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Master of Social Work | Context - Context
Master of Social Work
Master of Social Work In Context

The Master of Social Work is the terminal degree in the social work field, designed to help social workers take on clinical or managerial roles. With nearly 650,000 active, licensed social workers, holding your MSW can be a good way to qualify yourself for career growth. Fifty-nine percent of licensed social workers earn their MSW before they even enter the field. [2]

Exploring the Master of Social Work

A sampling of accredited MSW programs indicates an average of about 60 credit hours required for completion of a traditional MSW if the student does not have a BSW. However, students who previously earned their BSW have the opportunity to take an accelerated track via an advanced standing MSW program, which comprises about 30-36 credit hours and gives students credit for coursework and field hours they previously completed.

To an extent, course offerings and specializations will vary from one MSW degree to the next. However, the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) — the standard for accreditation in social work— identified the following nine Social Work Competencies in its 2015 Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards:

  • Demonstrate Ethical and Professional Behavior
  • Engage Diversity and Difference in Practice
  • Advance Human Rights and Social, Economic, and Environmental Justice
  • Engage in Practice-informed Research and Research-informed Practice
  • Engage in Policy Practice
  • Engage with Individuals, Families, Groups, Organizations, and Communities
  • Assess Individuals, Families, Groups, Organizations, and Communities
  • Intervene with Individuals, Families, Groups, Organizations, and Communities
  • Evaluate Practice with Individuals, Families, Groups, Organizations, and Communities
What is the purpose of the MSW?

The Master of Social Work is designed to help people with their bachelor’s degree in social work or some other discipline achieve a clinical or managerial role in their field. MSW candidates come from a variety of undergraduate backgrounds — only 20% of active social workers earned a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) before earning their MSW. [3] However, advanced standing MSW programs, which require a BSW, offer accelerated learning options.

An MSW can be a valuable credential for those who work (or aspire to work) in a number of specialties. The six most common primary practice areas for licensed social workers are: [4]

  • Mental Health
  • Health
  • Child Welfare/Family
  • Aging
  • School Social Work
  • Adolescents
Why earn an MSW?

Individuals choose to pursue an online Master of Social Work for reasons that may be based in ambition, altruism, or financial gain. Motivations include:

  • Earning potential
    Individuals with a social work master’s degree as their highest level of education earn a median salary of $55,000, while those with a BSW as their highest level of education earn about $15,000 less. [5]
  • Licensure/Certification
    A Master of Social Work is required for clinical licensure. Approximately 47% of all licensed social workers are clinically licensed. [6] An MSW is also required for advanced generalist licensure and other forms of licensure, which vary by state.
  • Career Advancement
    All clinical roles require an MSW degree, and many employers also require an MSW for non-clinical administrative roles.
  • Career Shift
    A Master of Social Work can facilitate a move to a different profession. For example, an MSW is likely required for any social work job related to health care — a pool of more than 155,000 jobs in 2015. [7]
  • Job Security
    Social workers are projected to experience 12% job growth from 2014 to 2024, a rate that’s nearly double the average for all professions. [8] An MSW can improve graduates’ candidacy for new opportunities in the field.
  • Commitment to Service
    An MSW degree can help you have a greater impact on more lives by a) allowing you to reach a position of influence and b) providing the specialized knowledge to be successful in such a role.
How do I choose a Master of Social Work program?

Consider all information at your disposal, paying special attention to factors that affect your power to seek better jobs, attain licensure or certification, earn more money, or receive a quality education that’s rooted in your interests. These factors include:

  • Accreditation
    The Council for Social Work Education (CSWE) is the national standard for MSW degree program accreditation. In most states, a CSWE-accredited degree is required for licensure.
  • Faculty
    All MSW faculty teaching practice will hold an MSW from a CSWE-accredited program and have a minimum of two years of experience in the field. Ideally, faculty will also have expertise in the area in which you wish to specialize.
  • Delivery Method
    Pursue your Master of Social Work online, on campus, or in a hybrid environment depending on which modality will be most conducive to success based on your circumstances.
  • Program Length
    Decide whether you want to attend classes part-time or full-time and consider the number of credit hours, prescribed completion time, and required field placement hours, which give you an opportunity for real-world experience.
  • Cost
    For each online social work degree you’re considering, weigh the cost of tuition and fees against the return you expect on your investment and investigate any loans, scholarships, or grants that may be available.
  • Curriculum and Specializations
    Seek out online MSW programs with coursework that’s directly relevant to your goals and interests. The 10 most common specializations for MSW programs are: [9]

    • Clinical
    • Advanced Generalist
    • Children or Youth
    • Mental Health
    • Administration
    • Aging or Multigenerational
    • Community
    • Family
    • School Social Work
    • Health
  • Success of Previous Students
    Compare the graduation rates and job placement rates of all MSW programs you’re considering.
  • School/Program Caliber
    Consider regional and national rankings from reputable sources, such as U.S. News & World Report, for the schools and programs you’re considering.
What is social work?

