Your Guide to Social Work Degrees

Written by Coursera • Updated on Nov 29, 2021

Learn what degree you need to begin (or advance) your rewarding career in social services.

A social worker in a blue jacket with a scarf speaks with one of her patients in a brightly lit office.

Earning a social work degree from an accredited program is the first step toward a career in social services—a field that promotes the well-being and empowerment of individuals, families, and communities.

A Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) is designed to prepare you for entry-level administrative positions. By completing a Master of Social Work (MSW) or doctoral degree, you can build a foundation for a career as a licensed clinical social worker.

What is a clinical social worker?

Clinical social workers focus on assessing, diagnosing, treating, and preventing psychological, behavioral, and emotional disorders. A clinical social worker often provides therapy while connecting patients to community and governmental resources.

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Jobs in social work: What you can do with your degree

A career in social work can empower people from all walks of life to make a difference, particularly in underserved communities. Let’s take a look at some of the social work careers you might qualify for based on your level of degree.

Entry-level social work jobs

Earning a bachelor's degree in social work can lead to entry-level, non-clinical roles in social services: 

  • Case managers work with agencies and providers to coordinate care for clients.

  • Child welfare specialists help protect children by investigating reports of abuse or neglect.

  • Health educators create programs to educate communities on best health and wellness practices.

  • Substance abuse or mental health counselors advise people coping with behavioral, cognitive, emotional, and substance abuse issues.

  • Social and human service assistants work with social workers to aid vulnerable populations.

Master of Social Work jobs

If you want a career as a clinical social worker, you’ll need a MSW from an accredited college or university. With a master’s degree you can choose to work in a specialized niche, focusing on specific settings or populations. These are some career paths to consider: 

  • Child and family services: Help youth and families cope with challenging circumstances.

  • Health care: Provide support to patients with chronic or terminal illnesses. 

  • Mental health: Assist individuals with mental, emotional, and behavioral special needs.

  • Substance abuse: Work with people as they recover from addiction.

  • School: Promote best practices for academic success by counseling students and parents.

  • Social and community service: Plan and coordinate programs to foster community well being.

  • Gerontology: Support the mental and physical needs of the aging and elderly population. 

  • Criminal justice: Facilitate counseling programs in prisons and offer support to parolees as they re-enter society.

  • Military and veterans: Work with members of the armed forces and their families to cope with emotional and physical traumas.

Infographic showing types of social work: Blue and black text on a light gray background that reads, "Child welfare: Help families provide a safe and nurturing environment for children and youth, Substance abuse: Work with individuals and families on ways to recover from addiction, Aging: Assist older adults with living independently, focusing on dignity and quality of life, Community: Champion the rights of specific communities to achieve social justice, Mental Health: Provide licensed mental health services, Health care: Help individuals navigate the physical and emotional hardships of medical conditions.

What degree do you need to be a social worker?

You’ll find social work degree programs at multiple levels, from associate’s degrees from community colleges to doctoral programs at universities. Which degree level you choose will depend on your own unique career goals. If you’d like to practice clinical social work, you’ll need at least a master’s degree. An associate or bachelor’s degree may qualify you for entry-level positions.

Associate degree in social work

Earning an associate degree typically takes two years of full-time study at a community college or university. While this degree may qualify you for entry-level roles, it’s also commonly used as a stepping stone toward earning a bachelor’s degree at a four-year university. 

Admissions requirements: Most schools require a high school diploma or equivalent. At some community colleges, you’ll need to take placement tests in topics like math and English before getting admitted to a specific program like social work.

Who’s it for: An associate’s degree is a smart option if you’re interested in trying out social work in an entry-level role. It’s also a good way to save money, as many community colleges have lower tuition than four-year colleges. If you decide to pursue a higher degree, your community college credits will often transfer to bachelor’s programs.

Read more: Do College Credits Expire?

Bachelor of Social Work

Most non-clinical social work jobs require at least a bachelor’s degree. Depending on your program, earning a BSW takes about four years of full-time study (possibly less if you already have your associate degree). Depending on the program, earning a BSW may also qualify you for advanced standing in a social work master’s degree program. In this case, you may be able to complete your master’s degree in as little as one year.

Admission requirements: While requirements vary by school, most include a high school diploma or equivalent with a minimum GPA requirement. Some universities also require standardized test scores, a personal essay, and letters of recommendation.

Tip: Coursework in an associate degree can help you raise your GPA to meet the requirements of a four-year college or university.  

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Who’s it for: If you know you’d like a career in social work, a BSW can build a foundation of skills and knowledge to set you up for success. This is also a first step toward earning a graduate degree in social work.

Master of Social Work

A master’s degree in social work (MSW) is among the requirements to become a licensed clinical social worker. These programs take around two years of full-time study and are designed to help you hone in on a specialization and develop clinical assessment skills. You can also take what you’ve learned out of the classroom and into the real world through supervised fieldwork or an internship, typically part of the curriculum.

