How to Find a Social Work Degree Program

Written by Staff Writer
Last Updated: May 2020

What Kind of Degree Does a Social Worker Need?

After earning a social work degree at any level, from an associate degree to a doctorate, professionals pursue careers in social services fields. For graduates with a bachelor’s-level social work degree, jobs may involve providing case management for clients, referring patients for social and community services, and holding entry-level positions in nonprofits and government agencies.

However, some social work positions require an advanced degree. For example, many state social work licenses require a master’s degree in social work. An MSW provides specialized knowledge in areas such as family therapy, clinical social work, and mental health counseling. Social workers need a master’s degree to diagnose mental health problems and to provide psychotherapy. MSW students gain work experience during a practicum or field experience, but most state social work licenses require a certain number of post-MSW work experience hours.

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Accreditation for Social Work Degrees

When considering a social work degree, students should check each prospective school’s accreditation status. Institutions should hold regional or national accreditation from an independent, nonprofit agency. Students at regionally accredited institutions qualify for federal financial aid, and credits from regionally accredited schools are more likely to transfer to other institutions than those earned from nationally accredited schools.

The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) accredits social work programs, which involves regular review to ensure programs maintain high academic standards.

In addition to institutional accreditation, social work programs should hold programmatic accreditation. The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) accredits social work programs, which involves regular review to ensure programs maintain high academic standards. The CSWE considers each program’s curriculum and student learning outcomes, along with the faculty’s qualifications.

CSWE accreditation ensures a program meets professional standards. Additionally, most state social work licensing boards require candidates for licensure to hold a degree from a CSWE-accredited program. Finally, students who earn a social work degree from an unaccredited program may not be able to transfer credits into an accredited program or pursue further education.

Social work students can identify programs without CSWE accreditation during their research to ensure they select an accredited program.

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Associate Degree in Social Work

A two-year associate degree in social work prepares graduates for entry-level positions in human services, social services, and case management. Graduates often transfer to four-year colleges or universities to earn a bachelor’s degree. Associate-level social work curricula introduce students to key concepts and theories in the field. Associate programs also help students determine whether they want to pursue a career in social work.

After earning an associate social work degree, jobs available to graduates include human services positions.

Most two-year colleges require that applicants hold a high school diploma or its equivalent, and many do not require standardized test scores. Most associate programs require about 60 credits, including specialized social work classes.

An associate degree does not meet most state’s qualifications for a social work license. However, after earning an associate social work degree, jobs available to graduates include human services positions; these professionals provide vital social services to the community and manage cases for individual clients. An associate degree also provides a pathway toward a bachelor’s degree in social work, and many four-year institutions accept transfer credits earned during associate-level studies.

Example Courses

Introduction to Social Work

Introductory social work courses provide an overview of the profession and familiarize students with key concepts and terms. The class also covers social service agencies, the role of poverty, and the impact of institutional racism.

Introduction to Social Services

Graduates with an associate degree often pursue social services positions. This course introduces students to the basic practices, methods of treatment, and services at American social services agencies.

Interviewing and Counseling

Students considering careers in counseling and therapy learn about treatment models, approaches to counseling, and tools such as behavior modification.

Abnormal Behavior

Students examine maladaptive behavior, the classification of behavioral disorders, and diagnoses. This course trains students to identify abnormal behavior and introduces students to treatment models.

Assessment and Case Management

Students learn how to identify and evaluate a client’s problems and needs, including how to develop a plan of action. The course prepares students to work as case managers.

Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work

A bachelor’s degree in social work provides skills that translate into several different career paths. A BSW leads to careers in child and family services, roles in medical and healthcare social work, and jobs with nonprofit organizations and government agencies.

Colleges and universities typically require applicants to have a high school diploma or its equivalent, provide ACT or SAT scores, and submit letters of recommendation. Candidates with associate social work degrees can transfer into a bachelor’s program and generally receive about 60 credits for their associate degree. Most bachelor’s programs require about 120 credits, and full-time students typically graduate in four years.

In addition to social work classes, students earning a bachelor’s-level social work degree generally complete an internship or practicum. Graduates often pursue careers in community services, entry-level healthcare social work, and case management for children and adults. BSW holders can also apply for a master’s in social work program, which qualifies graduates for high-level careers in areas such as clinical social work.

Example Courses:

Introduction to Social Welfare Practice

This course provides an overview of the social work field, including theoretical frameworks, social work practice, and the social welfare system.

Introduction to Social Work Research

Students explore qualitative and quantitative tools used in social work practice. Students learn how to design and conduct a research study, collect data, and draw conclusions from research.

