Master of Social Work (MSW) Degree: A Guide

Written by Coursera • Updated on

In order to qualify for many roles in the social work field, you will first need to earn your Master of Social Work degree.  

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Social workers tackle a number of issues. Whether you’re interested in working with individuals (known as a micro practice), addressing larger systemic problems (known as a macro practice), or falling somewhere in between (known as a mezzo practice), social work can be a meaningful career with strong growth potential. In order to qualify for many roles in the social work field, you will first need to earn your Master of Social Work (MSW) degree.  

Let’s discuss the MSW degree, what it takes to earn one, and the career options you can pursue once you graduate.  

What is an MSW degree? 

A Master of Social Work degree is advanced education you can pursue once you complete your bachelor’s degree. Some students who enroll in an MSW degree program may have first earned their Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree, though that’s not necessary. You can major in any number of subjects before deciding to pursue your MSW. 

It’s worth noting that some programs combine the BSW and MSW in order to shorten the length of time it takes to earn both—from six years to five. If you have not yet declared a major but have some interest in earning your MSW, it might be worth exploring whether your college or university has such a program. 

Learn more: What Should I Major In? 5 Things to Evaluate

Types of MSW degrees programs

There are a few different program options when it comes to earning your MSW degree: 

  • Accelerated: If you have some professional experience in the social work field, you may qualify for an accelerated MSW program, which takes around 16 months to finish rather than 24. Not all MSW programs offer an accelerated track, though, so it’s a good idea to research ‘accelerated MSW program’ for more info about the ones that do. 

  • Advanced standing: If you’ve earned a BSW degree, then you may qualify for an advanced standing MSW program, which applies some of the coursework you’ve already completed toward your MSW degree. Depending on the credits that transfer, you’ll complete about half the coursework of a traditional MSW program and even perhaps half the required number of field education hours. 

  • Dual: A dual MSW program makes it possible for you to earn two degrees, your MSW and another master’s degree, such as a Master of Public Health (MPH) or Master of Science (MS) in Nonprofit Leadership. You’ll likely need to apply to both programs, but when you finish the requirements—which are designed to overlap—you will graduate with two degrees in a shorter amount of time.   

  • Clinical: Often considered a specialization you can select when earning your MSW, the clinical social work track prepares you to become a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) after graduation by emphasizing practical coursework, such as behavioral assessment and intervention techniques. 

  • Traditional: A traditional MSW degree program takes two years of full-time study to complete and typically incorporates foundational coursework in social work with more specialized topics, like children, young adults, and families. You will likely be expected to complete up to 70 credits as well as around 900 to 1200 field education hours.  

Learn more: Your Guide to Social Work Degrees

Length of time + cost

Depending on the type of program you enroll in, and your ability to attend either part-time or full-time, the MSW degree takes between one and three years

Students enrolled in a traditional MSW degree program can expect to spend their first year completing coursework and their second year taking specialized coursework and completing their field education hours. Students who take three years to complete the degree can expect their coursework to stretch over two years (instead of one), and will likely spend the final year completing their field education hours.  

Types of coursework 

MSW degree programs tend to break down coursework into a general first-year overview and a specialized second-year concentration. (If you enroll in an advanced standing MSW program, you can expect to skip the first-year coursework.) Let’s go over the kinds of courses you might encounter. 

First year:

  • Social work and social welfare foundations 

  • Social welfare policies 

  • Social work research 

  • Diversity and social justice 

  • Human development 

Second year:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy 

  • Medical health disorders and diagnosis 

  • Child welfare policy 

  • Motivational interviewing technique

  • Substance use policy 

  • Advanced social welfare policy 

Concentration 

MSW degree programs generally offer at least a few concentrations, which are areas of specialization. You can learn more about a facet of social work, which may help prepare you for a career in that area. You can choose to concentrate in:

  • Clinical work 

  • Health 

  • Mental health 

  • Children, youth, and families 

  • Community organization and development

  • Community administration 

As you research MSW programs, take time to find out about the concentrations they offer and how they align with your larger professional goals. If you’re interested in working in a specific aspect of social work, then it might make sense to choose a related concentration.  

Field education requirement 

All MSW students are required to complete field education—an internship or practicum—designed to give you professional experience. The requirements differ by program, but generally all Master of Social Work students need to complete a one-year placement, though the number of hours may be reduced for advanced standing students. Make sure to check your program’s specifications so you understand the full requirements needed to graduate. 

What can you do with a MSW? 

With an MSW and licensure, you can pursue a number of social work roles, as well as more advanced administrative roles. Social work and its related specialties show strong growth potential over the next decade. Social worker roles are expected to grow by 12 percent, while substance abuse and mental health counselor roles are expected to grow by 23 percent, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) [1, 2].  

Job titleAverage salary on Glassdoor
Substance abuse counselor$41,610
Child social worker$51,300
Hospital administrator$53,925
School social worker$58,756
Medical social worker$63,987
Licensed clinical social worker (LCSW)$65,443

PhDs and DSWs 

If you’d like to achieve a terminal degree, or the highest degree possible in the field of social work, there are two options to explore once you earn your MSW. 

A PhD in social work tends to provide a more academic approach, and will prepare you to conduct advanced research in your area of specialization. A Doctor of Social Work (DSW), on the other hand, is the highest clinical degree you can achieve if you’re interested in the practice of social work and applied research.  

Read more: Your Guide to Social Work Degrees

Which MSW degree program is right for me? 

The right MSW degree program is the one that will help you achieve your personal and professional goals. It’s also important to evaluate your resources, such as the cost of a program and the time you have to complete it. 

Accreditation 

Unlike accreditation agencies that oversee regional or national accreditation for higher education, only the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) can provide accreditation for social work programs. MSW programs should list whether they have CSWE accreditation somewhere on their website, usually under the program details page. Verifying that information will be important in ensuring you’re receiving a quality social work education. You can also look at CSWE’s Directory of Accredited Programs.  

Curriculum

Spend time perusing the general, specialized, and elective coursework each program entails, and consider how they align with your larger career goals. Will you learn the fundamentals you need in order to begin a successful career in social work? Will you be able to access electives relevant to your interests?

Field education 

Considering the emphasis placed on field education, it can help to see where many current students at each program complete their hours. If you want to work in a certain area, such as addiction counseling, but the program you’re considering doesn’t have a strong placement record in that area, then it might be best to reach out to the program director and get more information—or explore other options. 

Costs 

Many people enter social work for the meaning and value they can offer individuals or communities, but it’s still reasonable to want a return on your investment. Researching each program’s costs—as well as the financial assistantship they may be able to offer—can help you weigh the overall price versus your potential earning power after graduation. Many schools also publish employment data, so you may be able to get a clearer idea about where graduates go on to work after leaving the program. 

Online vs. in-person 

A number of MSW programs are now offered online, which may provide greater flexibility in terms of your course schedule, and even make it easier to continue working while earning your degree—a helpful way to offset the overall cost of your education.

Explore further

If you’re interested in earning your Master of Social Work, learn more about University of Michigan’s Social Work: Practice, Policy and Research MasterTrack® Certificate. It takes around four months to complete and counts toward completion of the University of Michigan’s accelerated Master of Social Work program if you apply and are accepted. 

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Related articles 

Article sources

1. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Social Workers, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/social-workers.htm.” Accessed February 7, 2022. 

2. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/substance-abuse-behavioral-disorder-and-mental-health-counselors.htm.” Accessed February 7, 2022. 

Written by Coursera • Updated on

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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