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Complete Guide to the Master of Social Work (MSW) Degree

Kayla Hines

Featuring an interview with MSW student Kayla Hines

Getting a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree opens the door to a broad range of careers. It can be a gateway to earning a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) credential, which is typically required for working one-on-one with patients. It can be a pathway to administrative positions in community organizations and nonprofits. And an MSW can lead to a career that involves policy-making and advocacy for the rights of underserved populations. That’s just for starters!

This guide will help you untangle all the possibilities and put you on course to earn your master’s in social work.

MSW Degree at at Glance

  • In 2016, 27,659 MSW degrees were awarded.
  • Over 90% of students with bachelor’s degrees in social work advanced to MSW programs or had plans to do so.
  • Among MSW grads, 78.6% had work experience before entering the program.
  • 91% of MSW grads got jobs working directly with individuals or families.
  • Over one-third of those employed in a clinical setting worked with children and families.
  • 93% of MSW grads said they would recommend getting this degree to others.

Source: Nationwide Survey of 2017 Social Work Graduates

What Is a Master’s in Social Work Degree?

The master’s in social work (MSW) is a graduate degree that prepares students to enter the workforce in a wide range of social work careers. The degree is usually terminal, meaning most MSW degree-holders do not pursue further education. In fact, in 2015 only 0.8% of social work degrees awarded were doctoral degrees.

With an MSW, you are qualified to work in nearly every area and at almost every level of the social work field. Those who go on to get a doctorate are typically interested in conducting research, teaching at the postsecondary level, or working at top administrative positions.

Having an MSW is also the standard educational requirement for earning a license in social work.

What You Can Do With an MSW Degree

Social workers are everywhere. You can find them in hospitals, senior centers, schools, and courtrooms. They show up in adoption centers, correctional facilities, mental health clinics, and government agencies. There are dozens of social work careers—and you can work in nearly all of them with an MSW.

The types of careers available can roughly be divided into two areas—clinical/micro and macro. Clinical jobs involve working one-on-one with patients. They might include positions such as:

  • School social worker
  • Substance abuse social worker
  • Marriage and family social worker
  • Case manager
  • Child social worker
  • Mental health social worker
  • Military social worker
  • Private practice social worker
  • Eldercare social worker

You might even find clinical social workers in the criminal justice system, working as probation officers or correctional counselors.

Many of these careers relate to the type of population the social worker interacts with. They work in a broad range of facilities, including nursing homes, community centers, prisons, healthcare facilities, and others.

Social workers at the macro level deal with the larger picture of social work. They work in administration, policy-making, advocacy, and research. They may be employed by community-based facilities, healthcare facilities, government agencies, colleges, and nonprofit organizations.

More and more, social workers are finding that their knowledge and skillsets can be used in non-traditional settings. Examples of some recent, unexpected job openings for social workers include:

  • Employee Assistance Program Regional Manager (United Airlines)
  • Community Outreach and Corporate Philanthropy Manager (Twitter)
  • Equal Employment and Alternative Dispute Resolution Manager (Department of the Treasury)

How Long Does It Take to Get an MSW?

MSW programs generally take about two years to complete if attending full-time. However, time spent in school may be less for students with particular experience and/or qualifications, such as advanced standing students who have earned a bachelor’s degree in social work. Students with prior experience in social work also can often complete a program in less than two years.

Admissions Requirements for MSW Programs

Requirements for applying for an MSW program vary by school. The following are typical requirements.

Bachelor’s degree
This requirement is standard for all programs. Most schools will accept a bachelor’s in any subject, but some require you to have taken courses related to social work. For example, the University of California, Berkeley, expects students to have completed at least six classes in social science and a college-level statistics course. As mentioned previously, if you earned a bachelor’s in social work (BSW), you can often finish your MSW in less time.

GPA requirements
Most schools require at least a 3.0 GPA in your bachelor’s program.

Experienc
Some schools require that you have paid employment or volunteer work experience—sometimes up to a year of it.

Letters of recommendation
Recommendations might be academic, professional, or both.

MSW Coursework

In some programs, within the first year students choose one of two tracks—clinical or macro. A clinical track prepares them to work directly with clients, while a macro track leads to jobs in administration, research, and policy-making. Students then choose a specialty within that area.

