Master’s in Social Work (MSW) Programs | Guide and List

Earning a master’s in social work (MSW) may be fulfilling for graduate students who want to continue to work with people to improve their well-being and help them address life challenges, such as addiction, disability, poverty, abuse, divorce, physical illness and mental illness. Holding an MSW means you may work in a variety of settings, such as local and state government, public or private school system, human services and hospitals. Additionally, an MSW may work in supervisory positions where you may have the credentials to provide therapy, such as psychotherapy, to clients. In this article, we’ll explain what an MSW degree is, how to obtain an MSW and why it may be beneficial to earn one.

What Is a Master’s in Social Work (MSW) Degree?

A master’s in social work may provide you with more expansive knowledge and skills to find solutions to issues throughout the community, and a wealth of success and opportunity. Depending on the program you choose, you may find certain specializations such as mental health and substance abuse, working with children, families and schools or how to be a well-rounded generalist. Some of the skills you may attain on your journey to earning an MSW degree include:

  • The ability to demonstrate ethical and professional behavior. 
  • How to approach diversity in social change interventions and clinical practice.
  • Advancing human rights through social, economic and environmental justice. 
  • How to perform practice-informed research.
  • Engaging in policy practice. 
  • Learning how to intervene with individuals, organizations, groups, families and communities by leading change interventions through social policies and programs. 

It’s also important to know a master’s in social work is often the first step toward professional licensure that may allow you to work in clinical settings with patients. 

MSW Curriculum

The courses you may take during a master’s in social work may vary depending on the school you choose. However, some of the core classes in an MSW curriculum are generally the same no matter where you get your degree from. Some of the classes include:

  • Foundations in Social Work Research: This type of course is one of the primary research courses MSW students may be required to take. A class such as this one may provide students with a basic understanding of the various research methods associated with social work. 
  • Social Welfare Policies and Services: A course of this nature may introduce students to American social welfare policies and social service programs through political, historical, economic and social context.
  • Advanced Social Justice: Anti-Oppressive Social Work:  You’ll learn how to identify solutions and provide actionable processes to address any forms of prejudice or oppression.
  • Foundation Field Practicum: Generally MSW students are asked to participate in a field practicum. Students may work based on a generalist social work framework. Students may use a range of knowledge and skills at the micro and macro levels.

In addition to core classes, students may be required to complete a full internship or practicum. While the number of hours may vary depending on the school, generally, a minimum of 900 supervised hours of hands-on experience is the benchmark.

Admission Requirements

What you need to gain admission into an MSW program may vary depending on the school. However, the general admissions requirements may be similar. Here are some of the requirements that may be expected of you.

  • A bachelor’s degree (only students who hold a bachelor’s in social work may be eligible for advanced standing programs).
  • Graduate admission application and fee.
  • Official transcripts from each college or university you have attended.
  • GPA requirements (may vary depending on the school you choose).
  • Letters of recommendation.
  • Experience or background in social services for a six-month period within the past five years.
  • Personal statement outlining your experience or background in social work.

Social Work Concentrations

Some schools may offer more than one concentration in their MSW programs. Some social work concentrations include:

  • Clinical social work specialization: The clinical social work concentration is designed to help social work clients to change their behaviors and address emotional issues brought on by people and the environment. 
  • Advanced generalist: This concentration focuses on both the micro and macro levels of social work. It may include prevention and intervention strategies to improve functioning in society at any level.
  • Child and family welfare: This specialization focuses on preparing MSW students to promote family safety and well-being. The child and family welfare concentration may cover how to properly engage, assess and intervene on specific case management to susceptible children and families.

Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) Accreditation

The Council on Social Work Education is a nonprofit organization representing social work higher education in the United States. It represents more than 800 accredited baccalaureate and master’s degree social work programs. CSWE accreditation may be important because students can feel confident that they are receiving a high-quality social work education. Additionally, state licensing boards may require that you attend a CSWE-accredited MSW program to obtain professional licensure as an advanced social worker. 

