Social Work Majors Guide

Table of Contents

What Does it Mean to Study Social Work?

Social work involves assisting families, children, and individuals with social, interpersonal, financial, and medical issues. Earning a social work degree can lead to a career as a social worker or a social and human services assistant. These professionals assess clients' needs and determine what programs or counsel will help them live full, happy lives.

Social workers and assistants have the ability to work with many types of people in a variety of settings. They might work with children and families, older adults, or people with mental illnesses, and be employed in hospitals, nursing homes, substance abuse centers, or government agencies. Their duties often include planning group therapy, assisting clients with applying for social programs, and maintaining accurate client records.

Types of Social Work Degrees

Social work degrees are available at all academic levels, ranging from undergraduate certificates to Ph.D.'s. The most common social work degree programs are the Bachelor's Degree in Social Work (BSW) and the Master's Degree in Social Work (MSW).

In order to legally perform some duties in the field, social workers may be required to attain certain levels of education. Thus, many adults already working in social work choose to further their education online in order to advance their careers. The flexibility of online learning helps working adults earn their degree on a schedule that's convenient for them, allowing them to balance both school and work. The following list describes the types of social work degrees that are available and the corresponding courses students may take as a social work major:

Certificate Programs in Social Work

Those pursuing a certificate in social work can usually expect to complete the program within six to twelve months. Certificate programs present a basic introduction to specific areas of social work and may be a good fit for those who already have experience in the field. Additionally, a certificate could be used as a stepping stone to other undergraduate programs, such as an associate or bachelor's degree in social work. Because they generally focus on specific areas of social work, certificate programs are most commonly used as a compliment to other undergraduate credentials, and pursued by students who wish to specialize in certain types of social work after graduation. Although specific courses vary by specialization and school, some common topics may include:

  • Social Work in Healthcare
  • Introduction to Chemical Dependency
  • Fundamentals of Child Welfare
  • Grant Writing and Management

Associate Degrees in Social Work

An associate degree in social work can help prepare students for an entry-level career as a social or human services assistant. These programs typically take two years to complete and are commonly found at community and technical colleges, as well as online. An associate degree in social work is considered to be excellent preparation for a bachelor's degree program, since courses taken at the associate level can often be credited towards a BSW degree. These degrees usually require students to take both general education courses and courses specific to social work. Students should note that an internship is often required. Core courses may include:

  • Policy and Procedure in Social Services
  • Psychology in Adolescents and Children
  • Death and Dying
  • Introduction to Treatment and Counseling for Addiction

Bachelor's Degrees in Social Work

A bachelor's degree in social work is considered the minimum educational requirement for entry-level social workers. The Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) program usually take four years of full-time study to complete. Students must complete both general education courses and social work specific curriculum prior to graduation. BSW courses often focus on social work ethics, working with diverse populations, social welfare policies, and human growth and development. Most bachelor's degree programs in social work require students to complete an internship before graduation. Courses at this level may include:

  • Fundamentals of Social Justice
  • Statistics for Social Work
  • Social Environments and Human Behavior
  • Social Welfare Programs and Policy

Master's Degrees in Social Work

A master's degree in social work can help prepare students for advanced careers in both the public and private sectors. These programs tend to focus on specific areas of social work, such as clinical social work or policy and advocacy. Programs may be taken on-campus or online, although most require some sort of practical or clinical component that must be completed in person. Upon completion, graduates generally are awarded the Master of Social Work (MSW) degree. Typical course topics include:

  • Advanced Social Welfare Policy
  • Social Work Research
  • Cognitive and Behavioral Treatments
  • Family Therapy
  • Psychotherapy for Adults

Doctoral Degrees in Social Work

Doctoral degrees in social work generally fall under one of two categories: A Ph.D. in Social work or a Doctor of Social Work degree. Graduates of Ph.D. programs generally find work in research or as educators at institutions of higher learning. A Doctor of Social Work degree is suited to those interested in advancing their clinical practice careers. These programs can usually be completed in about three years, and are often earned while maintaining a job in the social work field. Courses vary by degree type and school, but may include:

  • Clinical Management
  • Clinical Practice: Neuroscience
  • Research Ethics in Social Work
  • Methodologies for Research in Social Work

What Can You Do With a College Degree in Social Work?

