A master’s degree in social work can impart the necessary skills to support vulnerable individuals, families, and communities. This graduate-level degree also offers a variety of professional opportunities in public service, providing an advantage in the job market over candidates who hold only a bachelor’s degree.
Demand for licensed social workers continues to grow, especially in communities impacted by isolation and trauma. Increasing job opportunities in social work reflects that need, contributing to a positive job outlook for MSW graduates. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a job growth rate of 13% for social workers from 2019-2029.
What Is a Master of Social Work Degree?
Social workers promote overall well-being in settings like schools, human services, child welfare, and healthcare. Pursuing a master’s degree in social work enables compassionate professionals to help at-risk groups or even campaign to change laws.
Individuals best suited to advanced social work roles enjoy developing interpersonal relationships and want to improve the public’s quality of life. Candidates who harbor a passion to help a specific group may also benefit from an MSW program that offers specializations in a particular community or focus.
Individuals best suited to advanced social work roles enjoy developing interpersonal relationships and want to improve the public’s quality of life.
Additionally, earning an MSW from an accredited program allows social workers to become licensed clinical social workers (LCSW) and advance their careers. In addition to the duties generally completed by individuals employed in social work, LCSW’s can work in fields including marriage counseling, child therapy, or refugee resettlement.
The job landscape for highly trained social work professionals is also promising. The BLS projects substantial growth in nearly every role related to advanced-level social work. For example, counseling roles for substance abuse, behavioral disorders, and mental health is projected to grow at a rate of 25% from 2019-2029.
Why Get a Master’s Degree in Social Work?
For individuals who want to make a career of helping others, a master’s degree in social work is worth the investment. Becoming an LCSW demonstrates commitment to social work and communicates competency and reliability to future employers.
MSW graduates benefit from plentiful employment options, thanks to their field’s ongoing growth. Furthermore, holding an advanced degree and license qualifies graduates for leadership and management roles in social and community service management.
Highly qualified social workers assist and support the people most in need. Individuals who want to effect positive change locally or globally may enjoy the opportunity to make a positive impact on the well-being of others.
Many jobs in social work require only a bachelor’s degree, but health service organizations prefer candidates with graduate degrees. MSW graduates also enjoy preferred status for promotions and leadership roles.
Holding a state licence in social work communicates a level of professionalism and competency.
What To Expect From Master’s in Social Work Programs
A master’s degree in social work provides advanced expertise in human behavior, theoretical research, and clinical practice. This degree also supports learners who aim to become LCSWs and complete some field hour requirements. Throughout this degree, enrollees can study foundational theories, specialize in an area of interest, and complete experiential learning.
Schools vary in their credit and field experience requirements, but the best MSW programs generally comprise 48-60 credits and take about two years to complete. Students with substantial undergraduate coursework in social work or counseling can complete their degrees even quicker.
Applicants who hold a bachelor’s in social work may enjoy advanced standing in MSW programs, but anyone with a bachelor’s degree from an accredited school can pursue a master’s degree in social work. Depending on undergraduate coursework, some candidates may need to complete prerequisite courses.
The best MSW programs generally require a minimum 3.0 GPA in undergraduate coursework, and applicants may also need to supply GRE test scores. Degree-seekers must also provide official transcripts, professional resumes, personal statements, and letters of recommendation. Many accredited MSW programs also require that students pass a background check.
Social work field experiences play a fundamental role in all MSW programs. Some schools may require or prefer that candidates complete a set amount of hours before applying. Applicants with work or volunteer experience in schools, mental health clinics, and addiction rehabilitation centers may hold a competitive edge in the admissions process.
The wide-reaching field of social work offers support to a variety of individuals and communities. To best support those with specific needs, social workers often specialize in a community or issue within their master’s studies. Read more about some of the most current and relevant social work specializations below.
Child and Family Social WorkConcentrating on child and family needs prepares social workers to assist people affected by a variety of emotional challenges including relationship problems, sexual trauma, and abuse.
