What is a Master of Social Work Degree?

While many graduate degrees offer students an opportunity for better career advancement, the master of social work goes one step further: It's actually a requirement for social workers who wish to enjoy full licensure in their state of residence.

In the United States, licensure of social workers is left up to each state's government, and the vast majority of states have determined that fully licensed social workers should at least proceed through a graduate-level program of study. For this reason, the MSW program at most universities is exceedingly stringent and specific, designed to teach social workers the skills they need to better serve the public, meet state requirements, and excel in their profession at every level.

Program Accreditation: Why it Matters for Graduate-Level Social Work Degrees

Though the master of social work is not considered a professional degree on par with those in law and medicine, it's still governed in much the same way. In order to ensure that students received the highest possible level of education during their graduate studies, most states will only allow full licensure of social workers whose graduate program was accredited by the Council on Social Work Education, or CSWE.

The Council on Social Work Education is considered the gold standard in terms of university review and full accreditation of social work programs. Students who intend to use their graduate degree for the purpose of full licensure should always ensure that their program of choice bears the CSWE seal of approval. If not, it may be exceedingly difficult or even impossible to sit for the final LCSW licensing examination in the future.

Master of Social Work Coursework: Students Have Their Choice of Academic Tracks

Most universities offer their MSW students the opportunity to split into one of two primary tracks. The first of these focus on direct-service social work, which is easily the most popular avenue taken by today's degree candidates. The second track focuses on clinical social work, which more often takes place in a hospital or medical setting and involves an approach more interested in counseling, therapy, and medication, to help those clients in a tough situation.

In addition to a variety of courses focused on everything from legal and ethical issues to proper counseling and client outreach, most universities that bear the CSWE seal require their students to engage in at least two years of related work experience. This work experience must be approved by the school, and often most total between 900 and 1,200 total hours. Requirements in this area will vary between universities and states, generally because of licensure requirements and local regulations.

A Solid Foundation for Doctoral Studies in Social Work

Graduates of an MSW program typically combine classroom instruction and job experience with significant research into the social work profession. As a result, those who successfully earn their MSW are often primed for further educational pursuits at the doctoral level. This is the ultimate goal for many social workers, and is often the key to moving up within the profession. A doctoral degree in the field also prepares social workers to become college-level instructors themselves, guiding an entirely new generation of social workers toward success in the occupation.

A Must-Have Degree for Many Social Workers

Though some states consider a bachelor's degree sufficient for entry-level work or provisional social work licensure, many other states enforce mandatory completion of an MSW program. With the right combination of instruction, work experience, and research, graduates with a master of social work will be primed for long-term success in the field and even more successful educational experiences in the future.

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