A social work degree is the most direct route to a career in helping others. From addiction support, family therapy, and youth counseling to health education, corrections and community service, your social work degree could give you the opportunity to spend every day improving opportunities for those in need. If your compassion is as great as your ambition, social work might be the field for you.
If you're seeking a career in social work, prepare for a challenging but rewarding experience. As a social work professional, you'll have a chance to make a positive and even life-altering impact on the people around you. Often, you'll work with people enduring struggles and challenges. This might include individuals experiencing mental health or medical crises, children who have been orphaned or fostered, individuals battling chemical dependency, reformed inmates transitioning back to the free world, dysfunctional families seeking guidance, or a host of others navigating difficulty or hardship.
As you can see, there are a lot of possibilities in this field. As you advance in your studies, you'll get a greater sense of the areas where you'd like to focus your energies and concentration. This may help you to hone in on a career path.
If you're planning on pursuing your degree online, you'll want to check out The 25 Best Online Bachelor's of Social Work Degree Programs, the 25 Best Master of Social Work (MSW) Online Degree Programs, and 25 Notable Online Social Work Degree Programs, which highlights programs at the Associate, Bachelor and Master levels.
If you feel like you need a little more information, let's take a closer look at your options for earning a degree in social work.
Covered in this article:
- What do I need to know about accreditation?
- What kinds of Social Work degrees are there?
- What kind of Licensing or Certification do I need?
- What can I do with a Social Work degree?
- How much can I make with a Social Work degree?
- What Professional Social Work Associations or Societies should I join?
Let's start with the one thing you absolutely must be sure of before you proceed: accreditation.
What Kind of Accreditation Should My Degree Program Have?
The last thing you want to do is waste time and money on a degree that won't be taken seriously by future employers. And when it comes to Social Work, accreditation is of tremendous importance. The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) is the preeminent accrediting agency in the field. Whether you're seeking a Bachelor's in Social Work (BSW) or a Master's in Social Work (MSW), a degree program with the CSWE stamp of approval can mean the difference of landing a job, or not. That's why it is absolutely imperative that you make sure your school has the proper accreditation before you proceed. And, if you are going for a BSW but have plans to get your MSW, a degree with CSWE accreditation can make you eligible for advanced standing, meaning that you may be able to reduce your MSW from 60 credit-hours, to around 30 credit-hours!
As with most other higher education disciplines, regional accreditation is also of critical importance in determining where to obtain a social work degree. Program accreditation is granted by accrediting agencies that are formally recognized by the Department of Education. Only accredited colleges or universities are eligible for financial aid. Moreover, accreditation typically indicates that an institution is not only maintaining its standards but that it continues to advance and remain current within its field. As you proceed in your search, you'll find both institutional accreditation and program accreditation. The former refers to school wide accreditation and the latter refers to the accreditation conferred upon your specific discipline and degree program.
Regional Accrediting Agencies
The institutional accrediting sector is divided into regional and national accrediting agencies. Generally, regional accrediting agencies confer greater credibility and merit. When you’re investigating a college or university, you’ll want to look for the “stamp of approval” from one of the following regional accrediting agencies:
- The Higher Learning Commission
- New England Association of Schools and Colleges
- Middle States Commission on Higher Education
- Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities
- Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
- Western Association of Schools and Colleges
When it comes to national accrediting agencies, reputations may vary. In some cases, program specific accrediting agencies may hold a great deal of importance. Some professions and places of employment will require that your degree has been conferred by a course of study with program specific national accreditation.
Social Work is one of those fields. In order to became a licensed clinical social work professional, you must have earned your degree from a program that is recognized by the following national accreditor:
The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) confers accreditation status upon baccalaureate (Bachelor's) and masters programs in social work. According to the the Council, “CSWE's Commission on Accreditation (COA) is responsible for developing accreditation standards that define competent preparation and ensuring that social work programs meet these standards.”
As of June 2017, the CSWE recognizes 516 accredited Bachelor's/Baccalaureate of Social Work programs and 254 Master of Social Work programs.
The CSWE is considered a preeminent national accrediting body in the field of social work. If you plan to pursue work in the field, it is absolutely imperative that you earn your degree from a Bachelor's or Master's program that is current and accredited by the CSWE.
The easiest way to determine accreditation status is to contact your school of choice, or visit the website for any of the above accreditation agencies. Each provides a searchable database of accredited institutions and degree programs. You can also take a look at the Department of Education's database of all recognized accreditors within its purview.
Or, to learn a little more about navigating the tricky accreditation landscape, check out Accreditation of Colleges and Universities: Who's Accrediting the Accreditors?
Now that you get the idea, let's take a look at some of your degree options.
What Kinds of Social Work Degrees Are There?