Trauma and Disaster Reliefhis specialization provides the skills and strategies that social workers need to support victims affected by real-world problems including natural disasters, mass shootings, and hostage situations.
LGBTQ+ Social WorkStudents with a passion for equality rights can specialize in supporting the LGBTQ+ community and learn to help individuals facing unique challenges and discrimination.
Military and Veteran Social WorkThis specialization offers social workers the skills they need to support active duty and veteran military personnel to handle the emotional and physical health challenges unique to service and combat.
Popular Social Work Courses
The best MSW programs support students with foundational learning and offer opportunities for specialization. MSW curriculum varies by program, but candidates can expect to take courses in human behavior and diversity. Hands-on practicum or field experiences are essential components of MSW degrees and shape career trajectories.
Human Behavior and Social EnvironmentsThis core course helps students examine the patterns and cycles of human behavior in social environments through a theoretical framework. While this course may offer a general overview of human behavior and social environments, some specialized coursework may focus on specific groups and communities.
Diversity and OppressionThis course explores issues of social inequality related to race, gender, disability, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. The class provides historical context and theoretical frameworks to help enrollees learn about the impacts of these issues. Concentrated coursework in diversity and oppression may also focus on issues related to a specific group or community.
Practicum/Field ExperienceThis experiential learning opportunity allows prospective social workers to put theory into practice and develop their personal support skills. Enrollees complete these hours under the supervision of a licenced social worker and/or school faculty. Degree-seekers hoping to attain licensure may use these hours toward their state’s minimum hour requirement.
How Much Will a Master’s Degree in Social Work Cost?
Master’s degrees typically cost $10,000-$45,000. The variation in educational costs is largely due to factors like a school’s prestige, reputation, and public or private status. Delivery format and state residency status affect cost as well. Students may pay more if they need to commute to campus or relocate closer to school.
Budget-conscious learners can save money by looking into public online programs that hold accreditation with the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). Many of these affordable, accredited programs also accept transfer credits and offer accelerated learning tracks that help degree-seekers finish quicker and keep costs low.
Prospective social workers can also take advantage of financing options including financial aid, scholarships, fellowships, grants, and loans. Follow the links below to learn more about the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and the top 50 scholarships available.
Jobs for Master’s Degree in Social Work Graduates
Social workers and counselors can work in a variety of settings to support the public and enjoy diverse career opportunities. Experienced social workers with a master’s degree also meet the preferred requirements to become social and community service managers and supervise large projects and teams.
Social workers assist individuals and communities with their work in hospitals, mental health clinics, schools, child welfare and human service agencies, and community development corporations.
Required Education: Master’s degree in social work and state licensure
Job Outlook (2019-29): +13%
Median Annual Salary: $51,760
Social and Community Service Managers
Social and community service managers supervise programs and organizations that assist public well-being. They often manage teams and direct workers who provide support services.
Required Education: Master’s degree in social work preferred
Job Outlook (2019-29): +17%
Median Annual Salary: $69,600
Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors
These counselors offer advice and provide treatment for people who suffer from addictions, emotional challenges, and behavioral issues. They may work with individuals or groups.
Required Education: Master’s degree in social work, psychology, or mental health counseling preferred
Job Outlook (2019-29): +25%
Median Annual Salary: $47,660
Choosing the Right Social Work Graduate Program
Our ranked list of the best MSW programs provides a good starting point for program research, but several other educational factors may affect their personal learning experiences.
Degree-seekers should only consider enrolling in programs accredited with the CSWE. The best MSW programs maintain this accreditation status and provide students with the rigorous and reliable instruction that they need for pursuing licensure after graduation.
Since these requirements often vary by school, degree-seekers should consider programs that best meet their needs. For example, applicants without considerable social work experience may opt for a program with fewer prerequisite requirements.
