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Social Work Degrees

By Staff Writer


Many aspiring social workers choose to earn a bachelor's degree in social work (BSW) degrees. Some students complete bachelor's degrees in other fields, like public service, before applying to graduate school to pursue master's degrees in social work (MSW). Some learners obtain two degrees in social work by earning a BSW and then continuing to graduate school to earn an MSW. Degrees of all levels can be earned through online programs as well.

Each individual can start their path to becoming a social worker by earning 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 experience, education, and personal goals as a social worker. Read on to identify your ideal social work program.

Table of Contents

Social Work Degree Levels

Associate Degree in Social Work

Associate degrees in social work (ASWs) prepare students for paraprofessional roles in the social service field. Community college students interested in social work careers may pursue ASWs or a degree in a related field, such as human services. A few states allow associate degree-holders to become licensed social work assistants or similar support role positions, but the field rarely considers these associate degree-holders as "social workers."

Still, pursuing an associate degree in social work might be a strong first step for students entering community college or technical school. ASW coursework may help you determine whether a career in social work is right for you before pursuing a four-year bachelor's degree.

Bachelor of Social Work

Most positions in social work require a minimum of a bachelor's degree. High school graduates applying to college should consider schools offering BSWs accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). If your college or university does not offer an accredited bachelor of social work program, you can consider a related degree such as health and human services or sociology.

BSWs provide a strong foundation for social work practitioners who plan to enter the workforce directly after college and begin careers as social workers. BSW graduates can also apply for advanced standing enrollment in graduate school. Advanced standing allows students to skip foundational social work classes and begin graduate school at the concentration level to complete MSW degrees in as little as one year.

Advanced standing enrollees graduate with the same degree as traditional two-year students. Most states require each professional social worker to obtain a BSW or MSW to obtain licensure as a social worker. Therefore, many professionals without BSWs eventually choose to pursue an MSW degree.

Master of Social Work

Clinical social work positions require each candidate to earn an MSW and the appropriate licensure. More states and employers continue to require or strongly prefer MSW degrees for any social work position beyond entry level. Professionals interested in supervisory roles, clinical positions, management, and administration should consider earning MSWs, either traditionally or online. Unlike other clinical career paths that require a doctoral degree to provide clinical services to clients, social workers become trained for clinical work at the master's level.

Each MSW candidate must hold a bachelor's degree and may need to complete some prerequisite courses if their undergraduate education did not include certain topics. Traditional, full-time MSW programs usually take two years to complete. MSW graduates become prepared to work as professional social workers and apply for licensure.

Doctor of Social Work

Doctor of social work (DSW) programs prepare graduates to work in advanced clinical practice. A DSW program generally focuses more on clinical practice and leadership, as opposed to a Ph.D. in social work, which delves deeper into research and education at the university level. Many colleges and universities offer DSW programs in social work and social welfare.

Students interested in studying social work at the doctoral level should choose programs that include an advanced practice component. This may allow students to receive more specialized training as advanced social work practitioners. A doctoral degree also positions you for advanced or supervisory roles in highly competitive job markets.

Ph.D. in Social Work

A Ph.D. in social welfare or social work typically prepares candidates to engage in social work research at the university level. Earning a Ph.D. in social work prepares learners for academic teaching and research positions at universities. Ph.D. programs typically focus on preparing students for careers in social work academia and less on clinical practice.

Online Social Work Programs

Earning an online social work degree provides a convenient and affordable pathway to many different careers for working professionals and students beginning their studies. Before enrolling in any online degree, prospective students should consider whether the delivery format of an online program aligns with their learning styles.

The flexibility of distance learning works best for disciplined and self-motivated students. Online programs offer significant savings on housing and transportation. Some schools charge lower tuition for web-based courses or keep rates the same for in-state and out-of-state residents. Social workers seeking career advancement may find that an online MSW or DSW degree features more options for specializations than available in their home states.

Factors to Consider When Choosing a Social Work Program

  • Accreditation

    CSWE accredits American social work programs to oversee more than 500 BSW programs and over 230 MSW programs across the country. Choosing an accredited social work program prepares each learner for professional licensure and a career in social work.

  • Program Concentrations and Specialties

    Although all accredited social work programs cover similar core curricula, each school varies in electives, concentrations, 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.

  • Field Education

    Field education provides students with practical work experience in social work. All BSW and MSW programs contain field education components, which allow enrollees to put their classroom training to practice as interns in the community. Each social work program offers different field education opportunities based on location and relationships with community organizations. Find a program offering field education opportunities that match your interests and career goals.

  • Preparation for Licensure

    In most states, each professional must obtain a social work license 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 licensure exam. Candidates should research social work programs' graduate exam pass rate, as well.

What Can You Do With a Social Work Degree?

