Guide to getting a master’s of social work (MSW)
What is social work?
Social work is a practice-based profession and academic discipline concerned with helping individuals, families, and communities to improve their health and overall well-being.
Social workers support, counsel and diagnose mental health issues of their clients and direct them to the appropriate services for the assistance they need. Social workers can also work to bring about social change by advocating for changes in laws and policies to help society at large.
Master’s in social work program basics
A master’s degree in social work (MSW) is a graduate-level degree that increases the knowledge of the social worker. While a master’s degree is not necessary for all types of social work, it is required if you want to apply for clinical or supervisory licensure.
What can you do with a MSW?
If you graduate with an MSW degree, you can enjoy a career from a wide range of social work areas. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) states that the largest subgroup of social workers are child, family, and school social workers, representing approximately 47% of all social workers. Other common subgroups include mental health and substance abuse social workers and healthcare social workers. These fields include clinical and non-clinical positions.
Obtaining your MSW is just the first step in becoming licensed in most states. In many states, being employed as a social worker also involves becoming licensed by the state. For more information about regulatory licensure boards by state, visit the Association of Social Work Boards.
Should you get a master’s in social work?
Choosing to become a social worker for the money would be unusual, and probably a mistake. Social workers who find satisfaction in the work tend to go into the profession with a solution-focused outlook. They are problem-solvers with a strong capacity to understand systems, be that family systems, group dynamics, or government processes, for example.
Social workers need to be expert communicators with the capacity to pick up on both verbal and non-verbal communication. They need to be professional in their relationships with clients and colleagues – and able to maintain personal boundaries to protect themselves and to ensure longevity in their careers.
The table below looks at the benefit of earning a master’s degree in social work over a bachelor’s in social work. The earning difference is substantial, with a MSW adding an extra $14,220 to your annual earnings.
Debt and earnings
Graduate degree premium
Earning over bachelors
Annual debt repayment
The figures above give an indication of the debt incurred by graduates, and their salaries 3 years after graduation. The table on the left compares median debt and median earnings. The right-hand table compares how much a master graduate earns over a bachelor graduate 3 years after graduation, after deducting median debt repayments.
How to pick a MSW program
Before enrolling in a master’s program, do a little soul-searching to decide on the type of social worker you plan to become.
- Do you want to help individuals, families and groups of people navigate the healthcare, welfare, justice, and school systems?
- Are you prepared to develop the therapeutic techniques and practical knowledge required to work in a specialized field, like mental health or child protection?
- Are you convinced that the key to improving lives lies in changing the system?
- Are you driven to improve society by changing the policies and laws that result in discrimination and hardship for many people?
Clinical and direct practice concentration (micro)
If the first option resonates with you, then a micro concentration, also referred to by some programs as the clinical and direct practice concentration, is your likely pathway. In this option, students can take classes to learn the techniques of couples therapy, cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), family therapy, or group therapy – to name just a few examples.
These classes teach the essential skills to diagnose and treat personal issues like anxiety disorders, addictions, grief, relationship problems, and issues related to discrimination, disharmony, and poverty.
Social change concentration (macro)
For prospective students who see themselves influencing the larger picture, a macro concentration is more applicable in reaching this career goal. A macro perspective, also referred to as a social change concentration, is based on systems theory which, as any social work student can tell you, is a foundation stone in social work education. Basically, change the system, public and private, to change the reality of the people-in-need.
Macro perspective social workers are generally non-clinical. They have taken courses on social policy, community development, leadership and innovation, and social action, and often land positions with community organizations focused on social issues like justice, housing, and aging.
Experienced macro social workers can join the government to work on social policy issues due to their knowledge and experience with people and communities.
Advanced generalist or combination concentration
Some schools also offer a hybrid concentration, referred to as an advanced generalist, mezzo, or combination concentration, which is a mix of micro and macro concentrations. This can be misleading because a generalist concentration can involve a narrowed study program that focuses on a specific group or problem.
More commonly, this concentration allows students the opportunity to learn about both clinical and macro level social work interventions, which can lead to positions in management, administration, and community development, and can sometimes include a limited clinical caseload.
