Social workers dedicate their professional lives to strengthening communities and the well-being of individuals. They support people facing challenges such as poverty, substance abuse, domestic conflict, gender or race discrimination, or medical conditions. They may also work on social justice issues. 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 career path you choose in the field of social work, there are master's degree programs that can provide you with the applied social science education and training to help you achieve your goal.
This guide takes you through your education options and helps you prepare for your graduate degree in social work.
Types of Master's Degrees in Social Work
The master's degree in social work combines social sciences education with applied training in areas such as policy research and services administration. These graduate degree programs generally require two years of post-baccalaureate work and supervised field instruction or internships. The master's degrees in social work are geared toward professional practice.
- The Master of Social Work, or MSW, is the standard credential in social work. Earning a MSW degree generally requires the successful completion of graduate coursework and a minimum of 900 hours of supervised field instruction or internship.
- A Master of Science in Social Work (MS or MSSW), Master of Social Service (MSS) or a Master of Arts in Social Work and Social Welfare are other designations that can be awarded. Programs that culminate in these awards are largely indistinguishable from MSW degree programs.
Specializations within MSW Programs
Master's in social work programs can give you the opportunity to deepen your knowledge in a specific area of clinical practice or social administration. Because graduate social work programs differ in how they structure their specialized programs or concentrations, it's important to understand where your interests and career objectives lie so you can choose a program that meets your needs.
Clinical Practice: Specializations in this area are designed to train you to work with patients in a clinical setting. You can choose one that reflects your interest in a certain patient population or a field of practice. Examples include:
- Public health
- Mental health
- Substance abuse
- Family and child welfare
- Aging and older adults
- Community support
- International social welfare
Social Administration: Concentrations that focus on social administration can prepare you for a leadership role at a social work service organization. Examples of specializations in this area are:
- Community organizing, planning, and development
- Policy planning and analysis
For more information on MSW degree focus areas, visit the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) guide to Specialty Practice Sections.
How Career Tracks Align with Master's Programs in Social Work
A master's degree in social work can prepare you to advance in your social work practice, taking on supervisory, administrative and research roles. Graduates with an MSW can go on to jobs in private practice, nonprofit community organizations, policy research consulting companies, hospitals and schools, government or advocacy groups. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a little more than half of all social workers are employed in healthcare 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
Job prospects for social workers appear favorable in the coming decade, according to a report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics: Employment is expected to grow faster than average, or about 11 percent, between 2018 and 2028. The Department of Labor forecasts the best opportunities are for mental health and substance abuse social workers, as more people seek treatment for those issues.
Choosing a Master's Degree in Social Work Program
Once you clarify your desired specialization and professional goals, you can start researching MSW degree programs based on factors such as accreditation, format (on-campus or online), academics and quality.
Step 1: Find an Accredited Graduate Social Work Program
With more than 250 master's degree in social work programs choose from, it's important to do your homework before you apply. Begin by accessing a database of accredited graduate programs in social work. Accreditation ensures the quality of your education and your future 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. You can search by state as well as a wide range of concentrations like gerontology, addictions and community development.
Step 2: Consider MSW Program Format Options
Start narrowing down your options by choosing your desired program format, based on what might best meet your needs. Your choices include:
- On-campus MSW degree programs. The traditional on-campus 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 on to the Ph.D. in social work.
- MSW online programs. The digital format can accommodate busy professionals who are juggling work and family responsibilities while advancing their education. You can earn a master's degree in social work online without taking time out from your career.
- Hybrid options. Some colleges combine the best features of both on-campus and online learning through hybrid programs. Students complete most coursework online and convene for temporary on-campus residencies several times throughout the program.
In addition to delivery format, consider the pacing of the program. Since online MSW degree programs are generally geared toward working adults, many schools offer accelerated and self-paced programs to fit a variety of schedules.
Step 3: Understanding Social Work Master's Program Details
Take your research to the next stage by examining each program individually. Evaluate your options based on the availability of resources in your area of interest. School websites publish most of the information listed below, from MSW requirements to student services web pages. Look for course descriptions, links to faculty publications and CVs, information about campus facilities, and more. Assess each school's program based on the following categories.
Degree Requirements. Most MSW degree programs, including online MSW programs, require some combination of coursework and field experience. Some incorporate a research project or master's thesis requirement as well. Field instruction and practice is a major component of this type of program. The hands-on training covers case management, clinical assessment, and administrative roles such as supervising personnel or strategic planning.
Curriculum. You can determine a program's academic emphasis by looking at the course catalog. The field of social work engages social science disciplines such as sociology, criminology, psychology and political science. Compare core courses, available elective courses, and areas of concentration for specialized study.
