For those considering a career in the helping professions, social work is a field that is often recommended. Social workers help the most vulnerable, oppressed and struggling members of society, and their work can truly make a difference in the lives of those they serve. Social workers can be a strong force for positive change in the lives of individuals, families, and communities around the world.
Preparing for a career in social work requires progressive, specialized education and training. As with many other career fields, social work degrees build upon one another. Each higher level degree provides advanced training and skill building opportunities, and opens doors to advance up the social work career ladder. Lower-level degrees, such as the associates degree in social work or a bachelor’s degree in social work provide a general overview of the field and skills necessary for entry-level positions.
The associates degree in social work can be completed in just two years. Associate-level jobs include social services aide, or child care assistant. These positions center around supporting and assisting those with higher education and training. The pay for these positions aren’t great, but they provide the opportunity to gain valuable hands-on experience, possibly while also going to school to further one’s education in social work.
Bachelor degrees in social work take four years to complete, if one has not already earned their associate degree in social work. Bachelor’s-level graduates can find employment in drug and alcohol treatment centers, psychiatric hospitals, community organizations and child welfare agencies. Bachelors-level graduates have more direct interaction with clients, but cannot yet provide therapeutic interventions. Their responsibilities often include conducting client intakes, providing case management services and referring clients to appropriate services offered by other organizations.
Advanced graduate degrees such as the master of social work degree or doctoral-level degrees including the doctorate in social work or doctor of philosophy in social work degree offer further specialized training in interventions for specific populations and open up a world of options for future career opportunities at the top of the field and that pay the most. Master of social work degrees are completed within two years, while both doctoral degrees can take from four to seven years to complete.
Find your social work degree program
To provide a comprehensive overview of social work education, we have broken down social work degree options into five categories that align with the type of degree being offered. There is more information about an associates degree in social work (ASW), a bachelor of social work (BSW), masters of social work degree (MSW), and two doctoral-level education opportunities: a doctorate of social work (DSW) and a doctorate of philosophy in social work (Ph.D). In addition, dual-degree options are discussed, as are similarly related masters degrees in other fields, such as counseling and marriage and family therapy.
If you are interested in exploring online social work degree options, be sure to check out our online social work degree hub.
Associate’s degree in social work
Associate degrees in social work (ASW) are often offered via community colleges. This two-year degree is a great option for students looking to gain insight and exposure to social work-related careers. This introductory degree provides a basic foundation to the field of social work and provides opportunities to determine if the field of social work is a good fit. Positions available for those with an ASW include social services assistant, child care assistant and health care aide. These careers provide assistance to social workers with advanced degrees and training.
An associate’s in social work is considered a paraprofessional degree, meaning that it provides the basics so that one can continue developing knowledge and skills to eventually enter the field in a professional capacity. This degree does not provide the necessary training for professional development, but is considered a first stepping stone. An ASW lays the groundwork should someone wish to further their education and qualify for entry-level positions within the field.
Bachelor’s degree in social work
A bachelor degree in social work (BSW) is widely acknowledged as a must-have for those wanting to get started in the field. The four-year BSW program (or just two years for those with an ASW) trains students in the fundamentals of the social work profession, including human development, mental health and counseling, case management, and provides exposure to the various subspecialties of social work.
A major component of the degree is fieldwork, or practicum. This is where BSW students complete an internship of approximately 400 hours at a local community service organization to observe and model actual social workers in action and gain invaluable experience in determining which populations or issues are of most interest to the student.
Some BSW graduates develop long-lasting careers with this degree alone. For those interested in additional promotion opportunities, salary advancement and/or the opportunity to open a private practice, the master of social work (MSW) degree is the way to go.
Master’s degree in social work
A master of social work degree, or an MSW, is a critical degree for social workers interested in providing direct service and support to the people they serve. Most social work careers require the additional training that an MSW provides.
The degree includes courses in ethics, research, human development and social work theories. Electives are specialized based on the interest of the student and can include medical social work, addictions, child abuse and neglect, and specific therapeutic interventions such as cognitive behavioral therapy.
MSW programs are designed to help students gain additional practical experience, and require up to 1000+ hours of fieldwork. The MSW curriculum also trains students to work within the social welfare system and hold positions of responsibility, management, and supervision. This two-year program is also available as an advanced standing, one-year program for students who have recently (within the previous 5-10 years) earned their BSW. Many MSWs will also continue to accrue hours post-graduation in a structured supervision in order to become a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW).
MSW in international social work
An MSW with a concentration in international social work may be an excellent option for people looking to learn about and from different cultures, serve migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in their own community, and also travel the world to serve the most disadvantaged populations.
This guide covers master’s in international social work degrees, concentrations, and certificates, and explains what can be expected when applying to and completing this type of program.
MSW in forensic social work
An MSW degree with a concentration in forensic social work prepares graduates to work with clients in the juvenile and adult justice systems. Forensic social workers can perform competency evaluations, testify in court cases, oversee probationers or parolees, and provide therapeutic interventions to inmates. They can also provide mediation for families going through divorce and/or child custody negotiations.
The links below provide information about masters degrees in forensic social work and forensic social work certification opportunities.
