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Guide to Social Work Degrees

Michael McCarthy

Written By: Mike McCarthy

Published: 3/30/2022

Prospective students might consider a social work degree if they're caring, empathetic individuals who want to help people solve problems. Enrollees typically learn about systemic social issues, crisis intervention, community social services, and case management practices. Many students in these programs intend to become practicing social workers, but these degrees also teach valuable skills that may help graduates secure work in related fields. Most social work degrees include a required clinical term that allows students to gain real-world experience in a supervised care setting.

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What Is a Social Worker?

These professionals assist people who need help with a wide range of problems, including food insecurity, child welfare, substance use, and disability related to aging. They often work for state and local governments, non-profits, or healthcare providers. In addition, social workers may concentrate on serving particular populations, such as older adults, school-age children, or people navigating substance use disorder.

A social worker's education level helps determine what kinds of services they can legally provide. Bachelor's graduates can conduct macro social work — which involves organizing community groups and advocating for social policy improvements — rather than working directly with clients. Graduates with master's degrees can pursue a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) credential, which allows them to practice one-on-one with clients. During this micro social work, they might diagnose behavioral issues, write treatment plans, or teach coping techniques to people in need.

A social worker's education level helps determine what kinds of services they can legally provide.

What Degree Do You Need To Be a Social Worker?

Different levels of education may qualify you for different responsibilities as a social worker. Below, we detail the kinds of work you can do with each degree.

A bachelor's degree qualifies graduates for macro social work practice, such as community organizing and designing aid programs for charities. A bachelor's degree in this field can be called a Bachelor of Arts in Social Work, Bachelor of Science in Social Work, or Bachelor of Social Work (BSW).
Master's degree graduates can work under the eye of an LCSW while they study for their licensure exam. Once they're licensed, they can treat clients individually or in group settings. Depending on their specialty, they might help someone cope with mental illness, arrange an adoption for a family, or help young students deal with bullying at school. A master's degree in this field is usually called a Master of Social Work (MSW).
Social workers with a doctoral degree tend to focus either on research that advances the discipline or on leadership roles within a social work organization. Those who want to conduct research and work as college professors usually earn PhDs in social work, whereas practitioners typically earn a professional doctorate called a Doctor of Social Work (DSW).

Online Social Work Programs

Most online social work degrees feature an asynchronous class format — including core social work courses and electives — that doesn't require students to be online at particular times. Instead, they can complete assignments and watch lecture recordings at their convenience as long as they respect due dates. However, most bachelor's degrees and all pre-licensure master's degrees require field experience, which online learners must complete at an approved site.

View our lists of the best online bachelor's in social work and best online master's in social work programs, or check out our MSW state hub to find a program near you.

How Long Does It Take To Become a Social Worker?

You can become a social worker in as little as four years if you take a full-time course load and complete your bachelor's degree in that time. However, most students need more than four years to finish. Once you finish a bachelor's program, becoming an LCSW takes another four to six years: two or three years to earn a master's degree, at least two years of supervised practice, and some time to schedule, complete, and receive the results from a licensure exam.

Earning a doctorate takes at least three more years. In general, a Doctor of Social Work (DSW) takes less time to complete than a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in social work because PhDs usually require more dissertation research. Therefore, DSW students may be able to join the job market more quickly than PhD candidates.

Social Work Specializations

Most BSW and MSW degrees are generalist programs, but some schools may let you choose a concentration to tailor your studies. Since social workers can work in a variety of industries and with a range of client populations, it may be beneficial if you have specialist knowledge in the field that most interests you. We've listed a few social work specializations below.

Aging specialists help older adults access care and discuss their physical and mental health concerns. Students might learn about societal perspectives on aging, nutrition for older adults, and physiology beyond middle age.
A specialty in children and adolescents can benefit those who want to work in schools or human services. This concentration typically includes courses on developmental psychology and human behavior, family dynamics in various cultures, and ethical responsibilities when working with children.
Healthcare is a broad specialization for students who want to help people navigate care for their physical and mental well-being. Coursework may cover client advocacy, acute care, depression, and major healthcare legislation.
A substance use and addiction concentration trains future social workers to help clients with substance use disorder. They learn about the neurophysiological effects of drugs and alcohol, types of treatment plans, and relevant laws and policies.