Associate Degree in Social Work (AA or AAS)
If you're looking for a cost-effective way to get started on your path to a degree in social work, an Associate Degree is a good option. While this two-year program won't qualify you to work in the field, it could be the most affordable way to advance toward a Bachelor's Degree in Social Work (BSW).
And if you plan to pursue your BSW at an online college, you'll find that most programs require some pre-professional courses. The right Associate Degree would provide you with these credits. As always, when you consider a two-year program, be sure that your credits will transfer to most private, public, or online four-year colleges and universities.
What Courses Will I Take?
- Principles of Sociology
- Introduction to Social Work
- Introduction to Health and Human Services
- Crisis Intervention
- Public Health Issues
- Introduction to Psychology
What's the Difference between an AA and an AAS?
An Associate of Arts in Social Work (AA) is usually your best bet if you plan on advancing into a Bachelor's Degree program. This should provide you both with a theoretical grounding in the field and the start to a parallel liberal arts education. The Association of Applied Science (AAS) in Social Work is your best bet if you are seeking training for a specific position. In most instances, your educational and professional development will be better served by an AA.
If you're ready to look at options, check out our 25 Notable Online Social Work Degree Programs, a list that includes six leading Associate Degree options.
Bachelor of Social Work (BSW, BASWs or BSSW)
The Bachelor of Social Work is conferred upon students who have completed a full course load through a four-year private, public or online college. There are only a few accredited online BSW programs and most of these require completion of the kinds of pre-professional courses you might take while earning your Associate Degree. So if you do plan to pursue your BSW online, it may be a good idea to earn your AA or AAS first.
Your course of study will touch on subjects like family dynamics, social policy, abnormal psychology, topics in healthcare, case management, community building, organizational management, as well as concentration-specific courses. Your degree program will demonstrate the breadth of the social work field and, in many cases, will also give you a chance to intern or volunteer in a real-world setting.
The BSW is also extremely valuable if you plan to pursue a Master's Degree in Social Work (MSW). Though you can qualify to pursue a MSW with a Bachelor's Degree in a related or alternate field, earning a BSW from a CSWE-accredited program first will dramatically reduce the number of credits required to complete your MSW. In many cases, earning a BSW will put you in a position to earn your MSW in as few as 30 credits. Naturally, that's a huge money saver. Again though, be sure to check for the CSWE stamp of approval.
What Courses Will I Take?
- Communication in Social Work Practices
- History of Social Welfare
- Human Behavior
- Introduction to Social Work
- Issues in Addiction
- Social Statistics
- Issues in Global Economics
- Communities and Organizations
- Seminar in Social Work Practice
- Field Practicum
- Foundations of Social Justice
What's the Difference between a BSW, a BASW, and a BSSW?
The Bachelor of Social Work is the standard course of education in the field of social work and instructs in the knowledge, skills and practice of the profession, provides opportunities for hand-on experience, and offers courses of study with specific areas of focus including community outreach, human behavior, urban development, family therapy and a host of others. The Bachelor of Science in Social Work is fairly similar, though may offer a sharper focus on hands-on training. The Bachelor of Art in Social Work offers a similar course of study, but the degree is pursued in tandem with a liberal arts concentration like English or psychology.
Now that you know what to look for, check out The 40 Best Bachelor's in Social Work Degree Programs.
Or, if you're planning on pursuing your degree online, check out The 25 Best Online Bachelor's of Social Work Degree Programs.
Master of Social Work (MSW)
A Master of Social Work is an advanced degree. The CSWE-accredited MSW is increasingly coming to be regarded as the standard degree in the field, and is required for work in educational, healthcare and clinical settings. Your Master's Degree program will provide you with an opportunity to set your sights on a specific area of concentration, one that should prepare you for work in your field.
Typically, those who hold an MSW in social work will enjoy higher salary prospects and greater opportunities for advancement. And depending on your preference, this advanced degree could place you in a position either to practice social work hands-on or to direct organizational efforts from an administrative level. Be aware that at some point in the pursuit of your MSW, you will be expected to choose between macro- and micro-level studies. Macro-level studies will put you on a path toward administrative and organizational leadership, whereas micro-level studies will put you on a path toward counseling and other hands-on work.
On the subject of counseling, it's worth noting that the MSW degree program can also function as a suitable alternative to a Psychology degree for those ultimately working toward a professional counseling career. Consider this a particularly attractive path to a counseling careering if your undergraduate studies are more compatible with a degree in Social Work than one in Psychology.
As noted above, if you plan to earn an MSW, holding a Bachelor's/Baccalaureate from a CSWE-accredited Social Work program can significantly accelerate your progress.
It's also important to note that you must have your MSW if you intend to work as a clinical social worker. And again, remember, if you plan to use your degree to procure work in the field, it must be from a CSWE accredited program.
What's the difference between a clinical and a non-clinical social worker?
