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Social workers dedicate their professional lives to strengthening communities and individuals. They work for social justice and support people facing challenges such as poverty, substance abuse, domestic conflict, gender or race discrimination, or medical conditions. As a social worker, you may lend a hand directly as part of a nonprofit or government social service agency, or make a difference at the public policy level.

No matter which path you choose, the master of social work (MSW) degree offers the applied social science training to get you there. The standard qualification for careers in social work, the degree generally requires two years of post-baccalaureate work. It is widely available in digital format for professionals who want to earn a master's degree online.'s guide to the MSW and other master's degrees in social work takes you through your options and helps you prepare for your graduate education. Build a foundation for success now, and you'll emerge ready to create a better tomorrow for people in need.

Guide to Master's Degrees in Social Work

The master's degree in social science in social work combines social sciences education with applied training in areas such as policy research and services administration. The field of social work engages social science disciplines such as sociology, criminology, psychology, and political science. Practical skills crucial to effective social work include counseling, public administration and development, policy advocacy, and public health education.

Master's Degree Options

The standard graduate credential in social work is the professional Master of Social Work, or MSW. The MSW generally requires two years of graduate study and a minimum of 900 hours of supervised field instruction or internship. The hands-on training component covers case management, clinical assessment, and administrative roles such as supervising personnel or strategic planning. The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), which approves MSW programs, listed nearly 200 programs on its 2009 roster.

In addition to the professional master's degree, some colleges and universities offer a Master of Science in Social Work (MS or MSSW) or a Master of Arts. These programs are also professional degrees meeting the standards set by the CSWE, and are therefore largely indistinguishable from the MSW degree. All graduate social work programs are geared toward professional practice, and are available in online format for working adults who want to earn a master's degree online.


The master's degree in social work offers the opportunity to deepen your knowledge in a specific area of social services practice or administration.

Clinical Practice

Clinical practice programs train you to work with patients in a clinical setting. Your precise specialization may reflect your interest in a particular patient population or a field of practice. Examples include:

  • Public Health
  • Mental Health
  • Family and Child Welfare
  • School Social Work
  • Aging and Older Adult Social Work
  • Community Support
  • International Social Welfare

Social Administration

Social administration programs prepare you for a leadership role at a social work service organization such as a government agency, nonprofit, policy research consultant, advocacy group, community organization, or private company. Specialization opportunities in administration include:

  • Community Organizing, Planning, and Development
  • Management
  • Policy Planning and Analysis

Graduate social work programs differ in how they structure their specialized programs. Understanding where your interests and career objectives lie will help you choose a program that meets your needs. For more information on each of these focus areas, visit the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) guide to Specialty Practice Sections.

Career Track

A master's degree in social work prepares you to advance in your social work practice, taking on supervisory, administrative, and research roles. Graduates of the social work program go on to jobs at private agencies, consulting companies, hospitals and schools, private practice, and on levels of government. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a little more than half of all social workers lend a hand in health care and social assistance jobs. Government agencies employ about a third of social workers.

Social work career options include:

  • Child, family, or school social worker
  • Public health social worker
  • Program administrator
  • Public policy or program researcher
  • Policy advocate or policymaker

Looking Ahead

Job prospects for social workers appear favorable in the coming decade, according to a 2008 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Employment is expected to grow faster than average, or about 16 percent between 2008 and 2018, in response to a growing elderly population and expanded government social service agencies. The Department of Labor forecasts the best opportunities for social workers specializing in geriatric care or rural social services.

Plan for a Master's Degree in Social Work

A clear perception of your professional goals will help you find the right social work program, submit a strong application for admission, and position yourself for academic success.

Step One: Find the Right Graduate Social Work Program

With around two hundred master's degree programs in social work to choose from, it's important to do your homework before you apply. Look for a program with the resources to help you advance professionally. The following steps help you identify the campus or online master's degree program for you:

1. List Accredited Programs

Begin by accessing a database of accredited programs in social work. Accreditation ensures the quality of your education and your eligibility for licensure as a social worker. The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), which accredits social work programs, maintains a directory of master's degree programs in social work. For a more focused list of accredited degree programs, search's Degrees by Subject listings. You'll find online social work & human services degrees listed among Social Science fields.

2. Choose Program Format: Campus or Online Master's Degree?

Start narrowing down your options by choosing your desired program format. Options include:

  • Campus programs. The traditional format appeals to students who learn best with face-to-face interaction with faculty and peers. Campus programs also offer access to facilities, libraries, and local networking events. The campus format is the preferred option for aspiring academics heading onto the PhD in social work.
  • Online programs. The digital format accommodates busy professionals juggling work and family responsibilities alongside their education. Earn a master's degree online without taking time out from your career.
  • Hybrid options. Some colleges are combining the best features of both campus and online through hybrid programs. Students complete most coursework online, and convene for temporary campus residencies several times throughout the program.

In addition to program delivery format, take into account the pacing of the degree. Since MSW programs are geared toward working adults, many schools offer accelerated and self-paced programs to fit any schedule.