Social work is a profession that is dedicated to helping improve the wellbeing of both individuals, our communities and our society as a whole. Much of social work tends to focus on assisting vulnerable populations; however, the profession takes many forms. A distinguishing characteristic of all social work, and what sets it apart from other helping professions, is its emphasis on working directly with people in their environment. There is also an overarching commitment to social justice.

Areas of practice

Common areas of social work practice include but are not limited to:

  • Mental health, addiction, treatment, and intervention services
  • Adoption, foster care, and child protective services
  • Family preservation and domestic violence services
  • Homeless and housing services
  • Health, wellness and disease prevention, and education services
  • School, community, or military-based social work
  • Services for persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities
  • Services for older adults and hospice care
  • Advocacy, faith-based services, and social justice services
  • Nonprofit management and support

Who is this degree for?

The Master of Social Work is for those who want to build their career in social work and obtain social work licensure. MSW candidates come from a variety of undergraduate backgrounds — only 20% of active social workers earned a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) before earning their MSW. [3] However, advanced track MSW programs require a BSW.

An MSW can also be a great way to develop practice in a specific area of social work such as mental health, health care, child welfare, family, education, addiction, disabilities and aging. Earning an MSW can also help students figure out where they would physically like to practice. There are many options for advanced social work careers, including private practice, community-based organizations, nonprofit organizations, government, hospitals, and more.

Things to consider before choosing an online MSW program

Asynchronous or synchronous

By the nature of online learning, most online MSW programs will be asynchronous. This means that you are able to complete your reading, discussions and assignments at a time that is convenient for you. Synchronous programs require you to be online at certain times for lectures or discussions. This is something to which you should pay close attention when choosing your MSW program.

Cohort or non-cohort

Your cohort consists of your classmates. During some MSW programs, you will stay with the same classmates throughout the entire program — from the first class through graduation. In non-cohort programs, you will be introduced to new students each with course, depending on your electives and what order classes are chosen in.

Experiential learning

All CSWE-accredited MSW programs will require at least 900 field work hours, of which 400 will have been completed if the student previously earned a BSW. Whether it’s called field experience, an internship, or something else, be prepared to spend time working with individuals in their environment. Sometimes this may be completed in your current job, while in other instances you will have to make time outside of work to participate in hands-on learning opportunities.

Master of Social Work Career Advancement

Social work career outlook

The current state of the social work field is strong. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were more than 649,000 jobs in 2014. [22] Between 2014 and 2024, the occupational growth rate is expected to be 12% — faster than the average for all U.S. jobs.

Social work career salaries

A graduate degree can increase earning potential across various social work careers. Those with MSW degrees earn a median base salary of $55,000, while those with a BSW degree earn a median base salary of $40,000. [23]

According to data compiled by PayScale, salary ranges will vary depending on the specific area of social work in which you choose to focus your career after earning your master’s degree: [24]

  • Licensed Clinical Social Worker: $41,029-$75,289
  • Mental Health Therapist: $34,171-$56,236
  • Medical Social Worker: $41,195-$66,672
  • Clinical Social Worker: $38,979-$70,871
Master of Social Work Curriculum

The Master of Social Work degree is the most common educational level for licensed social workers in the United States. In 2014, there were more than 37,000 full-time students enrolled in MSW programs, based on survey data from the Council on Social Work Education’s 2014 Annual Statistics on Social Work Education in the United States. [10]

How many courses are required?

Completion time for your online Master of Social Work degree program depends on multiple factors. The biggest contributor to how long a program will take is the total number of credit hours and courses. Other key factors to consider are the hours required for your field placement, how many courses are required per semester, the availability of courses (which can limit when you can acquire the credits), projects required for each course, and so on.

Keep in mind that how many courses you take per semester can affect the overall cost of a program. Consider how quickly the school expects typical students to complete the graduate program and compare that with your schedule.

The total number of courses can vary depending on the institution, the track, and the program. Most online Master of Social Work programs will be between 16 and 20 courses. The average is nearly 19 courses required for graduation. [25]

What should I look for from an MSW curriculum?

