Master’s in Social Work Programs
Ready to begin your search for an accredited Master’s in Social Work program? Use the state-specific guides below to find programs in your area, as well as information on social worker salaries, employment outlooks, and more.
Social Work is one of many fields comprising the helping professions. A cornerstone of social work practice is a focus on helping people in their environment, with an emphasis on social justice. This distinguishes social work from other professions. In addition to helping people cope with their feelings about a specific problem, social workers also assist people in taking action in their environment to alleviate their concerns.
As a field of study, social work offers a wide array of career options. To hold the title of social worker, these careers call for specific educational requirements from an accredited center of higher education. These are:
- Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) – an undergraduate degree from a four-year college or university.
- Master of Social Work (MSW) – a graduate degree (required for licensure in this field).
- Doctorate in Social Work (DSW or PhD) – a graduate degree generally for teaching and engaging in research at the university level as well as specialist status in a wide array of practice areas.
The MSW Curriculum
Social work curriculum varies across the United States. The first year foundation-building curriculum introduces students to the concepts of: social justice, direct practice (micro practice), organizational and community practice (macro practice), and other important concepts. In the second year, these programs often allow for students to broadly specialize in micro (clinical practice) or macro (organizational and community practice). If you’re not familiar with these categories of social work, read our post on the difference between micro and macro social work.
There may be specialized tracks such as gerontology, school social work, and so forth. Those who plan to provide direct services, such as clinical work, usually opt for the micro track. Others interested in policy, administration/management, program development or community practice can choose these areas of study.
It must be noted that some schools are now offering a “generalist” curriculum; in this case student curriculum plans are broader than those following more traditional tracks. The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) defines a generalist practice as follows:
Generalist practice is grounded in the liberal arts and the person and environment construct. To promote human and social well-being, generalist practitioners use a range of prevention and intervention methods in their practice with individuals, families, groups, organization, and communities. … Generalist practitioners incorporate diversity in their practice and advocate for human rights and social and economic justice. They recognize, support and build on strengths and resiliency of all human beings. They engage in research informed practice and are proactive in responding to the impact of context on professional practice.
There are pros and cons to both approaches to social work education, so it is important to do your research if forced to decide between the two paths.
Types of Social Work Programs
Colleges and universities provide a variety of programs to obtain the MSW. These options have expanded over the past two decades, thanks to technological advances making it possible to reach students in different ways.
While there are new delivery formats available to students, one must take care to avoid unaccredited colleges or universities, as well as commercial establishments known as “diploma mills.” This is particularly true of online schools that are not accredited. Most social work jobs require a degree from an accredited college or university, and state licensure also mandates that degrees are earned from properly accredited schools. If you are unsure whether a specific program is accredited, check the CSWE’s accreditation page, which details the standards and protocol of the accreditation process.
Read on for more information on the types of MSW programs currently offered across the country.
Accredited colleges and universities generally offer the MSW in a traditional classroom setting. Many now augment these by offering online or distant learning courses. Weekend and evening classes are also available at many accredited schools to accommodate students active in the work force.
Students who have a BSW degree are eligible to obtain the MSW in approximately three semesters (typically one calendar year) instead of the usual four-semester program. This is possible because the BSW curriculum provides many of the same core requirements provided in the first year of the MSW program. Those who have successfully completed these requirements with above average grades from an accredited college or university may be admitted to the graduate program as advanced standing students. As such, they generally complete the second year of the MSW curriculum and field education requirements to obtain the MSW degree. Some advanced standing students complete the field placement requirement over the summer (block placement), following completion of the second year curriculum. This extends the time needed to obtain the degree by three months. There may be other requirements based on the school’s specific criteria.
Learn more about advanced standing by visiting our guide to advanced standing MSW programs.
Numerous accredited schools offer social work degrees online, including some of the most respected schools of social work. It is important to verify accreditation before enrolling in any college or university with an online program. Many of the larger universities offer online instruction because this format is particularly attractive to those who are working while completing graduate school. Online education allows for flexibility of schedule, but it requires maturity and motivation in order to meet deadlines.
If you think online education is right for you, take a look at our directory of online MSW programs.
Program Length and Format
Generally, the MSW degree is a two-year program of study. Some opt to compete field education over the summers, which may extend the time required to graduate. The curriculum is generally taken in a specific sequence over four semesters, so classes may only be offered in one semester each year. Some, however, are offered in a summer session.
Perhaps the most useful part of social work curriculum is the knowledge gained from field education. Field placements offer MSW students an opportunity to work with an agency, learning under the guidance and tutelage of an experienced MSW. While the hours can be grueling and make it difficult to maintain outside employment, field placement is where students can gain mastery in their chosen career path. It is the equivalent of residency for doctors, but less strenuous in terms of hours required.
Field education and classroom instruction are considered to be equally important, with practicum experience being considered the “signature pedagogy”. As per accreditation standards, 900 hours of field experience is required. While there may be some flexibility, social work is known to have very rigorous standards for field education. Generally, students are in class two days per week and work in the field between one and two days, depending on the field placement agency. The intensive focus on field experience is a fundamental component of the accreditation standards.
Given the importance of field experience, students should be clear about the skills they wish to obtain. In choosing a graduate program, focus on those that offer field placements in the settings where you might want to work. It is helpful to know that prime placements are often competitive and often require an interview process before choosing which candidates will be placed there. It helps to have a high GPA and previous experience, even if it is volunteer experience, in your area of interest. Also note that while there may be some paid field placements, such as the Veterans Administration Hospital, financial compensation is unusual.
Field education is a crucial aspect of social work education; that’s why we put together the Ultimate Field Education Guide, which covers how it works and how to make the most of the experience.
In the United States, the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) is recognized by the Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) as the accrediting body for colleges and universities offering degrees in social work. As such, the CSWE determines the curriculum and requirements for obtaining a BSW, MSW and DSW or PhD in social work. This includes field experience requirements. The entire process is heavily monitored to ensure the highest standards are met.
Professional Social Work Credentials
Those who want to specialize in a specific area of social work may be credentialed in their areas of expertise; this is different from licensure. For example, one may choose to specialize in the areas of: school, gerontology, case management, military, addictions, and other social work practice. These credentials have specific requirements beyond the completion of the MSW, such as two years of post-masters practice in the specialty area. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) provides credentialing and determines specific requirements for each specialty.
Those who receive a graduate degree in social work may be certified or licensed at the appropriate level in each state. States have laws that mandate the specific requirements for licensure; most are fairly uniform. In all states, except California, the test scores from the national licensure exam are accepted. For information on licensure requirements in each state, visit our guide to social work licensure.
Positions in the Social Work field are forecasted to increase by 19 percent between now and 2022. Salaries for those with the MSW vary by state and position. As a rule of thumb, macro-level social workers earn more money than those providing direct services, including clinical social workers. This is particularly true for social workers who work as administrators in public and non-profit organizations. It should be noted that some government agencies provide higher salaries than non-profit organizations.
When considering employment options, you should consider student loan forgiveness programs available to practitioners in geographic areas where there is a shortage of social workers. Some employers, such as hospitals, mental health centers and other agencies, offer this as an incentive for their employees, but there are certain requirements to be eligible. Social workers who are deemed eligible for loan forgiveness programs find them to be quite helpful in repaying school loans.
Want to learn more about social work careers? Visit our guide to employment opportunities!