Your Guide to Social Work Degrees

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Learn what degree you'll 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 can lead to a rewarding career in social services—a field that promotes the well-being and empowerment of individuals, families, and communities. There are social work degrees available to earn at every level, including associate, bachelor's, master's, and doctorate. However, many entry-level administrative roles typically require a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW), while you'll need to earn a Master of Social Work (MSW) or higher to pursue a career as a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW).

In this article, we'll go over the major types of degrees available to earn when you're interested in studying social work, along with the jobs you can pursue with a bachelor's or master's in the subject.

Social work degrees

The type of social work degree you choose will depend on your 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. Let's go over each option.

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 (BSW)

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.

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 (MSW)

An MSW is required 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.

You don't need a BSW to earn your MSW. However, if you have your BSW, you may find that there are accelerated programs that will speed up the time it takes to earn your graduate degree.

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 it 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.  

Learn more: How to Become a Therapist

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 an 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 an 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.

PhD in social work

With a social work PhD program, you can prepare for university research and academic teaching positions. Earning this degree typically takes two years of coursework and between two and four years of 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 it 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.

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 levels 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.

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 look at some of the social work careers you might qualify for based on your degree level.

Bachelor of 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 an MSW from an accredited college or university. With a master’s degree, you can 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.

  • 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 prison counseling programs and support 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.

Learn more: 8 Jobs You Can Get with an MSW Degree

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.

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 fieldwork, 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 and the availability of work opportunities.

On-campus vs. online social work degrees

When you're interested in studying social work, you have a range of options when it comes to how you learn. There are both online and on-campus degrees in this field.

More traditional on-campus programs give you access to university facilities and amenities and 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 come with numerous benefits, including greater flexibility. Programs are often designed to be self-paced, so you can learn on your schedule, which makes it easier to manage your other responsibilities. Since online degrees often tend to be more affordable than their in-person counterparts, you may find that you save money on both tuition and transportation. 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

Learn more about social work with an introductory class, like Social Work Practice from the University of Michigan. You'll also find online degrees in related areas like Public Health and Global Public Health available to earn through Coursera. Each program offers more flexibility so you can fit learning into your schedule, rather than work around your education.

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Article sources

  1. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Social Workers," Accessed September 14, 2023.

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