A master of social work or MSW is a highly sought after graduate degree because it opens up advanced professional opportunities for those who already hold a bachelor of social work (BSW), as well as those entering the field for the first time.
An MSW is not the terminal practice degree because you can go on to earn a DSW which is a doctoral level social work practice degree (although some DSW holders focus on research); however, most social workers find that the MSW provides them with the education, experience, and credential they need to have a successful and productive social work career.
The MSW is required for advanced clinical social work practice jobs, as well as for a number of non-clinical positions, is highly respected, and will earn you more money over the course of your career compared to only having a BSW.
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Featured Online MSW Programs
|School Name||Program||More Info|
|University of Southern California (USC)||Accredited Online MSW Program from USC||website|
|University of Kentucky||CSWE Accredited Online MSW Program||website|
|Baylor University||Baylor's Online MSW—Now Accepting Applications||website|
|George Mason University||Online MSW Programs—CSWE Accredited||website|
|University of Montana||Master of Social Work Online||website|
|Howard University||Online MSW Program—No GRE Required||website|
Why get an MSW?
With an MSW, social work professionals can engage in clinical practice (i.e. therapy) in many different areas (this ranges from kids through geriatrics and from addiction to marriage and family counseling). Besides clinical work you can also focus on research, community work, government and policy work, and human services administration. An MSW is also considered a strong cornerstone degree to pursue other social welfare-related opportunities such as management and administration.
MSW-level professionals hold a variety of social work positions. Initially, most professionals will work as counselors, crisis staff, case managers, and other specialty positions in community mental health, public health, or medical social work. Later in their careers, many MSWs choose to go into private practice. Other MSW-level professionals will write policy, oversee programs, and do contract work at the state and federal level. MSW coursework prepares students to work with individuals as well as in administration for a large organization or agency upon graduation.
Many social workers must go through a state certification process to work in their field of choice. For example most states require school social workers to go through a certification process that includes completing relevant courses work and supervised work experience in a school setting. Some states require government issued credentials to work in child welfare. In other subspecialties, social workers may decide to obtain an optional certification in the interest of career advancement and increased income. Many optional certifications are offered by NASW, or social work graduates and professionals may complete a certificate program offered by an accredited school of social work.
National social work certifications offered by NASW include Certified Clinical Alcohol, Tobacco & Other Drugs Social Worker, Certified Advanced Social Work Case Manager, and Clinical Social Worker in Gerontology. These certifications require a BSW or MSW, depending on the level of certification, as well as paid, supervised work experience post-MSW in accordance with the respective subfield. NASW outlines all of the credentials for their certifications.
Qualification for admission to an MSW program
Most graduate social work programs have similar requirements for admission. All programs require an undergraduate degree from an accredited college, good writing skills, and an undergraduate GPA over 3.0. Some are looking for good GRE scores as well.
Requirements and qualifications may be more rigorous for highly ranked programs. It is important that you research admissions requirements and program rankings (such as the U.S. News and World Report rankings) before you apply to a given program. Here are some standard qualifications admissions officers look for:
Bachelor of social work or an undergraduate degree
Many applicants to MSW programs hold a BSW, which enables them to engage in generalist social work practice. The MSW is a step up which allows social workers to engage in advanced practice. In 2019, 56,530 students were enrolled in a Social Work Baccalaureate program. There are 539 accredited BSW programs in the U.S.
Applicants enrolled in a BSW program may apply to a bridge program (bachelor of social work to that allows them to finish their BSW and go directly into an MSW program within the same university. A key benefit is that students don’t need to go through the MSW admissions process. Some schools admit “advanced standing” students who have a BSW from their university or another school. These students can complete the MSW on an accelerated schedule and may only need to complete one fieldwork placement rather than two. Advanced standing students may earn their MSW in as little as two semesters. According to CSWE, as of 2022 there were 139 accredited MSW programs that offered an advanced standing track.
All other MSW program applicants must have an undergraduate degree. Many applicants hold a BA in a social science field such as psychology, sociology (BS), or human services; however, it is not unheard of for applicants to be admitted with an undergraduate degree unrelated to social work. For example, some applicants will have a business degree, or a degree in the natural sciences. Many MSW applicants are career changers, meaning they have spent many years in an unrelated field and have decided to begin a career in social work because they want to make a difference with their work.