Learn about similar online degree programs in substance use counseling, school counseling, human services, or psychology.

What Can You Do With a Social Work Degree?

Most social work degrees are strongly oriented toward helping students become social workers. However, the skills that faculty emphasize during these programs can potentially help graduates pursue related career paths in social justice and mental health services.

According to Burning Glass Technologies, a data analytics company, the top-requested skills in social worker job posts include aptitude in mental health, organization and planning, crisis intervention, and communication. We've listed some roles below that call for similar knowledge and abilities.

Career counselors help people pursue their career goals by choosing jobs they enjoy and are well-suited for. They interview clients, interpret vocational tests, and hold mock interviews. Some employers may only hire career counselors with master's degrees in counseling rather than social work, so keep this in mind when considering a career.

Health education specialists teach helpful practices and behaviors to improve clients' physical and mental health and safety. They often meet with grassroots groups and policymakers to advocate for community health improvements.

School counselors track students' academic progress and help them find useful courses to take. They may work at any level from kindergarten through high school. Those who want to work in this position need a master's degree in school counseling. Then, they can secure a license, which is required to work as a counselor in every state.

Social and community service managers run programs and operations for government and private social service agencies. Much of their work involves outreach to donors and data analysis to evaluate the success of particular initiatives.

What Are the Licensure Requirements for Social Workers?

The Association of Social Work Boards details the requirements for different types of social work licenses in each state, including education and supervision. The following outline includes the requirements for licensure in most cases:

Candidates must take an exam for each license they seek.
Bachelor's graduates can earn a nonclinical license to practice macro social work, which grants the designation "licensed bachelor social worker" or a similar variation on this.
LCSW applicants need an MSW and 1,500-4,000 hours of supervised experience.

License holders need to complete continuing professional education to maintain their licenses. Although the requirements differ by state, all social workers must attend 18-45 hours of classes or training modules each year. Certain states allow social workers to complete some or all of their continuing education via distance learning.

How Much Does a Social Work Degree Cost?

Costs vary greatly by school and degree level, so there's no solid answer to this question. The Education Data Initiative has collected expense data for all degree levels, though these numbers don't apply to social work degrees in particular.

Although cost is a crucial factor in most students' calculations, it's also worth considering your long-term return on investment. Each degree level you earn tends to raise your earning potential and lower your chances of unemployment. This means that the upfront costs in time and money may be worth it over time.

Funding a Social Work Program

One popular cost-saving measure is attending a public college in the state where you reside. You may also be able to receive the in-state tuition rate at a public school in another state if you attend online. In fact, many state schools charge this lower rate to online students regardless of residency.

No matter where or how you choose to study, you should apply for all available financial aid, which can potentially save you thousands of dollars in student debt. The ideal forms of aid are grants, scholarships, and work-study programs, which lower the total cost of a degree without requiring repayment after you graduate. Most students take out loans once they've exhausted all gift aid possibilities, starting with lower interest government loans. Whether you study online or in person, you can typically qualify for the same funds from government, school, or private sources.

The ideal forms of aid are grants, scholarships, and work-study programs, which lower the total cost of a degree without requiring repayment after you graduate.

You can begin the financial aid process by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which helps determine your eligibility for federal funding. Most schools and state governments also require you to complete the FAFSA. You can't qualify for federal funding if you have undocumented immigration status, but your state may have an alternate form to help you apply for its aid programs. Check with the financial aid office at your college to make sure it accepts funds from particular sources.

Beyond government aid, you can pursue a range of private scholarships specific to the social work major, including the options listed below.

