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A master’s degree in social work is an advanced program that students can pursue after completing their bachelor’s degree. It can take as few as 30 but as many as 60 credit hours to complete a social work master’s degree, but individual program requirements may vary across institutions even if they offer the same final degree. Regardless, most master’s degrees take only two years for full-time students to complete. One notable exception is a law degree, which takes three years to complete.
These days, there are endless variations on how students can pursue graduate school. There are more and more accelerated master’s programs that allow undergraduate students to begin their graduate work along with their bachelor’s degree coursework. For students who work hard, these programs can be completed in a mere five years all together, rather than four for the bachelor’s and two for the master’s, thus expediting the master’s degree at a reduced cost.
Another new development in graduate studies is the dual degree program. This is most often found when degrees are combined with an MBA degree program. Even a master’s degree in social work may be combined with MBA studies, though this may be rather rare. A more likely pairing might be public administration and a MSW or a sociology MS combined with social work.
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Where Do You Earn a Social Work Master’s?
Master’s degrees are primarily offered through universities that offer a range of other graduate degree programs. In fact, when a four-year college expands and offers even a single graduate degree, they can alter their name to use the designation university. However, there are no hard and fast rules or laws that govern these conventions. In fact, it may be possible for a community college to offer a graduate degree program, but that is rare and also unlikely.
Though rare, there are also institutions that exist solely for the purpose of providing a singular sort of master’s degree. This is rare, because it's more common in academia for an institution to establish a reputation for excellence at the undergraduate level before expanding into graduate studies. Nevertheless, a strong graduate program can spring up out of whole cloth and be fully self-sufficient.
These days, graduate studies are likely to be offered using electronic media. These may be offered by way of online-only departments, in hybrid or low-residency programs, as well as traditional campus programs that are augmented by networked classes.
Online Vs. Traditional Education in Social Work
Social work degrees come in two general forms: online and traditional on-campus degrees. Online social work degrees are relatively new to the academic scene, and many social work students may be wary of this newer learning format. However, there are many benefits to online education that traditional campus programs may lack.
The chief advantage to online social work master’s degrees is the sheer convenience. Not only can students avoid regimented class schedules and the stress of making it to class on time, but they can even enjoy more hands-on instruction, if needed. That is, when an online student has a question, they can immediately fire it off to their instructor, professor, or classroom assistant. This can spark a dialogue that can be immensely helpful. Online students also have immediate access to a wealth of information via online libraries and they can also review their instructor's lecture as many times as they need.
Traditional education has many advantages, too. While scheduling real-world meetings can be difficult, this can also be a difficulty that teaches time management skills. Real-world class discussions may be more or less lively but can also be more respectful, as online discourse sometimes turns negative quickly. Further, social work students may be more likely to form long-term relationships when they meet in a campus environment.
Generally speaking, social work is an academic subject that can work well in both formats. Most of the material is delivered by way of lectures and books, which are easily supported in an online learning format. What may be missing is the interpersonal aspect, which can be of great use to social workers, though this may be allayed with assignments that require field work or internship programs.
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What Are the Prerequisites for a Master’s Degree in Social Work?
The basic, fundamental prerequisite for a master’s degree is an undergraduate degree. However, not just any degree will suffice. Most programs require specific courses on an applicant's transcript. For instance, an MBA department may want to see a number of core business courses as well as certain upper-level courses. For social work, departments may want to see a bachelor’s sociology degree or perhaps a psychology degree. Others may not emphasize a degree, but will want to see certain specific courses on a transcript.
Graduate programs also tend to require suitable scores on admissions examinations. For a master’s of social work, departments may want to see satisfactory scores on the GRE exam. However, this requirement is not as prevalent as it once was, and many graduate programs are pivoting away from standardized testing and giving more preference to other factors, such as an admission essay or an admission interview. This may be the case for a program such as a master’s social work degree where there is less emphasis on strict academics and quantifiable qualities and more emphasis on personal qualities and communication skills.
