Social Worker Degree Online Guide

Becoming a social worker can be a rewarding career choice, and there are many potential routes to pursue within the field. Whether you plan to work with families, veterans, communities or another population, your journey to this career starts with a social work degree program. The following guide can help you to better understand the degrees available so you can choose the program that’s best for your goals and situation.  

Types of Social Work Degree Levels

Social work education opportunities are available at all levels from an associate degree to the doctoral level. To choose the education path that’s right for you, you may want to consider your career goals and the opportunities and experiences that each degree offers. Keep in mind that there are different social work degree requirements for different levels of study. 

Associate Degree in Social Work (ASW)

An associate degree in social work program is a two-year program that introduces you to the basics of social work, including the field’s history and what social workers do. You may gain a better understanding of what a career as a social worker would look like, and the information you learn during this program serves as a basis for your Bachelor of Social Work education. 

Earning an ASW degree may be a valuable investment because it could help you to decide whether this career is right for you. With the knowledge you’ll gain through this degree program, you can then decide whether you’d like to pursue additional education in the field. 

Learn more about associate in social work degree programs.

Bachelor of Social Work (BSW)

A Bachelor of Social Work degree is typically a four-year program that may prepare you for entry-level or undergraduate types of social work licenses and practice. You’ll take general education courses as well as classes on topics like psychology, sociology, cultural diversity and human behavior. If you decide to pursue additional education, your BSW will give you a foundation of knowledge that will be valuable when earning your MSW or DSW.

With a BSW, you may be able to work in entry-level positions, and you don’t necessarily have to pursue additional education. Depending on the state where you live, your BSW may help qualify you for an entry-level social work license. Potential careers include working as a residential counselor, mental health assistant, case manager, community outreach worker or human services specialist. 

Learn more about earning your Bachelor of Social Work degree or pursuing an online BSW program.

Master of Social Work (MSW)

A Master of Social Work degree may take two years to complete on a full-time basis. If you follow an accelerated path, you may be able to complete the program in less than two years. Some schools even offer an advanced standing MSW program, allowing students who have a bachelor’s degree in social work to earn their MSW in just one year. There are also online advanced standing MSW programs for students who may desire a more flexible learning environment.

An MSW program focuses on coursework that’s relevant to your career, but concentrations may be available. Depending on your career path, you might look for a program with a concentration in healthcare, children and families, community social work, policy practice, leadership and social change, or another area. 

Doctor of Social Work (DSW)

A doctorate in social work may take about three years to complete. Some DSW programs require that applicants have an MSW degree or a master’s in a closely related field. The DSW degree program may focus on developing leadership skills in social policy, advocacy and change. Concentrations in topics like leadership and clinical practice are sometimes available. 

Many DSW programs are available online, giving you scheduling flexibility and control of your pacing. This may be ideal when you’re simultaneously working a full-time job and earning your degree. With a DSW, you can pursue many different careers, including opportunities as a nonprofit director, a professor of social work, an advanced practice social worker, or a school social worker. 

Learn more about earning your Doctor of Social Work degree.

Social Work Degree Specializations

Social work degree specializations allow you to concentrate on a topic that interests you. These specializations may help to prepare you for your desired career path and allow you to work with populations that may interest you. Some of the these specializations may include: 

  • Children, families and couples concentrations may prepare you to work with families and the unique challenges that come when working with the family unit. You’ll also learn how to promote the healthy growth and development of children. 
  • Mental health and substance abuse social work specializations may help you learn how to provide tools like psychosocial assessments, clinical disorder diagnosis, and goal and plan development to support patients with issues like substance abuse, suicide and other mental health conditions.
  • Clinical social work concentrations may focus on the skills you’ll need to work with individuals, families and groups in office-based private practice settings. Common essential skills include assessment, evaluation and intervention techniques. 
  • Medical social work specializations may help prepare you to work with individuals who are facing emotional, financial and social challenges that result from health and medical events and diagnoses.
  • Forensic social work concentrations may help prepare you to work with people who are affected by legal issues, such as criminal defendants and families who are working through issues like divorce or custody hearings. 

What Can I Do With a Social Work Degree?

Regardless of whether you choose a specialization, earning a social work degree may open up different social work career opportunities. If you become a social worker, you may hold any of the following careers:

  • Community social workers work with individuals and groups to help members of a community work toward a common goal and function effectively. 
  • Medical social workers help people work through the issues that come with medical and health conditions and may work in hospitals and community clinics.
  • Mental health social workers help people cope with mental health issues and improve their emotional health, often working in healthcare environments like hospitals and mental health clinics.
  • Military social workers work with military service members, veterans and their families to address issues like psychological and emotional disorders, domestic violence and substance abuse.
  • Psychiatric social workers work as part of a treatment team for people who have mental health conditions like depression and psychotic disorders.
  • School social workers advocate for children in educational settings, helping students to thrive and connecting families to community resources. 
  • Social work administrators often work in agencies and human services organizations, helping to determine the organization’s direction, working on policies, evaluating program effectiveness and much more.
  • Licensed clinical social workers (LCSW) work in many environments, including private practices, where they help address and treat mental and emotional issues in clients.

