Master’s in Social Work (MSW) Degree Programs Guide

A master’s degree in social work (MSW) is a graduate degree that expands the levels of education for the social worker and may help prepare social workers for clinical or supervisory licensure. While a master’s degree is not required for all social work, it is necessary if you want to work one-on-one in direct practice with individual clients in most settings, especially any situation in the context of mental health. 

Master’s in Social Work Degree Options

There are multiple ways to pursue a social work degree at the master’s level. Many universities have part-time and full-time options as well as on-campus and master’s in social work online program opportunities, with some or all of the following programs:

Advanced Standing: Students who earned their bachelor’s degree in social work from a school accredited by the Council of Social Work Education (CSWE) are eligible for admission to advanced-standing MSW programs. They typically take less time to earn, sometimes as much as half the time, than a traditional MSW because the traditional degree program spends its first year teaching fundamental social-work courses that those with a BSW have already taken.

Clinical Social Work: Some MSW programs focus on clinical social work. These are sometimes referred to as LCSW programs.

Postgraduate Certificate: For those who already have an MSW from a CSWE-accredited program, a postgraduate certificate program is a great option to continue education and enhance your skills in an area of critical need and high demand. Certificate programs may offer flexibility for applicants, recognizing they are most likely already licensed in the field.

Dual Degree: Many universities allow students to earn dual degrees, pairing an MSW with a second degree that compliments it in some way. Typical such pairings might include a Master of Laws (LL.M.) or Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree. For careers in which social work and the public community intersect, a Master of Public Health (MPH) would be fitting. 

Social work careers in the health domain may earn a Master of Science in Social Policy (MSSP), which focuses on social work and leadership, a Master of Public Administration (MPA), which prepares students to work in both government or private service, or a Master of Science in Nonprofit Leadership (NPL) for students whose goal is to work on the macro level of social work.

Accelerated: Some colleges and universities have condensed their two year master’s programs into more intensive programs that take less time—typically less than two years. Students attend for four consecutive semesters, including a summer semester. Admissions criteria may be different than for traditional programs.

MSW Degree Overview: What You Should Know

Deciding to pursue an MSW degree can seem complicated; prospective students may have different goals, schedule needs, cost considerations and questions about their future career outlook. 

Is a Master’s in Social Work for Me?

Your goals and passions are the first key to decide if a master’s in social work is right for you. If you’re motivated to help people live their lives to the fullest despite challenging circumstances and determined to start a career making a difference, then an MSW may be right for you.

Types of Master’s Degrees in Social Work 

Social workers are valued in many roles and many areas of practice. One way to determine the area of social work that most interests you is to learn about the three practice levels: micro, macro and mezzo social work. In many cases the three intersect, but each has a particular focus:

Micro Social Work

As you might guess, micro-level social work is social work at its most intimate: one-on-one relationships with people in need. Individual needs are paramount. One person may be homeless, needing help to find shelter, and the next person may need counseling to deal with the emotional effects of trauma. These social workers respond to these individual needs by connecting the person to social services or community organizations.


Mezzo Social Work

A person at the mezzo-level of social work is working with a group of people who have similar needs—parents of students with disabilities, for instance, people struggling with addiction, victims of domestic violence or managers of food banks. The group can be small or large, but every member of the group has a common interest.


Macro Social Work

Macro-level social work is the flip side of micro work. It is made up of the support services that help micro social workers respond to their clients’ needs. Macro organizations can be neighborhoods, lobbyists, political groups that work for social change, program directors and policy-makers. These are all occupations where you’re working to help groups of people at one time. 


Master of Science in Social Administration (MSSA)

The MSSA degree is an equivalent master’s degree to the MSW, though less common. Schools that offer it have traditionally focused on coursework that emphasizes more macro elements of social work—providing support and guidance to the community or public at large. It is similarly accredited and licensed.


Master of Science in Social Work (MSSW)

The MSSW also is equivalent to the MSW. Various universities call this degree by different names, but as long as the particular master’s degree program is accredited by the CSWE, the degree title typically won’t impact licensure.

