What is a Master of Social Work (MSW) Degree?

A Master of Social Work, or MSW, is a graduate degree that prepares social workers to pursue state licensure. MSW programs focus on clinical social work and come in many forms to meet the needs of students, such as online or advanced standing MSW programs.

MSW degree programs typically take two years to complete and are accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) to meet standards that link state requirements for licensure and professional ethics.

Should I Pursue an MSW Degree?

By earning an MSW, you may be prepared for state licensure as a social worker in your state. You’ll be able to work in a variety of sectors including government, education, health care and nonprofit administration, research and human resources. If you want to work with communities, groups and individuals on a clinical level, you could become a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW). 

Whether an MSW degree is right for you depends on your goals. If you are seeking licensure in the field and want to practice independently, earning a MSW is often required.

Concentration

There are several concentrations for MSW candidates to choose from—it all depends on the program. You could focus on direct and clinical practice, which will prepare you for working with families and individuals in a therapeutic setting. You may want to work in administration instead or become more of a leader in a private or public setting. Common areas of practice include geriatrics, children, families, school, healthcare, community and social systems and mental health.

Accreditation

The MSW program you choose needs to be accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). All 50 states require a social worker who is sitting for a licensing exam to have graduated from a CSWE-accredited program.

To become accredited, schools have to go through a multistep process that includes meeting benchmarks, site visits, self-studies and Council on Accreditation reviews.

Types of Degrees

Depending on your goals and circumstances, there are various MSW degrees you can pursue. Those include:

  • Accelerated programs you can complete more quickly.
  • Dual: Study two fields at once.
  • Advanced Standing: Apply previous BSW coursework to your current program.
  • Traditional: Averaging two years for non-BSW applicants.

You can take classes online, offline or in a hybrid setting, where you go in person to complete some courses.

Is a Master of Social Work Degree the Best Option for Me?

Are you passionate about helping other people? Do you like to talk to and work with people daily? Do you want to improve local communities as well as the world at large? If you’ve always loved volunteering and you are by nature a social person, this could be a good fit for you.

As a social worker, you’ll likely have to work full time, or even put in more than 40 hours a week at some points in your career, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) report on social workers. This is a demanding job, especially working in the public sector or nonprofit world where they may be limited funds. Along with people skills, you should also have administrative skills to succeed as a social worker. 

It’s not easy to earn an MSW degree and get your social work license, and continuing education may be necessary every few years based on your state requirements. If you’re going into a Master of Social Work (MSW) program, be prepared to put other responsibilities on the backburner.

What is the Value of an MSW Degree? 

The number of social worker jobs is projected to increase 11% from 2018 to 2028, according to the BLS profile for social workers, which is much faster than average. The 2019 median salary for social workers was $50,470 per year, but that includes entry-level social workers who only have a bachelor’s in social work. An advanced degree may lead to higher pay. The BLS reports those with a master’s degree may earn more than $200 more a week than those with a bachelor’s degree. 

Each state has its own requirements for becoming a social worker. You will likely need to take exams from the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) before you get your license. The exam contains 170 multiple-choice questions.

How Do I Obtain a Master’s in Social Work Degree?

There are traditional and non-traditional ways to earn your social work degree.

With a master’s in social work online program, you’ll be able to complete your coursework remotely. The classes are held during a set time and you’ll communicate with other students and your professors via email and/or the school’s communication platform. Online is a great option if you have a busy schedule and don’t have time to go to in-person classes.

Hybrid MSW programs provide a mix of online and offline coursework. You may be able to complete some classes online, while others will require that you go to the campus and learn in person. That way, you’ll get to interact with the other students and your professors.

An on-campus MSW program may be best for you if you don’t want to spend your time earning your degree only on the computer. You will be able to meet other students and your professors in person and have opportunities to form study groups outside of class.

Master of Social Work (MSW) Program Choices

Now that you know what an MSW is, you can decide which social work degree programs to apply to. When you do your research, there may be some online MSW programs with no GRE required. Your choices include:

  • Accelerated MSW (no BSW): An accelerated MSW program may take as little as one year, and you may not even need a Bachelor of Social Work degree to get into the program. If you do have a BSW and some fieldwork, however, it’s going to be easier to enroll in an accelerated program. With this MSW program, you can work fast and get into the field as soon as possible.
  • Advanced Standing: Advanced standing MSW programs are like accelerated programs in that they take less time to complete. You’ll need your bachelor’s degree in social work from a CSWE-accredited program to apply.
  • Clinical MSW: If you want to work one-on-one with clients, you’ll need a clinical MSW from an LCSW program. You’ll need to complete classes and the required fieldwork before obtaining LCSW licensure.
  • Dual SW: A dual social work degree will allow you to study two social work fields and broaden your career opportunities. You can earn your dual degree in less time than it would take to earn two separate degrees.
  • Macro Social Work: In this program, you’ll learn about macro level social work, like what it will entail to work on a community, state and national level. These programs will give you the background to work for political advocacy groups, nonprofits, think tanks and universities.
  • Post-Grad Certificate: If you’ve already obtained your MSW, you can go back to school and get a post-grad certificate to broaden your knowledge based on current research. This can make you a more attractive candidate for a job.
  • Hybrid: A hybrid program will combine online and offline learning. You’ll take some classes online and then go to your school’s campus to complete other courses.

Information on this page was last updated in August 2020.