MSW Degree at at Glance
Do you love working with people and helping them? Master of Social Work Programs might be the right course for you. Getting an MSW degree opens the door to a broad range of careers. It can be a gateway to becoming a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), which involves working one-on-one with patients. You can also join the macro social work, which, with an MSW degree, you could join policy-making and advocacy for the rights of underserved populations. Do you have a bachelor’s degree and plan to do a master’s in the future? Do not feel left out because you take part in administrative positions in community organizations and nonprofits. That’s just for starters!
This guide will help you untangle all the possibilities and put you on a course to earn your master’s in social work.
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. You can either work in direct practice, clinical practice or macro which involves policymaking and advocacy. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2021, social workers earn an average of 50,390 per year and $24.23 per hour. Remember, with an advancement of the bachelor’s degree to a master’s the income significantly increases. Universities are also focusing more on offering flexible school calendars and therefore, if you still need to work while you study, you can either enroll for part-time or online courses.
Once you achieve the Master of Social work degrees, most holders do not pursue further education such as a doctoral degree. The degree is usually terminal, meaning most MSW degree-holders do not pursue further education. In fact, in 2020 only 277 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. Students who pursue a doctorate are interested in conducting research, teaching at the postsecondary level, or working at top administrative positions. The MSW gives you licensure for practice which is also the standard educational requirement for earning a license in social work. Before you enroll for studies in any school, ensure they have the CSWE license which is active.
What You Can Do With an MSW Degree
Social workers are found in many settings, including hospitals, senior centers, schools, and courtrooms. You will also find them 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 in social work are categorized in direct practice, clinical practice, and macro. Clinical and direct practice 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. You will find social workers in nursing homes, community centers, prisons, healthcare facilities, and others which confirms that the career opportunities are diverse.
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 skill sets can be used in non-traditional settings. Examples of some 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 depends on skills and experiences. For students with a bachelor’s degree and have achieved above 3.0 GPA in the last 60 semester units, they may take one year to complete. For students who want to work as they continue to study they may take up to 4 years to complete the program. Therefore, before applying for the MSW degree you need to evaluate your availability before committing to any of the programs. Luckily, these campuses offer flexible options such as full-time, part-time and online options and you can choose what works best for you.
12 Notable Master of Social Work Programs
CSWE which stands for Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) represents social work education in the United States. They ensure that each student is empowered to create an impact in the community by getting quality social work education programs. Any university offering this course is taken through a rigorous peer-review process before accreditation. Below are some 12 notable universities that have CSWE accreditation for Master of Social Work Programs.
Arizona State University
Arizona is accredited by CSWE and offers both online and residential master’s programs. For you to pursue the course, you must have graduated from your degree program within the last six years with a minimum of 3.2GPA on a 4.0 scale. For graduation you are required to complete one internship that is 480 hours. The tuition fee ranges between $543 to $1343 per credit hour depending on whether it is a standard or an advanced standing. While submitting your application for the program you are allowed to share unofficial transcripts for consideration and submit the originals during admission. With completion of the course, you also get an Arizona Board of Behavioral Health Examiners licensure if you plan practicing in Arizona.
Baylor provides the Master of Social Work (MSW) program for both online and residential students. Their education is based on social justice with an intersection of faith and practice. The tuition fee costs $825 per credit hour. For a full-time standard program, this includes 60 semester hours with a credit from two internships. The tuition fee totals $49,500. For an advanced standing, this required a Bachelor’s degree from a CSWE accredited campus and includes only 32 semester hours which totals to $26400. Transcripts are sent directly from your degree school to Baylor university, and they do not accept unofficial transcripts at any point of application.
University of Wisconsin
Wisconsin is a CSWE accredited MSW programs institution that offers both full time and part-time. Depending on your qualifications, you can either take four full semesters or two full semesters. The part time program involves a hybrid approach that combines both in-person and online classes. Their tuition fees start from $9646 per semester and the minimum qualification for application is a 3.0 GPA.
University of Indiana
University of Indiana has several campuses, but they still offer both residential and online programs for students who want to advance in Master of social work degrees. To enhance your skills the university offers a unique dual program and certificates. They offer the nation’s only e-social work certificate and their tuition fee ranges between $440 to USD 1021 per credit hour. To apply for the program, you should have graduated from an CSWE campus within the past 10 years with an active social work licensure of not less than 5 years. You are also allowed to submit scanned unofficial transcripts during the application process.
San Diego State University
San Diego State University offers the Master of Social Work Programs in all locations of its schools. They do not offer part time classes and mostly offer full-time options. Their minimum entry requirement is a 3.0 in the last 60 units. The length of the program depends on the student’s flexibility and to support that, they offer a one year to a four-year completion plan. You can pick one that best suits your schedule. The tuition fee is approximately $8922 per year. As a requirement to apply for the MSW, you are required to have 500 hours minimum of paid or unpaid internship.
Tulane university offers a flexible model where you can enroll as a full-time student or an online student. The traditional full-time program takes an average of 16 months to complete while part time requires 32 months. For the advanced standing, full time will take you approximately 12 months to complete while part time will take you 24 months. To complete the course, you will require 60 credits and it will cost $1276 per credit. Tulane offers add-on certificates to the MSW and you may choose from their Disaster and Collective Trauma or Mental Health, Addiction, and the Family options.
San Jose State University
San Jose offers three options to complete the MSW degree course that include a full-time plan, 3-year option or an online/ hybrid model. The full-time option takes two years to complete with 60 units and the tuition fee is $270 USD per unit. The 3-year option is when you take two years to complete the first year and complete the last year in one totaling 3 years in school. The online option is set to also benefit the working professionals with two options of completion within one year or two years. The tuition fee is $475 with 37 units to complete the course. The advanced option takes one year and one summer to complete with a total of 37 units.