Although master’s degree in social work programs generally take two years to complete, candidates should consider how their background affects the length of their studies. For example, applicants with undergraduate coursework in social work may want a program that gives them advanced standing and accelerates their studies, while students with less experience may want a program that offers more foundational courses.
Many graduate-level social work programs offer accelerated tracks that transition naturally from a master’s to a doctoral program. Enrollees with high academic goals should consider schools that offer advantages to students pursuing continuing education.
What Is Accreditation and Why Does It Matter?
Should You Get Your Degree Online?
Many of the most qualified candidates considering an MSW already work in public service in some capacity. Since social work licensure requires substantial hours of field experience, quitting an industry job to study could be counterintuitive. However, online learning allows students to continue working while pursuing higher-level education on their own time.
Online social work programs also offer applicants greater freedom to pursue a school that best meets their educational goals rather than settling for the program nearest to their residence. Prospective social workers who hope to specialize in niche issues or communities should select a program based on interest and concentrated course offerings.
Although flexible and widely available, virtual learning does pose its own challenges — enrollees must carefully manage their time, motivate themselves, and often work independently. Self-starters with intrinsic motivation to earn a master’s degree in social work and ultimately help others often thrive in distance-learning environments.
Frequently Asked Questions About a Master’s in Social Work
Q. What should I major in to become a social worker?
It depends. Some jobs in health services require only a bachelor’s in social work, but many require or prefer a master’s degree in social work. A candidate hoping to become an LCSW must complete an MSW.
Q. Is getting an MSW worth it?
Yes. Earning an MSW provides higher-level support skills, leads to impactful work, and offers preferred status for career advancement.
Q. How long are MSW programs?
MSW programs generally take two years to complete.
Q. What can I do with a master’s degree in social work?
Social workers can take advantage of career opportunities in schools, hospitals, mental health clinics, and correctional facilities.
The Best MSW Degree Programs
See our rankings methodology page.
University of California-Los Angeles
AU.S. News World Reporttop-ranked program, UCLAs Masters of Social Work program is offered through the highly reputable Luskin School of Public Affairs and it blends several topicsadolescent issues, aging, child welfare, immigration, mental health, and povertyto best train the future leaders of social welfare. Students are immersed in theory, research, and social policy while learning how to enact serious change and reform in the communities they will serve.
UCLAs program takes two years to complete and includes a substantive field work requirementfirst year students engage in two full (eight-hour) days per week and in their second year they do three days of fieldwork a week. This work includes not only direct service work, but community outreach, advocacy, staff meetings, consultations, research activity, and staff development. Additionally, all students must choose between between two provided tracks: macro or micro. The former is for those interested in working on the administrative level or in policy while the latter is for those who specifically wish to serve individuals, families, or small communities.
Not only is UCLA a great school, but it is affordable with a reputation for graduating students who go on to earn over 50k annually in the first years of their career. This MSW program is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education.
Washington University in St. Louis
Through the George Warren Brown School of Social Work, Washington University in St. Louis provides one of the best MSW programs in the entire country (it is ranked second byU.S. News World Report). This two-year degree emphasizes leadership and team building through a curriculum that covers research methods, human behavior, social justice and human diversity, social welfare policies and services, practice with individuals and groups, and social work practice with organizations and communities.
Supplementing this core, students can uniquely design their academic experience and specialization through a range of offered concentrations. Social policy, practice methods, evaluation, leadership and management, and theory, problems, and issues are the five available areas of concentration. Further, Washington University provides the opportunity to earn certification in either affordable housing and mixed-income community management or in violence and injury prevention. Thus, this is not only one of the best MSW programs in the country, but one of the most flexible in terms of curricular focus.
Washington Universitys MSW program is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education, and the Brown School is home to a social work library, a communications lab, the Clark-Fox Policy Institute, and more.