Finally, some schools have further expanded the list of 3 concentrations into subspecialities, including:
- school social work
- social policy analysis and practice
- social justice
- child welfare
- social work and diverse populations
A word of caution regarding licensure. Students should check the requirements of their own state licensing board, especially for the number of fieldwork hours required to be eligible for licensing required to work as a clinical social worker. Some subspecialities, macro and generalist concentrations may not incorporate sufficient hours to meet this requirement.
How important is attending a CSWE accredited MSW program?
This is crucial. Accreditation means your program conforms to the national standard of what social work students must study to become competent practitioners. It also means your professors are credentialed and use the best teaching practices available. Most important of all, is if you want to become a licensed professional social worker, your social work program needs to be accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). If it is not, you will not be eligible for licensure by your state. In many states not having a license means you cannot obtain employment.
Can you get a MSW online?
Yes, you can earn your MSW online, although only 13.5% of programs are offered exclusively online. This is likely due to the fieldwork component of the program which is done in person. Social work graduates also benefit from the social interaction of face to face classes, where they can hone their own communication and interviewing skills.
The above table shows the percentage of programs available either completely in person or fully online. Figures that do not add up to 100% indicate the existence of hybrid programs.
How much does a MSW cost?
The table below looks at the earnings and debts of graduates in the period 2 years post graduation. This allows for a comparison of the benefits of attending a public or private college. From this data, the earnings of both types of college graduates are relatively similar, even though MSW programs at private colleges were over $30,000 more expensive than MSW programs at public colleges. In fact, the debt incurred at a private college is more than $20,000 over what a graduate can expect to earn in an annual salary. Going to a private college to earn a MSW has negative monetary value.
Debt to earnings
Debt to earnings
Debt to earnings
Median earnings and median debt of graduates of this degree program. The debt-to-earnings ratio compares student debt to annual earnings. The lower the debt-to-earnings ratio the better, and total debt should never exceed annual earnings (a debt-to-earnings ratio of 1.0).
Financial aid and scholarships for social work majors
Financial aid for students comes in many different forms from grants and scholarships which don’t need to be repaid, to private loans with high interest rates. Make sure you visit the Federal Student Aid website for more information and to complete the FAFSA form which checks your aid eligibility. Another valuable resource is the financial services office of your chosen college.
There are also specific sources of financial assistance available to social work students, for example:
- Fellowships are available for MSW students through organizations such as the National Association of Social Work.
- Some states offer loan forgiveness to social workers who meet specific criteria; New York State’s program forgives up to $26,000 of student loan debt for social workers.
- Financial aid packages are offered to MSW students and may include university assistance for tuition in the form of scholarships, grants, loans, and assistantship jobs.
What to expect from a MSW program
There is much ground to cover in the MSW program to prepare students for fieldwork. Compared to a BSW, coursework is more in-depth, looking at intervention strategies with individuals, families and small groups, and the large community scale.
The choice of coursework depends on the type of social work you plan to do after graduation. Many MSW students have the goal of becoming clinicians, and therefore coursework on assessment, diagnosis and therapeutic interventions is common.
What are the admission requirements for MSW?
In broad terms, every accredited higher learning institution requires program candidates to hold a bachelor’s degree to be able to apply. However, some universities will have requirements beyond this.
- Bachelor’s degree – Most MSW programs require a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university for admission. However, candidates do not necessarily need a bachelor’s degree in social work. A bachelor’s in any major field is acceptable with courses in psychology, sociology, economics, and political science especially recommended. Graduates of bachelor of social work (BSW) degree programs may qualify for advanced standing programs, which allow students to earn their master’s degrees in one year.
- Professional experience – Most MSW programs do not require previous work experience, although some schools prefer candidates with a background in social work or human services. A bachelor’s degree in social work typically includes an internship or practicum course, which may satisfy this requirement.
- Minimum GPA – A 3.0 GPA is considered the general minimum requirement for most graduate school programs, although this may range from 2.5 to 3.5 depending on the institution. Most schools also require applicants to submit an essay, along with personal and professional references.
