Introduction to 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.
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.
Entry requirements to a MSW program
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The following are examples of occupations for MSW graduates:
Median salary: $43K
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.
Median salary: $60K
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. 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.
Median salary: $43K
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.
Median salary: $55K
These social workers help clients with mental illnesses, including eating disorders, depression, and alcohol or drug addictions. 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.
The difference between a clinical and non-clinical social worker
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—referred to as bachelor’s social workers (BSW)—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 therapy, 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.
Licensure varies according to the state, although commonly includes the following licenses.
Licensed Social Work Associate (LSWA)
You must have an associate’s or 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 must be supervised by a LSW, LCSW, or a LMSW professional.
Licensed Social Worker (LSW)
To gain this licensure, a 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 of your work will be done 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 must also typically 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 must 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.
Before enrolling in a master’s program, you will need to 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? Or are you convinced that the key to improving lives lies in changing the system? Further, 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 behaviour 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 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.
Cost of MSW education
It is very difficult to compare like with like when looking at the cost of a master’s program as there are so many variables: in-state or out-of-state prices for tuition fees, online or on-campus or hybrid format, plus differing costs for accommodation, books, and healthcare. What most students want is value, and value is not necessarily the cheapest possible program.
Value is also subjective. What you find valuable is going to depend not just on the core cost and education, but also on the little things associated with each program. Is a strong online option important to fit your busy schedule? Full-time or part-time? Does a school have a particularly strong field placement program?
According to the National Center for Education Services, yearly tuition and fees for a master’s degree program average $13,800 at public universities and $36,300 at private universities.
There are many sources of financial assistance available, 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 grants, loans, and assistantship jobs
Salary level for MSW professions
The continuing growth of healthcare spending and treatment means job prospects should be good for social workers with MSWs and especially for clinical social workers.
How long does it take to complete an MSW program?
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.
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.
Frequently asked questions
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:
- Mental and behavioral health facilities
- Child and family service agencies
- Adolescent service agencies
- Community outreach programs
- International social work programs
- Gerontology services facilities
- Case management agencies
- Addiction treatment centers
- Counseling services for the hearing impaired
What is the difference between earning an MSW and becoming licensed?
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.