It’s important to make sure the MSW program you choose includes coursework that’s relevant to your professional goals. While most MSW core curriculum is standardized based on the Council on Social Work Education criteria, your chosen electives and area of concentration should be defined by your desired primary practice area. Some of the most common include:

  • Mental Health
  • Health
  • Child Welfare/Family
  • Aging
  • School Social Work
  • Adolescents
  • Addictions
  • Developmental Disabilities
  • Higher Education
  • Occupational Social Work

When choosing an MSW program, identify a curriculum that fits into these specialties and connect its courses with your intended career path.

Core courses

MSW programs will structure their curricula into core and non-core courses. Core courses are imperative for your overall education. Non-core courses focus on specialized content or are considered electives. Many core courses are common to all MSW programs, while electives can be more unique and allow students to select which topics they take.

Core courses in a Master of Social Work program are primarily focused on the following subjects:

Social work practice

Broad overview of social work in practice. Students are expected to understand the history of social work and recognize issues in the field upon completion.

Human behavior

Analysis of human behavior as it pertains to social work. Students are expected to be able to understand, empathize with, or assess human behavior upon completion.

Social welfare

Overview of social welfare policies and social welfare in the U.S. Upon completion, students are expected to understand and analyze social welfare efforts and policies.

Research and policy

Exploration of social work research methods and social work policies past and present. Upon completion, students are expected to have more advanced research methods and a better understanding of policies.

Field placement

Hands-on job training and experiential learning in a social work profession. Students are expected to have honed their abilities and gained first-hand experience upon completion.

Electives in MSW programs

Social work curricula can cover a wide variety of subjects. MSW electives typically cover:

  • Family issues
  • Gender studies
  • Ethnicity and immigration
  • Crime
  • Health care
  • Financial literacy of clients
  • Client employment issues
  • Research

Why would I choose an elective?

Electives are an additional tool to hone your expertise and knowledge in a particular subset of social work. Many students will choose electives that align with their desired career path, or that provides complementary educational and informative services.

For example, in 2014 there were:

  • 115,700 community health workers. [14] Students who want to become a community health worker would typically opt for electives in health care, research, and social welfare over crime or family issues.
  • 168,200 mental health counselors. [15] Students who want to become mental health counselor would take a similar approach, choosing health-related electives along with any connection to mental health.
  • 91,000 correctional treatment specialists. [16] Students who want to become a correctional treatment specialist would choose electives focused on crime, social policies, ethnicities, and gender studies, among others.

Concentrations and specializations

Depending on the online MSW degree program you choose, you may be offered the opportunity to select a concentration or specialization. While the term concentration is more commonly used, these are simply two words for the same opportunity to direct the focus of your studies.

If applicable, the concentration or specialization you choose will dictate which courses you take. A concentration can help you specialize your practice and the direction of your career.

The most popular MSW concentration in 2014 was clinical, according to a poll by the Council on Social Work Education. The study indicated that more than 14,000 students were enrolled in clinical concentrations. [17]

  • Advanced generalist was the second-most popular concentration, with roughly 5,700 students.
  • Mental health concentrations had nearly 2,900 students.
  • Children or youth concentrations had about 2,400 students.

Overall, there were 23 concentrations included in the CSWE annual study with nearly 40,000 enrolled students.

Do I need a concentration?

While concentrations are the most common path for MSW graduate students, they aren’t always a requirement. Certain programs offer general MSW degrees, in which students enroll in courses covering a wide range of social work fields and subjects.

The advanced generalist concentration is similar to this educational path, as enrolled students learn about social work as it relates to both individuals and communities, with a look at both small-scale and large-scale social work initiatives. Graduates of these programs will typically have knowledge of clinical social work in addition to non-clinical work.

For more information regarding clinical and non-clinical social work, please review our section on the topic below.

A snapshot of 5 concentrations

One of the positive aspects of most online MSW degree programs is that you can tailor your education and learning opportunities to match your your career goals. For many, that is done through a mix of electives and concentrations.

For more details, let us examine five common social work degree program concentrations:

  • Clinical:
    A clinical focus is all about working with people. The most common clinical social worker role by employment is child, family, and school social workers, comprising more than 305,000 jobs. [18] Clinical social workers as a whole will interact directly with patients to provide custom levels of care. Patients can range from families to individual children or adults, either in medical or non-medical settings. Students will focus on human rights issues, social justice, welfare, and similar topics. An MSW is required for all clinical careers.
  • Mental health:
    The mental health concentration is another area of specialization under the clinical umbrella. Within it, social workers are directly involved with patients to address mental health challenges. The curriculum also covers mental health theory, crisis intervention, and substance abuse. Many students end up working closely in therapy, case management, crisis intervention, trauma, and other related organizations.
  • Families and children:
    This concentration takes a counseling approach to social work, as students will train to interact directly with families and children. The overall goal is to improve the welfare and health of families and children. There are a few ties into other concentrations as well. Students will learn about mental health, substance abuse, and various issues through the lens of families and children.
  • Community:
    This concentration looks at communities as a whole and gives social workers the skills to create actionable change in their neighborhoods. Unlike other concentrations that focus on an individual or a family, community concentrations analyze large groups of people at once. The goal is to bring them together to impart positive change. The curriculum includes community-focused core classes, including theory, community organizing, and intervention.
  • Substance abuse:
    While other concentrations address substance abuse in the overall scope of a different specialization, this concentration moves substance abuse to the forefront, focusing on individuals or small groups. Careers include substance abuse counselors or addiction social workers. Substance abuse students learn theory, psychology, and how to organize counseling sessions, among other skills. Many students also learn and practice administrative duties related to substance abuse.

What are the overall learning goals?

The learning goals for an MSW curriculum can be broken into two common areas: foundational elements and experiential learning opportunities.

  • The foundational elements of an MSW curriculum are designed to build on core competencies. Students should develop an advanced understanding of the field, policy, and social work theory. Learning goals include a deeper understanding of human behavior, social welfare, and the development of advanced research practices.
  • Experiential learning opportunities depend on a student’s area of specialization but typically revolve around the implementation of social work methods and concepts through practical application. Learning goals involve developing advanced social work practice techniques through hands-on opportunities in the field.

Clinical vs. non-clinical

Your Master of Social Work curriculum will likely be broken up into two main types of courses: clinical courses and non-clinical courses.

  • Clinical courses involve direct patient involvement, with students learning about substance abuse, mental health, family conflict, and much more.
  • Non-clinical courses do not involve direct patient involvement, instead addressing administrative, consulting, or select research applications.

Experiential learning and field placement

Field placement or experiential learning gives students the opportunity to practice what they learn in a real world setting. This hands-on learning opportunity prepares students for the actual challenges they will face during their social work career. Most MSW programs will require a field placement experience that is related to your social work profession as part of the curriculum. It may be your first taste of what a career at this level is like. You’ll also get to shadow tenured professionals and perform duties critical to the job.

Therefore, field placement may help you:

  • Decide if you like that specific career path
  • Gain valuable work experience prior to graduation
  • Learn hands-on skills and techniques
  • Prepare for a career in social work

Field placement is your out-of-the-classroom learning. All Council on Social Work Education-accredited programs are required to provide a minimum of 900 hours of field placement for master-level programs. [19]

As a result, social work field placement is a key part of any online MSW program, and requirements may vary by program. Review our FAQs for more details on field placement, and check with your desired program for any specific requirements or information.

Master of Social Work Program Length

The length of an online master’s degree program can depend on a number of variables, perhaps the most prominent of which is the pace at which you choose to study. You can finish a typical master’s degree program in about two to three years if you choose to study full-time, although some accelerated programs may be able to help you finish more quickly.

Online master’s degree programs tend to offer flexibility suitable for students who choose to study part-time. This option will likely extend your time to completion, but it can allow you to study while fulfilling your familial, social, and professional obligations.

You can find more information on this topic at our program length overview page.

How many courses are required?

Your program’s composition will vary, but likely components of the curriculum include required or core courses, elective courses, and a capstone or experiential learning option.

Even within a particular school’s degree program, the number of courses required may vary based on the concentration you choose, your prior work experience, your number of transfer credits, or other such factors.

Master of Social Work Admission Requirements

While each program will set its admission requirements based on its own criteria, many requirements are universal across all programs. No matter where you apply, you can expect to provide items like transcripts from previous degrees or coursework; standardized test scores; a personal statement or essay; letters of recommendation; and an overview of relevant work experience.

In certain cases, some of these requirements may be waived.

For more information about admissions, please visit our admission requirements page.

Traditional vs. advanced tracks

There are typically two types of MSW programs: traditional and advanced standing. Traditional tracks are designed for students who have not yet earned their BSW. Advanced standing programs allow students who have previously earned their BSW to utilize prior credits, work experience, or other assets in order to shorten the time to completion.

Most programs will have unique admission requirements, including:

  • Possession of a bachelor’s degree
  • Completion of mathematics courses, including statistics
  • Completion of research methods courses

Admission requirements for advanced standing degree programs are the same as they are for traditional programs, except that advanced standing programs also require you to hold a BSW.