To meet CSWE accreditation standards, an institution and a social work program must meet criteria in the following areas:

  • Program mission and goals.
  • Assessment.
  • Explicit curriculum and core competencies in critical thinking and ethical principles.
  • Implicit curriculum that includes student and faculty developments as well as diversity.  

What Can You Do With a Master’s in Social Work?

With a master’s in social work, graduates are likely to find that there are many opportunities for employment. In any field that provides care to individuals, those with MSW degrees are needed to ensure that patients are receiving proper and ethical care.

Licensed social workers work in hospitals, retirement homes and even pediatric clinics, working with physicians and patients to determine proper courses of treatment, such as therapy, counseling or stress management. As an advocate for individuals suffering from addiction, a licensed social worker also works with individuals in rehabilitation facilities in order to keep them in touch with society and provide helpful resources for continued care even after their release. 

You may be wondering, “What can you do with an MSW?” Here is a list of careers in social work and their May 2020 median annual wages, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics:

  • Healthcare social workers: $57,630
  • Mental health and substance abuse social workers: $48,720
  • Child, family and school social workers: $48,430

Social Work Licensure

In most professional settings, some form of social work licensure is required. Graduates with an MSW can become a licensed master of social work (LMSW) or a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) if they meet the requirements set by the state. An LCSW typically is allowed to provide psychotherapy, assessment-based treatment planning and diagnosis without supervision. An LMSW can only provide those services under the supervision of an LCSW, licensed psychologist or a psychiatrist. Both licenses allow social workers to serve individuals, families and other groups. Obtaining an LMSW designation may be a requirement to advance to an LCSW license, depending on the state where you practice.

It is important to note that every state has different types of licenses and some states even require multiple licenses in order to become a specific type of social worker. Those interested in becoming social workers should review the standards for their state of residence to ensure that the program they choose meets the requirements needed for licensing. 

Master’s in Social Work vs. Master’s in Counseling

People often conflate social work and counseling. This is understandable because both fields are designed to help people in need. However, counselors typically help individuals and families work through a specific set of problems often related to behavioral or mental health while social workers provide broader assistance to people and help them navigate a range of social services.

There are key differences that separate social work vs. counseling. The biggest difference between social workers and counselors is the skills used on a daily basis. Social workers tend to use skills such as crisis intervention, patient care, discharge planning and the ability to navigate social services. Counselors generally need an understanding of psychology, the ability to build effective relationships and proficient organizational and writing skills.

An individual with a master’s in social work and an individual with a master’s in counseling may work with patients through various therapy sessions, but social workers may dive deeper to address a patient’s mental health issues. A social worker may examine other aspects of a patient’s life to provide interventions to help them live a better life. On the other hand, counselors may focus on the patient’s mental and emotional health without taking into account other day-to-day aspects that may affect the patient’s overall mental health. 

FAQs on Master’s in Social Work

Below are answers to some of the most popular questions prospective master’s in social work students have. These questions may be beneficial when searching for an MSW program that suits your needs.

How long does it take to gain a master’s in social work degree?

A couple of factors such as the type of program and enrollment status (full time or part time) may influence how long it will take to obtain a master’s in social work degree. However, it takes a minimum of one year to obtain an MSW and generally takes two years to complete.

Are there any MSW programs that don’t require GRE scores?

Yes, there are many master’s in social work programs that don’t require GRE scores. If submitting a GRE score is a concern for you, check out our list of MSW programs to help you discover a program that is suitable for you. 

Who is the MSW degree meant for?

Those who decide to join the field of social work may find that working towards solutions to issues in their community provides satisfaction and opportunity. This degree path is for professionals who have what it takes to seek out answers and apply solutions in a variety of different settings.

Do I need a BSW to apply for an MSW?

Not always. Some programs may require a BSW for admission to the advanced standing program track, but typically they are open to applicants from diverse backgrounds. Requirements may vary by school, but generally, a bachelor’s degree, GPA, letters of recommendation and personal statement are the most important prerequisites for applying to an MSW program.

Information updated as of September 2021