Social workers help others overcome life’s challenges to enhance their well-being. They provide assistance for the betterment of others, especially those who are vulnerable as a result of discrimination, inequality, illness, or other social issues. Their clients come from a variety of backgrounds and may be children, adults, seniors, or entire groups or communities.
Social workers deliver more than 60% of the mental health treatment provided in the United States in a variety of ways:
- Serving veterans and their families
- Working for agencies like the Red Cross
- Working in hospitals, police departments, and nursing homes
The need for social workers is expected to expand significantly over the next ten years, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics projecting that demand for social workers will grow by 12%. This is a result of several trends, including a surge in child service needs, substance abuse, the aging of the population, and more.
What is a Master of Social Work?
A Master of Social Work is an advanced degree that takes between one and two years to complete. It provides a broad background in social policy, research, human behavior, and clinical practice. A social work master’s program can also focus on certain specializations:
- Mental health
- Nonprofit organizations
- Substance abuse
Earning a Master’s Degree in Social Work is also one of the requirements for obtaining licensure as a clinical social worker.
Master of Social Work Salary and Career Outlook - What Can You Do With a Master of Social Work (MSW) Degree?
The vast majority of individuals who choose a career in social work do so for the satisfaction they get from helping others. But having a Social Work Master's is also a smart decision for your bank account as well as job security.
The knowledge and training gained from a Master’s Degree in Social Work can be applied to careers in mental health, criminal justice, public policy, and beyond. The effects of social work can be seen at a one-on-one level through clinical practice or can have an even larger impact when applied to corporate social responsibility, administration, teaching, or research.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for a social worker is $50,390 per year, and the agency predicts 13% growth in the next ten years. Though this is only a projection, it is based on the very real rise of social issues. Here are a few examples:
- The need to support and strengthen parenting skills
- Rising student enrollment in public schools
- The continuing opioid crisis
- Increased use of healthcare
- The aging population
Holding a master’s degree in social work adds significant value when looking for a job and often results in higher compensation. According to the National Association of Social Worker’s National Social Work Workforce Study, those holding an MSW earn average salaries that are $13,000 higher than those with a bachelor’s degree. And by moving beyond hands-on social work into positions in private practice, corporations, administration, or academia, MSW grads have the potential to earn more than $85,820.
Master of Social Work Career Paths
A Master’s Degree in Social Work provides the tools and education needed to help people solve their problems. You’ll identify and assess needs and respond to crises.
Here are some potential jobs that an MSW student can look forward to after graduation.
- Median Salary: $50,390
- Career Outlook: +12% (2020-2030)
Social workers work with individuals, groups, community organizations, and others to provide access to and improve available services. Some social workers are licensed to diagnose and treat mental, behavioral, and emotional disorders.
- Median Salary: $48,860
- Career Outlook: +17% (2020-2030)
Though each role has different responsibilities, both health educators and community health workers provide valuable services to communities in need of support – either by teaching how to improve health and wellbeing, implementing strategies in support of health and wellbeing, or connecting communities in need with the services available to them.
- Median Salary: $60,510
- Career Outlook: +11% (2020-2030)
School and career counselors are valuable parts of the school community. They evaluate students’ abilities and interests, identify issues as they arise, help students to overcome them, as well as guide them through defining and attaining academic, career, and social goals.
Social Worker Salary Data by State
The Bureau of Labor and Statistics asserts that the top five states with the highest average salaries for social workers are California, New York, Illinois, Texas, and Massachusetts. Projected earnings from these states range from $92,999 to $122,000, with over 10,000 positions in the state of California alone.
What to Expect in a Master’s of Social Work Degree Program
A Master’s Degree in Social Work is a two-year advanced degree program that prepares graduates for a career serving others through group social work, community practice, advanced clinical practice, and change initiatives. Programs are available both in-person and online, and in both cases, education is split between coursework and practical fieldwork.
Choosing a career in social work and earning a master’s degree in the field is a reflection of an individual’s values and desire to help others. Though social work is not as financially rewarding as other professions and often exposes those in the field to society’s harshest realities, it also provides the opportunity to make real change in the lives of individuals and communities.
Social Work Master Program Prerequisites
Admission into a Master in Social Work Degree program has similar requirements to those of other advanced degree programs. Though every program has its own specific criteria for admissions, applicants will need to have the following:
- An undergraduate degree from an accredited college or university
- Maintained an average GPA of 3.0 or higher
- School transcripts from previous institutions
- Personal statement
- Letters of recommendation
But most social work programs distinguish themselves by also requiring that applicants demonstrate their readiness and sincere interest in a career as an advocate either through related work experience, volunteer work, or a combination of the two. You’ll need more than just high scores on standardized tests. MSW programs are looking for students to have a real commitment to serving others.