Master of Social Work Alternative Degrees/Fields of Study

Social work is a broad field of practice that interconnects with a variety of other professions and industries. Some alternatives include therapy, education, public policy, law, corrections, and more.

Some alternative degrees that my interest you include:

Master of Public Health (MPH)

Focuses on educating and improving health conditions for individuals and communities. The MPH prepares students with the knowledge needed to help them assume leadership roles in government and health organizations.

Master of Psychology

A degree focused on helping students become highly specialized in a particular area of psychology such as mental health.

Master of Public Policy

An advanced degree focused on providing training in policy analysis and evaluation. Graduates should be prepared to lead policy reform in a variety of organizations or government positions.

Master of Sociology

An advanced degree focused on human society and social behavior through research and examination of groups, cultures, institutions, and more.

Master of Social Work Accreditation Overview

Regional accreditation is the most prestigious type of accreditation that an online or traditional college or university can receive. It is granted only after careful consideration by private, not-for-profit organizations tasked with evaluating educational quality.

Regional accreditation is particularly important if you anticipate that you might want to transfer credits from one online MSW degree program to another or use those credits to pursue another degree. Most regionally accredited schools will only accept credits from other regionally accredited institutions of higher learning.

You can learn more on this topic at our regional accreditation page.

Council on Social Work Education Commission on Accreditation (CSWE)

Social work accreditation is awarded by the Council on Social Work Education Commission on Accreditation.

CSWE COA accreditation is an important, if not the most important, characteristic to look for when researching an MSW degree program, as most states will require social workers to have either an undergraduate or graduate degree from a CSWE-accredited program in order to obtain state licensure.

The CSWE COA accredits schools and individual social work programs at both the baccalaureate and master’s levels. Eligibility requirements for universities include the baseline regional accreditation noted above and a field placement: application of theory to real-world practices of at least 400 hours for a bachelor’s-level program and 900 hours for a master’s-level program.

CSWE accreditation is the industry standard for a social work degree.

Licensure and Certification Overview

Why is licensure important?

Social work licensure is a critical component of your potential career. There are more than 310,000 licensed social workers [20] in the United States. The Council on Social Work Education’s 2014 annual poll found that 53.6 percent of the faculty they surveyed were licensed [21], which means that, on average, more than half of the faculty in an online MSW program will be licensed as well.

Licensure is important because it is a requirement for certain social work positions, including clinical roles and advanced generalist roles. A standard rule is that if your position involves direct patient involvement, you will need to be licensed to practice.

The location of your licensing board will dictate the requirements, as there are regional licensing boards. According to the Association of Social Work Boards, licensure is contingent upon several overarching factors: [36]

  • Bachelor’s-level licensure:
    A bachelor’s degree in social work is required.
  • Master’s-level licensure:
    A master’s degree in social work is required, but no post-graduation work experience is required.
  • Advanced generalist licensure:
    Two years of supervised work experience are required following graduation from an MSW program.
  • Clinical licensure:
    Two years of direct clinical social work experience are required following graduation from an MSW program.

Specific licensure titles include: [35]

  • Licensed Bachelor Social Worker (LBSW)
  • Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW)
  • Licensed Independent Social Worker (LISW)
  • Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LISW)
  • Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
Master of Social Work State Authorization Overview

State authorization is an often-overlooked part of the decision process. In simple terms, authorization means the school is compliant with state education laws and is legally allowed to admit students in your state. You need to select a program that is authorized to admit students to online programs in your state as well.

A degree from a noncompliant school is rare, but it would invalidate your degree and prevent you from obtaining licensure. Furthermore, there are additional authorization requirements for programs that offer an experiential learning component.

State authorization is managed through the National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements, or NC-SARA. SARA is a key player in state authorization for online graduate programs. This agency creates a national education standard for member states. The goal is a uniform, quality education experience for students across the country.

SARA has valuable resources for students, including:

  • A list of institutions that participate in SARA agreements
  • A map of all SARA states and non-SARA states

States that are currently not members of SARA include:

  • California
  • Connecticut
  • Florida
  • Massachusetts
  • New Jersey
  • New York
The History of Social Work

Prior to the 19th century, there was no formal profession or field called social work. The responsibilities of helping those in need were typically taken on by the church or often overlooked completely. It wasn’t until the industrial revolution and the birth of cities and governments as we know them that social welfare services began to take shape. During this time much of social work practice revolved around issues associated with poverty and the people afflicted by it.