Grade point average (GPA)
All schools will likely have a required GPA that the applicant obtained during their undergraduate career. The average GPA that schools list on their application materials is somewhere between a 3.0 and 3.5. There can be exceptions, but you may want to speak to an admissions officer about why your GPA was lower than what is expected by the program.
Graduate Record Examination scores (GRE)
More schools are opting not to require applicants to take the GRE. In the 2015-2016 academic year the following percent of MSW programs that participated in a CSWE survey required the following standardized tests:
- GRE—Verbal Reasoning 24.5 percent
- GRE—Quantitative Reasoning 21 percent
- GRE—Analytical Writing 20.1 percent
- Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) – 76.9 percent
The GRE is a standard test to ensure applicants have a baseline understanding of academic writing, decision-making, and reading comprehension.The GRE tests measure verbal reasoning, analytical writing, and quantitative reasoning.
Scores for the verbal reasoning section, as well as the quantitative reasoning section, range from 130-170, and for the analytical writing section range from 0 -6. Mean scores for those with an undergraduate degree in the social and behavioral sciences, who took the test between July 2020 and June 2021, were reported by the testing company ETS.
The mean verbal score was 153.3, the mean quantitative score was 151.7, and the mean analytical writing score was 4.0.
Good writing skills
As with any graduate program, admissions officers are looking at the quality of your writing as evidenced by your personal statement and writing samples. If you still struggle with grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, or other common writing issues, have a professional editor proofread your personal statement. You can find professional editing services through your undergraduate career center or freelance services like Upwork, or you might ask work colleagues, acquaintances or friends, especially those who are social workers, to review your application materials.
Quantitative reasoning skills
Some of the more competitive programs may be more focused than other schools on GRE quantitative reasoning scores and general math ability. This is because they may require students to take rigorous research and statistical analysis courses. If you are not sure whether you have the requisite quantitative skills to be admitted to a specific program, talk to someone from the program’s admissions team.
Identifying the right MSW program for you
There are many factors to consider when deciding which MSW programs to apply to, and ultimately which program is best for you. First you need to decide if you would like to attend a program in-person, online, or in a hybrid format. Here are the other key considerations
Are you willing to relocate to attend a preferred program, or do you want to stay where you are. This is a key consideration as you decide which programs to apply to. If you are willing to relocate, think about the type of community you want to live in – such as whether you prefer urban or small town life. If you do not want to relocate and are open to exploring online programs, research these programs and make a list of potential schools you will apply to.
Some programs will be more expensive than others based on the status of the university being either private or public — and the overall amount of financial assistance available. According to the National Center for Education Services, the average cost of an MSW degree per year at public universities was $13,800.00 (CostHelper, 2020). The average cost per year at a private university was $36,000.00. You also need to include the cost of textbooks, as well as account for time taken off from work to complete your degree, in your cost calculation. For example, it becomes difficult to work full-time while completing 10 to 20 of unpaid field work
Find out what financial assistance is available at each program you are interested in applying to. Sources of aid may include institutional scholarships, outside scholarships, institutional financial aid including research and teaching assistantships, government aid in the form of Pell grants, Stafford loans, and government loan forgiveness programs (e.g. you may be required to work in a public agency for several years before your student debt can be forgiven).
Requirements for admission
Admission requirements vary school-by-school, so it’s best to make a checklist. As noted, some schools require the GRE while many do not. Do the programs you are interested in require an interview, a writing sample, or another type of standardized test? Make sure you are comfortable with the admission requirements for the programs on your short-list. If standardized tests make you sweat, don’t apply to a program that requires them!
Decide whether you want to attend graduate school full or part time and what time of day you can attend classes. In 2019, out of 68,793 students enrolled in an MSW program, 65.9% were full-time students and 34.1% were part time. Some schools offer more flexible scheduling options, including hybrid options (coursework completely partially in the classroom and online), than others.
Attending full-time may be a requirement of some programs, in which case you may have to be on campus for four semesters. Part-time programs can be completed over three to four years if you are only taking two courses per semester, for example. Some programs offer classes at night and on the weekend. This is a very important part of your decision so do your research thoroughly.