Types of Master’s in Social Work (MSW) Careers

There are numerous social work career paths available to graduates of accredited MSW programs, which means that not only will you be able to choose an area of interest now, but there will also be possibilities later in your career. For example, depending on your interests, you could become a:

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (US) estimates that between 2019-2029, the job outlook for social workers is projected to grow by 13%. Salaries for social workers vary according to location and type of job. Median pay for all social workers in 2019 was $50,470 annually. 

However, social workers with a MSW can also become professors, directors of employee assistance programs, policy analysts, researchers or directors of corporate social responsibility, all of which have the potential for higher salary levels. 

Licensure and Certifications 

Once you earn your MSW degree, you may take a licensing exam from the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB). The ASWB offers five categories of licensure exams: associate, bachelors, masters, advanced generalist and clinical. The exams measure:

  1. Content Areas
  2. Competencies 
  3. Knowledge, Skills and Abilities Statements (KSAs) 

In addition to passing your exam, you’ll apply for a license in the state in which you reside. States vary as to the licenses they offer and the requirements (education, supervised-experience and continuing education). License names also can vary between states. Be sure to check with your preferred state of practice and licensure for more specific information. Some of these include:

  • Licensed Social Work Assistant (LSWA): Requirements may include either a bachelor’s degree in any field, an associate’s degree in a human services field with a specified number of hours from an accredited school, or a high school diploma and four years of documented social work experience.
  • Licensed Baccalaureate Social Worker (LBSW): Requirements may include a bachelor’s degree in social work from a CSWE-accredited university or college and an online jurisprudence exam.
  • Licensed Social Worker (LSW): Requirements may include a bachelor’s degree in social work from a CSWE-accredited university or college or a bachelor’s degree in another field with four years’ documented experience in a human services field. Each time you renew your license, a specified number of hours of continuing education may be required.
  • Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW) or Certified Master Social Worker (CMSW): Requirements may include a master of social work degree from a CSWE-accredited university or college, and some specific coursework relevant to the state in which you live. Each time you renew your license, a specified number of hours of continuing education may be required.
  • Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW): Requirements include a master or doctorate of social work degree from a CSWE-accredited university or college and verification of (typically) 3,200-4,000 supervised hours of clinical professional experience or in some places, at least three years of post-graduate experience, and some specific coursework relevant to the state in which you live. Each time you renew your license, a specified number of hours of continuing education may be required.
  • Licensed Independent Social Worker (LISW): Requirements include a master or doctorate of social work degree from a CSWE-accredited university or college and verification of (typically) up to 4,000 hours of clinical professional experience including diagnosis, assessment and treatment over a minimum of two years and no more than six years of professional employment. Each time you renew your license, a specified number of hours of continuing education may be required. An LISW license is not nationally recognized, be sure to check with your state for equivalence in licensure.

Find your state’s social-work licensure requirements.

Master’s in Social Work Program Accreditation 

The most important factor in which school you choose is that their master’s of social work program must be accredited by the CSWE in order to pursue licensure examination in any of the 50 states. Accreditation ensures that certain academic standards are met and that graduates are properly prepared for the occupation. CSWE accreditation is a distinction that sets legitimate schools apart from diploma mills. As of mid-2020, there were 288 accredited master’s social work programs.

Scholarships and Grants for MSW Students

With any degree, cost is one of the major considerations, even if the degree will ultimately help increase your earning potential down the road. Be alert to scholarship and grant opportunities that are available to students pursuing a master’s in social work. Let this list become just the beginning; searching “social work scholarships” and your state will bring up more possibilities.

