Social Work Degrees
The first step on the path to becoming a social worker is 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 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?
- Job Opportunities for Degree Holders
- Social Work Degree Levels
- Associate of Social Work
- Bachelor of Social Work
- BSW to MSW
- Master of Social Work
- Doctor of Social Work
- PhD in Social Work
- Bachelor of Social Work
- Public Health Degree Levels
- Master of Public Health (MPH) or MPH/MSW Dual Degree
- Master of Public Affairs (MPAff) / Master of Public Administration (MPA)
- Master of Public or Social Policy (MPP or MSP)
- Doctoral Degrees in Public Health
- Master of Public Affairs (MPAff) / Master of Public Administration (MPA)
- Factors to Consider When Choosing a Social Work Program
- Social Work Scholarships, Grants, Awards, and Fellowships
- Frequently Asked Questions
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 that involves 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.
Job Opportunities for Degree Holders
The terminal degree for the field of social work is the master’s degree. That is, with a master’s in social work (MSW), you can find a job as a licensed social worker in any state. Some social worker licenses require field experience in addition to the MSW. People with bachelor’s degrees in social work (BSWs) can also find jobs as licensed social workers, but generally the highest licensure requires an MSW. Some states, like Massachusetts, for example, even offer a level of licensure for associate of social work (ASW) graduates. Typically, though, most people who are interested in a career in social work seek a bachelor’s or master’s degree.
Social Work Degree Levels
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. To decide which social work degree or combination of degrees is best for you, continue reading about the degree levels below.
Associate Degree in Social Work (ASW)
Associate 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 degree in social work or a related field such as human services. A few states do 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.” Still, pursuing an associate degree in social work may be a good first step for students entering community college or technical school. Associate degree coursework may help you determine whether a career in social work is right for you before pursuing a four-year bachelor’s degree. You can read more about the ASW on our Associate Degree in Social Work page.
Bachelor’s of Social Work (BSW)
The majority of positions in the field of social work require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree of some kind. If you are interested in a career in social work, a four-year degree is usually the first step. High school graduates applying to college should consider schools offering Council on Social Work Education accredited bachelor of social work programs. Or, 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. BSWs provide a good foundation for social work practitioners who plan on entering the workforce directly after college and beginning 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. 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.
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. Read more about the BSW degree on our Bachelor of Social Work page.
BSW to MSW
Some students may choose to 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). This degree path is also known as a BSW to MSW. Many bachelor’s-level social workers can 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, allowing them to 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.
Master of Social Work (MSW)
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. 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 and/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 other clinical career paths (like psychology) that require a doctoral degree to provide clinical services to clients, social workers are trained for clinical work at the master’s level. Master’s degrees open more doors professionally and prepare graduates for leadership roles in the field.
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 usually 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 overarching themes and combine 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. MSW graduates should be prepared to work as professional social workers and apply for licensure. Read more about the MSW degree on our Master’s Degree in Social Work page.
Doctor of Social Work (DSW)
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 PhD in social work, which focuses more on research and education at the university level. Many colleges and universities offer DSW programs in social work and social welfare. Students who are interested in studying social work at the doctoral level should consider the program content carefully and choose a program that includes an advanced practice component. This 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 job markets. Read further about the DSW in social work degree on our Doctoral Degree in Social Work page.
PhD in Social Work (PhD)
PhDs in social welfare or social work typically prepare candidates to engage in social work research at the university level. Earning a PhD in social work prepares students for academic, teaching, and research positions at universities. PhD programs are typically strongly focused on preparing students for a career in social work academia and less on clinical practice. You can read more about PhDs in social work on our Doctoral Degree in Social Work page.
Public Health Degree Levels
There are various intersections between the fields of public health and social work. While social work has had a traditional focus on intervention, public health has had a traditional focus on prevention. Social workers with training in both disciplines have a wide range of career options where these goals intersect. Although there are many associate’s and bachelor’s degree programs in public health, the following section discusses options for earning a master’s degree in public health since these programs can lead to broader career opportunities for those who already meet social work licensing requirements with a BSW or MSW.
Master of Public Health (MPH) or MPH/MSW Dual Degree
A Master of Public Health (MPH) program prepares graduates for leadership roles in settings that promote public health and welfare, including social work organizations, community healthcare, government, and nonprofits. Potential jobs with a public health degree include community health worker and health educator.