Other MSW programs don’t differentiate between clinical and macro but provide options in more specialized areas.

First-year students, no matter what their concentration, will take core social work classes. Some of these courses can help students decide which track they want to follow. Examples include:

  • History and Philosophy of Social Work
  • Social Welfare System
  • Human Behavior in the Social Environment
  • Basic Skills in Clinical Work
  • Basic Skills in Macro Work
  • Research Methods in Social Work

Clinical Core Coursework

Students who follow a clinical track will take core classes in that area and then move on to coursework that deals with the specialty they choose. Core classes might include:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Interventions
  • Interpersonal Practice Interventions in Mental and Behavioral Health for Adults (or for Children)
  • Applied Assessment Skills
  • Advanced Methods in Clinical Practice

Macro Core Coursework

Those who choose a macro track might take core classes like:

  • Management of Organizations Serving Children, Youth, & Families
  • Policy and Political Social Work
  • Fundraising and Grant Writing
  • Social Change Theories

Specialty Concentrations

The list of possible specializations is long and diverse. Some focus on specific populations, such as children or the elderly, while others deal with particular issues, such as substance abuse or mental health. In the macro realm, you can find programs in policy-making and administration.

However, there are many other possibilities, some that are even more specialized. For example, the University of Michigan, which was ranked #1 in social work programs by US News in 2019, offers concentrations in Global Social Work Practice and Program Evaluation and Research. The University of Washington offers a concentration in American Indian and Alaska Native. The University of Houston offers a Political Social Work specialization. And the University of Pennsylvania has a Nonprofit Leadership concentration.

Fieldwork

All MSW programs require students to engage in fieldwork (also known as field study, field education, or internship). Fieldwork is hands-on professional development in which students apply what they have learned in the classroom to real-world settings in the community.

Students participating in fieldwork are guided by a supervisor. They start by working with their supervisor to develop a learning agreement that provides an overview of what they will be doing in the field. Students usually need to keep a log of hours and write reports about their experiences.

Fieldwork is a significant component of an MSW program. Students typically put in 16–20 hours per week during the spring semester of their first year and three days a week for the entirety of their second year.

How Much Does an MSW Cost?

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reported that as of 2017, the average yearly cost of a graduate education at a public school (in-state) was $11,617; the average for a private school was $24,712. Factoring in yearly increases based on that NCES data, for 2019–2020 the costs would be roughly $12,500 for public schools and $26,500 for private schools. For a program that runs two years for a full-time student, double those numbers to get a sense of the cost of an MSW.

Needless to say, however, there is a wide range. You can find programs that cost less than $7,000 and as much as $60,000-plus.

How to Pay for an MSW

There are many avenues for offsetting the costs of your MSW program. These include loans, federal aid, scholarships, grants, and work-study programs. Note that loans have to be paid back, while scholarships and grants do not. Scholarships are typically based on merit, while grants are based on need, though this isn’t universal.

Visit our financial aid page for more information.

How to Choose an MSW Program

It’s essential to do careful and thorough research before choosing an MSW program. Here are some questions to consider when looking for a school that is right for you.

Is the program accredited?
First and foremost, look for schools accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). Most states require their social workers to attend a CSWE accredited program to gain licensure. In states that don’t, the licensure process can be more difficult, particularly if you move to a new state.

What concentration or clientele do you want to work with?
As mentioned previously, schools offer a wide variety of concentrations. At the broadest level, they provide clinical programs and macro programs. At the narrowest, you can find programs that focus on particular ethnic populations or social work organizations. Here are some specific considerations:

  • Have you already decided on a specialty beyond clinical or macro? If not, you might want to look for a school that has a wide range of options.
  • Does the school or program have faculty who are experts in your area of interest?
  • Is the school connected to employers or specific facilities in your desired area of employment?

What is the reputation of the program?
Interview former students to see what they thought about the program. What types of jobs have they been able to get? Check out sites like com to see what students think about professors the program.

Do you need an online program?
If you are working full-time, caring for a family, or have other commitments, consider taking a program online. Although online MSW programs are hybrids—meaning you can take classes online but must complete fieldwork at an established location­—they can provide more flexibility than on-campus programs. Check to see whether classes are synchronous or asynchronous. The former refers to courses that are held on a specific day and at a set time each week; the latter refers to classes that can be taken at any time.

