In your search for social work degree programs, you’ve likely seen options for both MSW and MSSW degrees. What do these acronyms stand for and how do these degree programs differ? Is one better than the other in terms of coursework or career preparation? This guide covers what MSW and MSSW degrees are, similarities and differences between the two, and how to determine which program is right for you.
What is an MSW degree?
The master of social work (MSW) degree is the most common graduate degree awarded in social work. Traditional programs consist of two years of coursework that also include field placements each year for hands-on experiential learning. Courses are split between foundational (first-year) and advanced (second-year) classes and cover the categories of human development and behavior, generalist practice, social justice, social policy, theory, field placement (also called practicum), and research methods.
What is an MSSW degree?
The master of science in social work (MSSW) degree is not as common as the MSW degree but it still represents the successful completion of rigorous graduate-level social work education. Similar to the MSW degree, traditional MSSW programs consist of two years of coursework that also include field placements each year for hands-on experiential learning. Courses are split between foundational (first-year) and advanced (second-year) classes and cover the categories of human development and behavior, generalist practice, social justice, social policy, theory, field placement (also called practicum), and research methods.
Similarities between the MSW and MSSW
When comparing the two degree options, few differences emerge. Despite the different names, both programs are equivalent in preparing social workers for professional practice. Differences are more a result of variances between universities and schools of social work, rather than degree designations.
MSW and MSSW degree programs have similar admissions standards: a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university, often with a minimum grade point average (GPA) of 3.0. The degree does not need to be in social work, but there are benefits for students with undergraduate education in social work, as will be discussed momentarily.
Fewer schools are requiring that applicants submit Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores than in years past, but this varies from program to program. Additionally, a resume highlighting social services work experience, a few letters of reference, essays, and a personal statement about why the applicant desires a degree in social work and possible career plans round out the application requirements. International students may also have additional testing requirements for admission consideration.
Time to complete the degree
Both MSW and MSSW programs have multiple options for students. For students with a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree, Advanced Standing placement is available at most schools of social work. This means that because these students have already completed a degree in social work that covers the same information as MSW or MSSW foundation year courses, these students can immediately enter the program as second-year students and only the advanced, second year courses are required for graduation. Advanced standing students have a shorter timeline to complete the degree and also save on a years’ worth of tuition and fees, making this a highly desirable option for those with a BSW degree.
In addition, both MSW and MSSW programs offer classes part-time versus full-time to accommodate student schedules. Part-time options extend the timeline to three to four years to complete. Other options for students that are similar for both MSW and MSSW programs include online classes versus in-person versus a hybrid program that blends both live and online courses. Again, differences in these options seem to stem from the differing school of social work policies rather than variances between degree options.
Both MSW and MSSW programs cover the same basic topic areas pertinent to preparing social workers for professional practice, including human behavior, social justice and advocacy, theory, research, policy, and field placement. In addition, both degrees teach social work practice at the micro (individual and family), mezzo (groups, organization, and community), and macro (large scale, policy change) levels. Some programs may concentrate on one level of practice, for instance, micro, so most classes and electives would then weave in therapeutic methods but again, this differs from school-to-school. Either an MSW or MSSW degree program could have a certain area or level of focus or could have a more generalist approach.
Both types of degrees have similar graduation requirements, including successful completion of coursework, often with a specific GPA. In addition, successful completion of field placement hours is also necessary.
Some schools also require a master’s thesis or capstone project, which is an independent research project and formal paper that synthesizes all of the information learned in previous coursework. A master’s thesis and capstone projects help students demonstrate that they have a broad understanding of the field of social work and understand how areas like research, theory, and policy affect social justice and direct practice. Graduates thus demonstrate that they have been prepared for practice with a holistic approach to human behavior and social justice issues.
Both degrees prepare graduates for the same career opportunities in social work, including child welfare worker, school social worker, medical social worker, community organizer, social science researcher, family therapist, addictions specialist, family court social worker, nonprofit executive director, and immigration policy advocate, to name just a few. Neither degree is more advantageous than the other to prepare for a specific career in social work.
Graduates from accredited MSW and MSSW programs are eligible to begin the application process to become a licensed social worker in their state. State requirements vary but include a certain number of supervised and unsupervised clinical practice hours and passing a state licensing exam in addition to earning an MSW or MSSW degree.
Also, either the MSW or the MSSW degrees prepare graduates to pursue doctoral-level education and apply to doctor of philosophy (PhD) or doctorate of social work (DSW) programs.
Differences between the MSW and MSSW
As mentioned previously, there are no glaring differences between the MSW and the MSSW degrees. Differences in program structure, curriculum, and/or concentration options are a product of differences between schools rather than degrees. Graduates of both MSW and MSSW programs as well as employers have reported that they view both degrees as equally valid in preparing graduates for professional social work practice.