Courses in Master of Social Work Programs
Every Social Work Master's program will have its own curriculum and course load based on the administration’s priorities and the faculty’s areas of interest and expertise. Here are some courses that every MSW student can expect to take:
- Introduction to social work research
- Social work practice
- Human behavior in the social environment
- History and philosophy of social work and social welfare
- Organizations and communities
- Diversity and oppression
- Clinical assessment and diagnosis
- Program and strategic planning
How Long Does It Take to Get a Master of Social Work?
A Master in Social Work generally takes two years to complete but can vary in length based on a few factors:
- Whether a student is taking the program in person or online
- Whether a student is pursuing the degree on a full-time basis or part time
- What previous coursework a student has completed or experience they have prior to entry into the program.
Many MSW programs offer master's or advanced standing for students who have completed a Bachelor’s in Social Work or who have a minimum number of years working full-time in human services.
Social Work Degree Specializations
Social work provides services to many different communities in diverse settings, which allows motivated students to work with a specific focus to select a specialization or practice area that meets their personal interests and passions. These specialties focus on particular demographics or functions, and include:
- Children and families
- Veterans and active military
- Hospice/terminally ill
- Disaster relief
- Domestic abuse
- School counseling
- Substance abuse
- Community organization
- Criminal justice
- Mental health
Selecting a Master of Social Work program is highly personal, but when weighing the advantages and disadvantages of different academic institutions, the one non-negotiable attribute should be accreditation.
Accreditation is bestowed by a variety of agencies that review and evaluate every college and university’s curriculum and program to ensure they meet specific criteria and minimum standards of quality.
Accreditation provides both students and their future employers with assurance that the program of study qualifies graduates to work in their field. It is used to help institutions determine whether to accept transfer credits, to help employers determine eligibility for employee tuition reimbursement, to allow graduates to sit for certification and licensure examinations, and to determine eligibility for federal student financial aid.
The most common accreditation comes from several regional agencies, but in the field of social work, the most recognized accreditation is from the Council on Social Work Education.
Social Work Certification and Licensure
Licensed clinical social workers work in a variety of specialty areas including mental health, public health, medical social work, marriage counseling, and social abuse. They work directly with clients, diagnosing, assessing, and treating the various issues that they confront and connecting them with the services that they need.
Not every social worker will choose to become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), but those who do will need to contact their state or provisional licensing board to learn what benchmarks they need to meet in order to attain that goal. Though every state has its own unique requirements for becoming a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, most will require the attainment of a Master’s Degree in Social Work from an accredited program.
Best programs Offering Master of Social Work Degrees in U.S.
Social Work is a popular area of study, and as a result is offered by many colleges and universities throughout the United States. Every program has its own advantages, and every student has their own specific needs that make a particular school right for them. The following schools offer Master’s Degrees in Social Work programs and offer outstanding programs based on the quality of education, reputation of curriculum and faculty, tuition, and more.
University of Michigan – Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor, Michigan
The Master of Social Work program at University of Michigan – Ann Arbor includes a wide range of areas of concentration:
- Community change
- Global social work practice,
- Interpersonal practice in integrated health
- Mental health
- Substance abuse
- Policy & political social work
- Welfare of children & families
The 60-credit hour degree program can be completed part-time or full time, in person or online. The program can be completed in 45 credit hours if a student has already completed a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work, has three or more years of full-time human services experience, or are alumni of the University of Michigan sociology or human services program.
Washington University in St. Louis, St. Louis, Missouri
The Master of Social Work program at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis is a comprehensive program comprising both course work and field work. Students are able to design their own course of study based on their area of interest, their career goals, and the communities they wish to serve. The program offers the following concentrations:
- American Indian and Alaska Native
- Children, youth and families
- Mental health
- Older adults and aging
- Social & economic development (both domestic and international)
- Social impact leadership
- Violence and injury prevention
Columbia University, New York, NY
The first social work school established in the United States, Columbia School of Social Work, combines real-world practice with academic theory to combine a foundational understanding of social work practice with a specialized focus on the student’s chosen area of concentration. Concentrations include:
- Contemporary social issues
- Family, youth, & children’s services
- Health, Mental Health, & Disabilities
- International social welfare and services to immigrants and refugees
- School-based and school-linked services
- World of work (labor force)
The two-year program consists of a Foundation Year and an Advanced Practice Year, with the first year consisting of studies, practice courses, and field education. During the second year, students take practice courses in their area of concentration, a course in the field of practice, an advanced research course, and field education. The program offers four different method concentrations and two specialized programming tracks and is offered in both an on-campus platform and an online version that allows students to earn their MSW from anywhere in the United States.
