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Master of Social Work Degree


A master of social work (MSW) degree from an accredited program offers more professional opportunities in direct practice and paves the way to becoming licensed as a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW). Earning an MSW makes candidates more competitive in the job market, where they can pursue more lucrative positions and explore more opportunities for advancement.

An MSW typically takes 1-2 years to complete. Those who receive this advanced social work degree may work in the medical, mental health, and education fields, providing support as therapists, healthcare social workers, school social workers, and clinical social workers.

Obtaining an MSW can open the door to new and exciting career opportunities unavailable to those with only a bachelor's level education. Colleges and universities offer on-campus and online master's in social work programs.

Master's level social work degree

Length: 2 years

Credit Hours: 60-70 credits

Field Experience: 1,200 hours required

In This Article

Admission Requirements

Students planning to apply to MSW programs need to have received a bachelor's degree from an accredited college or university.. Most schools designate a minimum GPA and require each applicant to submit an essay, along with personal and professional references. Some schools require a certain number of undergraduate credits dedicated to core liberal arts competencies and may require non-native speakers to complete a test of English as a foreign language. Many schools also require students to submit GRE scores.

Recent graduates of bachelor of social work (BSW) degree programs may qualify for advanced standing programs, which allow students to complete their master's degrees in as little as one year.

Core Concepts and Coursework

Students enrolled in MSW programs take introductory courses focusing on social policy, human behavior, research, and clinical practice. The second year of graduate studies for MSW majors typically explores concentrations or specialization areas. While concentrations vary among colleges, some common specialization areas include children, youth, and families; health; mental health; and older adults and aging societies. Second-year courses and field placements relate to each student's chosen 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 nonprofit organizations
  • Field study

Online Master of Social Work Programs

Flexibility and cost rank among the most often cited reasons for choosing an online program, especially for working professionals or students who need to complete their education while maintaining other commitments.

Many online degrees offer cost savings over traditional campus-based programs, including housing and transportation expenses. While many web-based formats encourage interactive learning with classmates and faculty, these programs generally work best for independent and self-motivated learners.

Social Work Licensure

To receive your licensed master of social work certification, you need to pass a licensing exam by the Association of Social Work Boards. Regulations vary by state, so you should check the specific requirements set forth by your state's social work regulatory board.

Individuals looking to enhance their qualifications should consider career paths that help to become licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs). This certification requires 2-3 years of work experience under a licensed social worker after receiving an MSW degree.

Jobs with a Master's Degree in Social Work

The rising demand for healthcare and social services drives the increased need for clinical social workers with an MSW, especially in healthcare, mental health, and substance abuse specialties. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 13% job growth rate for social workers from 2019-29. The $50,470 median annual wage for social workers across all specializations ranks significantly higher than the median wage for all U.S. occupations.

Clinical Social Worker

Clinical social workers provide direct services for individuals, families, couples, and groups. They assess, diagnose, and treat conditions. They also help clients locate resources and services to cope with challenges and change their behaviors.

Healthcare Social Worker

Healthcare social workers work in hospitals and clinics to help patients understand and adjust to their conditions. They often work with doctors and other healthcare providers to educate and counsel patients, families, and caretakers.

Community Health Workers and Administrators

These social workers use their background in public health to provide information on health concerns affecting specific communities. They educate community members about health issues and present prevention and treatment options.

Healthcare Administrator

These managers work in hospitals, clinics, medical offices, and public and private healthcare facilities. Healthcare administrators supervise teams of healthcare providers and support staff to coordinate and effectively deliver health services.

Public Health Administrator

Public health administrators work primarily in nonprofit and government agencies, managing policies and initiatives to address public and community health issues. They provide information on prevention and treatment and supervise programs at local, state, regional, and national levels.

Frequently Asked Questions

How much does someone with a master's in social work make?

Master of social work (MSW) degree-holders make an average annual salary of $53,865. Licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs) earn even more: $58,000, on average. Social workers in Hawaii, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts fare the best, with annual mean salaries exceeding $74,000.

Is a master's in social work worth it?

A master's degree in social work has increasingly become the minimum degree for practicing social work. All states require an MSW degree for LCSWs. The career offers rewards to people who want to help others overcome challenges. Of 4,060 MSWs surveyed by Payscale, four out of five reported high satisfaction with their jobs.

Do you need an MSW to become a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW)?

All state licensure boards require an MSW from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) to become LCSWs. MSW degree curriculums prepare graduates for the LCSW exams and provide clinical practice experience through a minimum of 900 hours of onsite supervised field instruction.

Why do social workers need licensure?

Social work licensing ensures uniform practice and ethical standards through licensing examinations and professional experience hours. Licensure also mandates that social workers undergo background checks and complete continuing education hours to renew their licenses, keeping them up-to-date with developments in the industry.

What is advanced standing social work?

Advanced standing social work refers to MSW programs for students who hold a bachelor's degree in social work (BSW) from a CSWE-accredited undergraduate program. Advanced standing MSWs bypass many BSW topics in typical programs and graduate in about half the time.