A guide to social work and mental health degrees and careers
At some point, everyone needs a social worker.
That’s because social workers can be found just about everywhere. They work at hospitals, at schools, in senior citizen homes, at addiction clinics, at nonprofits, and at community centers.
And social workers are seemingly everywhere because there is a pronounced need for the services they provide.
At a very basic level, social workers offer support to individuals, families, and communities in order to improve lives and outcomes.
Sometimes social work might be as simple as acting like a resource and connecting people with other services (such as government support, or support programs run by nonprofit agencies). Other times, social workers might be specifically qualified to provide direct help in the form of therapy, counseling, or other forms of mental health support and guidance.
But what exactly do social workers do?
Well, it’s hard to answer that question in one simple sentence. Or a paragraph, or even a few paragraphs.
That’s part of the reason why we built this website. Masters in social work online began as a simple project to provide prospective MSW students with the resources they need to find online MSW programs.
But we realized that by only covering online master’s in social work programs, we were missing out on a large part of the education and experience necessary for social workers to be successful.
The role (and importance) that social workers play in our communities is enormous. And so we wanted to build an exhaustive resource to help tomorrow’s social workers prepare for this important career. And to help social workers currently in the field figure out how to take the next steps to progress in their careers.
Social work, also referred to as social welfare, is a growing and in-demand field. The growth comes both in terms of scope of work (like what kinds of professions and services fall under the umbrella of social work) and in terms of the overall demand for social workers and their services.
Mental health and mental health services like counseling will be critical to the future of social work, which is why we added career guides related to mental health. We have also created degree guides related to mental health counseling, such as master’s in counseling and a master’s in marriage and family therapy..
Between the projected growth (the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts double-digit growth in job opportunities over the next decade) and the increased opportunity, in the form of social work degree programs and online social work programs, there is no better time to be entering the field.
Preparing for a career in social work
Regardless of the practice area — whether it’s working with children or at a senior citizen residence — almost all social workers have some kind of formal training and have obtained some level of degree.
Social work degrees including BSW, MSW, DSW, and PhD
Social work degrees are somewhat unique in that they often correlate to a level of allowable professional practice. Here’s a quick breakdown:
- Bachelor’s in social work (BSW) is often the entry-level degree for social workers. Obtaining a bachelor’s in social work allows people to perform a wide variety of social work. BSW degree programs exist in two formats:
- Campus-based bachelor’s in social work degree (BSW) — These are often traditional degree programs at four-year colleges and universities. These programs require being physically present for lectures and classes. The coursework is designed to prepare social workers to fulfill basic job requirements and include courses in mental health, policy, and case management. Online social work bachelor’s degree (online BSW) — Although newer than the campus counterparts, these degrees cover the same career preparation fundamentals. The biggest distinction is that often online social work degree programs offer greater flexibility, allowing students to obtain a degree while handling other commitments or without having to physically relocate to attend classes.
- Master’s in social work (MSW) is a significant degree in the social work profession as it is often obtained by many social workers looking to perform direct social work or work one-on-one with clients. Some social work jobs require the MSW degree and additional hours of training for licensure.
- Campus-based social work master’s programs MSW — These programs generally follow the traditional professional school roadmap in that they are generally two-year programs and offer all of the services to get students up to speed in the field and build the network required to take the next career steps. Upon graduation, most MSWs will start collecting hours and field experience so that they can qualify for as a licensed clinical social worker. Increasingly, variations on traditional MSW programs are becoming available. These include part-time programs to accommodate working professionals as well as degrees that can be combined with other fields.
- Online social work master’s programs (online MSW) — In order to meet the increasing demand for well-trained and well-qualified social workers colleges and universities are increasingly offering online MSW degree programs. These programs take advantage of new learning tools, methods, and platforms to deliver world-class education that is both flexible and customized. As an added bonus, it means that online MSW students can earn a degree from some of the best schools in the country, while still living in and serving their own communities.
- PhD and DSW in social work. A doctorate degree in any field comes with its own challenges and benefits — and the same is true with a PhD or DSW degree in social work. But what do social work PhDs and DSWs do? One succinct answer is provided in a post from the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social work at USC. “PhD candidates seek to pursue careers in higher education or research-oriented organizations, where they will have opportunities to conduct research and scholarship and help to train others. While some social work PhDs go on to pursue policy, community organizing or nonprofit work, it’s important for potential PhD applicants to have a clear picture of their desired career path. In general, social work PhD programs aim to admit individuals with a committed interest in pursuing full-time scholarship and training the next generation of social workers.”
- Campus-based social work PhD and DSW programs — Like social work bachelor and master degree programs, interested students can also find campus-based PhD programs that are designed to lead students through a research-oriented curriculum. Campus-based PhD programs usually take four or five years, depending on the program.
- Online social work PhD and DSW programs — Online education is becoming more common across all domains and disciplines, and PhD programs in social work are no different. These programs blend a combination of synchronous and asynchronous learning, including lectures and research projects, to help students prepare for the required PhD exams. These programs can range in time commitment, program length and cost.
How to use this website
This website is designed as a resource hub for prospective social workers as well as social workers already working in the field.
One important development in the field of social work over the past several years is the availability of new dual-degree programs. These programs, which combine the traditional MSW curriculum with other graduate and professional studies programs, provide students with unique opportunities for training and career preparation. Popular MSW dual-degrees include:
- MSW and MBA dual-degree
- MSW and MPH (public health) dual-degree
- MSW and MPA (public administration) dual-degree
- MSW and JD (law) dual-degree
Besides important degree overviews, you will also find other resources designed to help students make informed decisions about what kinds of careers are available to people with a social work degree.
Check out our career hub and career profiles to gain some insight into what kinds of skills and training are required to land a social work job. In addition to the background requirements, we’ve also included important information such as job demand, project growth, and salary outlook.
These are just a few social work career profiles (we are adding more all the time).
- School social worker
- Medical social worker
- Military social worker
- Behavioral therapist
- Child social worker
- Community social worker
- Behavioral therapist
- Hospice social worker
- Pediatric social worker
- Forensic social worker
- Geriatric social worker
- Psychiatric social worker
- Public policy social worker
Finally, we have built out some resources that we think will be useful while trying to navigate the decision about what kind of social work degree to pursue, and/or what kind of social work career to prepare for.
These resources can be found in our aptly-named resource section. A few guides to get you started include:
- Social work internship guide
- Social work jobs guide
- Social work salary guide
- Licensed clinical social worker guide
- Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) accreditation guide
- Social work ethics guide
Social work outlook
As mentioned earlier, the need for well-trained social workers is only projected to grow well into the future.
This heightened demand reflects the needs of an aging population and a growing need for mental health services at all levels of society and age groups.
But really, the growing demand also reflects the acknowledgment and importance that social workers play.
After all, at some point, we will all need a social worker.