Admission requirements: Most MSW programs require candidates to have a bachelor’s degree, though it doesn’t necessarily have to be in social work. It’s also common to see a minimum GPA, GRE scores, a personal essay, and professional references on the list of requirements.

Who’s if for: Aim for a master’s degree if you’d like to practice clinical social work or to enhance your job prospects and pay grade in the field.  

Doctor of Social Work

A doctoral degree in social work (DSW) is the highest level of clinical degree you can achieve in the field. These programs typically take two to five years and include more specialized training for advanced practice or leadership positions.

Admission requirements: Depending on the program, you’ll need a MSW or master’s degree in a similar field, as well as a minimum GPA, GRE scores, and a letter of recommendation. 

Who’s it for: While a MSW represents a terminal degree for many clinical social workers, consider a DSW if your career goals include supervisory positions, clinical research, or more advanced clinical practice.  

Tip: As you prepare a degree application, learn more about how to request a letter of recommendation (with advice on how to get more effective letters).

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PhD in social work

With a social work PhD program, you can prepare for research and academic teaching positions at universities. Earning this degree typically takes two years of coursework followed by two to four years spent working on a thesis paper or dissertation. 

Admission requirements: Admission to a PhD program in social work often has similar requirements to a DSW. You may also be asked to submit samples of publications or papers that demonstrate your research skills.

Who’s if for: A PhD in social work might be right for you if you’re interested in teaching social work at a college or university, or if you’d like to pursue advanced research in the field.

What is a dissertation?

A dissertation, sometimes called a thesis, is an original, independent research project completed as part of an advanced degree. Students often choose their own topic and present their findings to a panel of professors.

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Social work curriculum and field experience

Each social work program will have its own curriculum, with classes becoming more advanced as you pursue higher degrees. Topics you’re likely to study include:

  • Human behavior

  • Social services delivery systems

  • Research methods

  • Statistics

  • Social environment

  • Diversity, oppression, and social justice

  • Social welfare policy

  • Assessment and diagnosis

  • Strategic planning

At the graduate level, curricula often contain coursework on specialized topics, like couple and family therapy, child welfare, death and dying, substance abuse, and social services for older adults.

Many programs at the associate, bachelor's, and master's level also include field experience, where you work under the supervision of a social worker in a real world setting. This allows you to apply what you’ve learned in the classroom while building valuable experience for your resume.

How to become a licensed social worker

All 50 states require a license for clinical social workers, and most require licensure for non-clinical social workers as well. Licensing requirements vary by state, so check with your state licensing board for up-to-date guidelines where you live.

Generally speaking, there are five licensing levels you may be required to obtain to practice in your state. Exams are administered by the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB). Let’s take a look at the educational requirements for the licensing exam at each level:

  • Associate: No prerequisites

  • Bachelors: BSW with no post-degree experience

  • Masters: MSW with no post-degree experience

  • Advanced Generalist: MSW with two years of post-master’s supervised experience

  • Clinical: MSW with two years of post-master’s direct clinical experience

Learn more about why you might choose a career in social work:

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Social workers work with different populations doing different things, and with people of all ages.

How to choose a social work degree program

If you’ve decided to advance your education in social work, consider these factors as you look for a degree program to suit your goals:

  • Accreditation: Most state regulatory boards require that you get a degree from a college or university accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) or another nationally-recognized accrediting agency.

  • Curriculum and specializations: While core classes will likely be similar from school to school, look for a program that offers electives or specializations in your areas of interest.

  • Field education opportunities: Most degree programs require field work, but opportunities will vary based on location and the types of organizations in the community. Choose programs with work experience opportunities that match your career goals.

  • Licensure exam pass rate: The exam pass rate for graduates can indicate how well the program prepares students for sitting the licensure exam.

  • Cost: Tuition is only part of the cost equation. Also consider the cost of living or commuting, as well as availability of work opportunities.

On-campus vs. online social work degrees

Opportunities exist to earn a social work degree online at every level, from associate to PhD. Online and in-person learning environments each come with their own set of challenges and benefits.

More traditional on-campus programs give you access to university facilities and amenities, as well as more face-to-face interaction with professors and other social work students. Class schedules tend to be fixed, which might be a challenge for learners who are working, raising a family, or managing other commitments. 

Online programs tend to offer greater flexibility. This could make it easier to manage multiple life obligations simultaneously. You could also save money on both tuition and transportation. Since online programs often offer the same curriculum taught by the same faculty as their in-person counterparts, you won’t have to relocate to attend a highly-ranked school. 

If you choose to earn your social work degree online, you can usually complete your field experience requirements at an approved organization within your community. 

Get started with Coursera

Explore the fundamentals of social work through the Social Work: Practice, Policy and Research MasterTrack® Certificate from the top-rated school of social work in the US. If you decide to apply to the University of Michigan Master of Social Work (MSW) and are accepted, your MasterTrack® Certificate will count toward your degree.

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Social Work MasterTrack® Certificate

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Article sources

1. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Social Workers, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/social-workers.htm." Accessed November 18, 2021.

Written by Coursera • Updated on Nov 29, 2021

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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