3. Explore Academic Programs

Take your research to a deeper level by examining each program individually. Evaluate your options based on the availability of resources in your area of interest. Factors in this assessment include:

  • Curriculum. You can determine a program's academic emphasis by looking at the course catalog. Compare core courses, available elective courses, and areas of concentration for specialized study.
  • Degree Format and Requirements. Most MSW programs require some combination of coursework and field experience. Some incorporate a research project or master's thesis requirement as well.
  • Faculty. Faculty mentorship is an important part of the graduate student experience. Look for a school with faculty members doing work in your field of interest. Also, investigate the background of your instructors: clinical practitioners, administrators, and academic researchers will bring different perspectives into the classroom, enriching your learning experience.
  • Employer Relationships. Career-focused master's degree programs often maintain close relationships with employers. You'll rely on these connections when it comes time to secure an internship and eventually, a job.
  • Support Services. The availability of support services--academic, financial, and professional--can contribute to your success in the program.
  • Student Life. Find a learning environment that is supportive and rigorous, preferably with a diverse group of peers who can expose you to new experiences and perspectives.

Resources gives you a head start on your program research by matching you with schools that meet your specifications. Simply fill out a form indicating your area of interest and desired program format, and the system will put you in touch with a school representative who can answer your questions about the master's degree program.

School Web sites publish most of the information listed above, from degree requirements to student services web pages. Look for course descriptions, links to faculty publications and CVs, information about campus facilities, and more.

Informational interviews offer an inside perspective into the degree through the eyes of current graduate students, alumni, and faculty. Learn about the school's academic resources, student environment, and the value of the master's degree in the job market.

4. Evaluate Program Quality

Finally, settle on a final shortlist of five or six schools that match your career goals and academic profile. At this stage in the selection process, the following considerations emerge:

  • Reputation in your area of interest. Consult program rankings, experts in your field, and if possible, prospective employers to determine the schools with the best reputation for academic excellence.
  • Selectivity in admissions. Does your academic background make you a strong candidate for admission? Take into account your GPA, work experience, and test scores (if available), and target one or two schools at each selectivity level: sure shot, perfect match, and long shot.
  • Job placement and salary statistics. How do graduates of this particular program actually fare on the job market?
  • Student background. Networking with peers is an important benefit of graduate school. You may choose to emphasize demographic features such as cultural diversity, student specialization interests, or the quality of students' social work experience.


Rankings give you a general sense of the program's reputation. U.S. News & World Report's Best Graduate Schools in Social Work is the preeminent ranking publication.

Admissions Departments supply most of the information listed above. Ask an admissions counselor for average admitted students' GPA and test scores, job placement data, and student demographics.

Step Two: Apply to Graduate Social Work Programs

The application process is your opportunity to convince a school's admissions committee that your background, achievement, and goals make you a good fit for the social work master's program. Plan to encounter the following steps en route to graduate study:

1. Complete Prerequisites

Eligibility for graduate study generally requires:

  • A bachelor's degree in social work offers the ideal entry point for a MSW program (and may accelerate your progress through the master's program), but is not required. Most students enter with a bachelor's degree in a related social science discipline: psychology, biology, sociology, economics, or political science.
  • If your degree is in an unrelated field, plan to complete prerequisite courses in social work or social sciences. Most schools also require a basic statistics course.
  • Standardized examinations such as the GRE and the TOEFL (for international students)
  • Work and volunteer experience (preferred)
  • Foreign language proficiency or training (preferred by some programs)

2. Prepare Application Materials

Once you've completed the eligibility requirements, you're ready to assemble the application materials. Plan to submit the following:

  • Information form (typically available online)
  • Academic transcripts
  • Letters of recommendation (usually three)
  • Test scores
  • Personal statement
  • Financial aid application
  • Resume

Start the application ball rolling as soon as possible to ensure the timely arrival of all materials.

3. Financial Aid for Your Master's Degree in Social Work

The ability to earn a master's degree online allows you to keep your main source of income while advancing your education. Whether or not you choose a campus or online master's degree, however, it pays (literally) to investigate all your financial aid options. Sources include:

  • University scholarships, grants, and teaching assistantships
  • Employer education incentives, including tuition grants and loan forgiveness programs
  • Federal funding, including Pell grants, Stafford loans, NSF fellowships, NIH loan repayment programs, etc.
  • Nonprofit, community foundation, or private donor scholarships or grants
  • Private student loans

Tap into your financial aid options by meeting with a school advisor and filling out financial aid applications. Submit a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which covers most federal financial aid programs. For more information, visit the resource page on graduate education funding.


By lining up the resources for graduate study in your field of interest, you're building a foundation for your professional success. Follow through by reaching out to your peers and potential mentors in the academic community. Steps you can take even before the program starts include joining professional social work associations, attending lectures and networking events, and reading scholarly journals in your interest area. The inside perspective and contacts you gain will serve you well throughout graduate school, as you establish yourself as an expert and leader in social work.


  • Best Graduate Schools in Social Work, U.S. News & World Report (2008).
  • Council on Social Work Education.
  • Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs, U.S. Department of Education.
  • Master of Science Program, Columbia University School of Social Work.
  • Master of Social Work Program, NYU Silver School of Social Work.
  • Programs in Social Sciences, The Sloan Consortium.
  • "Social Workers," Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-2011 Edition. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  • Specialty Practice Sections, National Association of Social Workers.