University of Maryland - Baltimore
For those passionate about clinical social work, human services management, or community organizing, this Masters of Social Work degree from the University of Maryland Baltimore emphasizes hands-on learning through field practicum by placing first-year and second-year students in foundation and advanced field placements respectively. Students work with local Baltimore social services agencies two to three days a week (depending on how far along they are in the program), integrating theory with research to become prepared for professional practice. The university even allows students to find employment-based field practicums.
In conjunction with the practicum, students take twenty-four core courses covering individual, group, and community services. They can then choose to concentrate in one of five areas: aging, behavioral health, community action and social policy, families and children, or health. And for those students seeking further specialization, the University of Maryland Baltimores MSW offers two sub-areas of focus: employee assistance and child, adolescent, and family health.
Marylands low tuition cost and its history of graduates who earn above 55k annually in the first years of their career make this program a high return on investment. The University of Maryland Baltimores MSW program is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education.
University of North Carolina
Based in Chapel Hill, the University of North Carolina offers a MSW degree that is ranked among the top five in the country byU.S. News World Report. A blend of foundational courses that cover social welfare policy and services, human behavior in the social environment, social research, and social work practice, plus an advanced curriculum that allows students to opt between two concentrationsdirect practice or community, management, and policy practicethis MSW program is a traditional, solid place to earn your degree.
The University of North Carolinas MSW program stresses, both through its curriculum and practicum, not only equal access to services, but respect for individual worth and human dignity, the right to self-determination, the importance of diversity, and a high standard for ethical conduct. Also unique to North Carolinas program is the number of opportunities made available to students. For example, MSW students can study abroad in the summer, with trips to Eastern Europe, China, Cuba, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, South Africa, Mexico, England, or Ireland. If you dont desire to study abroad but still want to pad your resume and gain extra experience, the University of North Carolina has five certificate programs that pair with the MSW. You can gain certification in global transmigration, non-profit leadership, substance abuse and addictions, international development and social change, or international peace and conflict resolution.
UNCs MSW program is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education.
University of Pennsylvania
Ivy League University of Pennsylvania offers a Master of Social Work program taught by a nationally renowned faculty in a small-classroom setting (on average, there are only twenty students to a class). Penns curriculum, which is rooted in social justice and change, is interdisciplinary in scope. In fact, students take classes from among Penns twelve graduate schools, they have international coursework and study abroad opportunities, there are eleven dual-degree programs, and even more certificate and specialization programs.
There are several ways to complete your MSW through Penn. Students are allowed to study full-time and complete the degree within two years. They may study for three years, or part-time, or they may enroll in the advanced study program or the employed practitioners program. For those with a Bachelors in Social Work, the advanced study program allows them to complete the MSW in ten months. And the practitioners program is a three-year degree for working adults who study part-time and earn their field credit through their work experience. Whichever track you take, you can be assured that you will graduate fully prepared to enter a variety of systems and settings, to work with diverse client populations, and to be a leader for social change and development.
This MSW program is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education.
With three distinct tracks of study, students of all backgrounds, experiences, and responsibilities can earn a Masters of Social Work degree from the University of Washington. Foremost, the traditional program, referred to as the Day Program, takes two years of full-time study to complete. A combination of classroom learning and fieldwork, students learn social work history, professional identity, policy, and social justice. The Extended Degree program is similar in content, but takes three years of part-time study to complete. Finally, the Advanced Studies program is for those holding an undergraduate degree in social work. This program requires only ten months of study and features specialization.
Though each track is differently structured, they each train students to become leaders for social development, to implement effective social interventions, and to cultivate a relationship with a diverse society. UWs program allows for concentration and specialization within the curriculum as well as offering three certifications, in gerontology, guardianship, and nonprofit management.
The University of Washingtons MSW degree, ranked third best in the nation byU.S. News World Report, is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education.
