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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.

Choosing a Social Work Specialization

Social workers take on essential roles in our society, providing guidance to individuals who don't necessarily have access to the resources to help themselves. In many ways, social workers "help people help themselves," according to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). As anyone in the profession knows, social work careers are versatile and encompass many different focus areas.

Specializing enables social workers to build the specific expertise and skills necessary to most effectively assist their clients. Social work students do not typically choose a concentration until enrolled in a master’s in social work program (MSW); bachelor’s degrees in social work (BSW) usually focus on general practice.

Social workers can specialize in certain fields to serve a particular population or demographic, for example the elderly, children, or veterans. Other social workers instead specialize in an essential function, like healthcare or substance abuse disorders.

The NASW outlines 16 major social work specializations. The list below defines these focus areas, outlining the tasks that each social worker performs and their potential work settings.

Administration and Management

Individuals within the administration and management specialty work in leadership positions in the social work field. Sometimes known as social and community service managers, these professionals make decisions about the budget, goals, and staff.

Social work administrators and managers work at local government agencies or nonprofit groups, and they might oversee an entire organization or a specific department. These professionals need a good understanding of social policy and social services to run these organizations effectively.

Advocacy and Community Organization

Social workers who work within the field of advocacy and community organization work to actively make a difference in society. They work to lessen the inequality that leads to homelessness, unemployment, and addiction, among other community-related issues.

These professionals might work as community organizers, making change at the grassroots level. Social workers interested in advocacy may also lobby to change laws at the local, state, and federal level.

Aging

Older adults face unique challenges, including health problems and loneliness. Many have trouble living on their own, and they can find themselves vulnerable to slips and falls. Social workers who specialize in aging work with these adults, helping them take on these obstacles to live independently. They might help older adults participate in their community, or they might offer psychological counseling.

Social workers who specialize in aging may work at nursing homes and residence facilities, or for other community organizations.

Child Welfare

Children constitute another of society's more vulnerable populations because they are often too young to advocate for or care for themselves. A child welfare social worker can help young families bring up their children in a healthy environment.

When children experience abuse or neglect, child welfare social workers might need to step in to protect children and place them in more caring family environments. Childcare welfare social workers generally work for local government agencies.

Developmental Disabilities

These social workers also work with children, although they specifically aid children with developmental disabilities, including autism spectrum disorder, learning and speech disorders, or different types of intellectual disabilities.

Children in these circumstances require extra help to become as independent as possible. Parents need to know what legal and educational services can help their children. Social workers specializing in developmental disabilities connect their clients with the proper resources.

Health Care

As the name implies, healthcare social workers specialize in helping their clients obtain the proper healthcare for their medical needs. They also help people with certain components of their personal and social lives that might lead to health problems.

Healthcare social workers sometimes work for community organizations and local government agencies. They can also work in healthcare settings like hospitals and clinics, helping their clients navigate current health issues. These professionals might develop programs or carry out research, rather than work one-on-one with clients.

International Social Work

International social workers can carry out many different types of work. They might offer services to immigrants, helping them navigate resources in their new country. These professionals could also work at refugee camps, orphanages, and hospitals, guiding the most vulnerable people in the population. They connect these individuals to employment, legal aid, language classes, schools, and other essential areas of support.

International social workers find jobs at federal government agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and intergovernmental groups.

Justice and Corrections

Justice and corrections social workers play a large role in the U.S. justice system. They work in courts, police departments, prisons, and crisis centers.

When courts charge someone with breaking the law, sometimes they must complete community service and counseling instead of prison. Social workers may take on these cases. These professionals also offer therapy and drug treatment to incarcerated people, and they often work as parole officers. Social workers might be called upon to offer expert testimony in court.

Mental Health and Clinical Social Work

Unlike some types of social workers, mental health and clinical social workers require state licensure in order to practice. With licensure, they are qualified to provide mental health services, like therapy and counseling.

These professionals help individuals dealing with anxiety, depression, addiction, and other challenges. Sometimes they work one-on-one with clients, and other times they carry out group therapy.

Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Work

Mental health and substance abuse social workers take on very similar roles to mental health and clinical social workers, but they specifically focus on substance abuse issues. These professionals provide guidance and resources for individuals with addictions to alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs.

Substance abuse social workers may also work as advocates for jobs and housing policy reform, community development, and other policies related to substance abuse.

Occupational and Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) Social Work

Occupational and employee assistance professionals take on a unique role in social work. Rather than working with vulnerable populations, they usually work in offices at businesses or corporations. They help these companies restructure in order to improve efficiency and morale.

EAP social workers frequently manage companies' mental health services. They help workers with issues like excessive stress, substance abuse, domestic violence, or other issues that affect an employee's professional and personal life. They might also work for unions, offering job counseling services.

Policy and Planning

The government sets laws and policies at the federal, state, and local levels that impact both systemic societal issues and, more directly, social work practices. Policy and planning social workers lobby for policies that support social services.

Policy professionals research issues like homelessness, poverty, racism, child abuse, and discrimination with the goal of developing strategies to combat these issues through policy. Once they determine these strategies, these professionals then work with lawmakers and other influential parties to bring about these changes.

Politics

Sometimes social workers use their advocacy and policy planning skills to transition into leadership roles. They might run for office, or they might work as a researcher or staffer for another candidate.

Political candidates with social work backgrounds often run on a platform of increased and better social services at the local, state, or federal levels. At the federal level, social worker politicians work with the Congressional Social Work Caucus to develop policies and turn them into law.

Public Welfare

In sort, public welfare social workers help individuals meet basic needs. They usually coordinate benefits and income for people, including elderly people or people experiencing homelessness. Individuals with disabilities or chronic illnesses may also receive certain help from government programs, which public welfare social workers facilitate.

These professionals may work as case workers, but they can also work as administrators and program evaluators. They usually work for a government agency within the public welfare department.

Research

Like any other field, advances in social work stem from research conducted by professional researchers. They might investigate topics like the success rate of certain public welfare strategies or the effectiveness of social assistance programs. Their ultimate goal involves improving the field through ongoing research-based discoveries.

These professionals usually hold a postgraduate degree in social work -- at least a master's degree and often a doctorate. They typically find employment at universities, think tanks, government agencies, and foundations.

School Social Work

School social workers typically find employment at either public or private schools, helping connect students and families with available services. They often help children navigate a variety of issues that disrupt their learning, including emotional or developmental challenges.

Young children may experience difficult home lives, and school social workers provide them with strategies to keep up with their school work. These professionals might interfere if they sense a child experiences abuse or neglect at home. In high schools, school social workers deal with many of the same issues, including teen pregnancy, alcohol and drug abuse, and regular truancy.

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.