Between schools of social work, differences may exist in concentration options for students. For example, some schools offer concentrations in addictions, mental health/psychopathology, school social work, medical social work, or administration/management. This means that students can focus their elective courses around a certain theme if they already know the type of social work they want to practice after graduation. In addition, schools of social work may offer dual-degree options, such as an MSW-MPH (Master of Public Health) or MSW-JD (Doctor of Jurisprudence), a combination of social work and law degrees, or MSSW-MBA (Master of Business Administration). Both MSW and MSSW programs can offer dual graduate degrees, but not all schools offer this option.
Choosing the right degree program
So how do you know which program is right for you? Since both MSW and MSSW degrees are similarly structured, cover the same areas of information, take the same amount of time to complete and prepare students equally for professional practice, care should be taken to closely evaluate each program’s nuances rather than basing a selection on whether the school offers an MSW or an MSSW degree.
The most important consideration
Before any other item, it is most crucial that only accredited social work programs are considered for graduate education. Accreditation means that a school of social work has met strict guidelines with its curriculum, faculty, student support and opportunities, and facilities. The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) is the only body recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation to accredit social work education in the United States.
This means that a CSWE-accredited MSW or MSSW program has demonstrated its commitment to the highest standards in higher education and the education and training received in that program will adequately prepare graduates for a career in social work. Regarding the differences between the MSW and MSSW degrees, CSWE states “The title of the academic degree does not matter as long as it is granted by a program accredited by CSWE.”
For those interested in pursuing private practice, graduating from an accredited social work program is even more important. Licensing laws for social work in most states require graduation from a CSWE-accredited program. MSW vs. MSSW is not even considered in licensing applications, just that the student graduated from an accredited program, as this demonstrates that their education has covered the crucial areas of social work practice.
Additionally, some employers have policies that insist employees have earned their degree from an accredited school of social work. Again, the accreditation designation shows that the program is valid and is academically rigorous. Though some employers may be more familiar with the MSW degree, seeing the confirmation that the applicant completed an accredited MSSW program puts them on par with applicants who have earned an accredited MSW degree. The accreditation designation increases an employers’ confidence in an applicant’s abilities and skills, especially for new graduates.
Other factors to consider
In addition to ensuring the MSW or MSSW program is accredited by CSWE, the following factors should also be considered when deciding which program is best for you:
- Program structure — Does the program offer advanced standing placement for students with BSW degrees? Is it a traditional program, with in-person classes only, an online curriculum, or a hybrid? If it is a hybrid program, with required in-person meetings, you’ll also need to consider the cost of travel and lodging for those in-person sessions if the school is not local.
- Location — Local options may work best for some students, depending on family and personal situations. If a traditional program is of interest that would require a move, the cost of relocating and the cost of living differences in the new city must also be taken into account.
- Concentration, field placement, and elective options — For students who have a particular field in which they want to practice, seeking a program that offers concentrations, field placement opportunities, and elective courses in that topic will be very important. These programs have spent considerable effort in designing the concentration and building relationships with relevant agencies in that field for students to gain valuable skills in that targeted area. For example, some of the more rare but specialized concentrations include military social work and oncology social work.
- Cost — Consider not just the course tuition, but fees, lodging, and living expenses in addition to potential extra fees charged by the school for online-only courses. Are payment plans available? Also, what is the average amount of student loan debt incurred by program graduates?
- Financial aid availability — Does the program offer financial aid in the form of scholarships, grants, and assistantships? Is aid available only to students in a traditional program format? What is the average financial aid award to students?
Despite different names, both the master of social work and master of science in social work are essentially the same degree. Both have similar admissions requirements, program structure, and course topics. Both degrees also prepare graduates for professional social work practice. Differences between the two are a product of programmatic variances between schools rather than innate differences between the MSW and the MSSW degree. Rather than being overly concerned about the degree type, be sure that programs that are being considered are accredited by CSWE. Then, consider the other important options including program format, cost, concentration options, and financial aid when deciding which program is right for you.
Council for Higher Education Accreditation. (n.d.) https://www.chea.org/
Council on Social Work Education. (n.d). Student Questions. https://www.cswe.org/About-CSWE/FAQs/Student-Questions
Cummings, S.M., Chaffin, K.M., & Cockerham, C. (2015). Comparative analysis of an online and traditional MSW program: Educational outcomes. Journal of Social Work Education, 51(1): 109-120.
Cummings, S.M., Chaffin, K.M., & Milam, A. (2019). Comparison of an online and a traditional MSSW program: A 5-year study. Journal of Social Work Education, 55(1), 176-187.
Kurzman, P.A. (2019). The current status of social work online and distance education. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 39(4-5): 286-292.
Ritter, J.A., Obermann, A., & Danhoff, K.L. (2019). 101 Careers in Social Work, Third Edition. Springer Publishing Company.