Social Welfare Policy

This class examines policy and program development, both in historical and contemporary contexts. Students explore policy formation, the implementation of policies, and the effectiveness of certain policies.

Evidence-Based Practices

Students examine the application of social work theory. They study best practices in the field and the evidence-based practice framework, with an emphasis on empirically supported interventions.

Assessment and Treatment of Chemical Dependency

This course covers the assessment and treatment of chemical dependency. Students learn how to recognize and understand dependency, assess substance use disorders, and refer individuals for treatment.

Master’s Degree in Social Work

Social workers who earn a master’s degree typically increase their salary potential, qualify for advanced social work licenses, and advance their careers. While social workers with a BSW earn a median annual salary of $50,000, professionals with a master’s degree in social work earn an average of $53,000 per year. Some social work jobs require an MSW, including positions in clinical social work and psychotherapy.

Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work

Median Salary: $50,000

Master’s Degree in Social Work

Median Salary: $53,000

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Applicants to master’s degree programs must typically hold a bachelor’s degree, submit GRE scores, and have professional experience. While some programs admit students with a bachelor’s degree in a field other than social work, many prefer candidates with an educational background in the discipline. Applicants may also need to submit letters of recommendation and a statement of career goals.

Graduate students concentrate in a social work specialization, such as children, youth, and families; healthcare social work; administration and policy; or clinical social work.

MSW students generally take 48 to 60 credits; most learners graduate in two years. Graduate students concentrate in a social work specialization, such as children, youth, and families; healthcare social work; administration and policy; or clinical social work. MSW students gain field experience during a supervised practicum. Online students usually arrange to complete practicum requirements locally, with an approved supervisor.

An MSW prepares graduates for careers in a variety of social work fields. Graduates meet the educational requirements for a social work license in every state, including the requirements for a clinical social work license. A master’s-level social work degree leads to positions providing diagnostic and therapeutic services to clients of all ages.

Example Courses:

Child and Family Social Work

This course prepares students for careers in child and family services. Learners explore policies and services for children, adolescents, and families and examine the implementation and impact of social services policies.

Assessment of Mental Disorders

This course is ideal for aspiring clinical social workers and those planning to specialize in mental health disorders. Students learn how to assess patients suffering from mental disorders and explore theoretical and practical approaches to assessment.

Health Policy and Services

Students examine the healthcare system’s organization, policies, and services. They explore the healthcare system’s development, attempts to reform the system, and ideological perspectives on healthcare policy.

Social Work Practice in Healthcare Settings

This class provides a theoretical and practice-based assessment of healthcare settings. Topics include conducting assessments, discharge planning, and ethical decision making.

Clinical Social Work

This class examines direct and group practice, including therapeutic skills, phases of treatment, and intervention techniques. Social workers with an MSW can earn a clinical social work license.

Doctoral Degree in Social Work

The highest degree in the field, doctoral social work degrees prepare graduates for high-level social work positions and for academic jobs. Most students require about five years to earn a doctorate, including the time necessary to complete a dissertation. Because a doctorate is a significant time investment and does not qualify holders for additional licensure, social workers should consider whether the degree advances their career goals.

Applicants must hold a master’s degree in social work or a closely related field. Some programs require a minimum number of years of work experience and standardized test scores, most commonly the GRE. Applicants may need to submit letters of recommendation and a statement of purpose.

After completing coursework requirements, doctoral candidates write and defend a dissertation, which requires either original research or a systematic review of a special topic within the field.

Doctoral students complete coursework in specialized areas such as social statistics, social welfare policy, and social work theory. After completing coursework requirements, doctoral candidates write and defend a dissertation, which requires either original research or a systematic review of a special topic within the field. Doctoral candidates write the dissertation under faculty supervision.

After earning a doctorate in social work, graduates often pursue academic positions as professors and researchers; others pursue high-level policy or administrative positions. Most colleges and universities require professors to hold a doctorate, although some may hire teachers with master’s-level social work degrees. A doctorate in social work prepares students for roles in research, policymaking, and teaching.

Example Courses:

Applied Social Statistics

Social work students routinely apply their knowledge of statistics, and the doctoral dissertation may require advanced statistical fluency. This class covers statistical analysis, probability, and managing imperfect data.

Social Welfare Policy

For students considering a policy-focused career, this class analyzes historical and contemporary social welfare policy. The course covers the development, implementation, and effectiveness of various policies and examines the political, social, and economic factors that shape social welfare policy.

Social Work Theory

Doctoral students study methodologies and theories, the role of theory in research, social science research paradigms, and critical assessments of theoretical frameworks.

Quantitative and Qualitative Research Methods

To prepare doctoral students for their dissertation, most programs include courses in quantitative and qualitative research methods. These classes cover analytical methods, data collection, research design, and ethical research methods.

