Is an Online Master’s in Social Work (MSW) Degree Worth it?

Humans live longer today than at any other point in history. And as our population ages, expands, and evolves, we continue to confront new and uncertain circumstances, making social services particularly relevant. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), overall employment of social workers is expected to grow 11 percent by 2028—a rate much faster than average for all occupations. If you’re considering a career in social work or are seeking a more advanced role in the field, there are likely positions available. 

Many positions in the social work field require a graduate-level degree, such as a Master of Social Work (MSW), which are accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). These programs have gone through a rigorous process administered by the CSWE, to ensure high-quality education.   

While it may seem daunting to pursue an MSW, there are benefits. A master’s degree may expand your career options, unlocking access to a wide range of roles where you’ll be able to provide services to a variety of clients across different settings and contexts. With your MSW, you can choose to work with military-based populations or individuals struggling with substance abuse. A MSW degree may also help you to negotiate higher compensation in a fast-growing field.

If you’re worried that your life circumstances will prevent you from attending on-campus classes—or if you’re simply seeking a more flexible academic schedule—an online MSW may be suitable for you. Making the best decision for you comes down to assessing every option available to you. This page is here to help you do that. 

What Can I Do with a Master’s in Social Work

After you complete your MSW degree, you may be able to apply to become a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW). Clinical social work licensure is regulated at the state level so you will have to fulfill all the requirements of your state board before you can practice. As a LCSW, you work directly with clients on the “micro” level. That means you’re responsible for evaluating clients, diagnosing issues, planning assessment-based treatment, and providing psychotherapy without supervision.

Many specialties are available if you choose to pursue an MSW or become an LCSW. 

  • You may choose to become a medical social worker, performing the functions of a typical social worker within hospitals, community clinics, or other healthcare settings. 
  • If you’re considering a career in psychiatric social work, you can expect to focus on mental health and mental illnesses. 
  • If you become a military social worker, you’ll be able to address the unique needs of military service members, veterans, and their families and loved ones. 
  • If you enjoy being around children and adolescents, you can look for a job as a school social worker. In this role, you’ll apply the knowledge and skills acquired from your program, in a school setting. Your goal as a school social worker is to advocate for students of all ages, especially those facing difficult life situations.

Before you settle on a specific MSW program or specialty track, it helps to familiarize yourself with the social work license requirements of the state you’d like to practice in. Whether or not you’ll need supervision for certain jobs and tasks—and the timeline for when and with what materials you can pursue licensure—all depend on your specific state’s social work license requirements. 

Traditional vs Online MSW Program

Traditional and online MSW programs each have unique features that can benefit people with different learning styles, as well as those with fixed work schedules and personal commitments. When deciding between a traditional MSW program or an online MSW program, there are a few key factors to keep in mind:

  • Location. Traditional programs are completed on-campus, while online programs are completed remotely. Some online programs may require or offer occasional campus visits or meet-ups. But for the most part, they are entirely virtual. With internet access, you can gain social work education from any location. This might be a viable option for you if the school offering your desired program is located hundreds of miles from where you live. 
  • Duration. CSWE-accredited MSW programs, whether on-campus or online, typically offer the same completion times. As a part of accreditation the MSW programs must offer a full-time program completion in two years and a maximum of four years for part-time students.
  • Format. Where traditional courses follow standardized schedules, online programs offer a wider range of formats. Some online MSW programs offer live real-time classes that require students to log on at specific times. Others offer strictly asynchronous coursework, allowing students to complete assignments on their own time to meet deadlines. Some offer a combination of both. But keep in mind that self-paced study still requires discipline and dedication. 
  • Coursework. Generally, coursework in an online MSW program is as rigorous as coursework in a traditional program. But you may find that some traditional MSW programs offer more curriculum options than their online counterparts, or different concentrations. While this gap is beginning to close as online MSWs become increasingly popular, it’s important to ensure that the program you’re considering aligns with your career goals. 
  • Cost. Just as costs vary between universities, the cost of an online program can differ from that of a traditional one. While some online MSW programs may be more affordable than their on-campus counterparts, there’s no guarantee. There are a wealth of factors to take into account when assessing the affordability of an MSW program so be sure to do your research.

Advantages of an Online MSW

So, which type of program is right for you: in-person or online? Breaking down the many differences between traditional and digital programs can be an overwhelming task, but you can start by examining the pros. Here are just four benefits of online MSW programs:  

  • Flexibility. With more format options and fewer (if any) scheduled meeting times, an online MSW program offers flexibility. This can be helpful for students juggling family obligations, full-time jobs alongside their education or any other obligations apart from education. 
  • Convenience. Removing the need for a daily commute and other logistics of on-campus learning, students can enjoy the convenience of being able to complete their coursework anytime and from anywhere with an internet connection.
  • Autonomy. An online MSW offers students more opportunities to exercise their autonomy, relying on personal time management skills and discipline to complete coursework in the designated timeframes and reach out to professors and peers for support when necessary. Practicing autonomy and being organized may eventually prove to be useful throughout your career as a social worker.

Accessibility. Individuals living in rural or underserved areas may have a limited number of universities in proximity to their homes. With few options, finding an MSW program in their area that meets their specific academic and professional interests may be a challenge. Online MSW programs allow students across a wide range of geographic locations to obtain degrees from their desired programs.

Disadvantages of an Online MSW 

Every program has its pros and cons. For some people, the disadvantages of an online MSW program may outweigh the benefits or vice versa. Regardless of which path you choose, familiarizing yourself with both the pluses and minuses can help you be better prepared for what comes next professionally. Here are some of the disadvantages of opting for an online MSW program: 

  • Less structure. Online MSW programs are sometimes less structured than traditional programs—that’s what gives students the flexibility to determine their own work schedule. While it’s a perk for many, a course with less structure can be a challenge for people who prefer or are used to routine and structure, or maybe struggle with time management.
  • Limited collaboration. Given that some online MSW students work asynchronously and do not adhere to set meeting times, collaboration between you and your classmates may not happen as frequently as in traditional programs. Not everyone will be working on the same assignments or lessons at the same time as you, and that might mean that you have to seek out additional resources for support. But keep in mind, that there are certain programs that incorporate group projects and on-campus immersions into the curriculum to allow for collaboration. On top of that, field education is the hallmark of MSW training and required for graduation and state licensure. Without it, students wouldn’t have the opportunity to put classroom knowledge to practice and interact with other professionals in the field.
  • Fewer concentrations. As we mentioned earlier, certain online MSW programs may offer fewer concentration/curriculum options than on-campus programs. This is usually due to the structural differences in online learning and other factors unique to the school, such as faculty availability and financial resources. 

Multiple time zones. Online MSW programs may include students from all over the country and the world. This means that your classmates will be dispersed across multiple time zones and coordination for group work may be more difficult. While this can help you hone your time-management and communication skills, it can also be frustrating, especially as you first begin navigating your online MSW program.

When it comes down to it, preferences vary by student. For some students, the factors we’ve just discussed could be precisely what makes obtaining an MSW possible for them. Whichever MSW program you choose, the goal is that you’ll grow as your knowledge and skills and emerge prepared to pursue opportunities in the field.

Information on the above was retrieved in June 2020.