Data from 2015 indicated that 45,640 people had applied nationally to an MSW program and 29,793 applicants were granted admission. Enrollment in MSW programs between 2009 and 2019 increased 34 percent. It is likely that the increasing need for social workers in the years ahead will drive an increase in MSW program applicants and enrollment. Acceptance rates vary across programs, with some programs having very high rates. Top-ranked schools tend to have lower acceptance rates. For example, the University of California at Berkeley is ranked among the top 10 schools nationally and had an acceptance rate of 27.5 percent in 2015. Additionally, the MSW program at University of Michigan–Ann Arbor, had an acceptance rate of approximately 36 percent.
Ranking and reputation
You want to attend the best program for you. That does not always mean the best program for you is the highest ranked program. National graduate school program rankings are subjective. Schools not ranked in the top ten of the U.S. News and World Report rankings for social work programs, for example, are not necessarily of a lesser quality than the top ranked schools. They may simply have a lower endowment, administrators who are less well known, or may not have an admissions process that is as competitive. Consider rankings, but don’t use them as your main guide for deciding which program is best for you.
Curriculum and specializations
While MSW programs degrees are often characterized as being quite similar, there are many distinguishing characteristics between them. Some MSW programs have a pronounced clinical focus, while others have more of an administrative or management focus. When creating a short list of programs to apply to, make sure program strengths and specializations align with your overall career goals. For example, if you are interested in child welfare, you want to apply to schools that provide a wider variety of child welfare courses or offer a certificate program in child welfare practice.
Most MSW programs allow students to specialize in clinical practice, macro practice, research, or another specialization. There is a CSWE directory of MSW programs that provides program descriptions including specializations and certificate programs each program offers. Some schools also offer dual degree programs, which means you will earn a joint degree from two programs. Dual degree programs in business administration and social work are offered by 29 accredited MSW programs, while dual social work-law degree programs are offered by 57 accredited MSW programs.
It is also important to find out what the curriculum looks like at each program you are considering. Core MSW classes include social policy courses; behavioral health and assessment/diagnosis courses; individual, group, and family counseling courses; and human behavior courses.Some MSW programs require the completion of a statistics course as well as a research methods course. Some programs even require students to do a research project. Many MSW programs require a thesis or capstone project during the second year of study. A thesis is more research oriented while a capstone project may allow you to explore and write about a practice experience from fieldwork.
In addition to finding a program that has the curriculum and subspecialty focus or practice specialization you are looking for, you may want to attend a program that offers specific courses. For example, some schools provide school social work courses needed to become a licensed school social worker in that state. Some schools also offer training in specific evidence based treatments or have a strong trauma curriculum, for example.
Accredited social work programs require students to complete two semester-long fieldwork placements. Students complete their field work requirement in a number of different settings including community agencies, hospitals, substance misuse treatment centers, or child welfare agencies. Field work functions differently for different levels of social work programs. Whereas baccalaureate students must complete a minimum of 400 field education hours, master’s students must complete a minimum of 900 field education hours. Advanced standing students must complete a minimum of 900 hours between their baccalaureate and master’s social work programs.
MSW students work at their fieldwork placement for up to 21 hours a week. Some programs will allow students already working in a social service agency full-time to count their work hours toward the field practicum requirements. This is a very important detail to inquire about as it could save you time and money. Most students will also be required to take integrative seminars that integrate their classroom and fieldwork learning. Students will be assigned a university based field supervisor as well as a supervisor at their fieldwork placement.
Preparing your application
Most universities have similar admission requirements for an MSW application. Read about the admissions process for schools on your short-list well in advance of the date you want to begin your studies. Find out if there is a deadline or rolling admissions, as well as what materials you need to start gathering to complete your application. The following are standard components of an MSW program application.
- Transcripts from previous universities/colleges showing proof of completion of all prerequisite courses and grade point average
- Letters of recommendation from previous professors and/or employers
- Completion of a personal statement or essay indicating why you want to earn a master of social work degree, what life experiences influenced you desire to become a social worker, and why you are a good fit for that specific university’s degree program
- Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores. Find out if the schools you are interested in require the GRE and make sure you register for the test well ahead of time – at least a year prior to applying to MSW programs. You can register for the GRE on the ETS site.
Universities will have very specific timelines regarding when applications are due. Most will be approximately nine months to one year prior to the start of the program. Some programs have rolling admissions, which means they continuously accept applications throughout the year. It can take universities many months to accept or deny potential students.
