and MSW programs contain a field education component which allows students to put their classroom training to practice as an intern in the community. Each social work program offers different field education opportunities based on their location and relationships with community organizations. Field education provides students with hands-on work experience in social work before they graduate and field education supervisors can provide great connections and references when new graduates begin their job search. Find a program that offers field education opportunities that match your interests and career goals.
Flexibility of Program
Many social work programs offer great flexibility, especially at the master’s level. You can earn your master’s degree in a traditional full-time MSW program, an extended part-time program, or an online degree program with flexible scheduling. With so many options to choose from, you can find a program with that fits your needs and lifestyle.
Preparation for Licensure
In most states, it will be important to obtain a social work license in order to practice as a social worker. Parameters for licensure vary by state but most applications for licensure must include a passing score on the American Social Work Boards (ASWB) licensure exam. Inquire about social work programs’ graduate exam pass rate. Choose a school that demonstrates that its coursework prepares students to pass the exam.
Social Work as the Next Step in Your Education
Many aspiring social workers choose to earn a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW). Other students complete bachelor’s degrees in other fields and then apply to graduate school to earn a master’s degree in social work (MSW). Some students obtain two degrees in social work by earning a BSW and then continuing on to graduate school to earn an MSW. In order to consider the best degree path for different students interested in a social work career, a few common education levels are discussed below.
High School Graduates
High school graduates applying to college should consider schools offering CSWE-accredited bachelor of social work programs. BSWs provide a good foundation for social work practitioners who would like to enter the workforce directly after college and begin careers as social workers. BSW graduates also have the opportunity to apply for advanced standing in graduate school, which allows students to earn a master’s in social work in as little as one year. Even prospective college students who are unsure about their desired career path may want to choose a college or university with an accredited BSW program. In most cases, students will not be expected to declare their major until sophomore or junior year. At that point, students may decide if a bachelor’s in social work is the right choice for them.
Keep in mind: The majority of positions in the field of social work require a bachelor’s degree of some kind. If you are interested in a career in social work, college is the first step!
Current College Students
College students who discover a passion for social work may decide to major in social work. If your college or university does not offer an accredited bachelor of social work program, you may consider a related degree such as health and human services or sociology. Many entry-level positions in the field of social services accept candidates with relevant degrees besides BSWs. Many students may begin work in social services with related degrees and gain valuable experience prior to considering graduate school. Most states require professional social workers to obtain a bachelor’s or master’s degree in social work in order to obtain licensure as a social worker. Therefore, many professionals without BSWs eventually choose to pursue a master of social work degree.
Keep in mind: Many social workers obtained bachelor’s degrees in unrelated fields before applying to graduate school for social work. If your college doesn’t offer a bachelor’s in social work, choose another degree path, knowing that you can still become a professional social worker by choosing a social work graduate program.
Once students graduate with a bachelor of social work degree, they have two options: obtain a job in the field of social work or continue on to graduate school to earn an MSW. In most states, bachelor’s degrees in social work are required or strongly preferred for entry-level social service jobs. Some states allow bachelor’s level social workers to apply for certain social work licenses, while other states only grant licenses to master’s level workers. Plenty of social workers have fulfilling careers that never require additional education or licensure, but many social workers eventually choose to pursue a master’s degree. Master’s degrees open more doors professionally and prepare graduates for leadership roles in the field.
Keep in mind: If you already hold a BSW, you may be eligible for advanced standing, allowing you to earn an MSW in as little as one year.
Whether candidates have a bachelor’s degree in social work or another field, they may apply to graduate school to earn an MSW. Master’s degrees in social work are increasingly required or strongly preferred for any social work position beyond entry-level. Professionals interested in supervisory roles, clinical positions, management and administration should consider earning a master’s degree in social work. Generally, the MSW is considered the terminal degree for social work practitioners. Unlike many clinical career paths that require a doctoral degree to provide clinical services to clients, social workers are trained for clinical work at the master’s level.
Keep in mind: Clinical social work positions require MSWs and appropriate licensure. If you are interested in a clinical social work career path, earning an MSW will be necessary.
