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Master of Social Work Degree

By Janice Monti


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.

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 MSWs, especially in healthcare, mental health, and substance abuse specialties. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects an 11% increase in the employment of social workers from 2018-28. The $49,470 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 to individuals, families, couples, and groups. They assess, diagnose, and treat conditions, along with helping 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 that affect specific communities. They provide education about health issues that affect community members and present information about prevention and treatment alternatives.

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

Is a master's in social work worth it?

As career opportunities in social work expand, earning an MSW degree can provide a competitive advantage in the job market. Anyone interested in working as an LCSW must complete an MSW degree. MSW programs offer training in the most in-demand specializations, leading to more employment prospects and higher salaries.

What is advanced standing in social work?

BSW graduates from programs accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) may qualify for advanced standing when enrolling in MSWs. Advanced standing MSW degrees require less time for these students to complete by granting them credits based on their undergraduate coursework.

Why pursue a master's in social work?

An MSW degree provides a pathway to personally and professionally rewarding careers in helping people overcome challenges to improve the quality of their lives. The skills and knowledge acquired through an MSW empower degree-holders to change peoples' lives.

What schools offer master's in social work degrees?

CSWE accredits 282 MSW programs, including many online master's in social work degrees. Prospective students should carefully research admission requirements, curriculum and specializations, course delivery formats, financial aid, and other considerations before choosing a program. This ranking of online MSW programs can help you find the best school for your personal needs and career goals.

How much do social workers make with a master's degree?

Social work salaries depend on specializations, location, and experience. Licensed clinical social workers, who must possess an MSW to practice professionally, earn a median annual salary of $59,200, with the top 25% making $70,280. MSW-holders who specialize in the high demand fields of child, family, and school social work earn a median annual salary of $47,390, with the highest-paid receiving over $78,000 annually.

How long is a master's in social work program?

An MSW program typically requires two years of full-time study. Most programs require 60-70 credits and 1,200 hours of field experience. Students admitted to advanced standing programs may apply 22-25 credits to their degrees, shortening the time needed to graduate. Several schools offer accelerated online master's in social work programs that enrollees can complete in 12-18 months.