Master's in Social Work Program Information

Social workers assist people with various obstacles affecting their day-to-day lives, and many work with specific groups and demographics. Some help vulnerable families by helping them locate housing and secure employment, while others work with clients dealing with mental health disorders or substance abuse. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the social worker occupation is projected to grow 16% – much faster than average – between 2016 and 2026. The median annual salary for social workers in 2017 was $47,980.

Licensed social workers must hold a master's degree in social work, or MSW. MSW programs prepare students for their career with specialized coursework and supervised training, usually in the form of a practicum or internship. This guide explores the curricular requirements of on-campus MSW programs, as well as potential careers and resources for recent graduates.

A social work master's degree is suitable for anyone planning to become a clinical social worker, or CSW. Clinical social workers are licensed professionals qualified to diagnose, treat, and provide therapy to clients with mental, behavioral, and emotional disorders. According to PayScale, the most common places of employment for licensed clinical social workers include hospitals, clinics, and rehabilitation centers. Many CSWs operate private practices. MSW programs may also be suitable for nonclinical, or macro, social workers.

The MSW prepares students for the licensure process, as well as the demands of the profession.

All states require clinical social workers to hold a license. Most states also require nonclinical social workers to hold a certification or license. Although licensure criteria vary by location, CSW candidates in most states must complete at least two years of supervised, postgraduate clinical training and pass a comprehensive exam. The MSW prepares students for the licensure process, as well as the demands of the profession. Additionally, MSW programs equip students with clinical evaluation and management skills in specialized areas of social work. Clinical social workers who have not completed their postgraduate training and exam requirements are known as master's social workers, while those who earn a master's and complete two years of nonclinical training are known as advanced generalists.

Online MSW programs are widely available. However, on-campus master's in social work programs may be the best option for students who prefer a classroom learning environment. Brick-and-mortar students may also be able to find internship and practicum options relatively close to their school. Other benefits of on-campus learning include easier access to career centers, in-person job placement assistance, and face-to-face networking opportunities.

What Can I Do With a Master's in Social Work?

Students who graduate with an MSW go on to pursue careers in a wide range of social work subfields. The BLS notes that child, family, and school social workers are the largest subfield, representing roughly 47% of all social workers. Other common subfields include healthcare social workers and mental health and substance abuse social workers. These fields include clinical and nonclinical positions. Regardless of their specific job title, social workers should have strong communication and interpersonal skills in order to develop relationships with their clients and handle stressful situations. Most social workers divide their time between working in an office and meeting with clients face-to-face.

Common occupations for MSW graduates include:

Child and Family Social Worker

Child and family social workers assist at-risk families and children. They help families secure housing and apply for benefits programs such as food stamps. They also intervene when children are abused or neglected, and may coordinate adoptions or foster care.

  • Median Annual Salary: $44,380
  • Projected Growth Rate: 14%
School Social Worker
School social workers specialize in monitoring students for developmental issues and helping learners achieve academic success. They confer with parents, teachers, counselors, and administrators to create plans for individual students. School social workers may also help young people deal with issues such as behavioral problems and bullying.
  • Median Annual Salary: $44,380
  • Projected Growth Rate: 14%
Healthcare Social Worker

Healthcare social workers help medical patients deal with life-altering diseases or injuries. They provide guidance for long-term recovery plans, including lifestyle changes, and help their clients acclimate to living at home after lengthy hospital stays. Some healthcare social workers specialize in certain client groups, such as elderly people or patients seeking palliative care.

  • Median Annual Salary: $54,870
  • Projected Growth Rate: 20%
Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Worker

Mental health and substance abuse social workers assist clients dealing with mental illnesses or addiction. They provide guidance about rehabilitative services and may help their clients access support groups. According to the BLS, this is a common career path for clinical social workers.

  • Median Annual Salary: $43,250
  • Projected Growth Rate: 19%
Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, or Mental Health Counselor

These counselors assist patients with alcohol or drug addictions, eating disorders, and other mental health issues. Those working in private practice must be licensed in all 50 states. Many must hold a master's degree in clinical social work or a related field.

  • Median Annual Salary: $43,300
  • Projected Growth Rate: 23%

Choosing the right on-campus MSW program requires meticulous research and careful consideration. Prospective students should weigh several factors when making their decision. Program length is one important aspect. MSW on-campus programs usually take two years to complete, including practicum or internship requirements. Some programs allow students with a bachelor's degree to earn their MSW in as little as one year.

The curriculum is also important. While most MSW programs cover the same general themes, each pathway includes different coursework, specialization options, practicum opportunities, and final project requirements. Prospective students should contact different schools and speak with faculty members to determine the best fit for their needs.