Other Educational Paths
The most common educational paths are listed above. However, there are a few additional degree options in the field of social work.
Associate Degree in Social Work
Associate’s degree programs prepare students for paraprofessional roles in the social service field. Community college students interested in a career in social work, may choose to earn an associate’s degree in social work or a related field such as human services. Associate degree courses may help students determine whether a career in social work is right for them before pursuing a bachelor’s degree. A few states allow associate degree holders to become licensed as Licensed Social Work Assistants or similar support role positions, but associate degree holders are rarely considered social workers. This may be a good first step for students entering community college or technical school.
Keep in mind: To become a practicing social worker in most locations, earning a bachelor’s degree or master’s degree in social work is necessary.
Doctoral Degree in Social Work
PhD programs prepare candidates to engage in social work research at the university level. Pursuing a PhD in social work is best for students interested in a career in academia. Earning a PhD in social work prepares students for academic, teaching, and research positions at universities. Many colleges and universities offer PhD programs in social work or DSW programs in social work. Students who are interested in studying social work at the doctoral level should consider the program content carefully. While most doctoral programs are strongly focused on preparing students for a career in social work academia, some programs do include an advanced practice component which may allow students to receive more specialized training to be used as advanced social work practitioners. A doctoral degree may also better position you for advanced or supervisory roles in highly-competitive situations.
Keep in mind: Unlike other clinical professions which require doctoral degrees for clinicians, the terminal degree in social work is considered the MSW. If you are interested in a career as a practicing clinical social worker, you probably want to obtain a master’s degree in social work and leave the PhD programs for those interested in teaching and research.
Common Social Work Degree Options
While there are a number of degree options when considering a career in social work, below are the three most common routes for social workers.
Obtain a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW) and enter the workforce as an entry-level social worker.
Traditional BSW programs take four years to complete and include classroom education as well as field education. Most BSW students take general, liberal arts courses for their first two years of college, and then choose a major in social work. Social work majors take required social work courses, electives, and field education courses. Students graduate prepared to work as professional social workers or enter graduate school.
2. BSW to MSW
Obtain a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW) and then apply for advanced standing in graduate school to earn a master’s degree in social work (MSW).
Many bachelor’s-level social workers receive advanced standing when they apply to graduate school because they have already completed foundational social work classes in their bachelor’s program. Advanced standing allows students to skip the foundational social work classes and begin graduate school at the concentration level. Advancing standing students often complete their MSW in as little as one year. Some students progress directly from undergraduate programs to graduate school; others work as professional social workers for a few years before returning to graduate school to earn an MSW. Advanced standing students graduate with the same degree as traditional two-year students. All graduates are prepared to work as professional social workers and apply for licensure.
Obtain a bachelor’s degree in any field and then apply for graduate school to earn a master’s in social work (MSW).
While some students choose to apply for graduate school as soon as they finish college, other MSW candidates are mid-career professionals who decide to become professional social workers. All MSW candidates must hold bachelor’s degrees and may need to complete some prerequisite courses if their undergraduate education did not include certain topics. Traditional, full-time MSW programs take two years to complete: the foundation year and the concentration year in which students choose a focus based on their career interests. Although all accredited social work graduate programs have similar curricula, which combines field education with classroom learning, each program offers different areas of focus. For instance, some MSW programs are more clinically aligned while others focus on social justice and policy work. All students graduate prepared to work as professional social workers and apply for licensure.
Social Work Scholarships, Grants, Awards, and Fellowships
There are hundreds of scholarship opportunities available for students to help cover the cost of a social work education. Many will be available through individual schools and social work programs. Here are a few opportunities that are currently available:
- Council on Social Work Education Scholarships and Fellowships: http://www.cswe.org/CentersInitiatives/ScholarshipsandFellowships.aspx
- National Association of Social Workers: http://www.naswfoundation.org/fellowships.asp
- Phi Alpha Honor Society for Social Work: http://www.phialpha.org/programs.html