Today social workers take a much more holistic approach to helping others and their communities that goes far beyond poverty. Many social workers will work directly with individuals, families or smaller groups and focus on issues such as abuse, addiction, health, mental illness and more. Others will work with larger populations that include entire neighborhoods and communities to create more widespread reform. Still others find they can best create change by working within the government and nonprofit organizations to promote and reform law and public policy. Social work is a truly diverse profession connected by each social worker’s desire to help change and improve the world around him/her. [34]

Master of Social Work Tuition and Fees Overview

There are a number of factors that can greatly affect how much your education will cost. These include whether you attend a public or private institution; whether you attend as an in-state or out-of-state student; and whether you qualify for financial aid like grants or scholarships.

For a more detailed breakdown of tuition, fees, and other financial issues, please visit our tuition and fees page.

Scholarships and grants

According to a 2014 CSWE report, 79% of MSW students graduate with student loan debt. Among these graduates, the median amount of loan debt is $40,616. [26] In an effort to mitigate student loan debt, be sure to explore all available MSW scholarship and grant opportunities, including but not limited to:

  • The Verne LaMarr Lyons Memorial MSW Scholarship
  • The Carl A. Scott Memorial Fund
  • The Frank W. Putnam Trauma Research Scholars Program
  • The Davis-Putter Scholarship Fund
  • The Consuelo W. Gosnell Memorial MSW Scholarship
  • The Osman Award
  • The Holm Award

Loan forgiveness

Certain states participate in loan forgiveness programs like the State Loan Repayment Program, which assists social workers employed in Health Professional Shortage Areas (HPSAs). [37] There are also federal programs such as the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSFL) Program, which may forgive an MSW graduate’s remaining balance after 10 years of qualifying payments. [38]

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

No, but many institutions offer advanced standing programs for those students who have earned a BSW.

An MSW is a requirement for the majority of social work jobs, and is a licensure requirement for all clinical and advanced generalist social workers. There are, however, a number of entry-level and direct-service roles, such as licensed bachelor social worker and licensed social worker, that are available to professionals with a BSW but no MSW.

Very much so. Nine out of 10 members of the National Association of Social Workers have a Master of Social Work. [27]

Key attributes include accreditation, faculty, delivery method, program length, cost, curriculum, available specializations, graduation rate, job placement rate, and rankings.

Yes. The advanced track programs listed by the Council on Social Work Education range from 24 to 40 credit hours, with an average of 33 credit hours. Standard track MSW programs may take several semesters longer to complete.

Yes. In fact, data indicate that many MSW graduates are “extremely satisfied” with their job, reporting a job satisfaction rate of 5 out of 5. [28]

Potentially, yes. CSWE accreditation is the industry standard and offers your MSW a level of credibility that non-accredited programs may not match. Further, most states will require social workers to have either an undergraduate or graduate degree from a CSWE-accredited program to obtain state licensure.

While CSWE accreditation is extremely important, regional accreditation is also worth your consideration. There are a number of regional accrediting organizations that oversee higher education institutions in their areas:

Middle States Commission of Higher Education (MSCHE)
New England Association of Schools and Colleges Commission on Institutions of Higher Education (NEASC-CIHE)
Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC)
Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)
Higher Learning Commission (HLC)

The Clinical specialization is the most common, offered by 32% of CSWE-accredited MSW programs. [29]

There are. These are the foundation for any graduate degree in social work. Most programs require students to have completed a research class, a basic social work class, and a statistics class. In addition, the CSWE requires that students complete a human biology course.

Programs with concentrations will require students to take unique classes. For example, students with clinical focuses will have more patient-based classes. While the core foundational courses — along with prerequisites — will remain the same, concentrations will tweak your curriculum to fit your focus.

Advanced standing curricula do not require students to take the foundational courses or complete the generalist field experiences that they completed during their BSW program. Traditional programs do require students to complete these components. However, once students in the traditional program complete their generalist field work and foundational courses, their program is equivalent to an advanced standing program. The CSWE mandates that advanced standing students are not required to retake any course he or she took in a BSW program.

Look for an online MSW curriculum that suits your needs. Pick one that has a specialization that aligns with your career goals, should you know what you want to do. Find a curriculum that also fits your schedule or helps you get one step closer to licensure or career advancement. There are many online MSW programs available, so identify the one that works for you.

The broad learning goals for an MSW online curriculum are broken into two sections: foundation and concentration. Foundational goals are to build a core competency in social work and grow a baseline understanding of the field. For example, learn the history of social work, concepts of human behavior, social welfare, and research basics.

Concentration goals build on top of that foundation. Students will have the opportunity to learn advanced social work methods, acquire on-the-job training, and, depending on concentration, acquire clinical or non-clinical experience.