University of California-Berkeley
UC Berkeley is a globally recognized leader in education, in a number of disciplines, its social work department included. They offer a Master of Social Welfare degree that is highly flexible, meaning students are free to focus on their areas of interest and passion. Students can choose among four areas of formal concentration: aging, child and family services, community mental health, health, and management and planning. Students may also earn certification in Social Work with Latinos or School Social Work. Finally, if those options werent enough, Berkeley has two concurrent degree programs that pair with the MSW, one in public health (MSW plus a MPH) and one in public policy (MSW plus a MPP).
With an emphasis on the importance of leadership, Berkeleys goals for its MSW program include leadership in service, leadership for social justice and change, and leadership for evidence-informed and competency-based practice. Students learn professional responsibility, how to advance social justice, how to use tested knowledge, and effective implementation of intervention method.
Also considered the third best MSW program in the country (tied with Washington) byU.S. News World Report,Berkeleys Social Welfare MSW program is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education.
University of Texas-Austin
One of the most affordable MSW programs on our list, the University of Texas in Austin makes going back to school for advanced study (and thus advanced vocational placement) an option for most. This MSW program is flexibly structured, allowing students to finish between one year and three-and-a-half years (depending on past education experience). There are two concentrations available, clinical social work and administration and policy practice, and UT Austin requires over one thousand hours of field practicum.
Like some of the other programs on our list, UT Austin seeks to provide its students with a number of diverse learning experiences. However, unlike a majority of programs on this list, UT Austin offers an international internship opportunity. Students integrate theory and practice, earn practicum hours, and learn how to navigate a different culture and its associated systems. International placement spans the globe, from South Africa to India to Costa Rica. At UT Austin you can also enroll in dual degrees, some of which are mostly unavailable elsewhere, such as the combined Master of Divinity and MSW program. Other dual degree options include MSW degrees paired with a Master of Public Health, Master of Public Affairs, a Doctor of Jurisprudence, or a Master of Arts in Latin American Studies degree.
UT Austin is a great place to earn your Council on Social Work Education accredited MSW degree. World-renowned, affordable, and with graduates earning (on average) 53k annually in the early years of their career, you can expect a successful experience post UT Austin.
University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign
The Master of Social Work degree at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign explicitly expresses the significance the program places on options, both academic and vocational. Thus, students first choose among three enrollment tracks: the traditional full-time or part-time program on campus, the outreach program (which is a hybrid of online and on-campus coursework), or the dual MSW/MBA program. The latter is for those who wish to supplement their social work study with one academic year of concentrated MBA classes. Furthermore, at UI Urbana Champaign MSW students choose among two concentrations: leadership and social change or advanced clinical. The latter includes four more specialization areas: mental health, health care, schools, and children, youth, and family services.
Whichever enrollment track or concentration speaks to you and your situation, studying social work at UI Urbana Champaign guarantees you will be fully prepared to perform erudite research, effectively apply human behavior knowledge to real-world scenarios, engage diversity in practice, and overall advance human rights and social justice. Payscale also informs us that graduates from UI earn, on average, nearly 58k annually in the early years of their career.
The University of Illinois School of Social Work is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education.
University of Southern California
At the University of Southern California you will take classes that explore unique issues, diverse populations, and innovative ideas such as social work in the military, enacting social change, the dimensions of spirituality, juvenile justice, mental health, school social work, and leadership. As a MSW student you will pair this distinctive course load with international study opportunities and field internships. This MSW program is comprised of three departments: adults and healthy aging; children, youth, and families; and community, organization, and business innovation.
USC sets itself apart in a number of ways, by offering online classes in addition to on-campus coursework, so you can earn your degree in a flexible and efficient manner. They also provide classes on their Irvine (Orange County) campus. Summer and weekend classes are also made available so students who are working can still earn their degrees at the traditional two-year pace. Finally, USC, similar to some other schools on our list, offers dual degree programs. But unlike the other schools, USC offers eight different degrees! So, in addition to earning the MSW, you can earn a MBA, law degree, or masters in planning, public administration, public health, and much more.
The University of Southern Californias MSW program is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education.
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