Why an Online Master's Degree in Social Work?
There are many reasons to pursue a master’s degree. These days, the market is increasingly saturated with bachelor’s degrees, so a master’s is a great way to differentiate oneself in the job market. Plus, many fields, such as social work, reward a master’s degree with special licenses that can elevate a career to new highs.
For businesspeople, a master’s degree or an MBA can help them land positions in the C-suites. They also enjoy elevated status, which is beneficial for consultants who need to show clients spotless credentials. Many MBA students also find that one of the chief benefits of an MBA is the networking potential the degree opens for them. Others in IT or computer science may need a master’s degree in order to earn certain professional certifications.
A master’s degree is also a necessary steppingstone toward a PhD. Though not always necessary in the working world, a PhD is a defacto requirement for a career in academia. It's nearly impossible to land a tenure track position with only a master’s degree.
Students should be aware that master’s level work can be very intense and many levels of difficulty harder than undergraduate work. However, once a student is able to complete a graduate social work degree, their understanding of their field is far deeper than that of a social worker who has not completed a graduate degree. Furthermore, social workers with a master’s degree can earn licensure to practice counseling or therapy.
A master’s degree in social work (MSW) can help students gain higher status positions, state licensure, and even more opportunities than possible with a bachelor’s social work degree. Employers tend to reward workers who hold a master’s degree with higher pay and elevated positions. A master’s social work degree may, for instance, elevate a person into a managerial or supervisory position right out of school.
An MSW opens up the possibility to earn state licensure as a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW). This status means that the holder can conduct therapy with patients one-on-one. Many earn their LCSW in order to work as therapists in drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers or other mental health care facilities. LCSW credentials also enable them to work in private practice while simultaneously opening up opportunities with state-run or private, non-profit social services agencies.
An MSW degree also facilitates a second career as a college instructor. Many MSWs take part-time positions teaching undergraduate students at their local college, university, or even community college. They may even teach in online bachelor’s social work programs, where they can help students nationwide. Social workers often enjoy passing on their knowledge to younger generations while earning a bit of extra money.
What’s Involved in a Graduate Social Work Degree?
A master’s degree in social work is a focused course of study. The focus is on the practice of social work without all the liberal arts courses you took in an undergraduate degree. However, the degree can still cover a wide range of topics and concepts. After all, social workers are available to help people from all walks of life. They thus may study topics such as social justice, where they wrangle with how to allocate resources in the most equitable way. They may also study which demographic subsets are more likely to need care versus which actually do receive care.
Graduate students of social work also look at specific issues, such as addiction and its impact on not only the addict but the surrounding community. Other issues include child welfare, domestic violence, sexuality, and ethics. Naturally, a master of social work degree should also include practicums where students do work in the field to help others.
- Social Work with individuals and families
- Social Work with Groups and Communities
- Diversity and Social Work
- Social Work Research Methods
- Family Violence
- Social Work Law and Ethics
- Social Work and Sexuality
- Generalist Practice I
- Generalist Practice II
- Practice Evaluation
- Substance Abuse
- Child Welfare
- Mental Health and Mental Illness
- Children and Adolescent Policies
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What to Consider When Choosing a Master’s Program in Social Work
Accreditation is one of the chief issues to take into consideration when seeking any master's degree. When a graduate school of social work has appropriate accreditation, students can be assured that the faculty and curriculum have proven themselves to meet high standards for academic excellence.
When it comes to a graduate school of social work, students should seek a program that has been accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). This agency is recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). Thus, the CSWE is known for high standards in social work education. They periodically review each accredited school of social work to ensure they are offering the best education possible. They inspect the faculty, course materials, overall curriculum, as well as conducting interviews with students.
The CSWE accredits both undergraduate and graduate level programs. Thus, undergraduate students and graduate students should be sure to look for their credentials when applying for a bachelor’s social work program.