Asynchronous coursework can be completed on your own time — a big plus for many online graduate students who may be working around a busy work schedule or home life. Synchronous coursework has to be completed within a set timeframe. This is typically done for group projects, seminars, presentations, and other learning initiatives that require multiple attendees.

The elements of asynchronous and synchronous learning in your online program depend on the professor and the course. Once you enroll, reach out to teachers for specifics, but remember that the curriculum may be divided into these two subsets.

General MSW programs provide students a comprehensive learning experience. Students in these programs touch on all of the concentrations in smaller doses, helping them receive a well-rounded education. On the other hand, picking a concentration helps to give students an advantage in that specific career path, but they likely won’t develop as much knowledge about other specific areas of social work.

A clinical focus deals directly with patients. Administrative works one step removed, as students train to become managers, administrators, and back-office employees. Systemic social workers focus on macro issues in the field, including research and theory.

Clinical programs include those focused on substance abuse, mental health, families and children, and any other concentration where students work with patients.

Some programs offer administration concentrations or community development concentrations. If you’re hoping to approach social work from an administrative perspective, look for concentrations that include words like “administration,” “policy,” “organization,” and “planning.”

Systematic programs look at the macro trends in social work. Community-related programs can fall into this category, as can any theory or research program. Systemic social workers also look at large-scale social policy change.

The most in-demand social work concentrations tend to be clinical. When working with patients, social workers must adhere to stricter guidelines, requirements, and licensure. Therefore, these concentrations are in-demand because they are mandatory for clinical licensure.

The available field work positions depend on your program or your state, so check with your school for definitive information. In general, approved positions are located within:

State and government agencies
Hospitals and other medical facilities
Community organizations
Mental health and substance abuse facilities
Correctional facilities

The right placement can be a fantastic differentiator as you search for postgraduate jobs. Plus, field placement is a key component of all accredited graduate degrees.

All students are required to complete at least 900 hours of field placement for any CSWE-accredited program. Students who previously earned their BSW will already have completed 400 of those hours, leaving 500 hours to be completed in the advanced standing program.

All CSWE-accredited programs require experiential learning. That may vary for non-accredited programs because their curricula do not conform to industry guidelines.

Paid work is rare. Some programs offer small payments for special circumstances, but the majority of placements are unpaid, only counting toward course credit.

No, in nearly all instances. The majority of programs prefer field placement in different organizations. In some cases, you may be able to take a different job in the company where you currently work, but this is rare as well. Consult with your program.

Many regional licensing boards require an MSW degree for licensure. Review the Association of Social Work Boards’ list of state-by-state requirements for information specific to your state. Given that all CSWE-accredited programs require at least 900 hours of field placement for graduation, field placement is a core component of licensure .

The cost is built into the overall price of the degree. There is not typically an extra charge for field placement, other than incidental expenses such as out-of-pocket travel costs and similar expenses.

All states require an MSW for licensure for the majority of careers, but there are several roles that don’t. Examples include the licensed bachelor social worker and licensed social worker, both of which can be achieved with a BSW.

Clinical programs work directly with patients. Therefore, all clinical social work positions require an MSW for licensure. MSW licenses may be granted for some non-clinical roles with only a bachelor’s degree, due to the removal of hands-on patient interaction.

The ASWB explains that states’ regulatory boards typically require a degree from a CSWE-accredited program to obtain licensure.

Yes, only if you pursue licensure for a bachelor’s or lower position. Most master’s-level careers will require a CSWE-accredited MSW degree for licensure, although a few states may grant licensure to candidates who graduated from an MSW program that lacks CSWE accreditation.

Without licensure, your career opportunities are non-clinical work or lower-level positions than those with licensure. Non-clinical social work can still be immensely rewarding, however. Positions typically focus on macro-level issues, such as policy changes; social services in communities, states, or the entire country; and administrative and research roles.

The majority of social work positions require a graduate degree, including all clinical roles. Only in some states can select lower-tier social worker positions accept candidates with baccalaureate degrees alone.

All clinical positions require licensure, as do the majority of roles in this profession. See our licensure section for more details.

Opportunities abound across the country. Based on BLS data, Montana has the highest concentration of social work jobs per thousand jobs, though this is likely due to the low concentration of residents. [30] Also high on the list are South Carolina, New York, and Oregon. A location like New York has the population density to provide a more urban environment in which to practice. Overall, social workers are in high demand, and the career outlook is positive.

Yes. Traditional programs require more field placement hours and take longer to complete than advanced standing programs, because advanced standing students already have some 400 field placement hours from earning their BSW.