- Typical required courses
- Human behavior and the social environment
- Social welfare policy and services
- Research and social work practice
- Sample elective courses
- Human diversity (gender, ethnicity, class)
- Program leadership and management
- Specialization courses such as mental health care
Faculty. Mentorship is an important part of the graduate student experience for MSW degree programs. Look for a school with faculty members doing work in your field of interest and check their CVs. Clinical practitioners, administrators and academic researchers can bring different perspectives into the classroom, enriching your learning experience. Even if you're planning to earn your MSW online, the mentorship aspect can still be very important.
Industry Relationships. Career-focused master's degree programs often maintain close relationships with employers who hire social workers. Those connections can be valuable when you're seeking 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, whether you choose one of the on-campus, hybrid, or online MSW programs.
Student Life. Find a learning environment that appears to supportive and rigorous, preferably with a diverse group of peers who can expose you to new experiences and perspectives. This can apply not only to campus-based programs but also to MSW online programs.
Informational interviews. These can provide an inside perspective of the MSW degree through the eyes of current graduate students, alumni, and faculty. Such interviews offer insight about a school's academic resources, student environment, and the value of the social work master's degree in the job market.
Step 4: Evaluate MSW Degree Program Quality
Finally, settle on a shortlist of five or six schools that match your career goals and academic profile. At this stage in the selection process, take a close look at the following factors. Admissions counselors can supply much of this information.
- Reputation in your area of interest. Consult experts in your field, and if possible, prospective employers to determine the schools with the best reputation for academic excellence. You may also rankings of master's degree programs in social work specifically -- those without apparent bias or commercial interests. Be sure to consider the methodology behind the rankings. Were factors included that are meaningful to you? Was credible data sourced?
- Selectivity in admissions. Ask the admissions counselor for average admitted students' GPA and test scores. Then take into account your own GPA, work experience, and test scores (if available). 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 generally fare in the job market?
- Student background. Networking with peers can be 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.
Step 5: Complete Prerequisites and Other MSW Requirements
Eligibility for an MSW degree program generally includes:
- A bachelor's degree in social work, which is the ideal entry point for campus-based and online MSW programs. A BSW may accelerate your progress through the graduate program, but is not required.
- Prerequisite courses in social work or social sciences, if your bachelor's degree is in an unrelated field. Many students enter with a bachelor's degree in a related social science such as psychology, biology, sociology, economics or political science.
- A basic statistics course (generally required)
- 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)
Step 6: Apply to Master's Degree in Social Work Programs
The application process is your opportunity to convince a school's admissions committee that your background, achievements and goals make you a good candidate for their master's degree in social work program. The following steps are typical in the application process.
Prepare Application Materials
Once you've completed any necessary prerequisites and you meet the MSW requirements, you're ready to assemble and complete the application materials. You should expect to submit the following:
- Information form (typically available online)
- Academic transcripts
- Letters of recommendation (usually three)
- Test scores
- Personal statement
- Financial aid application
Start the application process well before the deadline to ensure the timely arrival of all materials.
Step 7: Explore Financial Aid Options
No matter what level of financial aid you are seeking to fund your master's degree in social work, it pays 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
- Nonprofit, community foundation, or private donor scholarships or grants
- Private student loans
To learn about and apply for financial aid options, meet with a school advisor and fill out financial aid applications. Submit a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which covers most federal financial aid programs. For more information, visit our financial aid resource page on graduate education funding.
Step 8: Build an Academic and Professional Network
After you apply for the master's degree in social work program of your choice, start networking in your field of interest as a way to build a foundation for your professional success. Reach out to your peers and potential mentors in the academic community. Even before you start your master's degree in social work program, you can join professional social work associations, attend lectures and networking events, and read scholarly journals in your interest area. The inside perspective and contacts you gain may serve you well throughout graduate school and beyond.
In addition to this sampling of social work associations, you may also find others that are more tailored to your specific focus.
- Association of Social Work Boards
- Clinical Social Work Federation
- National Association of Black Social Workers
- National Association of Social Workers
- North American Association of Christians in Social Work
- National Rural Social Work Caucus
- Council on Social Work Education, Accessed April 2020, https://www.cswe.org/Accreditation
- Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs, U.S. Department of Education, accessed April 2020, https://ope.ed.gov/dapip/#/home
- Master of Science Program, Columbia University School of Social Work, accessed April 2020, https://socialwork.columbia.edu/academics/msw-program/
- Master of Social Work Program, NYU Silver School of Social Work, accessed April 2020, https://socialwork.nyu.edu/academics/msw.html
- Master of Social Work Program, Boise State University, accessed April 2020, https://www.boisestate.edu/socialwork/academic-programs/
- "Social Workers," Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, accessed April 2020, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/social-workers.htm
- Specialty Practice Sections, National Association of Social Workers, accessed April 2020, https://www.socialworkers.org/Practice