A State by State Licensure Guide

Making the Choice to Pursue a Master’s Degree in Social Work

You have a bachelor’s degree and a career in human services. Perhaps you even have a Bachelor of Social Work from a CSWE accredited program. You like what you’re doing, but you aspire to do even more. Are there significant advantages to going on for your master’s?

A master’s is often required for social work positions in health care. ~ National Association of Social Workers (NASW)

It may make a huge difference, depending on what you envision yourself doing. Baccalaureate social work programs are intended as preparation for the generalist. Master’s programs, on the other hand, offer preparation for specialist and advanced practice roles.

Many states have a defined scope of practice for baccalaureate educated and master’s educated social workers. In most cases, a master’s is required for private practice – and also for supervising social work trainees.

The University of Southern California School of Social Work offers one of the only CSWE accredited online Master's of Social Work degrees in the country. Click Here to contact the University of Southern California School of Social Work and request additional information.

The Worden School of Social Service at Our Lady of the Lake University’s online Master of Social Work is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) Commission on Accreditation and is designed for working adults with or without a social work bachelor’s degree. Click here to request information about The Worden School of Social Service at Our Lady of the Lake University Online Master of Social Work program.

The Simmons College School of Social Work (SocialWork@Simmons) is the nation’s oldest school of social work and is offering an innovative Online Master of Social Work program. You can complete this CSWE-accredited Master's in Social Work program in as little as 15 months. There is no GRE required for acceptance to this program. Request information.

Master’s Level Specialties

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) notes that a Master’s Degree in Social Work is often required for social work positions in health care. Health care social workers most often work in hospitals: anything from pediatrics to oncology. Their caseload includes people who need to come to grips with difficult diagnoses, locate resources, and make life’s big decisions. While the main focus is not necessarily mental illness, these social workers sometimes diagnose or treat concurrent mental conditions.

You’ll always need a master’s for clinical work. In many jurisdictions, you can be authorized to diagnose mental illness and receive third party payments for treating it; you are more or less on a par with mental health counselors (though the scope of practice will not be exactly the same).

A master’s can also be useful to social workers whose interests lie far outside the clinical arena. Baccalaureate social workers are often legally allowed to take on various macro roles, including administrative ones; however, the NASW notes that in practice, administrative positions often do require a master’s.

NASW specialty certifications are based on feedback about what real social workers are doing out there in the real world. There are several that are available to baccalaureate social workers. However, certifications in clinical, healthcare, and school social work are reserved for MSW social workers. (In rare cases, a baccalaureate social worker may be employed in a school setting, but the bar is generally set higher.)

Specialization involves both education and job training. A master’s program is generally followed by a period of supervised work experience. You’re employed and earning, but you’re still getting training and feedback. Is this one more hoop to jump through, or is it an opportunity to tailor your career to the specialty – and work sector – that’s the best fit?

Salary Increases

With those expanded job duties there are also opportunities for higher salaries. The NASW Workforce Center has conducted salary surveys of social workers in various settings. They report an average of $40,100 for BSWs in hospital settings and $60,000 for MSWs in hospital settings. In social service agencies, the reported median is $41,300 at the BSW level and $54,000 at the MSW level. There’s quite a range among social service workers who have the same educational level. Experience and geography are both significant. Still, salaries are higher at every interval for the MSW, with BSWs at the 10th percentile reporting just $14,900 and MSWs at the 10th percentile, $29,100. And at the 90th percentile? Here, it’s $65,000 for the BSW and $90,000 for the MSW.

Schools, psychiatric hospitals, and mental health clinics represent three areas where NASW reports salaries only for master’s level social workers. Median salaries are $61,000, $60,000, and $50,000, respectively.

Higher education isn’t cheap, and fees can seem daunting at the onset. There are part-time options for the working professional as well as online options. Clinical social workers can sometimes have their graduate expenses repaid if they put in a period of service in an area where the need is high.

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