Some students may be given a preliminary acceptance letter that will become a full acceptance after completion of additional prerequisites (for example a math course). Generally upon receiving an acceptance letter, there will be a timeline for accepting or denying your spot in the program. Once you accept an offer to attend a program, there is usually an orientation component which will allow you to meet your advisor, program professors, and other students.
To prepare for the fieldwork component of a program, after deciding which program they want to attend, applicants should begin to gather the necessary materials for working in the field. They may have to get a physical from their doctor’s office, obtain proof of vaccinations, and receive a flu shot. These requirements vary by program as well.
Getting admitted to your first-choice program
If you know what university or universities you are interested in applying to, there are several strategies for increasing the chances of getting accepted.
Meet with faculty or current students/alumni- Meeting with program faculty or admissions staff is a great way to understand the program’s ideal student profile. This information will allow you to tailor your application materials, especially with things like the personal statement and essays. Additionally, current students will be able to offer inside information about the application process and what might stand out.
Retake classes –It can be helpful for some students who do not have stellar GPA scores to retake a few classes to increase their GPA. If you fall into this group, retaking select courses could increase your chances of acceptance.
Enroll in a GRE prep course –Good GRE scores are important to some schools and enhance your application. Because it is a difficult and expensive test to take, enrolling in a study course or paying for private tutoring to boost GRE score results may be a smart investment.
Social work career outlook
Overall employment of social workers is predicted to increase by 12 percent from 2020 to 2030, which is faster than the average for all occupations. About 78,300 openings for social workers are projected each year, on average, over the next decade. Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire.
There is currently a great demand for social workers as the baby boomer generation ages. This segment of our population will require social work services at high rates. There is also a crisis nationally with homelessness, substance use, disability, and mental health and the demand for mental healthcare is skyrocketing.
Because of these factors, social workers finishing school should expect to find employment rather quickly. While community mental health work does not pay as well as private practice work, generally the benefits are great. Because an individual with an MSW can earn licensure to independently practice counseling, there is an opportunity to launch a private practice, where clinicians generally earn very good salaries. The following are 2020 median annual salaries for social workers in different specializations, according to BLS (keep in mind that salaries will vary by region):
|Social workers, all others||$64,210|
|Healthcare social workers||$57,630|
|Ambulatory healthcare services||$52,850|
|Marriage and family therapist||$51,340|
|Mental health and substance abuse||$48,720|
|Child, family, and school||$48,430|
|Individual and family services||$43,820|
Overall growth of job opportunities for social workers will be 12% through 2030. As for the growth of subfields, opportunities for employment of marriage and family therapists are expected to grow 16% through 2030. Jobs for child, family, school, and healthcare social workers are projected to grow 13 percent, and jobs for mental health and substance abuse social workers, employment is projected to grow 15 percent by 2030.
Future social workers support and help individuals in all different life situations. Social workers service patients across the lifespan: from birth until death. This makes the profession one that is both satisfying and provides abundant job and career options. Because the need for social workers is expected to grow so much, choosing the right MSW program is important for your future career and growth as a professional.
There are a number of generalist level positions available in social work that are a good fit for people just getting started. There are even generalist positions available in specific social work sub-fields. To get a good sense of the opportunities near you, use some of the big job sites such as Indeed, Glassdoor, or NASW and filter on positions requiring one to five years experience.
In 2019, 76.1 percent of MSW graduates had loan debt, according the Council for Social Work Education. The average debt amount was $46,591. For BSW degrees, 73.3 percent of graduates had loan debt and the average amount was $29,323.
Graduates earning dual degrees will have a wider variety of career opportunity options and maybe be able to earn more over the course of their careers. Earning a dual degree is more work than earning an MSW alone. Those earning an MSW/Law degree, for example, may engage in a verity of interesting roles such as representing foster children in the courts, writing policies, or working with domestic violence victims.
To deliver clinical and therapeutic services, most states require social workers to earn their license to practice privately. Community agencies and other types of employers also may require licensure. The types of licenses awarded vary across states and may not be transferable state-to-state.
Expert advice for aspiring graduate students
- What are the most important factors when deciding on an MSW program?
- How can students best prepare for an MSW program?
- How has the recent pandemic changed your MSW program?