Traditional MSW programs take two, three, or four years to complete, depending on whether you attend full-time or part-time. Your average MSW online program length requires around 60 credit hours for completion, usually between nine and 12 credit hours per semester for full-time students. In addition, students will be expected to complete a minimum of 900 hours of field placement for a CSWE-accredited MSW degree, as outlined by the council’s Commission on Accreditation standards.

It can. Certain CSWE-accredited programs offer some options that are self-paced until field work starts, but even those come with a required timeline for completion.

Since advanced track students already have credits toward their degree, many can complete programs in around 12 to 14 months. This is significantly quicker than the shortest traditional track completion time, which is around two years.

Tuition can vary significantly based on a number of factors. Among a sampling of accredited online master’s programs, the average cost of tuition was $49,520.

Yes. Tuition does not include the cost of books or additional fees. These additional costs will vary from program to program.

Generally, yes. While your cost-per-credit may or may not be the same, advanced track programs usually require fewer credits, so they tend to cost less overall than traditional track programs.

There are grant and scholarship opportunities for MSW students. You can work with your program of choice to be connected with grants and scholarships, or you can apply for consideration from a number of organizations like the following:

The Verne LaMarr Lyons Memorial MSW Scholarship
The Carl A. Scott Memorial Fund
The Frank W. Putnam Trauma Research Scholars Program
The Davis-Putter Scholarship Fund
The Consuelo W. Gosnell Memorial MSW Scholarship
The Osman Award
The Holm Award

Yes. The federal government and certain states participate in loan forgiveness programs for qualifying social workers.

This ties into the difference between advanced and traditional standings. The longer completion time in traditional tracks allows non-BSW students to graduate. Advanced tracks require that prior social work experience or credits, so you’ll likely need a BSW.

Many advanced track programs require work experience because it demonstrates that the candidates already have knowledge in the field. Furthermore, some experience — such as fieldwork undertaken during BSW coursework — can count toward MSW requirements, allowing the student to complete the MSW degree in a shorter period of time.

If you wish to enter an advanced standing program, your BSW must come from a program with CSWE accreditation. Otherwise, certain programs have different requirements, along with regional accreditation boards. Your admissions requirements will likely change, though. Instead of a CSWE-accredited baccalaureate degree, you may be required to have social work experience prior to admission.

Because social work touches so many different parts of communities, the field has remained open to students who hold any bachelor’s degree. In fact, many schools do not offer a BSW, but do offer an MSW. There are many undergraduate degrees that provide students with a good foundation for social work, including, but not limited to, psychology, sociology, health sciences, public health, education, and criminal justice.

There are. The regional accreditation commissions and the CSWE are based in the United States. You’ll encounter other accreditations if you look at social work programs outside this country. For example, Canada has the Canadian Association for Social Work Education, which acts in a similar capacity.

Accredited programs are, in general, more prestigious, reputable, and respected than programs that lack accreditation. Odds are your quality of education will be higher here than at a non-accredited program. Accreditation is also important for licensure, which will make you legally able to hold a number of social work jobs. This can make you more attractive to employers. As noted in a HireRight survey of thousands of HR professionals, 84 percent reported issues with candidates’ resumes when doing employment screening. It is not unheard of for graduates to elaborate their education histories on their resumes. [33]

It’s possible. You may be exempt from licensure for a number of positions, and you may have fewer job prospects, but you still have the potential to be employed. Many positions open to students who did not graduate from an accredited program will closely mirror baccalaureate opportunities, so it is worth finding a program with the proper accreditations.

Graduate from an accredited program and your degree will remain accredited — because the curriculum at the time of your graduation was accredited.

It is. The CSWE is the industry standard because it has decades of experience in the field — founded in 1952 — and works with more than 2,500 schools in both undergraduate and graduate programs.

Yes and no. From a pure accreditation standpoint, there are only “accredited” and “non-accredited” programs; there is no grading scale. However, there are other factors that go into ranking a program, such as curriculum, faculty tenure, cost, reputation, graduation rate, and job placement rate, among others. These may differ vastly from program to program.

Not every state is a SARA member. Through SARA, member states only have to receive authorization in their home state. Without SARA, non-member states would have to receive authorization in their home state and the state of each of their online students, which complicates the process of creating and maintaining a viable online program. [32]

Every school has a department or team responsible for online education. This department will be able to answer questions regarding compliance for your home state.

States that are currently not members of SARA include:

New Jersey
New York

An alternative degree is designed to help you hone your skills toward a very specific career. Think pairing public health with a career as a hospital social worker, or law with a career as a social justice lobbyist. You need to know which career you want and be sure of that choice.

Non-social work degrees can grant you social work licensure for some bachelor-level positions. An MSW is required for the majority of roles.