Scholarship name Award amount Eligibility
Consuelo W. Gosnell Memorial Scholarship $4,000 awarded to 10 recipients Members of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) who attend or have been accepted into an accredited MSW program
Melanie Foundation Scholarship $2,500 awarded to one recipient Graduate school students studying the link between mental health and community violence
Verne LaMarr Lyons Memorial Scholarship $4,333 awarded to six recipients Members of the NASW who attend or have been accepted into an accredited MSW program

Is a Social Work Degree Worth It?

There's no answer to this question that applies to everyone because personal circumstances may differ. Ultimately, your decision may come down to whether your passion for helping people solve problems outweighs the possible negatives. As with any career, there are pros and cons to consider, including those outlined below.

Potential Benefits

The social work profession is growing faster than the U.S. average. Mental health and substance abuse social workers are enjoying an especially rapid rate of growth at 15%, a full 3% higher than all types of social workers combined. The Burning Glass data referenced above indicates that social workers are the highest in demand in the three most populous states: California, Texas, and Florida.

Recent social work graduates are usually content with their jobs. A 2020 CWSE survey notes that 90% of respondents report being either very satisfied or somewhat satisfied.

Social work is a more diverse field than many others in the U.S., as indicated in the survey above, with 22% identifying as Black, 14% as Latinx, and 90% as women.

Potential Drawbacks

Social workers earn relatively low salaries compared to other professionals with the same level of education. Their median annual salary is $51,760, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which includes a sample drawn from graduates of BSW, MSW, and DSW programs. However, the median pay is $67,860 and $80,340 for all bachelor's graduates combined and all master's graduates combined, respectively.

Social workers can be subject to compassion fatigue and burnout because of their work. This is particularly true of workers serving populations that are especially vulnerable to disasters and traumatic events, such as COVID-19. It's worth considering how you intend to balance your education and career aspirations with your mental health.

Still undecided on your degree? Check out our hubs for the best online bachelor's, master's, and doctoral programs to explore degree options in other fields.

How To Choose a Social Work Program

To figure out which criteria are most crucial for you when deciding on the best social work program, try asking yourself some of the following questions:

Is this college accredited? What about its social work degree program?

To earn a social work license, you may need to enroll in both an institutionally accredited school and a programmatically accredited program. The program accrediting body for social work is the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), which maintains a directory of approved programs.

Will this MSW program give me credit for earning a BSW?

Most schools feature accelerated MSW tracks for students who already hold a bachelor's in social work. These fast-track programs allow you to skip required prerequisite classes.

What does a social work degree cost?

Tuition and fees can vary widely, and some colleges might offer you more favorable financial aid packages than others. However, the most expensive school doesn't necessarily lead to the best employment outcomes and vice versa.

Do I want to study on campus or online?

The chief virtues of distance learning are often centered around an online program's flexibility and potential affordability. On the other hand, it may be hard to start building a professional network virtually. This drawback can be partly offset by networking opportunities during your internship or clinical experience, depending on what level of degree you're pursuing.

FAQs About Social Work Programs

Can I Study Social Work Online?

You can earn a CSWE-accredited BSW, MSW, and DSW/PhD in social work online. Bachelor's and master's degrees typically have a field education requirement that you'll need to complete in person.

What Degree Is Best for Social Work?

To be a social worker, you need to study social work. You may be able to use knowledge and skills learned in a social work program to secure work in another industry, but the inverse is almost never true: Employers won't hire someone for a social worker position unless they earned at least a bachelor's degree in this discipline.

Is a Social Work Degree Hard?

The answer depends on what you find difficult. Social work curricula draw on lessons from liberal arts disciplines — such as psychology, sociology, and public policy — with less emphasis on complex mathematics and hard science. Students may also complete many writing assignments over the life of their degree, so you may struggle if you find writing difficult.

What Field of Social Work Pays the Most?

According to the BLS, the highest paying positions for social workers are in local government, followed by ambulatory healthcare employers, such as home and outpatient healthcare services.

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