Marriage and family therapist (MFT) master’s degree
A master’s degree in marriage and family therapy prepares graduates to become a licensed therapist. Many private and public universities offer these programs within their counseling or psychology schools. A few have even developed these programs within their schools of social work.
The MFT degree is the first step towards obtaining a license. As a licensed therapist, you will assess and intervene with clients. These clients may include individuals, families, couples, or groups.
Master’s in counseling degree
A master’s degree in counseling can be highly specialized to work within different fields of mental health and provide supportive therapy.
The guide below contains information about master’s in counseling degree requirements as well professional licensing information.
Master’s in mental health counseling
A master’s degree in mental health counseling directly address the need for more professionals who are trained to deal with the complexity and pervasiveness of mental health issues.
This guide contains detailed information about what to expect during a master’s in mental health counseling degree program.
Doctoral degrees in social work
For those wanting to practice at the absolute top of their degree, a doctorate degree in social work is the way to go. Next, the Doctorate of Social Work (DSW) degree and the Doctor of Philosophy in Social Work (PhD) are discussed.
The DSW degree is considered to be an advanced practice degree, one that prepares graduates for management and other leadership roles and advanced clinical practice in a specific area of social work. DSWs can have their own private practices, lead child welfare agencies and supervise MSW-level practitioners, or can work in government to encourage policy changes and ensure implementation of policies that have been passed and even teach in BSW or MSW programs, training the next generation of social workers.
PhD in social work
In contrast, the PhD in social work is a degree focused on research and teaching within the field. Some with a PhD degree do provide clinical services to clients, but most interested in that complete a DSW degree.
PhDs are typically employed at colleges and universities, government agencies or think tanks, conducting research to better the human condition, evaluating the effectiveness and costs (both human and financial costs) of interventions, or advising on social work policies.
A number of those with PhD degrees in social work teach in BSW or MSW programs.
Dual degree programs
Some colleges and universities offer dual degree options with social work, which is where a student completes two masters degrees simultaneously in fields that complement each other. Dual degrees provide additional, highly-specialized training for advanced positions within the field.
Graduates trained in social work can help bring the human component into career fields that tend to not take the social work perspective into consideration. This has the opportunity to further assist individuals, communities and organizations by ensuring the humanity of clients is considered. Below are some examples of dual degree programs.
MSW and MBA dual degree
Both an MSW and a master of business administration (MBA) are versatile degrees that complement each other quite well – the former focuses on high-level social work concepts and practices and is often pursued as a stepping stone to a clinical license, while the latter emphasizes business administration and provides the degree holder with effective leadership and management skills.
With MSW/MBA dual degrees, individuals are well-equipped to lead and administrate a variety of organizations, ranging from their own private practice to nonprofit organizations and corporations.
MSW and MPH dual degree
The master of public health (MPH) degree is another program that melds well with an MSW. A MSW/MPH dual degree program can be valuable and versatile in today’s competitive professional environment.
Just like the MSW, the MPH degree offers a variety of specializations ranging from health informatics to biostatistics to health education or epidemiology.
Students may be interested in cancer prevention as a career, and blending the health education component of an MPH along with the human development and change perspectives of social work can be an excellent way to ensure programs and interventions are designed that will be effective to getting clients to quit smoking or improve their cancer screening rates, for example.
Both degrees will allow holders to enter numerous managerial or higher positions in the social work and public health fields, and may find work in public health organizations, community health clinics, hospitals, and government agencies to affect change in health policies and laws.
MSW and MPA dual degree
A master’s degree in social work and a masters degree in public administration (MPA) is a unique dual degree combination that helps professionals prepare to work in positions of leadership and management.
The guide linked below covers what to expect from a MSW/MPA dual degree program. It also discusses some of the career opportunities available to people with this level of training and background.
MSW and JD dual degree
A master’s degree in social work (MSW) and a juris doctor (JD) degree in law prepares professionals to work in the criminal justice system.
Graduates from this type of dual degree program are in great demand to help clients understand the process of their cases, provide competency evaluations and probation services in addition to advocating for criminal justice reform.
The guide linked below covers what to expect from a MSW/JD dual degree program and goes into further detail about some of the career opportunities available to people with these degrees.
MSW and education dual degree
Some universities offer an MSW and education dual-degree program. Typically, the education side of the degree awarded is a master of education (MEd) or master of science in education. Generally, this degree format is best suited for people looking to work with K-12 students, but some programs might offer a focus for pre-K students and early childhood development.
Professionals with an MSW/education dual-degree often work in administrative positions across education (such as special education administration, therapeutic administration). They can also hod roles of counselors or classroom teachers, researchers, advocacy, and curriculum development.
MSW and theology dual degree
An MSW and theology dual-degree is designed for students interested in combining social work concepts and knowledge with spiritual work.
Traditional theology programs focusing on spiritual education and guidance, but don’t offer the same kind of bio-psycho-social aspects common in social work programs. So combining these two disciplines gives practitioners of each field a unique vantage point.
Looking for more? Be sure to check out our career profile section, which contains information about how these degrees prepare people for various social work careers. LEARN MORE
- What are the most important factors for students deciding on a social work degree program?
- What are the most challenging aspects of earning a social work degree?
- How can students best prepare for a social work degree program?
- What does it take to be a successful social work student?