What Can I Do with an MSW Degree? MSW Career Paths

If you are considering pursuing a Master’s in Social Work (MSW), it’s important to consider what you can do with your degree. Career options may include becoming a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW), mental health social worker, school social worker, military social worker and more. 

This guide will discuss the different career options available to you after completion of an MSW, as well as potential career outlook and salaries. It will also cover what to expect when pursuing your master’s degree, additional degrees you can earn beyond the MSW, and how you can choose a program that will help you meet your career goals. 

Ultimately, pursuing an MSW is an important decision. Before you make your mind up, do well to make use of resources guides like this one and research potential outcomes of obtaining the degree so you can make a choice that’s right for you.

Career Paths for MSW Degree Holders

After completing an MSW, you may pursue a range of licensed career positions in the social work field and work in a variety of different settings. Two types of licenses you may pursue after earning your MSW degree include the following:

Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW): As a licensed clinical social worker, you may focus on diagnosing and treating patients with mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders. LCSWs may work in client-centered settings such as hospitals, mental health clinics, rehabilitation centers, schools, and private practices. LCSWs are required to have an MSW, complete a certain number of clinical training hours, and obtain licensure from the state they choose to practice in. 

Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW): Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW)s may practice social work in a non-clinical capacity. They work with individuals, families, groups, and communities to provide services such as case management, public assistance, and social advocacy. LMSWs might work under the supervision of other professionals who may provide clinical care. LMSWs are required to have an MSW, pass the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) exam, and fulfill specific state licensure requirements.

The setting you work in and the population you work with can vary widely—making social work a diverse field. Below is a list of some common career paths a social worker may pursue:

  • Mental Health Social Worker: Once you become a mental health social worker, you may focus on employing evidence-based interventions to people living with a variety of mental health conditions. They work to restore, promote, and maintain mental health in the individuals and groups they work with. Some MSW programs offer specializations in this area so you can take relevant coursework. 
  • School Social Worker: School social workers act as a link between schools, students, families, and communities. They may work on case management, child advocacy, special education assessment, staff training, conflict resolution, and more. They help to foster student success by helping them overcome social and academic obstacles. 
  • Military Social Worker: If you choose to become a military social worker, you may assist veterans and active service members in receiving care and support that meets their needs. Military social workers help individuals and their families deal with the psychological, social, and physical issues unique to military lifestyles. They may provide support before, during, or after deployment on a range of issues such as financial planning, managing transitions, and crisis intervention. 
  • Medical Social Worker: Medical social workers work in health care settings such as hospitals and long-term care facilities to help patients and their families navigate the healthcare system. They may focus on alleviating the social, emotional, psychological, and financial burdens that patients may face in medical settings. They often work as part of an interdisciplinary team to provide the best care to patients. 
  • Geriatric Social Worker: Using their expertise in legislation, policies and social programs that impact older patients, these types of social workers serve and support the aging population in a variety of settings that include hospitals, hospices, outpatient health care centers, and more.  

Career Outlook and MSW Salaries

Before you decide to find employment in the field of social work, you may want to consider earning potential and job outlook. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment of social workers is expected to grow by 13% from 2019 to 2029—a much higher growth rate than most other occupations. The median annual salary for social workers is $50,470, based on 2019 data from the BLS. 

While the figures above represent career outlook and salary for the general field of social work, differences exist between states and among specific social work careers. Mental health and substance abuse social workers have the highest projected growth rate, with a 17% increase expected between 2019 and 2029. According to the BLS, states with the highest employment levels for social workers are California, New York, and Florida. The states with the highest annual mean salary are Hawaii ($81,520), Rhode Island ($74,520), and Massachusetts ($74,390). 

To learn more about the various factors that affect social worker pay, explore our Master of Social Work salary guide

Should I Obtain an MSW Degree?

Deciding whether or not to pursue an MSW degree depends on your career and educational goals, what kind of programs fit your lifestyle needs, and how much time you are willing to dedicate to your Master of Social Work program

The length of time it takes to earn an MSW depends on your educational background and enrollment status. Students who have bachelor’s degrees in social work may be eligible for advanced standing programs, which allow you to complete the program in as little as one year. Students who do not have backgrounds in social work and who enroll in regular programs may expect their MSW to take about two years. Whether you choose to study part-time or full-time will also impact the length of time to graduation.

Many universities offer master’s in social work online programs, as well as on-campus, or hybrid options so you can choose the type of program that best suits your needs and goals. Some schools offer specialized programs, such as clinical social work programs, which may be a suitable option if you wish to become an LCSW. Admissions requirements may also play a role in determining which program best meets your needs—some MSW programs don’t require GRE scores for admission. 

What Else Can I Do with an MSW Degree?

As discussed in the sections above, obtaining an MSW may provide you with a variety of career options. However, there are other educational paths to pursue once you’ve earned an MSW. Namely, completing an MSW can set you on the pathway toward a doctoral degree in social work. 

There are two types of doctorate programs available to those with an MSW—Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) programs and Doctor of Social Work (DSW) programs. Ph.D. programs tend to focus on research and preparing students for a career in academia, while DSW programs emphasize preparing students for a professional career in the field. If you decide to pursue a postgraduate degree, choose the program that best aligns with your individual career goals. 

Last updated October 2020.