Social Work Degree Overview

Social Work Degree Overview

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A social work degree might be the right choice for you if you love helping others, enjoy working one-on-one with clients, and wish to develop a meaningful and rewarding career.

Social work is an academic- and practice-based field that seeks to improve quality of life for individuals, families, and communities. In short, social work helps people overcome difficult life challenges.

Social work often involves working with underserved communities, but it attracts people from all walks of life who want to make a difference. Read on to learn how a social work degree can lead to a career in this exciting field.

What Kinds of Social Work Degrees Are There?

The social work degree you pursue — associate, bachelor's, master's, or doctorate — depends on your career plans and interests. For instance, if you want to work in private practice, you will need a master's in social work. Read on to learn about the different degree levels for social work majors.

Associate Degree in Social Work

An associate in social work lays the groundwork for earning your bachelor's and prepares you for some entry-level positions. The degree takes two years to complete and covers introductory coursework in social work practice, psychology, and sociology.

Candidates with a social work associate degree may work as a home health aide or community outreach worker. Check out our ranking of the best online associate in social work degrees to learn more.

What Is the Difference Between an AA and an AS in Social Work?

Both an associate of arts in social work and an associate of science in social work prepare you to transfer into a bachelor's program in social work. An AA's general education requirements focus more on the humanities, while an AS focuses more on hard sciences and math.

Bachelor's Degree in Social Work

The most common route to starting a career in social work is earning a bachelor's degree in social work, which leads to entry-level, non-clinical work. Typical course topics include social work practice, intercultural social welfare issues, and introduction to psychology. The degree takes four years to earn and usually incorporates a practicum.

Depending on your state, a bachelor's in social work can lead to a variety of positions, such as case manager or public health social worker. Check out our ranking of the most affordable online bachelor's in social work degrees to learn more.

What Is the Difference Between a BSW, a BASW, and a BSSW in Social Work?

A bachelor of social work (BSW) is the educational minimum for starting a career as a social worker. It best suits learners who wish to work as generalist social workers under the umbrella of a larger organization immediately upon graduation. This is similar to the bachelor of art in social work (BASW), which is also a generalist, liberal arts degree that requires general education content in addition to social work topics.

A bachelor of science in social work (BSSW) degree emphasizes research methods in social work, offering more intensive practicum/internship requirements than a regular BSW offers. They often include more math or science courses as well.

Master's Degree in Social Work

A master's in social work is for learners seeking clinical licensure. This degree typically requires extensive coursework in topics like family counseling, human development, and clinical social work theory and practice. Concentrations may include substance abuse counseling, school social work, or medical social work.

Whether you earn it online or through a traditional method, a master of social work takes two years to complete and has extensive field experience requirements, aligned with local state requirements for clinical licensure. A master's degree is a minimum requirement for many social work positions, especially for careers in private practice.

What Is the Difference Between a Clinical and a Non-Clinical Social Worker?

Clinical social workers work in a clinical setting, where they have a case load of clients who they are helping overcome problems through one-on-one therapy. They must obtain a master's degree from a CSWE-accredited school and undergo many hours of supervised training to practice. Non-clinical social workers can provide some counseling or consultation services to individuals and groups, but they mainly work in administrative roles, managing social systems and programs that impact society at large.

Doctoral Degree in Social Work

A doctoral degree in social work prepares you to work in research, education, or upper-level administrative roles. The degree typically takes three years to complete and covers topics like advanced social work theory and quantitative and qualitative research methods.

Graduates with a doctorate in social work can end up in highly lucrative positions, like working as the director of a social services programs, or they can pursue careers in academia. To learn more, check out our ranking of the best online doctorates in social work.

What Can You Do With a Social Work Degree?

A social work degree can lead to a variety of jobs in social work, like non-clinical social worker in a nonprofit organization or clinical social worker in a hospital. The major industries that employ the most social work graduates center on health, education, and community health. Other common jobs include correctional treatment specialists and social work teachers.