Teaching Practicum

Doctoral students aspiring to college-level teaching positions benefit from a teaching practicum, during which students teach or co-teach a required course under faculty supervision. Most programs restrict these courses to advanced doctoral students.

Online Social Work Degrees

Social work students are not limited to on-campus programs. Today, students often pursue online social work degrees to advance their careers. Many of the best social work programs offer online versions of their degrees, often using the same curricula and faculty for on-campus and online versions. Online programs also include a practicum, which most distance learners arrange to complete locally. Online social work degrees provide a rigorous education with enhanced scheduling flexibility.

An online social work degree is ideal for working professionals and those balancing school with family obligations. Many students prefer the flexibility and accessibility of an online social work degree; asynchronous courses allow students to access class materials at any time, from any place. To succeed in an online program, students must be dedicated, organized, and able to complete coursework independently. Online social work programs with accreditation from CSWE meet licensing requirements.

What Can You Do With a Social Work Degree?

A social work degree prepares graduates for a variety of career paths, depending on the social worker’s education level, interests, and career goals. After earning a bachelor’s degree in social work, graduates qualify for many entry-level positions, including positions in community service and healthcare. Some positions in areas such as clinical social work and school social work require master’s-level social work degrees.

Advanced social work positions include administrative and academic roles. A doctoral degree in social work qualifies professionals to hold teaching and research positions.

  • Social Workers in Administration, Policy, and Research

    These social work professionals manage programs, advocate for social work policies, and research key questions in the field. They hold directorial positions in social service organizations and health agencies. Social workers with a Ph.D. often pursue academic careers, teaching at the college level and conducting research.

    Median Annual Salary: $72,000

  • Child, Family, and School Social Workers

    Professionals specializing in children, families, and school social work support young people, parents, and students. They provide resources for families, assist children struggling with bullying or unstable home environments, and provide counseling for children dealing with trauma. Child, family, and school social workers work in private practice, in schools, and for social service agencies.

    Median Annual Salary: $51,030

  • Community Social Workers

    Community social workers manage community programs and help clients obtain resources. They may work for nonprofits, grassroots organizations, or government agencies to provide vital resources for the community. Social workers in this specialty typically hold a BSW or MSW. An advanced degree prepares community social workers to provide clinical services or manage programs.

    Median Annual Salary: $46,910

  • Gerontological Social Workers

    Gerontological social workers connect the elderly with social and community services. They advocate for their clients; help elderly individuals apply for housing, healthcare, and other resources; and provide mental health support. These professionals need a BSW or MSW, and they may work in private practices, long-term care facilities, outpatient services, or adult protective agencies.

    Median Annual Salary: $50,470

  • Medical and Health Social Workers

    Also known as healthcare social workers, these professionals help individuals, families, and groups manage healthcare systems and medical problems. Many work for hospitals. Clinical social workers, who must have an MSW and a social work license, coordinate care for their patients and diagnose mental health problems.

    Median Annual Salary: $59,300

  • Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers

    These social workers assist clients with mental conditions and substance use disorders. They often act as case managers and help rehabilitation patients with the discharge process, and those with an MSW can provide psychotherapy. They also support the family members of individuals struggling with mental health or substance abuse problems.

    Median Annual Salary: $51,670

  • Military and Veterans Social Work

    Military and veterans social workers help former military members transition to civilian life, connect veterans with resources, and support military families during deployment. They may work in private practices or for the VA or other organizations. Social workers with an MSW can provide psychotherapy and diagnose mental health disorders.

    Median Annual Salary: $50,470

  • Palliative and Hospice Social Work

    In palliative and hospice care, social workers support clients with chronic illnesses and those nearing the end of life. They also provide assistance to their families. Palliative and hospice social workers advocate for their patients’ emotional and medical needs, help coordinate care, and connect clients with services.

    Median Annual Salary: $51,527

  • Psychiatric Social Workers

    Psychiatric social workers specialize in mental health services, including psychotherapy and diagnosing mental illnesses. These professionals must have an MSW and a clinical social work license. They may provide psychosocial assessments, provide therapy, and coordinate with family members and the patient’s medical team. Psychiatric social workers often work at hospitals, outpatient centers, and in private practices.

    Median Annual Salary: $51,670

  • School Social Workers

    School social workers provide support services for students, helping them reach their academic and social potential. They work with young learners struggling with bullying, truancy, or family problems. Many work in schools, and most positions require a master’s degree in social work.

    Median Annual Salary: $51,030

Source: BLS/PayScale

Licensure After Earning a Social Work Degree