Becoming a social work major can open the door to a number of exciting and fulfilling careers. After earning a degree in the field, students have a wide variety of career options from which to choose -- although many are dependent upon the type of degree attained. Some of the most common jobs include:

Social and Human Services Assistants

Social and health services assistants work with clients to determine which social programs can assist them. They work in a variety of settings, including hospitals, mental health facilities, group homes, adult day care centers, and private and public service agencies. These professionals are responsible for meeting with clients, assessing their needs, and ensuring that they receive the benefits or programs they require. Duties vary by employment location. In substance abuse centers, a social services assistant may be responsible for running group activities. In a mental health facility, social services assistants may teach life skills to clients or help them make the transition from the facility to a group home.

  • Minimum Educational Requirement: Although not always required, many employers prefer to hire candidates with some type of postsecondary education. An associate degree and/or a social work certificate in a specific area is common.
  • Special Certifications or Licensures: There are no special certifications or licensures needed for social and health services assistants, although work experience or a social work degree may be preferred.

Social Workers

Social workers assist clients with a variety of situations, including housing issues and financial and family problems. They provide emotional support, counsel clients on available and applicable social programs, and attempt to improve the overall quality of their clients' lives. Social workers are found in many settings, including schools, nursing homes, government agencies, and hospitals. Most social workers specialize in one area of the field. Common specializations include child, family, and school social work; gerontology; medical and public health social work; mental health and substance abuse social work; and social work planning and policymaking. Clinical social workers are also trained to diagnose and treat mental, emotional, and behavioral problems.

  • Minimum Educational Requirement: Entry-level positions typically require a bachelor's degree. Clinical social workers must earn a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree, complete two years of supervised clinical training, and be licensed.
  • Special Certifications or Licensures: Non-clinical social workers are required to be licensed in most states. Clinical social workers must complete the necessary educational requirements and be licensed by the state in which they work.

Social and Community Service Managers

Social and community service managers typically begin their careers as social workers and advance with education and experience. They are responsible for creating and overseeing program policies and procedures, as well as managing budgets and staff. These professionals continually assess the effectiveness of their programs and modify them when necessary. Additionally, they often meet with community leaders to discuss fundraising and agency activities. Above all, social work and community service managers must have a desire to create and maintain effective programs for people in need.

  • Minimum Educational Requirement: Although some employers prefer to hire candidates with a master's degree, most positions require at least a bachelor's degree along with extensive work experience in social work. Graduate degrees in business and management can also be helpful.
  • Special Certifications and Licensures: Depending on the type of program they oversee, social and community service managers may need to be licensed by the state in which they work.

Social Work Associations and Organizations

After earning a degree in the field, many social work professionals are required to be licensed. As such, they must complete continuing education requirements in order to maintain their license. Social workers have a variety of places they can turn to for professional support and development. Some associations and organizations include:

  • National Association of Social Workers -- The NASW is a professional association for social workers that advocates on their behalf and provides continuing education support. They also offer voluntary credentials for social work professionals.
  • Clinical Social Work Association -- The CSWA is a professional organization providing professional support and advocacy for clinical social workers. Memberships are available for individual practitioners.
  • Society for Social Work and Research -- The SSWR is dedicated to the advancement and dissemination of social work research. They work closely with other social work organizations, hold an annual conference, and publish their own professional journal.


  1. Social and Community Service Managers, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, Bureau of Labor Statistics, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/management/social-and-community-service-managers.htm
  2. Social and Human Service Assistants, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, Bureau of Labor Statistics, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/social-and-human-service-assistants.htm
  3. Social Workers, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, Bureau of Labor Statistics, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/social-workers.htm

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