Things to Know Before Earning a Social Work Degree

Social work degree programs vary in their requirements and benefits. Think about the following points when choosing which degree program is right for you.

Accreditation

It’s important to choose a social work degree program that is accredited. The Council on School Work Education (CSWE) is an association that nationally accredits social work programs in the United States. A program that is accredited by CSWE has proven that it delivers a quality education that prepares students for their careers and that meets the CSWE standards. 

Schools and colleges may hold both national and regional accreditation. Regional and national organizations evaluate schools against their standards, and accredited schools have proven the quality of the education they provide. National accreditation compares institutions with similar curriculum, like social work, while regional accreditation is more prestigious and reviews schools based on their geographic area. 

Education and Requirements

When looking at different programs, it’s important to understand the general curriculum of each program and the program’s admission requirements. MSW programs, for example, may have coursework focused on clinical applications, while BSW programs may offer classes focused on theory and skills. 

The curriculum and admission requirements will vary between different degrees and schools. You may want to make a list of the qualities that are most important to you, such as certain classes or experiences, to help you choose the program that’s right for your goals.

Career Outlook

The career outlook for social workers is promising. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), social worker employment is projected to grow by 13% from 2019 to 2029, which is much faster than the average of other occupations. This growth does vary by specialty. For instance:

  • Child, family and school social worker employment is projected to grow by 12%, which may be driven by increased student enrollment in schools. 
  • Healthcare social worker employment may grow by 14%, potentially as a result of the increased need for social workers to help aging populations. 
  • Mental health and substance abuse social workers may also see 17% growth, possibly driven by increased need for mental illness and substance abuse treatment.

Social work salary may also be something you consider before pursuing this career. According to the BLS, the median annual salary for social workers in May 2019 was $50,470.

Scholarship

Earning a social work degree could be a costly investment, but it may be an important requirement in your career, and there are options that can help you to pay for school. Social work grants are available for students pursuing many different social work specialties, and they may be used for continuing education credits, too. Social work scholarships may also help to cover education costs. Be sure to check with your preferred university for school-specific financial aid options.

Licensure

To practice as a social worker, you may need to become a licensed social worker in your state. Most licensure boards require that you earn your degree from a program that is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education. Be sure to check with your state board of social work’s requirements for more information.

There may be a variety of license options, including licenses for ASW, BSW, MSW and DSW degree holders. States may offer a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) title that could indicate you’ve earned your MSW and completed post-degree supervised experience. Licensed master social worker (LMSW) titles, however, may indicate that you have earned your MSW but haven’t yet completed that supervised experience. 

To earn your license, you will need to pass the Associate of Social Work Boards (ASWB) exam that corresponds to your degree program and meet any other state requirements. Once you have your license, you’ll need to complete continuing education hours as required by your state.

FAQ

You might still have some questions about social work degrees and which may be best for you. Below are the answers to some common social work degree questions. 

What is a social work degree?

A social work degree is an educational program that provides you with education on different elements of social work. These degrees may help to prepare you for a career in this field.

What is the best degree in social work?

No one social work degree is better than the other. Instead, the best degree is the one that allows you to achieve your career goals and that works with your circumstances. 

What degree do you need to be a social worker?

Social work career opportunities are available whether you have an ASW or a DSW degree. However, those opportunities will differ depending on the degree you hold. If you plan to become a licensed social worker, you may need to complete an ASW, BSW, MSW or DSW degree program and complete your state’s licensing requirements.

How long does it take to earn a social work degree?

Different degrees take different amounts of time to complete. You can complete many ASW and MSW programs in two years. BSW programs typically take four years to complete, while DSW program timelines vary. Other factors, like whether you study part time or full time, will also affect the amount of time it takes to earn your degree. 

What should I expect from a social work degree?

Different degrees include different elements and topics. To best understand what to expect, review the sample curriculum and course descriptions provided for the program that you’re considering. 

Is getting a social work degree hard?

Earning any degree, including a social work degree, could be challenging. Remember, though, that earning your degree is your first step toward a rewarding career in social work. You may have to put plenty of effort into studying and learning the material, but it can pay off in a career that you’re passionate about.

Last updated in November 2020.