Social Work Degree Guide

by Blake Huggins
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Are you ready to discover your college program?

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 fulfilling career.

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. Here's a brief overview of the different degree levels for social work majors.


Associate Degree in Social Work

An associate degree in social work lays the groundwork for earning a bachelor's and prepares graduates 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 home health aides or community outreach workers. 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 students 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 technical skills, including 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.

Looking for the most affordable social work degrees? Check out our ranking of the most affordable online bachelor's in social work degrees or online social work degrees.

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. 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 your MSW online or on campus, 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.


Doctoral Degree in Social Work

A doctoral degree in social work prepares students 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 program. They can also pursue careers in academia.

Browse the Best Social Work Programs

Our social work program rankings list the best options available at every academic level. Students new to the field can explore our guides to the best associate's in social work or bachelor's degree in social work.

If you are a more experienced professional looking for a master’s or doctorate to advance your career, we have highlighted the best programs available at these levels.

Looking for a flexible learning option? We’ve got you covered with our online rankings lists.

What Can You Do With a Social Work Degree?

Majoring in social work can lead to a variety of social work careers, like nonclinical social worker in a nonprofit organization or clinical social worker in a hospital. The industries that employ the most social work graduates are healthcare, education, and community health. Other common jobs include correctional treatment specialists and social work teachers.

Popular Social Work Career Paths

Medical Social Worker

Many social work majors work in the medical industry as healthcare social workers or clinical social workers. They work 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. Students on this academic path should consider taking courses in substance abuse counseling, mental health counseling, or disability services.

School or Family Social Worker

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 Social Worker

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 community health issues.

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

Psychiatric Social Worker

Psychiatric social workers specialize in mental health. This social work path includes conducting psychiatric and mental health assessments in individual or group settings.

Forensic Social Worker

Forensic social work is social work in a criminal justice system context. Social workers in this field assess and treat incarcerated or formerly incarcerated individuals, including juveniles, and facilitate issues involving child custody. They may also work within correctional facilities or jails, or they may testify in court.

Social Worker Salaries

Several careers in social work are experiencing high growth rates. For instance, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects social worker positions to grow 13% from 2019 to 2029 with a median annual salary of $51,760, as of May 2020. Depending on career specialty, location, and work experience, social work salaries range from $33,000-$86,000.

Advice From a Social Work Graduate

How can you thrive in a social work program? Social work graduate Wendy Pitts shares expert advice on how to make the most of your time in school and put your degree to work.

Wendy Pitts, LCSW-C, has worked as a licensed social worker for 21 years in a hospital outpatient clinic, a treatment foster care agency, and a group home. She currently works as a school social worker in a public school district and owns a private practice called Guiding Insight, LLC, where she sees adults for individual therapy and provides clinical supervision to new social workers who are working towards licensure. Pitts's book "Knowing Your Worth" helps readers recognize their value to themselves and the world.

What was the best advice you received before starting your social work studies?

I initially planned to get my degree based on location. My brother encouraged me to research the top social work schools in the country and their offerings.

Through my research, I learned a lot about U.S. schools and how they differ from each other. Each [program] has a niche, and knowing what you want to do with your degree should be the determining factor in which schools you apply to.

What advice would you give someone considering a career in social work?

Determine your ultimate career goal. People are often surprised by the number of career paths a degree in social work can take: therapy, community organizing, human services, and nonprofit organization work.

Social work is a diverse field and you can do a lot with an MSW degree, but you cannot do everything. Make sure a social work degree is the right path for your goals.

What recommendations do you have for someone starting a BSW degree?

Plan to stay in school one more year and get your MSW. If you have a BSW, you can apply to most MSW programs as an advanced standing student. That way, the MSW will only take you only one year (studying full time) rather than the two years it will take those without a BSW.

The difference in average salary with that one extra year of education is huge. If I learn that students plan to get their BSW and do not intend to get the MSW, then I recommend they choose a different undergraduate degree.

What recommendations do you have for someone starting a MSW degree?

Choose your internship wisely, and be sure it is related to what you want to do when you graduate. Many people are tempted to accept internships with their current employer or internships that pay. But unless your current job is located where you want to be when you graduate, you are missing out on the opportunity for learning that your internship is meant to be.

The closer your internship experience is to your ultimate career goal, the easier it will be for you to find a job post-graduation because you will have similar experience on your resume.

What advice do you have for someone launching their job hunt to be a social worker?

Know how much money you need to earn to be happy, and do not settle for less. At the same time, be realistic. Most social workers do not earn their MSW one day and make six-figure salaries the next.

When looking for continuing education classes, choose ones that enhance your value to your agency and to your clients, not the cheapest ones that meet your state's requirements.

If you plan to get licensed, get good supervision focused on your needs. It is wonderful if you can get free supervision from the agency where you work, but if you cannot, or if the agency supervisor is more focused on the needs of the agency than your personal growth, then it is worth it to pay for outside supervision.

Social Work Program Accreditation

Accreditation ensures that students receive a quality education. It is one of the best ways to vet prospective social work programs. The best offerings, including online programs, come from regionally accredited institutions. Programs can also hold accreditation from organizations like the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE).

Before selecting a program, be sure you understand the importance of accreditation. Use our CSWE Accreditation guide to learn more about accreditation specifically for social work programs.

Getting Into a Social Work Program

If you are a prospective social work student wondering how to secure recommendation letters or submit a successful admission application, look no further.

The admission process can be competitive, and getting started is not always easy. Our guides offer a step-by-step overview of the application process and explain how to set yourself apart as an applicant.

Paying for a Social Work Degree

Financing a master's of social work (MSW) degree can be confusing, complicated, and challenging. Our guides to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) can get you started with applications for grants, loans, or work-study funding, and our student loan resources may help you avoid unnecessary costs and headac" theme="primary">

Popular Questions About Social Work Degrees

true What Exactly Does a Social Worker Do?

Social workers help individuals, families, and communities solve problems or cope with issues that impede social functioning. They assess strengths and needs, offer diagnoses and develop treatment plans, and respond to crises when necessary.

true What Are Examples of Social Work?

Social workers can provide psychotherapy and counseling, advise students and job-seekers in schools or vocational settings, assist other professionals in delivering healthcare, and help families or law offenders navigate difficult challenges.

true Do Social Workers Get Paid Well?

Yes. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual wage for social workers is $51,760, as of May 2020. That figure exceeds the national median salary for all occupations by over 20%.

true Is Social Work a Good Career?

Yes. Job opportunities for qualified social workers are projected to grow by 13% by 2029, according to the BLS. That is much faster than most professions.

Blake Huggins is a Boston-based writer and researcher with roots in north Texas and southern Oklahoma. He holds degrees in religion and philosophy and writes widely on higher education, healthcare, and the humanities broadly conceived. He earned a PhD from Boston University and has taught college courses in philosophy, writing, and composition.

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