How Long Does it Take to Become a Social Worker?

The time it takes to become a social worker generally depends upon your previous education and your career goals. While some social work jobs are open to individuals who have a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW), becoming a licensed social worker may require a Master of Social Work (MSW). 

It can take about two years to complete a traditional MSW program, but some students qualify for faster options. Full-time students may earn their graduate degree faster than part-time students. Be sure to check with your preferred MSW program for more information.

Program Options

Though it varies depending on the university, there are on-campus, hybrid and online social work programs leading to an MSW. You may choose a traditional master’s option, an accelerated option or an advanced standing option. Some universities start their coursework with generalized classes before students start a specialized curriculum. 

When making a decision, the best program option for you depends on your previous education, experience, career goals and availability for classes. Those factors all may affect how long it takes to become a social worker.

When considering a program leading to a master’s in social work, it may be useful to consider your personal preferences, such as whether you want to continue to work while attending school. In that case, an accelerated program, which isn’t available as a part-time program, might not be the best choice for you.

You may also want to consider an online MSW program, which may provide more flexibility and reduce the time you have to spend traveling to campus. You can find traditional, advanced standing and accelerated MSW programs offered online.

Traditional Program

A traditional Master of Social Work program is a graduate-level program. This option, also called a foundational program, is for students who didn’t study social work at the undergraduate level.

To apply for a traditional program, you must have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college with a minimum grade point average. Though it varies per university, the degree may not have to be in a particular major. The admission office may require you to submit a personal statement about why you want to become a social worker. You can discuss relevant work or volunteer experience in your essay. Applicants generally submit a resume, transcripts from previous colleges attended and recommendations from people familiar with their academic or professional work. 

It takes about two years to complete an online master’s degree in social work program in a traditional way. Students may pursue about 60–65 credits in coursework, and MSW students are required to complete approximately 900 hours of clinical practice.

The first year of study may cover foundational topics such as social welfare policy, social work research, human behavior and differential diagnosis. Students also gain experience in field internships to put what they are learning into practice. 

The second year may cover more advanced topics, and students may specialize in fields such as health and aging, child welfare, addictions or trauma. Many programs include electives that allow students to focus on the area of social work that most interests them. 

After earning a master’s degree, graduates may register for the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) exam and complete other licensing requirements in the state where they plan to practice and become a licensed social worker.

To become a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), you must complete an MSW degree and then complete about two years of supervised social work experience before you can be licensed to work in a clinical setting. An MSW may also be good preparation for pursuing a Doctorate of Social Work (DSW) degree from an on-campus or online DSW program.

Accelerated Program

If you want to speed up how long it takes to become a social worker, consider an accelerated program. Students complete the same courses and clinical requirements in an accelerated MSW program as they would in a traditional program. However, they may earn the degree in less than two years. Accelerated programs are only open to full-time students, and students may take more credit hours per term than they would take in a traditional program. 

Admission requirements are similar to a traditional MSW program. An accelerated program is a good option for students with a strong academic record. Prior work or volunteer experience in social work may be beneficial for an accelerated program admission.  

Advanced Standing Program

Though total requirements may vary school by school, if you already have a bachelor’s degree in social work, you can reduce how long it takes to get a master’s degree in social work by applying for an MSW program with an advanced standing track.

With a BSW from a Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) accredited program, you may qualify for advanced standing admission. That allows you to bypass the foundational coursework that you likely have learned as an undergraduate. Instead, you’ll only need to take the advanced and specialized coursework and complete a field placement or internship. 

By skipping the foundational classes, you might be able to earn the MSW in as little as a year of full-time study, depending upon the program. Advanced standing students may also attend part time if they prefer.

Advanced standing might be a good option if you earned your BSW within the last five years. However, admission to these programs is competitive, so you may need a strong GPA. The university may look for relevant work or volunteer experience, too.

Career Paths After Your MSW

It’s possible that earning a Master of Social Work can prepare you for a variety of social work careers. Many students may already know the types of clients they want to work with and take specialized classes in their master’s program to prepare for that work.

Though the one you choose may vary depending on your goals, social work career paths may include:

  • Children, Family and School Social Workers: In these jobs, a social worker helps children and their parents. They may help a family find adequate housing or intervene if a child is neglected. They may also work in a school providing students with support in their mental, emotional and behavioral health.. 
  • Medical Social Worker: These social workers provide emotional and mental health support to people who are ill and to their families. 
  • Mental Health Social Worker: These social workers help people with mental health or addiction issues. They may provide therapy and rehabilitation services. 
  • Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW): LCSWs are able to provide clinical mental health services to clients independent of supervision. They may own an independent practice and/or supervise future LCSWs. Typically, LCSWs earn an MSW degree with a clinical focus, such as an online LCSW program.
  • Military Social Worker: Military social workers interact with members of the armed forces and their families, providing counseling and support to help them address and manage the unique challenges they face.
  • Community Social Worker: These roles may be found within government agencies and nonprofits or in policy creation, analysis or advocacy.
  • Social Work Administrator: Administrators manage the staff and business aspects of their agency, and they may handle grant applications, perform research and develop service-delivery methods. 

Page last updated in November 2020.