For most students, the cost of tuition represents a sizable investment. According to National Center for Education Statistics, the average graduate degree cost $17,868 in tuition and fees during the 2015-16 academic year. Federal loans, scholarships, and other forms of financial aid may offset these costs to some extent, but these options are more limited for graduate degrees. Students should be prepared to shoulder at least some of these expenses.

Students should ensure both the school and the MSW program are fully accredited.

Accreditation status is another key factor. Students should ensure both the school and the MSW program are fully accredited. Campus location also matters in terms of employment opportunities, cost of living, and quality of life. Lastly, students should decide whether to enroll full time or part time. Full-time students generally complete their studies faster, but part-time students have more free time to devote to work and activities.

If students are unable to pinpoint on-campus MSW programs that meet their needs and preferences, then an online MSW might be more suitable. Online MSW degrees typically follow the same curricula as on-campus programs, and successful graduates are often eligible for the same job opportunities. However, the same criteria for on-campus programs holds true for online programs, and students should choose the best program for them regardless of how coursework is delivered.

Programmatic Accreditation for Master's in Social Work Programs

Accreditation refers to a voluntary assessment process for colleges and universities. Organizations known as accrediting agencies evaluate schools based on different criteria to ensure they meet acceptable levels of quality. There are two types of accreditation, institutional and programmatic. Institutional accreditation pertains to institutions as a whole, while programmatic accreditation applies to certain schools and programs within an institution.

The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) is the only recognized accrediting agency that evaluates social work programs. According to the BLS, the CSWE recognized more than 500 bachelor's programs and more than 200 master's programs in 2017. Most employers prefer job candidates who attend CSWE-accredited MSW programs. Students who graduate from non-accredited MSW programs may not be eligible for as many positions. Institutional accreditation is also crucial because it affects credit transferability and financial aid.

Applying for an MSW program can be a long, intensive process. Graduate schools often offer rolling admissions and review applications as soon as they arrive, rather than evaluating them after a deadline has passed. Students should begin the process by researching potential schools based on factors such as cost, accreditation, curriculum, and location. Kaplan recommends that students should choose at least five or six target schools. Learners should also set aside enough time to take the GRE, search for financial aid options, and collect letters of recommendation, transcripts, and other materials required for applications.

Like online programs, the admission criteria for brick-and-mortar MSW programs varies by institution. All candidates should hold a bachelor's degree, but schools differ in terms of minimum undergraduate GPA and standardized test score requirements. On-campus MSW programs generally require the following prerequisites and materials:


  • Bachelor's Degree: Most MSW programs require a bachelor's degree for admission. However, the BLS notes that candidates do not necessarily need a bachelor's degree in social work. A bachelor's in most fields will suffice, but coursework in areas such as psychology, sociology, economics, and political science is usually helpful.
  • Professional Experience: Most MSW programs do not require previous work experience, although some schools prefer candidates with a background in social work or human services. Bachelor's degrees in social work typically include an internship or practicum course, which may satisfy this requirement.
  • Minimum GPA: A 3.0 GPA is considered the general requirement for most graduate school programs, although this may range from 2.5 to 3.5 depending on the institution. Some schools are more lenient than others, and may admit students who don't meet the GPA cutoff.

Admission Materials


The Princeton Review advises applicants to begin the application process in May of the year before they plan to enroll. This allows sufficient time for researching schools, taking required exams, and gathering application materials. Following this timeline, students should finalize and submit their applications in December.


Graduate schools only accept official, sealed undergraduate transcripts. Applicants should request a transcript for each target school. The Princeton Review suggests requesting transcripts at least two months before submitting applications.

Letters of Recommendation

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, applicants should solicit two to four letters of recommendation in January to March if they plan on sending applications at the end of the year. These letters should mostly come from academic sources, and at least one should relate to the student's background and potential in the social work field.

Test Scores

Standardized test scores are not always necessary for MSW admission. Schools that require scores usually ask for the GRE. The verbal reasoning and quantitative reasoning portions of the exam are scored between 130 and 170, while the essay portion is scored between 0.0 and 6.0. Applicants should research the requirements of their target schools in order to set benchmarks for themselves prior to taking the exam.

Application Fee

The average college application costs $42, according to U.S. News & World Report, but some cost up to $90. Students may be able to waive these fees by applying online, visiting the school's campus, or having alumni in their family. The College Board maintains a list of application waiver requirements for more than 2,300 schools nationwide.

Although most programs share some common characteristics, every on-campus MSW is different in terms of curriculum, duration, and financial investment. This section explores courses and specializations that are available from brick-and-mortar programs, as well as general expectations for completion time and overall cost.