University of California – Berkeley, Berkeley, California
UC Berkeley’s Master of Social Welfare program prepares students for leadership and advanced practice positions in social work. It is grounded in social science knowledge, social welfare policies, and social service organizations. The program takes two years to complete and requires a minimum of 54 units. Students can specialize in three different areas:
- Advancing health and well-being across the adult lifespan
- Strengthening children, youth and families
- Strengthening organizations and communities
There are additional options for concurrent degrees in law, public health, and public policy. Students can also pursue multiple certifications or earn their MSW on either an Advanced Standing flex program (available for those with a bachelor’s degree in Social Work) to continue working in the field, or an Extended flex program (available to those whose employment or family obligations won’t permit them to study full time).
University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois
The University of Chicago offers an Artium Magister (Master of Arts) Degree in Social Work, Social Policy, and Social Administration. This combination focuses on policy development, interdisciplinary research, and social science theory. The goal is to empower students in a way that translates into greater career choices and flexibility.
The first-year curriculum introduces direct practice, policy, and research. Students are offered two different academic concentrations:
- A clinical concentration that teaches prevention and treatment with real clients through clinical fieldwork
- A social administration concentration that includes coursework in economics, politics, organization, and delivery of social welfare services
Check out our full ranking of schools that offer social work degrees.
If you’re looking for other schools that offer Master of Social Work programs, check out the Find Your Perfect “U” tool. You can search over 6,000 colleges and universities with 11 different filters to find the perfect school for you!
Skills Learned in a Social Work Master's Degree Program
Social work requires a dedication to lifting others up and helping them help themselves. It is best suited to individuals who have deep levels of empathy and a personal calling to the field. But those traits need to be supported with skills learned through both coursework and field work. Those skills include:
- Verbal and non-verbal communication
- Data collection
- Case management
- Time management
- Critical thinking
- Active listening
- Cultural competence
Next Steps to Earning a Master of Social Work
Students who pursue a Master in Social Work should be aware of the financial aid options that each school offers so they can effectively manage the costs associated with higher education. Most institutions have a dedicated office where students can seek guidance and advise on how to access aid for their classes, housing, and school supplies.
Given the rising cost of higher education and inflation, financial aid and government programs like FAFSA continue to be a relevant topic for discussion for current students and future appilcants.
MSW candidates who need financial assistance to pay for their education will find that there are many private organizations, corporations, nonprofits, and donors that want to support their commitment to helping others. Here are examples of some of the top scholarships available for social work master’s students:
Consuelo W. Gosnell Memorial Scholarship (up to 10 scholarships of up to $4,000 each) – Awarded to MSW candidates with demonstrated commitment to or special affinity for Hispanic/Latino or American Indian/Alaska Native populations. Candidates with a commitment to working with public or voluntary nonprofit agencies or local grassroots groups in the U.S. will also be considered.
Verne LaMarr Lyons Memorial Scholarship (six scholarships in the amount of $4,333) – Awarded to MSW candidates with a demonstrated interest in or experience with health/mental health practice and a commitment to working in African American communities.
Davis-Putter Scholarship Fund (maximum grant is $15,000 per year) – Awarded to people active in movements for social and economic justice and pursuing academic work in support of that goal.
National Association of Junior Auxiliaries – Awarded to people working or planning to work directly with children and pursuing graduate level studies which address the special needs of children and youth
Find other scholarships with our scholarship search tool that allows you to search over 5,000 financial aid awards.
Applying For A Master of Social Work Program
Admission to an accredited Master of Social Work program requires preparation, organization, and attention to detail. Making a checklist of each college and university’s requirements and deadlines is strongly encouraged, particularly as traditional programs have limited enrollment periods and admissions. As in-person curriculums return post-COVID, many students need to consider whether they prefer to take classes in-person or online.
Anyone who applies to to graduate-level programs need to have a bachelor’s degree. MSW programs place a strong emphasis on demonstrated interest in advocacy and community involvement. It is always beneficial for students planning on pursuing graduate degree programs to begin this conversation with their academic advisor to be sure that they posess all the necessary pre-requisite requirements for their desired program.
Pursuing a Master of Social Work is a rewarding route for many students that aim to have a positive impact on the lives of people in their surrounding community. Prospective applicants should be sure to research program cost, timeline to completion, and post-graduation job placement opportunities so they’re well aware of the steps they need to take toward a successful career transition.