How long does it take to get a MSW?
Typically, between 1-4 years, depending on your situation. If you have already obtained your BSW, you may be eligible for Advanced Standing, which allows you to complete your MSW within an academic year. Full-time students in a traditional MSW program can complete their full degree in 2 years. If you go part-time, it obviously takes longer to earn the same number of credits.
Field education, also called practicum or internship, happens outside the classroom and is the hands-on training portion of your MSW program. It is a vital part of an MSW’s training and is required by all programs accredited by the CSWE. If you take an online course, you may be able to find internships yourself, or take advantage of an internship offered through a partnership between your school and a community agency.
Field education work takes place at the same time as your classes, with most schools organizing class schedules so that students will have classroom days and field days. The number of days you spend at your agency site will vary between your foundation and concentration years. The CSWE currently requires MSW students to complete a minimum of 900 hours of field education during their graduate school career.
In general, colleges and universities work with local agencies to provide fieldwork placements. These agencies may include:
- Child and family service agencies
- Adolescent service agencies
- Community outreach programs
- Gerontology services facilities
- Case management agencies
- Addiction treatment centers
- International social work programs
- Counseling services for the hearing impaired
- Mental and behavioral health facilities
Licensure requirements for MSW graduates
Social workers can be divided into non-clinical and clinical social workers, each with significantly different role involved in their work with clients.
Some social workers work with groups, community organizations, and policymakers to develop or improve programs, services, policies, and social conditions. This focus of work is referred to as macro social work.
Social workers who are licensed to diagnose and treat mental, behavioral and emotional disorders are called clinical social workers (CSW) or licensed clinical social workers (LCSW). They provide individual, group, family, and couples therapy.
Clinical social workers work with clients to develop strategies to change behavior or cope with difficult situations. They can refer clients to other resources or services, such as support groups or other mental health professionals. Clinical social workers can develop treatment plans with the client, doctors, and other healthcare professionals and may adjust the treatment plan, if necessary, based on their client’s progress. They may work in a variety of specialties. Clinical social workers who have not completed 2 years of supervised work are often called master’s social workers (MSW).
A non-clinical social worker can practice with a minimum of a bachelor’s degree. Non-clinical work may incorporate roles in public or private organizations, case management, administration, and more. Non-clinical social workers often work with their clients with whatever issues they may be having, on more of a consulting basis, compared to a clinical setting, which will be more comprehensive in services.
Licenses for non-clinical social work
Licensed Social Work Associate (LSWA)
You need to have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in social work, or a field closely related such as psychology, for this licensure. The LSWA is for entry-level social work employees wanting to work at a non-clinical level. With this certification, you are supervised by a LSW, LCSW, or a LMSW professional.
Licensed Social Worker (LSW)
To gain this licensure, a minimum bachelor’s degree in social work is obligatory. If you have a degree in another field, then you need to have a certain amount of work experience under the supervision of a licensed social worker. This licensure allows you to provide non-clinical social work services such as case management and administrative supervision.
Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW)
This is the most advanced non-clinical licensure you can receive, and holders require a master’s degree. Though this is a licensed non-clinical social work license, you are permitted to work in healthcare settings and to engage in therapy and counseling with clients.
Licenses for Clinical Social Work
Clinical social workers address individual and family problems such as serious illness, substance abuse, and domestic conflict. A master’s degree in social work is necessary if you want to provide clinical services. Most work is based in a clinical setting and typically encompasses psychotherapy, counseling, and therapy.
Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW)
This is listed as both non-clinical and clinical. An LMSW is allowed to perform clinical social work, but only under the direct supervision of an LCSW. Candidates for licensure take an exam to demonstrate their competence in the field. Some states require hours of supervised experience following the completion of your degree to become licensed.
Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
This is the most advanced social work certification, and those with this licensure need to have a master’s or doctorate level education with a minimum of 2 years of supervised clinical experience after graduation. Some LCSWs may work in socially oriented agencies, hospitals, treatment facilities, or their own private practice.
As licensing requirements vary by state, those interested should contact their state licensure board. For more information about regulatory licensure boards by state, visit the Association of Social Work Boards.