Many social work majors work in the medical industry as healthcare social workers or clinical social workers, finding employment in hospitals, residential care facilities, and private practices. They spend their days interviewing, assessing, and counseling people with physical, mental, and behavioral health issues.

Since most social workers in the medical industry work at a clinical level, a master's in social work degree is usually necessary for someone pursuing work in this setting. Students on this academic path should consider taking courses in substance abuse counseling, mental health counseling, or disability services.

Child, Family, and School

Many school and career counselors and social workers find jobs in childcare or educational settings, promoting a safe learning environment and helping students with their academic and personal progress. This can include providing guidance for students on personal issues that affect their conduct and grades and helping students build post-graduation plans.

Most states require school social workers and counselors to hold clinical licensure, so earning a master's in social work is the best choice for students on this career path. If possible, seek a concentration in school social work or additional coursework in human development, adolescent mental health, and family and youth relationships.

Community Health

Many social workers seek employment in community health settings, like nonprofit mental health organizations or state and county health service centers. They spend much of their days working in case management, health outcome assessment, and public advocacy for important community health issues.

Community health social work operates mostly on the macro level rather than one-on one, and careers in this field require only a bachelor's degree in most states. Course topics to consider enrolling in include macro social work practice, social work research methods, and social policy and social justice.

What Kind of Salary Can I Earn With a Social Work Degree?

Several careers in social work are currently experiencing high growth rates and offering comfortable salaries. For instance, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that healthcare social worker positions will grow 17% from 2018 to 2028 with a median annual salary of $56,200. Depending on the career you choose, your location, and your work experience, average entry-level salaries range from $50,000-$70,000.

Social Work Career Outlooks
Position Salary Job Growth
Social Work Teachers $68,300 7.5%
Social and Community Service Managers $67,150 17%
Healthcare Social Workers $56,200 17%
School and Career Counselors $57,040 8%
Social Workers $50,470 13%
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Projections Central

Social Work Professional Organizations

  • Clinical Social Work Association CSWA advances the clinical social worker profession by offering essential services, products, and professional support. Services provided by CSWA include job assistance, free consultative services, and legislative advocacy. Students enrolled in a clinical social work degree program can access CSWA's clinical job board by purchasing student-level membership.
  • School Social Work Association of America SSWAA empowers school social workers across the nation, promoting the use of evidence-based practices in educational environments. To help students interested in becoming school social workers, SSWAA offers conferences, practice tools and information on evidence-based practices, and student grants.
  • National Association of Social Workers NASW represents the needs of over 120,000 social workers, making it the largest professional organization for social workers in the world. NASW helps social work students through political advocacy, continuing education opportunities, and two scholarships: the Consuelo W. Gosnell Memorial Scholarship and the Verne LaMarr Lyons Memorial Scholarship.

Accreditation for Social Work Programs

When researching social work programs, prioritize programs from regionally accredited schools. Enrolling in a regionally accredited university ensures that you will be able to transfer credits if you decide to switch schools mid-program. You should also give higher priority to programs that hold CSWE accreditation, especially if you plan to become a clinical social worker.

For more information on why accreditation matters, read our guide on program and college accreditation.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is Getting a Degree in Social Work Hard?

Social work degrees usually involve both technical training and general education requirements, and they also typically have field work requirements. These skills are all necessary for a successful career as a social worker, but they can make the degree challenging. Most careers in the field also require a master's degree, which offers another level of difficulty.

Is a Degree in Social Work Worth It?

A degree in social work can lead to rewarding careers spent in service of others. Many people who work in social work derive deep personal satisfaction from helping others overcome physical, mental, and social problems. However, this career path can also be stressful and have a high burnout rate, which is important to consider before pursuing it.

What Skills Do Social Workers Need?

Social workers need soft skills relating to emotional intelligence: empathy, the ability to set boundaries, and cultural awareness. They also need strong active listening and organizational skills to help them relate to patients and manage complex schedules.

What Is the Highest Social Work Degree?

The highest social work degree attainable is a doctorate in social work, and it is generally pursued by students interested in working in higher education or scientific research.