Concentrations Offered for a Master's Degree in Social Work

Clinical Social Work

This specialization prepares MSW students for careers as licensed social workers. The comprehensive curriculum includes courses in aging and development, social welfare, and psychology. These courses also examine cultural and socioeconomic factors that impact different groups, as well as the laws and policies guiding clinical social work practice in the United States.

Careers this Concentration Prepares for:

  • Licensed clinical social workers
Practice and Leadership with Communities and Organizations

This concentration examines the laws, policies, and ethics that impact social workers working with different groups and organizations. Coursework emphasizes methods of community mobilization, disparities between different groups, and leadership methods. The concentration also addresses social, racial, and economic justice.

Careers this Concentration Prepares for:

  • Social workers working with different groups
  • Human services managers
Children, Youth, and Families

This concentration explores theories behind family dynamics, including growth, development, and the roles that children play within family units. Courses also discuss best practices for mental health evaluation and treatment for children and youths. Students learn intervention and protection strategies for vulnerable young people.

Careers this Concentration Prepares for:

  • Child and family social workers
  • School social workers
  • Healthcare social workers
Integrated Behavioral Health

This specialization prepares students for jobs as healthcare social workers. The curriculum includes coursework in screening and assessment, intervention techniques, cultural factors in behavioral health diagnoses, and technical components of healthcare social work. Students learn how to communicate with clients, their families, and other healthcare professionals.

Careers this Concentration Prepares for:

  • Healthcare social workers
  • Mental health and substance abuse social workers
  • Substance abuse
  • Behavioral disorder
  • Mental health counselors
Human Service Management

Many MSW recipients go on to pursue leadership roles. This concentration explores the responsibilities of human services managers. Courses discuss assessment, planning, and intervention strategies, as well as management skills for enacting social change. This specialization is relevant for both clinical and nonclinical social workers.

Careers this Concentration Prepares for:

  • Licensed clinical social workers
  • Nonclinical social workers
  • Human services managers

Curriculum for a Master's Degree in Social Work

Coursework may differ between MSW programs, especially between different concentrations. However, most programs tackle the same thematic elements and professional competencies in order to prepare students for careers in clinical or macro social work. The following five courses represent a sample curriculum for MSW programs offered nationwide.

Social Justice in Social Work

This course examines the causes of oppression based on race, religion, sexual orientation, and other demographic factors. Students also learn social and cultural elements that affect communication between different groups. The course identifies the role of social workers as intermediaries and agents of change within the realm of social justice.

Theories of Development

Understanding life cycle development is important to social work with different age groups. This course explores various psychological and historical perspectives behind human development, as well as factors that affect individual development such as race, gender, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status.

Clinical Social Work Practice

Typically a multi-course sequence, clinical social work practice classes at the MSW level focus on advanced theories, perspectives, and ethics guiding the LCSW profession. These classes also discuss evidence-based practices and intervention techniques for working with individuals, families, and groups.

Social Welfare Policy

This course tackles the complex history of social welfare in the United States. Students analyze different social welfare policies, both past and present, and compare them to policies found in other parts of the world. Social workers also learn how to advocate for social policy changes.

Group Theory

This course explores the role that social workers play when dealing with different groups. Topics of discussion include theories and perspectives behind group work, resource mobilization, and roles and relationships within group settings. Additionally, students learn how cultural and socioeconomic factors affect group structures.

How Long Does It Take to Get a Master's in Social Work?

Full-time students can complete a standard MSW program, including all field experience requirements, within two years. Total credits vary by institution, but the average program consists of 60 credits in courses and practicum experiences.

Some MSW programs take less than two years to finish. These include one year programs for students with a bachelor's degree in social work, as well as joint-degree pathways that award both a bachelor's and a master's in social work. Students may reduce their completion time by taking extra courses during each semester or quarter term. However, this may not be possible in programs with courses that must be completed sequentially.

Some MSW programs are designed to last more than two years. These pathways include the same curriculum as two-year tracks, but allow students to take fewer courses each term. These programs may be suitable for students with full-time jobs, children, and other commitments.

How Much Is a Master's in Social Work?

At most colleges and universities, the tuition for a MSW program costs the same as other master's degrees. Tuition rates vary by institution, but public institutions are typically less expensive than private institutions. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average graduate degree from a public institution cost $11,303 during the 2015-16 academic year. The average graduate degree from a private institution cost $23,919 during the same period. Schools may charge different rates for individual master's programs, but this is somewhat rare.

Prospective MSW students should research the costs of on-campus and off-campus housing in order to determine the most feasible option.

Other factors can affect the overall cost of earning an MSW. For example, housing costs for students who live on campus tend to be different from those who live off campus. According to U.S. News & World Report, the average student living on-campus paid $10,644 for room and board during the 2017-18 academic year. This price tag often includes all utilities, cable, and internet. As noted in a recent article from Business Insider, students who live off-campus may pay anywhere from 59% less to 53% more than on-campus students, depending on the cost of living where their school is located. Prospective MSW students should research the costs of on-campus and off-campus housing in order to determine the most feasible option.

