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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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:
Social services delivery systems
Diversity, oppression, and social justice
Social welfare policy
Assessment and diagnosis
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
Many variables determine how long it takes to go from an interest in social work to working in the field. To start work as a licensed clinical social worker, it generally takes five to six years of school (a BSW and MSW) followed by two years of clinical work experience.
The median salary for a social worker in the US 2020 was $51,760, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) . This translates to just under $25 an hour. This is higher than the average median salary for all occupations.
Where social workers generally work with individuals, public health officials work with communities or larger populations on bigger picture health issues.
Many people pursue a degree in social work because they want to make a difference in people’s lives. It’s also a career field that’s quickly expanding—the BLS projects 12-percent job growth from 2020 to 2030, faster than average for all jobs . If you’re looking for a fulfilling career in a growing industry, social work might be a good fit.
1. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Social Workers, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/social-workers.htm." Accessed November 18, 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.