Master of Social Work
A master’s degree in social work (MSW) traditionally takes one to two years to complete and is typically a requirement for those hoping to hold a clinical, supervisory, or program director role. An MSW is currently considered the terminal degree in the field of social work, though higher degrees are available. Those who receive this advanced social work degree may work in the medical, mental health, and educational fields, providing support as therapists, healthcare social workers, school social workers, and clinical social workers. Obtaining a master’s degree in social work can open the door to a number of new and exciting career opportunities that aren’t available to those with only a bachelor’s level education. Master’s degrees in social work are offered both on-campus and online.
According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the median annual wage for healthcare social workers, who usually need an MSW, is $25.18 hourly, or $52,380 annually.1 Those working in hospitals (state, local, and private) can expect the highest median annual wage, at an average of $56,650 per year.2 The highest paid social workers (top 10%) earn more than $76,000 annually.2 Social workers categorized as “other” by the BLS earn the top salaries (median of $58,560), followed by healthcare social workers (median of $52,380).1
Students planning to apply to a master’s of social work program will need to have received a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university. Most schools designate a minimum grade point average (GPA) and require applicants to submit an application essay as well as personal and professional references. Some schools require a certain number of undergraduate semester hours or credits dedicated to core liberal arts competencies and may require non-native speakers to complete a Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) to determine English proficiency. Many schools will require students to submit Graduate Records Examination (GRE) scores to determine eligibility.
Recent graduates of Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree programs may qualify for Advanced Standing programs, which can allow students to complete their master’s degree in as little as one year.
Core Concepts and Coursework
Students who are enrolled in a master’s of social work program will take a number of introductory courses focusing on foundational knowledge about social policy, human behavior, research, and clinical and macro practice. The second year of graduate studies for MSW majors typically focuses on the chosen concentration/specialization areas. Although the concentrations available vary between colleges, some common specialization areas include Children, Youth, and Families; Health; Mental Health; and Older Adults and Aging Societies. Both second-year courses and field placements will be directly related to each student’s chosen area of concentration.
Example courses common in MSW programs include:
- Introduction to Social Work
- Human Behavior and the Environment
- Death and Dying
- Dynamics of Racism and Oppression
- Assessment and Diagnosis
- Couple and Family Therapy
- Social Work Services for Older Adults
- Substance Abuse: Alcohol and other Drugs
- Strategic Planning for Public and Non-Profit Organizations
- Field Study
Traditional Master of Social Work Programs
The University of California, Berkeley offers a Master of Social Welfare (MSW) degree for students preparing for a dedicated career in advancing social welfare. Driven by evidence for successful practice, UC Berkeley’s master’s in social work program works to develop leading professionals in the field. This two-year graduate level program requires full-time enrollment and does not offer Advanced Standing status for BSW graduates. In order to graduate, students must complete a minimum of 54 units, nearly half of which are allocated towards their field study component. During the application process, students will need to select one of the five concentrations offered by UC Berkeley: Direct Practice in Aging; Direct Practice in Child and Family Services; Direct Practice in Community Mental Health; Direct Practice in Health; or Management and Planning. UC Berkeley offers engaging courses for students, which are customized according to concentration. Classes include Theories for Multilevel Practice; Social Work Foundations; Social Policy and Gerontology; Direct Practice in Child and Family Settings; Group, Organizational, and Family Dynamics; and Advanced Field Seminar and Field Practicum. The School of Social Welfare also offers two certification programs, in school social work and a Social Work with Latinos certificate. It also offers two combined social work master’s programs, a Concurrent Degree in Public Health (MSW+MPH) and a Concurrent Degree in Public Policy (MSW+MPP).
The University of Texas at Austin offers a Master of Science in Social Work (MSSW) program through its School of Social Work. This degree is intended for students who are dedicated to pursuing a career in advanced social work practice. UT Austin offers two concentrations: Clinical Social Work and Administration and Policy Practice (APP). Those entering the Clinical Social Work track are educated on interacting with individuals, families, groups, and communities, with a focus on developing the knowledge and skill set needed to bring about positive change in the lives of those they serve. Those entering the APP track are educated on foundational social work values, theory, and ethics through coursework covering nonprofit management, grant writing, strategic planning, advanced policy analysis, and financial management. Regardless of concentration, students must complete 60 semester hours in order to obtain a master’s in social work degree. Both concentrations are also required to complete a 1,020-hour field practicum experience. UT Austin also offers flexible program scheduling for students who need it, allowing for degree completion in two-and-a-half, three, or three-and-a-half years. The school offers an Advanced Standing program for students who have completed a BSW, allowing them to complete their MSW in just 42 to 48 semester hours.
Boston College’s Master of Social Work (MSW) program educates students to become effective advocates for the most vulnerable and oppressed populations. Students must select a specialization of either Clinical or Macro Practice before deciding on one of the following five concentration areas: Children, Youth, and Families, Global Practice, Health and Mental Health, Older Adults and Families, or Individualized. Students completing the two-year degree will take introductory and foundational courses during their first year and will move onto more advanced courses like Psychosocial Pathology, Leadership and Social Transformation, Advanced Policy, and Intervention and Evidenced-Based Practice during their second year. Both Clinical and Macro students are expected to complete 30 credit hours during their first year and 35 during their second and final year. For students who would benefit from a more flexible part-time academic schedule, BC offers three-year and four-year MSW programs. Recent BSW graduates from an accredited college or university have the opportunity to apply for Advanced Standing, allowing them to complete their MSW in one year. All students enrolled in the program will need to complete an eight-credit, year-long field education internship. In addition, BC offers eight certification programs and the opportunity to complete a dual degree, in Social Work and Business Administration (MSW/MBA), Social Work and Law (MSW/JD), and Social Work and Theology and Ministry (MSW/MA in Theology and Ministry).