University of Louisville
The university offers a full-time and an online program for their students. For the MSW Degree. The regular program will take you 60 hours to complete including the online. The minimum requirement for entry is a 3.0 GPA and a bachelor’s degree. You are also required to have graduated with your bachelor’s degree within 7 years of your application for the advanced standing. For advanced standing, this takes 30 hours to complete the course. The total cost for studying the cost per credit hour is $ 752. The university also offers a wide range of grants, work-study options, and loans to help students pay for their courses. As you apply you can find these options on their website.
Washington University in St. Louis
Washington University offers full time and part time studying options in all schools. You have an option to choose specialization in any of their options such as child protection, family options and more. The total completion time for a full-time student is 60 credit hours which cost $23, 420 per semester. The part time students can choose a program that fits into their day-to-day schedule. If you have completed a bachelors. you may qualify for an advanced standing option of study.
Portland State University
To ensure you achieve your goals Portland State University offers three MSW degree options that include on campus, online and flexible options. For students who are on full time and flexible options, the total credit hours for completion are 78 credit hours while advanced require 46 credit hours for completion. Field placements divided into 16 hours per week are a total of two 500-hour placements. For the advanced standing, they require only one field placement. They also offer specialized training, and the tuition fee is around $567 per credit hour.
University of Texas at Arlington
The university offers both a full time and an online education for the Master of Social Work degrees. The traditional full-time course requires approximately 61 hours while the advanced requires 38 hours for completion. The minimum requirement is a 3.0 GPA with a 6-year completion time from your bachelor’s degree. Within the campus, you can decide to specialize within the aging, children, family health and mental health. The tuition fee is $12,208 per year. It is important to remember that the tuition fee includes the basic tuition fee and does not include books and accommodation.
California State University, San Bernardino
The university offers a two-year program, three- year program, pathway distance education program and the advanced standing program. The two – year program has four semesters for full-time course work with intensive study of 60 units. The three-year program includes six semesters and is ideal for people who are working while they study. The 60 units are spread across the three years. The pathway distance education program is the same as the three-year program only that it is taught online for students who cannot make it to the university for classes. The MSW degree for the advanced standing program is available face to face and they highly recommend full focus time and encourage students not to work during that time. The course includes 36 units which are completed within 12 months. The current tuition fee for the two-year and the 3-year program is approximately 4,424.74 per semester. The tuition for the 2-year program is $16,832.52 and the tuition for the 3 year program is $25,248.78. The cost may vary, and it is advisable to contact the school for an up to date fee structure.
Admissions Requirements for MSW Programs
Requirements for applying for an MSW program vary by school. The work experience period, the transcripts requirements, therefore, once you identify a school you would like to join for your Master of social work degrees, you should contact them to see what additional requirements they need from you. There are however some basic requirements that cut across all schools and below are some typical requirements.
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. This is because you will enroll for the advanced standing program due which runs for a shorter time.
Most schools require at least a 3.0 GPA in your bachelor’s program. In some cases, they might consider a 2.9 in addition to your internship scores and credit but still this varies with each university. Some even have a cut-off point of 3.2 GPA.
Some schools require that you have paid employment or volunteer work experience—sometimes up to a year of it. Most count the work experience in hours eg. 500 hours of paid or unpaid internship and such.
Letters of Recommendation
Recommendations might be academic, professional, or both. The school you decide to apply to will let you know which sort of recommendation they expect to get from you.
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 which is dependent on their career goals and interests. It is therefore important to reach more of the specialties to understand and ensure that you pick one that you are passionate about.
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
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. Therefore, before you settle for any specialty, ensure you have done enough research to avoid regret once you discover some more as you study.
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. Field work will give you a feel of how working in the profession and specialty you have chosen feels like and help you build more confidence while you prepare to graduate and look for opportunities.
How Much Does an MSW Cost?
According to a 2022 report by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the average yearly cost of a graduate education at a public school (in-state) was $12,410; the average for a private school was $26,597. Factoring in yearly increases based on that NCES data, for 2021–2022 the costs would be roughly $13,400 for public schools and $27,480 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. Each university has their unique offering or all the above, if you feel you require assistance, apply for it once you have been admitted to study the program.
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 MSW programs schools to gain licensure. In states that don’t, the licensure process can be more difficult, particularly if you move to a new state. Once you visit the CSWE site, filter the regions and programs and you will find details of accreditation that will help you decide on which university to study. They provide further details of accreditation such as full accreditation, withdrawals, those in progress and more.
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 in the program. By speaking to grads, you will understand more about the program and it is exciting to hear from people who have studied there.
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 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, conducting assessments and providing 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 Choose 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. I am 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 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 on 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 and 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, the 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 clients’ lives 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 being 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 help me understand the necessity of competency in this field. DSM equipped me to know the criteria for a diagnosis and how to build an informed case formulation. In addition to how this course informed how I would 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 for 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, 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 create 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 multi-focal 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 are then taught how to think critically 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 dive deep into our personal biases, worldview, and intersectionality and how these have informed how 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 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 population 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 I would intern for a counseling center serving individuals, families, and couples next year. 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, ensure 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. The US News and World Report Ranking System is a good place to start. Some high-quality schools are offered at a much lower rate than others, so do your research!
Evaluate the location. Location can help determine internship and job opportunities after graduation, so it is helpful to ensure you are a good fit for the city/town. It’s also helpful to think of factors outside the school if you’re considering 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 questions 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 ethnically and culturally diverse professors, well respected and accomplished in the field, and 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 could meet professors, ask questions, and 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 values if you have not had the chance.