Social workers help diverse clients of all ages to deal with challenges and find ways to cope with difficult life circumstances. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects an 11% increase in social work positions from 2018-2028 in settings such as schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and mental health facilities. Social work salaries, which range from approximately $30,000 to over $80,000 annually, vary by level of education, location, and type of employment.

Micro-level social work includes clinical, healthcare, and mental health practitioners who provide direct services to clients. Social workers in mezzo-level practice typically provide support and programs to specific groups in community organizations and government and nonprofit agencies. Administrators and researchers specializing in public health, healthcare policy, and advocacy to reduce inequality and promote systemic change engage in macro-level social work.

Home Health Aides and Personal Care Aides

Healthcare aides help clients with disabilities, assisting with daily activities such as personal hygiene and housekeeping. Workers may enter this field with a high school diploma or equivalent, although some states and agencies receiving government reimbursement require licensing or certification.

Psychiatric Social Worker

These social workers find employment in hospitals and mental health facilities to provide individual counseling and group therapy to patients with psychiatric and emotional challenges. While a psychiatric social worker may practice with a BSW, many employers require MSWs.

Child and Family Social Worker

These professionals provide support and access to resources for children and families, such as medical assistance, family counseling, and addiction treatment. While some social workers may enter this field with a BSW or related degree, most school and supervisory positions require MSWs.

Clinical Social Worker

Each clinical social worker must hold an MSW and a state license to provide counseling to individuals, families, couples, and groups. Along with offering therapeutic services, they help their clients access social services, community resources, and other forms of support.

Healthcare Social Worker

These licensed clinical social workers must hold MSWs for employment in healthcare facilities. They assist patients, families, and caretakers, providing support and helping them to connect with needed healthcare services.

Social Work Scholarships and Resources

Nearly every social work career requires a postsecondary degree. As the cost of undergraduate and graduate education continues to rise, students should explore scholarship opportunities available to aspiring social workers, including the programs suggested below. Some of these scholarships target specific underrepresented groups, while others offer general need-based or merit-based awards.

Carl A. Scott Memorial Fund Book Scholarship

Who Can Apply: The CSWE awards this scholarship to students in their final year of a social work degree. Applicants must demonstrate a commitment to promoting equity and social justice.

Amount: $500

Consuelo W. Gosnell Memorial Scholarship

Who Can Apply: This award supports students who have applied or received admission to accredited MSW programs. Applicants must demonstrate an affinity with or commitment to working with Hispanic/Latino or American Indian/Alaska Native populations.

Amount: Up to $4,000

George E. Meares Memorial Scholarship

Who Can Apply: Omega Psi Phi, an African American fraternity, offers annual awards to full-time graduate students in social work, social science, or criminal justice. Eligible candidates must receive nominations from an Omega Psi Phi chapter.

Amount: Up to $5,000

Mildred Carter Bradhan Social Work Scholarship

Who Can Apply: The Zeta Phi Beta Sorority sponsors this scholarship for students enrolled full-time in MSWs or professional degrees in social work at CSWE-accredited institutions. Recipients may renew their award annually.

Amount: Up to $1,000

Patty Gibbs-Wahlberg Scholarship

Who Can Apply: Phi Alpha Honor Society for Social Work awards three scholarships each year to chapter members enrolled in an accredited associate or BSW program. Applicants must demonstrate excellence in scholarship, service, and leadership.

Amount: Up to $3,000

Frequently Asked Questions

How much does a social work degree cost?

Total cost depends on the educational level and type of institution. According to the College Board's survey on college pricing, students enrolled in associate degrees at public community colleges in 2019-20 paid average tuition and fees of less than $4,000. Public four-year schools range from over $10,000 annually for in-state students to almost $27,000 for out-of-state learners. Private institutions charge an average of $36,000 annually.

How long does it take to earn a social work degree?

An associate degree typically requires two years of full-time study, and a bachelor's takes four years. An MSW may take an additional two years, but students who have earned a BSW may receive advance standing credits, shortening the time needed to finish. Most students take four or more years to fulfill requirements for a doctorate. The timeline varies for students in online programs that offer accelerated formats or part-time options.

What can you do with a social work degree?

A social work degree supplies the educational credentials necessary to provide counseling and support services to children, adolescents, and adults. Graduate training in social work prepares social workers for supervisory roles in public and private organizations, along with education and research positions that shape public policy.

What does a social work degree involve?

The curriculum for a social work program depends on the degree level. In addition to course requirements emphasizing policy and practice, all programs require field experiences that partly fulfill state licensure requirements. Some undergraduate programs and most graduate programs feature practice area specializations in areas such as mental health, palliative care, military, and school social work.

Is a social work degree worth it?

While social workers do not earn the highest salaries, a social work degree leads to rewarding employment possibilities. Social work education prepares graduates for personally and professionally fulfilling careers providing essential services that help their clients cope with challenges and empowering them to improve their lives.