Whereas the non-clinical worker will often function as a counselor, a clinical social worker will have the training and qualifications to offer medical advice and therapeutic treatment. A clinical social worker is a healthcare or mental health professional that applies the theories and practices of social work in providing prevention, treatment and service. And remember, in order to reach the level of clinical practice, you will need to obtain your Master's Degree from a CSWE accredited school.
What Courses Will Will I Take?
- Philosophy of Social Welfare
- Human Behavior in the Social Environment
- American Racism and Social Work
- Child, Youth, and Family Therapy
- Issues of Race and Gender
- Organizational Leadership
- Policy Practice
- Human Services Management
- Advanced Clinical Social Work Practice
If you're not sure where to start on your program, check out The 25 Best Master of Social Work Programs.
If you plan to pursue your Master's Degree online, check out The 25 Best Master of Social Work (MSW) Online Degree Programs.
What's the difference between a DSW and the PhD in Social Work?
If you're contemplating doctoral level studies in social work, your two leading options are a Doctor of Social Work (DSW) or a PhD in Social Work. Both will focus on the refinement of clinical practice skills and training in the development and leadership of social service programs. The primary distinction between the two is that a PhD will also contribute to research and public policy in the field.
What Kind of Licensing or Certification Do I Need?
In addition to earning your degree, you will be required to earn certain licenses to practice social work, particularly at a clinical level. These licenses will vary from state to state so be sure to check with your state's Social Work Board of Licensure for appropriate licensure details. The following are examples of the most notable and important licenses for practice:
- Licensed Social Work Associate (LSWA): This licensing is required for candidates seeking entry level work in the field. You must have an associate or bachelor's degree in social work or a closely related field in order to earn this certification.
- Licensed Social Worker (LSW): This licensing is required to practice non-clinical social work services, including case management and administrative supervision. You must have a bachelor degree in social work to earn this license. If your degree is in another field, you may be able to earn your LSW by completing a certain number of work hours under the supervision of an LSW.
- Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW): This licensing is granted for the practice of advanced non-clinical social work and requires the completion of a Master's Degree program.
What can I do with a Social Work degree?
A social work degree opens you up to a wide range of job opportunities. The path you choose will largely depend on how you believe you can best help others. The following are among the most common occupations open to those with a degree in social work:
- Health Educator
- Mental Health Counselor
- Marriage/Family Therapist
- Probation Officer
- Correctional Treatment Specialist
- Recreational Therapist
- Rehabilitation Counselor
- Social/Community Service Manager
- Social/Human Services Assistant
- Social Worker
- Substance Abuse Counselor
- Behavioral Disorder Counselor
For a look at the brightest prospects out there in your field, check out The 10 Best Jobs for Social Work Masters here.
What kind of salary can I earn with a Social Work degree?
Your earning potential in this field is closely tied to your level of educational attainment. Your degree will have a direct impact on the types of jobs available to you and the opportunities for advancement within these jobs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) offers some insight into the pay gap that exists between the jobs for which you qualify at each level of educational attainment:
Social and Human Service Assistants (H.S. Diploma or Associate's Degree)
2016 Median Pay: $31,810 per year/$15.29 per hour
Number of Jobs, 2014: 386,600
Job Outlook, 2014-2024: 11%
Social Worker (Bachelor's Degree)
2016 Median Pay: $46,890 per year/$22.54 per hour
Number of Jobs, 2014: 649,300
Job Outlook, 2014-2024: 12%
Healthcare Social Workers (Master's Degree)
2016 Median Pay: $53,760 per year/$25.85 per hour
Number of Jobs, 2016: 159,310
Are There Professional Social Work Associations or Societies I should join?
Professional Associations are a fantastic way to make connections in your field, learn about valuable seminars or certifications, and improve your own credentials. There are a few preeminent associations in the social work field, and a number of others that may offer valuable support or resources depending on your area of concentration.
The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) is the world's largest membership organization comprised of and dedicated to professional social workers. With 132,000 members, the NASW is committed to the professional growth of its members, the maintenance of professional standards in the field and the advancement of sound social policies.
The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) is dedicated to improving the quality of social work education with the goal of ultimately producing better qualified professionals. You'll recognize the CSWE from our section above on accreditation, but the leading social work educational accreditor also has 2,500 individual members, with students, faculty, and practitioners among them
Other notable associations include:
- School Social Work Association of America (SSWAA)
- Clinical Social Work Association (CSWA)
- National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW)
- North American Association of Christians in Social Work (NAACSW)
- Social Welfare Action Alliance (SWAA)
Or, if you're planning on pursuing your degree online, dig into the 25 Best Online Bachelor's of Social Work Degree Programs and 25 Notable Online Social Work Degree Programs, which highlights programs at the Associate, Bachelor and Master levels.