Q&A with MSW Student Kayla Hines

Kayla Hines

Kayla Hines is a second-year MSW student at the University of Houston—she is on a clinical track and hopes to get her LCSW. She recently finished her internship as a wellness counselor intern at Memorial High School through Communities in Schools Houston. Before pursuing her master’s, Kayla worked as a resident advocate at a family abuse center, where she conducted assessments and provided referrals on a crisis hotline for victims of domestic violence. She also worked at a 24-hour shelter to provide residents with assistance in areas such as crisis intervention, meal preparation, and intake.

What year of your MSW program are you in?

I am currently in the second year of my MSW program at the University of Houston. I am taking two electives this summer and will resume a full course load starting in the fall (hopefully!).

What did you get your bachelor’s degree in (what was your major)? Were you thinking that you might want to get an MSW when you chose that major?

My undergraduate degree is in psychology. I knew I wanted to get a master’s when I chose this major, but social work was not on my radar. At the time, I associated social work with careers in case management and child protective services and was more interested in pursuing a mental health graduate degree.

Initially, I wanted to get my master’s in marriage and family counseling or complete a Psy.D. (Doctor of Psychology), but after learning about the wide range of opportunities an MSW degree offers, I decided to pursue social work.

What other reasons led you to decide to get an MSW degree? 

Social work incorporates three areas of practice that I feel passionate about: working with marginalized populations, mental health, and social justice.

My first love is service to the marginalized. My childhood community of faith believed our highest calling was loving our neighbor so you could always find us in a soup kitchen, painting someone’s house, or engaging in disaster relief. Helping marginalized individuals and communities became my first vocational calling.

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in psychology, mental health became an academic interest of mine and a second vocational calling. In undergrad, I quickly became fascinated by cognitive development, trauma, mental illness, personality, and relationships.

I then worked for various nonprofit organizations, trying to find the perfect place to engage in service and mental health. Within this 5-year time period, I began learning about social justice issues such as systemic racism, the American wage gap, gender inequality, ableism, and discrimination based on sexual orientation. I was able to see inequality in places I had not previously noticed and became passionate about addressing it.

What is your concentration?

My concentration is in clinical social work. Our program requires students to choose a macro or clinical concentration following the completion of the first semester. Core classes are then based on this concentration.

There are also options for specializations in our program including health and behavioral health, social work practice with Latinos, political social work, and an individualized specialization. I did not choose a specialization because after finishing my first year, I was still unsure of the route I wanted to go. I wanted to keep my elective courses and field placement options open to allow diverse content and experiences to inform the professional direction I would go.

What are some of the courses you’ve taken that you’ve really liked?

I have genuinely loved all the courses I have taken thus far. The four that stick out the most are Policy Analysis, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), Cognitive Behavioral Interventions, and Confronting Oppression. I know that is quite the list for a first-year student, but each one of these courses has built on each other and has provided applicable content for being an effective social worker.

Surprisingly, Policy Analysis has been my favorite course. Had I not been required to take Policy Analysis during my first semester, there is a very good chance I would have avoided something so “macro.” I wanted to invest my energy in hands-on, clinical social work, so understanding policy seemed irrelevant to me. I could not have been more wrong. The great myth of social work is that there is a clear divide between clinical and macro concentrations. Right off the bat, we learned that all clinical social workers engage in macro practice and vice versa. We like to say “the personal is political” in our program, which essentially means that whether we like it or not, our personal lives and the lives of our clients are intricately woven into the political context of our world.

In Policy Analysis, we learned that our personal lives and the lives of our clients are intricately woven into the political context of our world. We learned why this is true by breaking down theories of systems. I was able to learn how systems function, how laws get passed, what advocacy looks like in real life, how to present an hour’s worth of content in three minutes, and how to solve a systemic issue by getting to the root cause of the problem. Individuals cannot be separated from their macro context, and being able to navigate large systems is essential to be an effective social worker.

DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) pushed me to think critically about a person’s symptoms, be thorough, and helped me understand the necessity of competency in this field. DSM equipped me to not only know the criteria for a diagnosis but know how to build an informed case formulation. In addition to how this course informed the way I will operate as a clinical social worker, it was also incredibly interesting to learn more about how the brain works, dip my toes in pharmacotherapy, and the etiology of various mental illnesses.

Cognitive Behavioral Interventions (CBI) is a class that is essential as a clinical student but also quite helpful for macro students. CBI teaches clients how to recognize maladaptive thoughts, empirically question and challenge them, and replace them with more helpful, adaptive thoughts (cognitive restructuring). The first half of the course covers Motivational Interviewing, an evidence-based practice to help clients move forward in the stages of change. The second half covered Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), the “gold standard” in therapeutic practices. CBT can be used to treat depression, anxiety, PTSD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, etc. and assumes that thoughts, emotions, and behavior are all significantly affected by one another.

Lastly, Confronting Oppression helped me learn how to define, identify, and come up with creative solutions to oppression in various contexts. Before taking this course, I knew oppression existed in the form of all the “isms,” but I did not know how to make a case for how or why oppression manifests. We learned how to look at issues from a multifocal perspective. This includes finding the historical roots of an issue and understanding how it impacts different races, genders, classes, communities, etc. We learned how to discover who benefits from a particular form of oppression and why. We then were taught how to critically think about solutions and how to effectively communicate this with bodies of people who may or may not agree with us.

A quick note on all my classes: We do not shy away from uncomfortable topics. I learned more about myself in one semester of this program than I ever have before. We dove deep into our personal biases, worldview, and intersectionality and how these have informed the way we see others and move throughout the world. We also talk about race extensively in every course. Having dialogue around this topic has been humbling, challenging, and incredibly beneficial for me, especially considering the recent racial dissent in our country. With that being said, know that social work is not for the faint of heart!

Have you done any fieldwork yet? If so, what did you do?

Our program sort of throws you in the deep end from the beginning with fieldwork. We are given two, year-long internships. Before starting the program, I was able to provide a quick bio of myself that included my populations of interest, and the field team placed me with Communities in Schools (CIS). CIS contracts with districts to provide schools with on-campus social workers, and I was placed at a high school.

I recently discovered that next year I will be interning for a counseling center that serves individuals, families, and couples. I will be working with clients with various presenting problems, specifically trauma-related.

What are your career goals after getting your MSW—are you planning on getting your LCSW, getting a doctorate, etc.?

After graduation, I plan on becoming a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW). I know I want to practice therapy in some capacity, so getting my LCSW is necessary. However, I have a passion for academia and have become increasingly interested in research, so I am open to the idea of getting a doctorate after several years of practice. We shall see!

Do you have any suggestions about what someone should look for when choosing an MSW program?

First and foremost, make sure the program is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). Most well-known and established programs are, but newer programs might still be in the candidacy stage, and it can be risky to invest so much time and money in a program that cannot give you the credentials you need.

Second, check out their national ranking and cost. A good place to start is the US News and World Report Ranking System. There are some high-quality schools offered at a much lower rate than others, so do your research!

Evaluate the location. Location can help determine internship opportunities as well as job opportunities after graduation, so it is helpful to make sure you are a good fit for the city/town. It’s also helpful to think of factors outside of the school if you’re thinking about a face-to-face model. Do you know people there where you could find a good community? What is the cost of living? Could you still pursue some of your favorite hobbies in that location? These are questions that seem a bit irrelevant when looking for a program but are especially important when considering your mental health and capacity to invest in your education.

Research the professors. I have been fortunate enough to have incredible professors who are ethnically and culturally diverse, are well respected and accomplished in the field, and have diverse experiences, but this is not necessarily the case with every program. You can typically find professors on the program’s website. Diversity in every aspect is key to a rich experience!

Go on a visit or attend an informational meeting. This was a helpful way for me to explore the culture of the program. I was able to meet professors, ask questions, and really get to know the city!

Check out the program’s values and compare them with your own. Social work has a certain “lingo” and is a values-based profession, but there can be radically different value systems from program to program. Look at what they are researching, what involvement they have in the community, and who they are staffing. This might be a good time to reflect on your own values if you have not had the chance to do so.