Is It Worth It to Get a Master’s in Social Work?

By Janice Monti
Last Updated: July 21, 2020

The employment outlook for social workers remains positive across the subfields of community and social services, counseling, and healthcare. Continued job growth has boosted the demand for social workers with advanced training. While bachelor degree-holders can find ample entry-level and direct-services positions, an MSW can lead to more advanced career paths and higher salaries.

Students interested in social work careers often ask if a graduate degree is worth the time, expense, and effort. This guide explores some of the costs and benefits of earning an MSW.

What Can I Do With a Master's in Social Work?

A bachelor's in social work prepares graduates to enter direct-service positions such as caseworkers or mental health assistants. A master's in social work provides the advanced knowledge needed to move into more rewarding and better paying careers. For example, most states require an MSW for the licensed clinical social worker certification.

Among the more than 700,000 social workers employed in the U.S, the majority find positions in child, family, and school social work, followed by healthcare, mental health, and substance abuse fields. As the value of social work training expands, MSW degree-holders may also enter nontraditional careers, such as conflict mediators, human resources counselors, or labor relations specialists.

Alex Honigman, a licensed clinical social worker who became an educational consultant, views his MSW as giving him "the freedom to do more than just therapy or testing."

How Much Does a Social Worker Make With a Master's?

While social workers have earned a reputation as historically underpaid, the field offers considerable opportunities and competitive salaries. As Alex Honigman observes, "There is so much potential and flexibility to the degree. There are jobs out there that pay your education in the nonprofit sector. There are others with starting pay that is quite good, though the positions may be more challenging or difficult."

The BLS reports that social workers in all categories earn a median annual salary of $50,470. Licensed clinical social workers, who generally have completed an MSW degree, earn nearly $58,000 on average, significantly higher than social workers who enter the field with a BSW. Bachelor-degree holders in social casework earn only $45,090, while those in medical casework earn $31,253 on average.

Is There a Downside to Getting an MSW?

Prospective social workers often weigh the benefits of an MSW with the costs of earning the degree and the relatively low starting salaries. The average MSW graduate leaves school with more than $44,000 in student loan debt. Many social workers who also carry undergraduate loans may have to repay over $60,000 while earning less than $50,000 a year.

Julia Koerwer, who plans to become a sex therapist after earning her licensed clinical social work certification, expresses one of the major concerns shared by many MSW graduates about student loan debt: "I want to acknowledge that having a field that requires folks to take out loans for higher education and then doesn't pay salaries where the loans can be easily paid off is a recipe for encouraging individuals with more privilege to join the field, while isolating others."

Fortunately, social workers may take advantage of federal, state, and privately-funded loan forgiveness programs that reduce monthly payments or completely eliminate loan balances. Social workers earning relatively low salaries or struggling to make loan payments may also qualify for income-based repayment and interest-free refinancing plans.

Frequently Asked Questions about MSWs

Is an MSW hard?

Compared to a BSW, a master's degree in social work places more emphasis on advanced research, policy analysis, and clinical practice. Many students consider the field internship, requiring more than 1,000 hours of hands-on training, the most challenging component of their graduate training, working long hours, learning time management, and confronting stressful situations.

How much is an MSW program?

Several factors determine the overall cost of an MSW degree. Tuition expenses reflect academic reputation, in-state versus out-of-state rates, and differential pricing for online and campus-based credits, The National Center for Educational Statistics reports an average annual tuition of approximately $14,000 for an MSW at public institutions and more than $36,000 at private universities.

Should I get a master's in social work or counseling?

Both professions require graduate degrees and state certification, although they differ in their training and the type of services they offer. While counseling degrees prepare graduates for specialized practice areas, identifying disorders and administering therapy, MSW programs emphasize clinical assessments and interventions. Social workers use case management training to locate resources that enable their clients to develop strategies to improve their lives.

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