While a master’s degree in public health will not qualify graduates for social work licensure on its own, many schools offer dual MPH/MSW programs. The MSW portion of this type of program can qualify graduates for social work licensure, while the MPH portion adds broader preparation for careers in social welfare and administration. You can read more about these types of programs on our guide to earning a master’s degree in public health.
Master of Public Affairs (MPAff) / Master of Public Administration (MPA)
Master of Public Affairs (MPAff) and Master of Public Administration (MPA) programs are preparation for careers in public administration and health policy, strategy, and management. These programs typically have a focus on public, government, or nonprofit leadership. Though curriculums for these programs may look similar, an MPA will focus more heavily on management skills, while MPAff programs tend to focus more heavily on policy decisions. The Master of Public Administration curriculum is usually similar to a Master of Business Administration, with courses emphasizing organizational management skills specifically for public sector careers. This type of degree is a good fit for those interested in earning a master’s degree online, since many MPA and MPAff programs are offered wholly or partially through distance education.
Students pursuing an MPA or MPAff typically have a bachelor’s degree in social work or public health and some experience working in the public sector. This type of public health degree can be great preparation for those who already have an MSW and are looking to move into nonprofit administration and management.
Master of Public or Social Policy (MPP or MSP)
Master of Public or Social Policy (MPP or MSP) degrees are focused on developing, analyzing, and implementing policy changes at the community level and above. An MPP or MSP can prepare licensed social workers and others with a background in public health to move into leadership roles focused on policy and positive change at the mezzo and macro levels. As a professional degree, this type of program typically requires applicants to demonstrate a commitment to and work experience in the public service sector during the admissions process.
MPP and MSP programs differ from MPA programs in that public and social policy programs focus on policy evaluation and formation, while MPA programs focus more on the management side of public service.
Doctoral Degrees in Public Health
The Doctor of Public Health (DrPH) or PhD in Public Health is designed for those seeking research and advanced administration roles. There are also PhD programs with focus areas in Public Administration and Public/Social Policy. Prospective PhDs usually center their studies on a specific area, such as environmental health, epidemiology, or health policy. Many who graduate from doctoral programs in public health go on to become educators at the college level, but there are other opportunities for PhDs. Jobs with a public health degree at the doctoral level include health informatics, political and public policy analysis, and senior-level research.
Admission to a PhD program in public health commonly requires a master’s degree and a competitive academic and professional portfolio. Those considering this education track should be prepared to undertake intensive research and data analysis, including advanced courses in statistics. Those who are more interested in the social welfare and practice side of public health may be better suited to a doctoral program in social work.
Factors to Consider When Choosing a Social Work Program
When you are ready to choose a social work degree program, you will find that there are 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 (particularly 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 scheduling 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 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: https://www.cswe.org/Centers-Initiatives/Initiatives/Scholarships-and-Fellowships
- National Association of Social Workers: http://www.naswfoundation.org/fellowships.asp
- Phi Alpha Honor Society for Social Work: http://www.phialpha.org/programs.html
Frequently Asked Questions
Question: Can I pursue a career in social work with a sociology degree?
Answer: One of the most common career fields for graduates of a sociology degree program is social services, which is where you will also commonly find social workers. While a sociology degree alone doesn’t usually qualify you for social work licensure, you can work in social services at the entry level with this degree in support or administrative positions. A sociology degree can also prepare you to enter a Master of Social Work program as a stepping stone towards your social work license. Sociology graduates are good candidates for jobs that require research, analytical thinking, and an understanding of group behavior. Other common career paths include working in the fields of business, criminal justice, health, education, or government. Another related degree is the Master of Public Health (MPH) degree, which you can read more about here.
Question: What kind of degree do I need to become a social worker?
Answer: Most states require at least a bachelor’s of social work to become licensed as a social worker, but there are some states that license at the associate level. A good idea would be to consider your target social work position and find out the educational requirements for that license level or position in your state. Then you can work to pursue the degree that will qualify you for that position.
Question: Do I need a BSW to get my MSW?
Answer: No. You can pursue an MSW with a bachelor’s degree in any subject. With a BSW, however, you may be eligible for advanced standing, allowing you to complete your degree in less time.