MSW Programs

For those looking to become a social worker, an advanced degree is an important part of advancing your career and establishing yourself as a trusted, qualified provider of social services. While each state sets its own requirements for licensure, most require a Master of Social Work degree.

While some social work jobs are open to candidates with a bachelor’s degree, a Master of Social Work can provide job seekers a wider and richer array of opportunities. Furthermore, the depth of clinical experience and of knowledge gained in an MSW program is invaluable preparation for a career in social work.


MSW Degree

Students who know which area of social work they would like to practice in may choose to pursue a particular program within the MSW degree. Social work graduate programs allow students to focus their study and take more courses in these specific areas, allowing them to gain a specialized knowledge base and skill set that will best prepare them for their social work careers. A student hoping to pursue a career as a child and family social worker may benefit from enrolling in an MSW program with a family social work concentration. When researching MSW programs, be sure to inquire whether the school has the concentration you are looking for.

Common social work graduate programs include:

MSW Accreditation

The accrediting institution for MSW programs is the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). The CSWE’s Commission on Accreditation develops certain criteria and standards, as well as methods and policies for the implementation of these standards, to which its board of directors refers when evaluating schools and determining accreditation status. Currently, 231 Master of Social Work programs and 13 MSWs in candidacy are accredited by the CSWE.

MSW Admissions

Candidates for Master of Social Work programs must hold a bachelor’s degree from a nationally- or regionally-accredited college or university. Though this bachelor’s degree does not have to be in social work, candidates who have obtained a BSW within five years of applying may have the option of pursuing an Advanced Standing MSW program, which eliminates many of the foundational requirements for the degree. MSW programs look for applicants who have a well-rounded academic background that spans the liberal arts, biological sciences and social sciences.

Experience in human services fields, whether volunteer or professional, is viewed especially favorably. Admissions committees search for evidence that speaks to an applicant’s commitment to the foundational values of the social work profession, such as social justice, social change and diversity, as well as his or her possession of certain personal qualities, including empathy, sensitivity, communication skills, reasoning ability and care for others.

MSW programs generally require the following application materials:

  • Application form
  • Application fee
  • Official academic transcripts from all attended colleges or universities
  • Resume
  • Statement of purpose
  • Letters of recommendation from academic and professional references

Graduate schools of social work may not have a specific GPA cutoff, but they usually prefer a GPA over 3.0 on a 4-point scale as proof of the applicant’s ability to handle the academic rigor of a graduate program. The GRE may or may not be required by MSW programs, depending on certain schools’ entrance standards. Check individual program websites to determine whether you need to take the test for admission and for exact application due dates.

MSW Curriculum

Social work encompasses the study of human society, through both the very broad (called macro) and the very intimate (called clinical) lenses. Macro social work studies the broader social systems that shape the individual, such as the environment, cultures, communities and groups, while clinical social work narrows the scope of study to working with individuals and family units. As such, the curriculum of MSW programs often falls into these two general categories: macro social work and clinical social work. Students may study both macro and clinical social work equally or focus their study depending on individual career aspirations. An aspiring community social worker, for instance, may benefit from studying macro social work, while an aspiring mental health social work practitioner might choose to specialize in clinical social work.

As per the interdisciplinary nature of social work, MSW programs offer a variety of courses, some of which are required as foundational courses and others that students can tailor to their individual needs. These courses usually cover human behavior, social policy, family units, welfare, social justice and social change, as well as interventions, practitioner ethics, research methods, design and analysis.

Sample courses include:

  • Human Behavior and the Social Environment
  • Social Work Practice with Individuals
  • Social Work Practice with Families and Groups
  • Social Welfare
  • Social Policy Analysis
  • Social Policy in Organizations
  • Social Work Research Methods
  • Fieldwork Practicum

In a human-oriented field like social work, it’s especially important that education extends beyond the classroom. MSW programs include a significant field education component, such as a clinical internship or field placement, and often require students to complete a certain number of hours of fieldwork to supplement their academic study. Students may be placed with schools, hospitals, businesses, social service agencies, and government and community organizations in order to gain practical, real-world experience and hone their professional skills in areas such as clinical case management, practitioner ethics, risk assessment, DSM diagnoses and evidence-based interventions.

An MSW degree typically takes two years to complete if the student is full time. However, if a student is part time, completion of the degree can take three to four years depending on each semester’s course load. The first year is called the foundation year, during which students take required courses, and the second year is called the advanced year, during which students may wish to take specialized coursework by pursuing a concentration.

MSW Tuition

Tuition for MSW programs generally falls within the range of $30,000–$40,000 per academic year. As with any academic program, prospective students should factor in additional costs such as books, registration fees, health insurance and technology fees. However, social work scholarships are available to offset these costs. Additionally, residential costs can be eliminated for students considering online MSW programs.

Further Reading