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Online PhD in Social Work
While a doctorate of social work isn't necessary for a successful or satisfactory social work career, it can add a new dimension to one's path. Its primary use will be for those who wish to teach at the undergraduate and graduate degree levels. PhDs in social work also work as research faculty members for universities where they needn't teach any courses but must continually seek grants that supply their paycheck and prompt more research. In fact, most doctors of social work pursue a career that focuses on research. While academia is a common employer, many work for governmental agencies where their research molds public policy and steers the social work community for generations.
Social Work Certifications
As in many professions, a certification can help steer and enhance a career in social work. Degrees may be used to meet prerequisites for these credentials since advanced education provides a solid professional framework. These credentials may come from independent agencies, but most social workers will seek state certifications that enable them to land positions in government agencies and which may be required or highly respected by private non-profit social services organizations. The Association of Social Work Boards also offers certifications for social workers who are interested in getting ahead.
Certifications can include the following:
- Certified Social Worker:
this is the bachelor’s degree level certification that social workers use to launch their career.
- Certified Master Social Worker:
This certification requires an MSW (or higher) from an accredited school of social work.
- Licensed Clinical Social Worker:
This credential is necessary for those who wish to conduct clinical practice with individual clients.
- Licensed Clinical Social Worker Associate:
This is a provisional certification that social workers earn while they complete the experiential requirements of the full LCSW credential.
- Certified Social Work Manager:
This credential is for advanced generalists who hold a minimum degree of a bachelor of social work.
Potential Careers for Social Work Graduates
These social workers oversee clients and help them access resources. They may review materials from field workers that indicate how their client is performing. Caseworkers tend to specialize in specific populations such as foster children, elderly clients, and those suffering profound mental illness.
Licensed Clinical Social Worker:
To earn this job title, social workers need a master of social work degree (MSW). The state then confers a license after a period of supervised clinical work, successful passage of an examination, and other requirements such as a background check. LCSWs can work as independent therapists in private practice.
Hospital Social Worker:
Patients in medical care often need a friendly face to help them access the resources they need. Hospital social workers often are bilingual and can thus help non-native English speakers communicate their needs to medical personnel.
One way to enter the mental health field is by becoming an addiction counselor. Most states offer licensure for addiction counselors at multiple levels, with one or two licenses for lower degrees and full licensure for those who have earned a master's degree in social work, counseling, or some equivalent field. State requirements will vary, so please consult your state board's requirements.
Before many addicts and alcoholics make it to rehab, their friends and families conduct an intervention. Interventionists can be LCSWs who consult with those closest to the addict and then conduct the intervention. Interventionists may also coordinate with a rehabilitation facility which will have a spot ready for the addict.
Though the field of social work is often considered to come with low pay, that is not necessarily the case, especially for those who have earned an online master of social work. For instance, many with no degree may earn $10 or $15 per hour under the job title social worker. Meanwhile, a social worker in a supervisory role earns an average of $62,000. Clinical supervisors can earn upwards of $66,000, on average, and an LCSW in private practice can often earn far more, especially if they expand and employ other clinical social workers.
On top of the good pay, social workers tend to be pleased with their work. According to Payscale.com, 3.9 out of 5 social workers with a master of social work degree report that they are highly satisfied with their careers. It's worth noting that many social workers who work with government agencies enjoy healthy benefits and often the security of a pension package.
The employment outlook for social workers is rosy. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the field is growing at a rate of 9%, which they note as being faster than average. They note that the median pay for social workers was $50,000 in 2021. This figure can be misleading, however, since it only shows the salary level in the middle of the pack, not the average. It also does not account for the benefits that many government social workers enjoy. Regardless, this is a good time to enter the field of social work. There are many people in need in many different populations, which leads to increased demand for a master of social work.
Since the field of social work is rather broad, social workers can always pivot and work with new populations. This is especially possible for those with an online master of social work degree, which comes with higher pay on top of the gained expertise.