Online Master of Social Work Programs
Boston University’s School of Social Work offers a comprehensive and engaging online master’s in social work program for those looking to obtain a graduate degree through distance learning. Students enrolled in BU’s online MSW program will need to select a Clinical Social Work or Macro Social Work practice emphasis. Upon graduation, clinical majors will be prepared to work in private, public, and nonprofit settings, providing services and interventions to individuals, groups, families, and communities. Macro social work majors will work to foster social growth and change through large-scale system changes at the organizational, community-wide or state-wide level. BU offers three different tracks for its online students: Traditional MSW Track (TT), which is a three-year degree program completed in just nine semesters that focuses on introductory and advanced level social work courses; the Human Services Experience Track (HSE), a three-year, nine-semester program for those with prior, supervised social work experience; and the Advanced Standing Track, open to students who have received a BSW from a CSWE-accredited college or university. Those enrolled in the Advanced Standing Track will only need to complete 40 to 43 credit hours to graduate. All online students will be required to participate in live session classes hosted on either Sunday or Monday nights and complete a 1,000-hour field internship.
The University of Southern California offers an online master’s in social work degree through the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. Students who are accepted into this online program will need to choose one of three areas of study: Adults and Healthy Aging, which focuses on the physical and mental well-being of young to older adults; Children, Youth, and Families, which focuses on vulnerabilities of these specific groups; and Community, Organization, and Business Innovation, which educates students on how to lead innovative and strategic change. Students who hold a BSW are eligible to apply for the Advanced Standing program, shortening the duration of their program. Those completing the two-year degree will take introductory classes covering the core principles and practices of social work, followed by more advanced studies with courses like Social Work Practice in Integrated Care, Explanatory Theories of Health and Mental Health, and Integrative Learning for Advanced Social Work Practices. All students will complete both a Virtual Field Practicum (VFP) and a 1,000-hour community-based Field Placement in order to graduate.
The University of New Hampshire offers students the opportunity to complete their master’s in social work 100% online. With no mandatory site visits, students can get a quality graduate social work education from anywhere in the country. Students enrolled in UNH’s online MSW program will specialize in Advanced Generalist Practice, taking advanced courses like Race, Culture, and Oppression, Social Work Practice (II, II, IV), Field Practice, and Statistics. The majority of assignments provided to online students have submission deadlines, but classes do not require logging in during specific days or times. Due to its flexibility, UNH’s MSW program is ideal for working or otherwise busy students. The programs are between four and eight semesters and require students to complete two field education experiences, totaling over 1,000 hours.
Social Work Licensure
In order to receive your LMSW, the professional licensing associated with master’s level education, you will need to pass a licensing exam by the Association of Social Work Boards. Regulations can vary according to the state you are practicing in, so you will need to check the specific requirements set forth by your state’s social work regulatory board. If you are hoping to continue to enhance your qualifications, however, you may want to consider a career path that will help you to become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), which requires two to three years of work experience under a licensed social worker after receiving your MSW degree. Licensing requirements will vary from state to state, so be sure to look up the specific requirements of your home state.
Jobs with a Master’s Degree in Social Work
A master’s in social work degree is a good starting point for a wide range of careers in the field of social work. Some examples include:
- Clinical Group Worker
- Family Practitioner
- School Social Worker
- Marriage and Family Therapist
- Medical Social Worker
- Clinical Social Worker
- Substance Abuse Social Worker
- Social Work Supervisor
- Program Director
Frequently Asked Questions
Question: What are the benefits of obtaining a master’s degree in social work?
Answer: The types of jobs open to social workers with a bachelor’s degree can be limited and mostly involve case management and administrative positions. A master’s degree in social work from an accredited program affords you more opportunities in direct practice and paves the way to becoming licensed as a clinical social worker. With an MSW, you can expect to be more competitive in the job market, be eligible for higher pay, and have more opportunities for advancement.
Question: How do I know if I qualify for Advanced Standing?
Answer: Although the requirements vary according to the institution, many schools offer Advanced Standing placement for recent BSW graduates who hold a degree from a CSWE-accredited college or university. Advanced Standing typically reduces the number of credit hours required to earn an MSW and therefore reduces the amount of time you will need to spend on your MSW program.
Question: How do I decide whether to practice clinical social work or macro social work
Answer: Deciding what career track you are going to pursue is a very personal choice. If you haven’t had any formal work or internship experience, you might want to consider spending some time volunteering to make sure you’re certain about your choice. Clinical practice involves working directly with individuals and families in need, providing services or interventions to help improve their standard of living or quality of life. Macro social work practice also uses interventions to create social change, but on a larger scale, within systems or communities. Field work placement during your program can also help you decide what type of social work you want to specialize in.
Question: Why should I consider an online MSW program?
Answer: Online MSW degree programs are becoming increasingly popular, especially for graduate students who have conflicting priorities like full-time jobs or parenting responsibilities. Look for an online program that offers the same courses, professors, and benefits of a traditional program. Another benefit is that you are not limited by your geographic location. With online study, you can find attend a program anywhere in the country that provides the curriculum and flexibility that you’re looking for.
1. O*Net Online, Healthcare Social Workers: https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/21-1022.00
2. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Social Workers: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/social-workers.htm#tab-1