Earn a Master’s Degree in Social Work (MSW)

Students pursue master of social work (MSW) degrees with many different goals in mind. Many do so because they wish to become clinical social workers.

In addition to performing duties like case management, licensed clinical social workers can provide counseling services. However, they need an MSW to qualify for licensure in every state.

Degree-seekers enroll in MSW programs for many other reasons. Some might want to work in research, while others wish to eventually earn a doctorate. Still others may be interested in administrative jobs within the field. An MSW can help candidates achieve all of these goals.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), social workers earned a median annual salary of $50,470 in 2019. The BLS also projects a 13% job growth rate from 2019-2029. Clinical workers can look forward to especially good job prospects as demand for treatment and counseling services continues to rise.

Read on for more information about MSW degrees.

Admission Requirements for an MSW Program

Candidates must earn a bachelor's degree before pursuing an MSW degree. Universities usually set a minimum undergraduate GPA as part of their admissions requirements; typically 2.5-3.2. Even programs without GPA requirements remain competitive. The higher the GPA, the better.

Sometimes colleges also set minimum test score requirements, expecting applicants to earn a certain GRE score.

Candidates do not necessarily need a bachelor of social work to apply for MSW programs. Colleges often consider applicants who majored in similar fields, like sociology or psychology. However, those with social work bachelor's degrees can often apply for advanced standing MSW programs. These programs allow students to bypass certain foundational requirements and graduate faster.

Core Concepts and Coursework for MSW Programs

An MSW curriculum includes foundational, advanced, and practical courses. An MSW program's foundational component usually covers topics like human behavior in the social environment, social work with families and groups, and social welfare.

Unlike many bachelor's-level social work programs, MSW degrees allow learners to choose a specialization. For example, candidates might specialize in child welfare, health, mental health, private practice, school social work, or the criminal justice system.

Students usually complete their concentration courses at the advanced level. They may also choose advanced theoretical courses, like human sexuality, social work and the law, and psychodynamic theory. Degree-seekers hoping to become clinical social workers often take counseling or therapy courses.

Practical courses allow students to apply their acquired knowledge to real-life settings during supervised fieldwork or internships. Additionally, some schools require graduate learners to take research courses and carry out original research as a graduation requirement.

Online Master in Social Work Programs

Many students prefer to pursue social work master's programs online instead of through traditional on-campus programs. Distance learning programs offer candidates flexibility and independence for licensed social workers and other working professionals. They can also prove a great option for anyone who lives far away from a college campus.

Many programs follow an asynchronous format, allowing students to watch lectures and contribute to class discussions at any time. Others include synchronous components, which means learners may need to log on at specific times.

Social Work Licensure Requirements for an MSW

Licensure is essential for clinical social workers, who must obtain licensure in order to legally practice every state. In order to become licensed, candidates must possess a master's degree with accreditation from the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). Applicants should also pass the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) master's exam.

Licensed clinical social workers must maintain their credentials by meeting continuing education requirements. They can earn continuing education credit in multiple ways, including attending conferences, enrolling in graduate courses, or taking special professional education classes. Check with your state board to learn what qualifies as continuing education credit and how much you need to maintain licensure.

Certifications for Qualified Social Workers

Clinical social workers can earn additional qualifications through certification. Professional associations grant certifications instead of state licensure boards, and social workers do not necessarily need certification to practice. However, social work professionals opt to earn certification to bolster their credentials and confirm their specializations. Certification can also boost their chances of finding a job, especially within a certain focus area.

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) offers several certifications for social workers. Licensed clinical social workers can earn the Qualified Clinical Social Worker (QCSW), Clinical Social Worker in Gerontology (CSW-G), or Certified Clinical Alcohol Tobacco & Other Drugs Social Worker (C-CATODSW) qualifications, among others. To apply, candidates need an MSW and, usually, two years of work experience.

What Can You Do With a Master in Social Work?

Many MSW graduates go on to become clinical social workers, offering counseling services as they perform social work tasks like managing cases and providing community resources. While they can diagnose mental, behavioral, and emotional disorders, they cannot prescribe medication. As a result, clinical social workers often work closely with physicians or other medical professionals.

MSW graduates may also develop a specialization. For example, they can become a healthcare social worker or a mental health and substance abuse social worker.

An MSW can also help social workers achieve leadership roles as social and community service managers, heading community organizations or local government agencies. These managers set goals for their organization and department, and supervise staff. They enjoy a high median salary of $67,150 a year.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Why get an MSW?

    Prospective clinical social workers must earn an MSW to qualify for licensure. An MSW can serve as a stepping stone on the way to a career in social work research, or a doctoral degree. An MSW can also prove useful for individuals with political ambitions.

  • How long does it take to complete an MSW program?

    Generally speaking, a full-time student can complete an MSW in two years. That said, some students can enroll in accelerated programs and shave a semester or even a year off their expected timeline. Part-time students may need longer, taking 3-4 years to complete all of their coursework.

  • What's the difference between an MSW and a master's in counseling?

    An MSW prepares students for careers as clinical social workers, while a master's degree in counseling prepares students to become counselors. While clinical social work encompasses counseling, it also includes responsibilities like public welfare and case management. Counselors focus specifically on mental health guidance.

  • What does an MSW social worker do?

    An MSW social worker offers services as a clinical professional. This means they can diagnose behavioral and mental disorders, and they can treat those disorders through counseling. They also take on other responsibilities, like connecting vulnerable people with public resources and helping during crises.