Master’s of social work full programs guide

Introduction to social work

Social work is a practice-based profession and an 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.

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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.

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.

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 or locate foster families or work to reunite families.

2019 median annual salary (May 2019): $47,390
Projected growth rate (2018-28): 7%

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.

2019 median annual salary (May 2019): $56,750
Projected growth rate (2018-28): 17%

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.

2019 median annual salary (May 2019): $47,390
Projected growth rate (2018-28): 7%

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.

2019 median annual salary (May 2019): $46,650
Projected growth rate (2018-28): 18%

MSW degree options, licenses and certification

Social workers can be divided into 2 basic types: Non-Clinical and Clinical, and their roles in working with people differ significantly.

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; they 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 two years of supervised work are often called master’s social workers (MSW).

Non-clinical social work:

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 depending on states. Some of these may include:

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 will 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.

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, therapy, and more.

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 supervised experience hours 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 and to have had a minimum of 2 years of supervised clinical experience after graduation. Some LCSW 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.

MSW concentrations and courses

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 with 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?

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, 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.

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.

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, like School Social Work, Psychopathology, Social Policy Analysis and Practice, Social Justice, Child Welfare and 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.

The cost of a 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 a mixture, 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

  • 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.

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.

The number of social workers employed is expected to grow 11% between 2018 and 2028 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The median annual wage for social workers in May 2019 according to the BLS was $50,470.

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 about MSW programs

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

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.

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.

It is possible to earn your MSW, either in person or online, and sometimes a combination of the two. 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 Council on Social Work Education (CSWE).

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 2000 hours 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 enrollment 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 US Military Service, or community aged care organization.

You will complete your field education work at the same time as your classes. The exact schedule will depend on whether you are studying full-time or part-time, your university’s course timetable, and your agency’s hours of operation. Most schools organize 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. Each university varies in how they divide these hours. As a norm, students complete between 300-450 hours during the first or generalist year of their MSW with the balance to be completed in the clinical or concentration year.

The CSWE requires that the generalist field education experience allows students to learn and demonstrate CSWE’s core competencies (e.g., utilizing ethical principles to conduct practice). The advanced field experience then allows students to demonstrate this competence in advanced generalist or clinical environments. CSWE has guidelines that accredited schools of social work must follow in terms of:

  • Selecting field placement settings
  • Monitoring students while on-site
  • Maintaining communication between the university and the field placement site
  • Evaluating student progress
  • Evaluating the effectiveness of the field settings
  • Determining the criteria of qualified field instructors

These ground rules ensure that all MSW students, wherever they study, receive a uniform, high-quality experience in the practical segment of their social work training.

In your foundation year field placement site, you will learn the basics of counseling and theories, experiment with skills and techniques for working with individuals, groups, and families and be asked to demonstrate this knowledge with your clients.

The second year of the MSW program is the concentration year where you will most likely be asked to choose an area of concentration, such as geriatrics, substance abuse, clinical mental health, or social policy. You, and your school’s office of field education, will work together to identify your concentration year field placement. Once there, you will be able to put into practice what you have learned so far, delve deeper with clients, and be given more autonomy in carrying out your work.

In this second year, you can expect to put in more hours than you did the previous year — as many as needed to meet the 900 hours CSWE requires (or possibly more); this will likely include at least 2 full-time (8 hour) days. If you are offered a job before your concentration year begins, you may find your university will allow you to use this site as your field education placement. Not all universities offer this possibility, so if this may be important to you, you will want to research this aspect of your prospective school’s policies.

In general, colleges and universities work with local agencies within a relatively close radius to the campus.

Examples of placements might include:

  • Mental and behavioral health facilities
  • Child and family service agencies
  • Adolescent service agencies
  • Community outreach programs
  • Gerontology services facilities
  • Case management agencies
  • Addiction treatment centers
  • Counseling services for the hearing impaired
  • International social work programs

The agencies and the communities that your university works with play a significant role in this aspect of your MSW studies. While some communities offer a variety of community-based social service programs, some focus on government-funded programs, such as the Department of Children and Families. Areas with higher Latinx populations will have more services geared to Spanish speakers, while other communities may have larger than average senior populations and therefore give more opportunities for rehabilitative care and nursing home settings. It is important to bear this in mind when you are choosing your MSW program. If you know what kind of agency you would like to work in, make sure it is on your prospective school’s list of approved field education sites.

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. A license tells potential employers and clients that not only have been through college, but you have demonstrated a mastery of the material, either by taking an exam, completing a certain number of supervised work hours, or both.

Because 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.

You will need to check your desired state’s laws to see if licensure is required to be employed as a social worker. It is also important that your degree come from a CSWE accredited program. In some states, however, the MSW from a CSWE accredited program is all that is required for employment, so long as you are under the supervision of a more experienced (often licensed) social worker.

Council on Social Work Education

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.

Clinical Social Work Association 

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.

Network of Social Work Management   

an international organization offering free membership to social work, and human services, management staff. The services include professional development workshops, mentorship programs, networking events, and conferences.