  • Your university: The university you choose will often have many scholarships available to its social-work students; often, all you have to do to be considered is to apply to the program.
  • Your chapter of the National Association of Social Work: Your state’s chapter may have scholarships only available to students in your state. In addition, the organization has two national scholarships, the Consuelo W. Gosnell Memorial Scholarship ($2,000-$4,000) and the Verne Lamarr Lyons Memorial Scholarship ($4,150-$5,500). In addition, six doctoral fellowships are awarded each year.
  • The Dr. Alma S. Adams Scholarship for Outreach and Health Communication ($5,000) for students pursuing a degree in public health, social work, communications, education, or liberal arts who can show evidence of working in the community.
  • The National Association of Black Social Workers Scholarship (amount varies). For black students who are members of the NABSW and are enrolled in a social work degree program.
  • The American Indian Education Program (amount varies). For juniors or seniors who belong to a federally recognized tribe, have a minimum 2.0 GPA and are working toward a master’s.
  • The Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans ($20,000-$25,000) for students who are naturalized, have a green card, or are first-generation U.S. citizens.
  • The Freemont Foundation Scholarship Program (varies) for students who plan to attend a historically black college or university and major in the helping professions.
  • The Melanie Foundation Scholarship ($2,500) for students pursuing a graduate degree in the mental health field.
  • Federal Student Aid includes links and information for grants, scholarships and work-study programs, searchable with the U.S. Labor Department’s scholarship search tool.
  • Sallie Mae: Search through almost a million graduate-level scholarships by signing up based on your social work concentration and other interests. You can also set up alerts when new scholarships appear that match your criteria.

FAQs for those pursuing an MSW Degree

How long does it take to get an MSW?

Traditional MSW programs may take two years if the student attends full time. Accelerated programs, those where students attend full-time for several consecutive semesters, may be completed in less than two years. Advanced standing programs, for students who have a bachelor’s degree in social work, take one year for students who attend full time.

Can you study for an MSW without a BSW?

Absolutely. In fact, most MSW programs accommodate students who have their undergraduate degrees in majors other than social work. The first year of most two year master’s programs often is spent in foundational coursework similar to what a BSW would already cover, which is why advanced placement programs exist for those students.

What are the MSW concentrations? 

Universities may offer several concentrations within their social work graduate programs. Choosing one will help target your coursework toward a particular kind of social work career you’d like to pursue. Examples of MSW concentrations at different schools are:

  • Advanced generalist, or advanced generalist-direct practice
  • Children, youth and family, or urban children, youth, family and addictions
  • Leadership and social change
  • Health care
  • Mental health and adult social work, or mental health and substance abuse
  • School social work
  • Community social work
  • Community organization, planning and administration
  • Policy practice and advocacy

Is a master’s in social work worth it?

The most important factor is whether an MSW helps you achieve your goals. There simply are many parts of social work that you cannot do without a master’s degree, such as working one-on-one in direct practice with clients. Ask yourself what the social work position of your dreams would be, and if a master’s degree is what’s needed to get there, then it’s very worthwhile.

Why should I pursue a master’s in social work? 

When you think about why to pursue a master’s in social work, listen to two places: your head and your heart. Your head will do the math for you, as to how you will have more careers open to you and can earn higher salaries in many cases. And your heart will do perhaps the more important math: How important it is to you to spend your life helping others?

And if you choose to go further, having an MSW may help you prepare to earn a doctorate in social work (DSW), enhancing the depth and breadth of your education.

What can I do with a social work degree besides social work? 

In addition to the more traditional social work jobs explored here, there are alternative avenues and career paths. Social work opportunities aren’t limited to hospitals, case management or schools. With a social services degree, you could also pursue careers like the following:

  • Human resources: Large organizations especially have Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), where employees can get confidential advice on problems inside or outside of work. 
  • Community outreach: A person with an MSW degree is uniquely qualified to understand the relationship between society at large and the need for conflict management, policy-making and consensus building.
  • Mediator or advocate: In court and in other areas of dispute, MSWs can be excellent mediators (such as in a divorce hearing or custody dispute) or advocates (supporting a mentally ill person in court, for example).
  • College or university counseling: To be a successful student counselor, you must be able to see all sides of a problem. Be empathetic. Know how to connect with resources, help solve problems and facilitate the setting of goals. Social workers are taught all these skills.

Information on this page was retrieved in September 2020.