Meals are another consideration. Students who live on campus have limited access to cooking facilities and may need to purchase meal plans. The average student paid $4,300 for a 19-meal-per-week plan in 2015, according to Time. Those who live off campus may be able to save money by preparing meals themselves.

Certifications and Licenses a Master's in Social Work Prepares For

State-Issued Social Work License

All 50 states require clinical workers to hold a license, and most require nonclinical social workers to earn certification or licensure in their field. Criteria for licensure or certification vary by state, but usually include a master's degree and at least two years of supervised postgraduate training. Visit the Association of Social Work Boards website to learn more about specific requirements in different states.
View License

Qualified Clinical Social Worker

The QCSW credential is available to clinical social workers with a master's degree, 30 continuing education hours logged in the past two years, and at least three years of paid LCSW experience. Administered by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), the credential demonstrates an understanding of the organization's code of ethics and standards for clinical social work practice.
View License

Certified Clinical Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drugs Social Worker

The C-CATODSW credential is designed for MSW social workers that assist people struggling with addiction. According to the NASW, the certification demonstrates extensive knowledge of screening, treating, counseling, and educating addiction patients. In addition to a master's degree, candidates must hold a valid state license and have at least two years of supervised clinical social work experience.
View License

Certified Social Worker in Health Care

Geared toward healthcare social workers, the C-SWHC credential demonstrates competency in practice standards and health policies. Recipients are well-equipped to work with patients, their families, and related organizations. Requirements for the credential include an MSW and a valid state social worker license.
View License

State-Issued Counselor Certification

Substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors working in private practice must be licensed in all 50 states. Requirements vary by state, but generally include an MSW or other master's degree and at least 2,000 supervised postgraduate training hours. Visit the National Board of Certified Counselors website to learn more about licensing requirements in each state.
View License

Association of Social Work Boards

The ASWB is a nonprofit organization that represents social work regulatory boards in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories. The association's website includes details about licensure exams and practice tests, as well as state-specific information regarding social worker license eligibility.

National Board for Certified Counselors

The NBCC regulates credentialing for all counselors in the U.S., including substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors who have earned an MSW. Site visitors can access information about board and specialty certification, continuing education opportunities, and government data.

The New Social Work

This trade publication aimed at social workers has been published since 1994. Each issue tackles topics related to social work practice, ethics, field placement, and student affairs. The publication is free of charge, and visitors can access a full archive online.

Journal of Social Work

This academic research journal from Sage releases six issues per year. A full archive is available to subscribers. Authors may submit and publish articles for free. Individual readers may purchase single issues for $24 and annual subscriptions for $111.

Social Work Exam

Available since 1996, this website offers tutorials and practice exams for social work licensing and certification exams. One free 30-question exam is available to all visitors, and study guides and mobile apps are available for purchase. The site also features a lengthy FAQ section.

Professional Organizations in Social Work

Professional organizations can provide valuable resources for students earning an MSW, as well as recent graduates preparing to enter the workforce. These organizations offer certification and continuing education programs, online and face-to-face networking opportunities, career services and job boards, and other valuable information about the social worker profession. Many offer discounted membership rates to students and recent graduates. Five of the country's most prominent professional organizations for social workers are described below.

National Association of Social Workers

Founded in 1955, the NASW is the nation's largest organization for social workers. The association offers 20 different professional and advanced practice specialty credentials for social workers in different fields. Hundreds of continuing education courses are also available through the Social Work Online CE Institute.

Clinical Social Work Association

CSWA represents clinical social workers, recent graduates, and students earning social work degrees at different levels. The site features a national job board where job seekers can browse openings, upload their resumes, and receive career advice from experienced professionals. The CSWA website also provides information about clinical practice policies and guidelines, including HIPAA and the ICD-10 mental health codes.

School Social Work Association of America

The SSWAA offers an online continuing education unit program in partnership with Minnesota State University. Members may purchase webinar packages at a discounted rate. The site also features resources about state associations, school social work promotion, evidence-based practice, and international social work.

National Association of Black Social Workers

The NABSW offers scholarships to undergraduate and graduate members earning degrees in social work. Members may also join one of the association's two dozen standing committees, task forces, and ad hoc committees. The site's national job board allows visitors to upload resumes and receive feedback from career consultants.

Association for Addiction Professionals

The NAADAC offers certifications and endorsements for addiction counselors, dependence specialists, and other addiction professionals. The NAADAC minority fellowship program provides training and career resources for minority and LGBT students. Enrolled students may obtain membership at a discounted annual rate.