What Can You Do With a Social Work Degree?

Heather ArtushinBlake Weil
Updated January 8, 2024
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Looking to learn more about a social work degree? Here, we outline degree options, accreditation, certifications, job options, salaries, associations, and more.

Are you ready to discover your college program?

A social work degree’s versatility can lead to many rewarding career paths that make a difference. Social workers can serve their communities in settings like counseling, case management, nonprofit leadership, and clinical research. Most importantly, a social work education equips graduates with interpersonal skills, leadership abilities, and cultural competence that is widely applicable across industries and professional roles.

Types of Social Work Degrees and Career Paths

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. This degree typically takes two years to complete and covers introductory coursework in social work practice, psychology, and sociology.

Candidates with social work associate degrees may work as home health aides and community outreach workers, among other roles. To learn more, check out our ranking of the best online associates in social work degrees.

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

Associate of arts in social work and associate of science in social work programs prepare students to transfer into bachelor’s programs in social work. An AA’s general education requirements focus more on the humanities, while an AS covers more technical skills, including hard sciences and math.

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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 can lead to entry-level, non-clinical work. Typical course topics include social work practice, intercultural social welfare issues, and an introduction to psychology. This degree takes four years of full-time enrollment to earn and usually incorporates a practicum. According to the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), colleges conferred nearly 18,000 BSW degrees in the 2021-2022 school year.

Professionals with BSW degrees often connect clients with resources to improve their lives. Common roles include case manager, probation officer, care coordinator, eligibility worker, and patient advocate. BSW degree-holders work in a variety of settings with diverse populations.

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 within larger organizations immediately after graduation. These programs are 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.

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Master’s Degree in Social Work

A master’s in social work qualifies you for social work licensure in all states. This degree typically requires extensive coursework in topics like family counseling, human development, and clinical social work theory and practice. Concentrations may include substance use counseling, school social work, and medical social work.

Whether you earn your MSW online or on campus, a master of social work takes two years to complete and requires extensive field experience that aligns 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.

Social workers with MSWs who wish to become licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs) complete additional post-graduate supervised experience and pass their licensing exam. LCSWs can provide individual clinical services without supervision.

With an MSW degree, professionals can work as clinical therapists, medical social workers, policy analysts, school social workers, and community organizers. Many social workers at the master’s level also work in the nonprofit sector, often in leadership roles.

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Doctoral Degree in Social Work

A doctoral degree in social work prepares graduates 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 doctorates in social work can pursue careers in academia or hold more lucrative positions, such as directors of social services programs.

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Careers With a Degree in Social Work

There are many career pathways for professionals with social work degrees. Social work jobs include medical social worker, school social worker, child and family therapist, and mental health counselor.

Social workers who want to branch out after graduation can explore roles in nonprofit leadership, healthcare administration, research and academic positions, and human resources. With plenty of transferable skills provided by a social work degree, graduates can select the career paths that fit their passion.

Medical Social Worker

Many social work graduates find employment in the medical industry as healthcare social workers or clinical social workers. They interview, assess, and counsel people with physical, mental, and behavioral health issues in hospitals, residential care facilities, and private practices.

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

School or Family Social Worker

Many social workers find jobs in childcare or educational settings, where they promote a safe learning environment and help students with their academic and personal progress. They may provide students with guidance on personal issues affecting their conduct and grades, along with helping them 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. A concentration in school social work or additional coursework in human development, adolescent mental health, and family and youth relationships can benefit these learners.

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 work 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 independently. Careers in this field only require a bachelor’s degree in most states. Course topics include macro social work practice, 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 occurs within criminal justice system contexts. These professionals assess and treat incarcerated or formerly incarcerated individuals, including juveniles, and facilitate issues involving child custody. They may also work in correctional facilities or jails or testify in court.


Many MSW graduates pursue clinical licensure in their state to work as counselors or therapists. Therapists assist individuals, couples, and families in addressing mental health and relationship concerns, helping them achieve their personal goals.

To become a therapist, an MSW student must complete a clinical internship as part of their graduate program and apply for limited licensure in their state upon graduation. Then, they go on to work as therapists under supervision for a certain number of hours, which varies by state, and will often complete a proctored exam. Finally, the social worker can apply for full, independent licensure to practice as a counselor in their state.

Social Worker Salaries

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), social workers earn a median wage of $58,380 per year. Healthcare social workers make an average of $62,940 annually, while mental health and substance use social workers earn an average of $55,960 each year. Child, family, and school social workers earn around $53,940 per year. Like many professions, earning a more advanced degree can lead to increased earning potential.

Note: some of the following data points reflect fewer than 50 respondents.

Average Salary by Degree Level
EducationAverage Annual Salary
Associate Degree in Social Work$42,000
Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work$58,000
Master’s Degree in Social Work$61,000
Doctorate Degree in Social Work$95,000
Source: Payscale (June 2024)

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.

Portrait of Wendy Pitts, LCSW-C

Wendy Pitts, LCSW-C

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 is currently employed 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.

Preferred Pronouns: She/Her/Hers

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.

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 strongest programs, including those offered by online schools, come from regionally accredited institutions. Programs can also hold accreditation from organizations like CSWE.

Before selecting a program, make sure to understand the importance of accreditation. Use our CSWE Accreditation guide to learn more about accredited 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 of social work (MSW) degree can be confusing 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 headaches.

Popular Questions About Social Work Degrees

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

Page last reviewed on June 4, 2024