Several educational routes are available to those who want to enter the field of social work. The degree path you choose should depend on the career outcome you are striving toward. Community and social service occupations require varying entry-levels of education, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). In fact, to become a social and human service assistant, all that's required is a high school diploma. For most careers in this field, however, a bachelor's degree is the minimum requirement.
Bachelor's Degree in Social Work (BSW)
If you are certain that you want to become a social worker, a BSW is the most direct path to achieve that goal. Coursework will be geared toward preparing students for generalist roles in social work by covering a sweeping scope of topics in the field, such as human behavior, the social environment, ethics, and cultural understanding. Additionally, students may dabble in social welfare policy and social work research to bolster their professional knowledge. Faculty may also infuse some challenging subjects in the curriculum, such as oppression, homelessness, death, child abuse, and domestic violence.
If you are certain that you want to become a social worker, a BSW is the most direct path to achieve that goal.
When choosing the BSW program that's right for you, it may be helpful to carefully consider a school's offerings. For example, bachelor's programs offer practicums, internships, and/or various forms of supervised field experience, allowing students to apply what they learn in a real-world environment and perhaps even land a job after graduation. Other school programs may offer specializations in an area or industry that interests you.
Once you've graduated with an accredited BSW — whether through an in-person or online school — you have two options: You can either join the workforce immediately or continue your higher education journey to expand your future career options.
It's important to note that while a BSW is helpful for landing a career in this field, a bachelor's degree in a related field — such as public health, psychology, sociology, or substance use counseling — can be sufficient to land a job in some cases.
Master's Degree in Social Work (MSW)
Although it may help prepare students by providing foundational knowledge to build from, a BSW is not required to earn an MSW. According to a 2020 survey by The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), only one-third of MSW students had previously obtained BSWs, while the rest held undergraduate degrees in other fields. Additionally, BSW holders can sometimes accelerate the time it takes to finish their MSW. In general, MSWs take approximately two years to finish, but BSW holders may complete their master's in just one year.
A clinical social worker must have a master's degree as well as supervised experience hours and a license to practice mental health or counseling services, according to the BLS. In a social work master's program, students will have the chance to develop essential skills in the field, including how to prepare clinical assessments and complete diagnostic procedures. They will also have the opportunity to take on a supervised practicum or internship.
Doctorate of Social Work (DSW) vs. Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Social Work
It's important to note that DSWs and PhDs in social work each have a distinct focus. According to Nancy J. Smyth, a dean and professor at the University at Buffalo School of Social Work, "A DSW is a practice doctorate in social work, including practice at the leadership or management level. It differs from a PhD in social work/social welfare in that a PhD is focused more on developing [the student] as a researcher."
If working in academia is your objective, a PhD program is probably the best avenue to pursue. Meanwhile, a DSW will suit your educational needs if you prefer to pursue more hands-on social work training.
If working in academia is your objective, a PhD program is probably the best avenue to pursue. Meanwhile, a DSW will suit your educational needs if you prefer to pursue more hands-on social work training. Pursuing a doctoral degree in social work — whether a DSW or PhD — will ideally advance your career in the field, but it's unnecessary for obtaining licensure.