Clinical social workers work with clients to develop strategies to change behavior or cope with difficult situations.
What careers can I have with a MSW?
The following are examples of occupations for MSW graduates:
Healthcare social workers
Healthcare social workers help hospital patients with life-altering diseases and injuries understand and adjust to their conditions. They may, for example, provide guidance on the transition from hospital back to their homes and communities, and on the necessary changes to their lifestyle and healthcare.
District of Columbia
Social workers often work with doctors and other healthcare professionals to educate and counsel patients, families, and caretakers. Some healthcare social workers specialize in particular areas, such as geriatric social work, oncology, hospice, and palliative care.
Mental health and substance abuse social worker
These social workers help clients with mental illnesses, including eating disorders, depression, and alcohol or drug addictions.
District of Columbia
They provide information on services, such as support groups and 12-step programs, to help clients cope with their illness. Those working in private practice must have state-issued licensure. A master’s degree in clinical social work or a related field is often essential for these positions.
Child and family social workersMedian salary: 44K US$
Child and family social workers help at-risk children and families. They help families find housing or services, such as childcare, or apply for benefits programs such as food stamps. They intervene when children are in danger of abuse or neglect. Some may help arrange adoptions, locate foster families, or work to reunite families.
School social workerMedian salary: 50K US$
School social workers work with teachers, parents, and other relevant persons, to monitor and improve an individual student’s academic performance and social development. School social workers may also help students and their families to deal with problems such as aggressive behaviors, bullying, or frequent absences from school.
Becoming a social worker is a career choice that can impact the lives of many people. To be confident in your skills to do this, ensure that your MSW program provides you with the coursework, supervision, and support you need.
Who are the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE)?
The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) is the national association representing social work education in the United States. As of June 2020, their Commission on Accreditation has approved:
- 533 accredited baccalaureate social work programs
- 288 accredited master’s social work programs
Do I need to take the GRE to apply to an MSW program?
In many cases it will be necessary, although some universities offer alternatives. You will need to consult individual school’s admissions requirements for specifics. Keep in mind the GRE is just one factor in being considered for an MSW program.
Can I pursue an MSW if my bachelor’s degree program was not CSWE accredited?
It is possible, but it can be difficult. States that license BSWs require that those social workers attend a CSWE accredited program. Most of these states also require that those licensed at a master’s level received their degree(s) from a CSWE accredited program. So, while your master’s program may not require that your bachelor’s degree be from a CSWE accredited program, a state may require that your BSW is from a CSWE accredited program for you to become licensed and able to work in that state.
Can I earn an MSW degree part-time? Online?
It is possible to earn your MSW, either in person or online, and sometimes as a combination of both these options, which is referred to as a hybrid program format. Part-time courses are available at most universities offering master’s in social work programs. Make sure the online program you attend is accredited by the CSWE.
What are Advanced Standing social work programs?
Advanced Standing gives you credit for studies done in a BSW program, which is the essential prerequisite for the program. Having a BSW degree demonstrates that you understand social work’s basic principles and are ready to move into the more practical applications of those theories. It is like transferring into the MSW program with half your degree earned already. Advanced Standing programs, offer students the opportunity to complete their master’s degree in a shorter time period while focusing on an area they want to specialize in.
Universities prefer that students have a minimum of 2000hours of practical experience, although this is not a fast requisite for entry to a program. Advanced Standing programs are generally offered on a full-time and part-time basis. The duration of the programs is from 10-17 months, depending on your enrolment status and the program. Part-time attendance is especially desirable to students already employed in a specific setting that they wish to specialize in, such as a mental health clinic, or U.S. Military Service, or community aged care organizations.
Founded in 1952, CSWE is the national association representing social work education. The CSWE Commission on Accreditation is recognized as being the most prominent accrediting agency for social work education in the U.S.
This is the national organization for clinical social workers. It provides essential policy updates relevant to social workers and their clients, information on employment openings, and a section for finding a local LCSW in your area.
This international organization offers free membership to social work, and human services, management staff. The services include professional development workshops, mentorship programs, networking events, and conferences.