BSW vs. MSW: What Are the Differences?

Social workers help individuals, families, and communities in various settings. If you’re exploring BSW vs. MSW programs, here’s what you need to know.

portrait of Sharon Wilfong
by Sharon Wilfong

Published October 14, 2022

Reviewed by Melissa Russiano, LCSW, LISW

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BSW vs. MSW: What Are the Differences?
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The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects about 74,700 job openings for social workers annually between 2021-2031. Social workers provide individuals, families, and communities with resources to find housing, childcare, and other assistance.

Social workers need excellent communication and problem-solving skills to build productive relationships with clients, colleagues, and support networks.

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Ready to start your journey?

To become a social worker, you need a bachelor's in social work (BSW) or a master's in social work (MSW) from an accredited program. Depending on your focus, you may specialize in education, healthcare, mental health, or substance misuse.

BSW vs. MSW Programs

A bachelor's degree in social work is a four-year degree that helps you build foundational knowledge. Studies cover human behavior, diverse populations, ethics, and social welfare policy.

A master's degree in social work generally takes two years to complete. In this program, you'll focus on advanced curriculum and explore concentrations or specializations. An MSW is the first step to becoming a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW).

BSW programs typically require an internship or supervised fieldwork. An MSW also requires an internship or a supervised practicum as part of the program.

What Are the Differences Between a BSW and MSW?

An MSW degree vs. a BSW degree differs in focus, career paths, and program lengths. The following sections discuss these differences, licensing requirements, and job options.

Differences Between BSW and MSW Degrees
Factor Bachelor's in Social Work (BSW) Master's in Social Work (MSW)
Focus A BSW focuses on generalist foundational studies in social work. It prepares you to work with individuals, families, and community organizations. An MSW is an advanced degree that prepares you for clinical practice. An MSW is the minimum education level required to become a LCSW.
Career Paths A BSW prepares you for entry-level social work positions, such as case manager, client advocate, child welfare specialist, or probation officer. An MSW prepares you to work in clinical settings or private practices. You can have career opportunities in child welfare, healthcare, or mental health.
Program Length A BSW typically takes four years or 120 credit hours to complete. An internship or fieldwork is usually required. An MSW program takes up to two years to complete, including a minimum of 900 hours of supervised field experience.

Coursework and Fieldwork

BSW programs cover broad generalist concepts and help you build foundational knowledge in human behavior, client advocacy, and social policy. MSW coursework focuses on specialized areas such as child welfare, trauma, addictions, and mental health.

Both degrees require an internship or fieldwork in settings such as a hospital, clinic, or school. This work usually involves supervised client interactions.

A BSW program requires at least 400 hours of supervised fieldwork. An MSW takes a minimum of 900 hours of supervised practicum experience.

Licensing Requirements

Licensing requirements for social workers vary by state. However, social workers usually need to complete their degrees through a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE).

With a BSW or an MSW, you can qualify for licensure by taking an Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) exam. Professionals must hold an MSW to work in a clinical setting.

The LCSW credential requires an MSW and at least two years of postgraduate experience.

Job Opportunities

Most social work jobs with a BSW are typically entry-level positions. You can work as a health education specialist, community resource social worker, or correctional treatment specialist.

An MSW prepares you for advanced clinical positions. Some possible careers include healthcare administration, mental health counseling, or substance misuse counseling.

You may need more licensing requirements depending on the job. For example, a licensed clinical social worker can provide mental health services such as psychotherapy.

Do I Need a BSW to Get a MSW?

You don't necessarily need a BSW to get an MSW. If you have a bachelor's degree in a field other than social work, an MSW will take about two years of full-time study to complete.

If you have a BSW, you could pursue an accelerated master's program and complete it in as little as 12 months full time. Some schools offer BSW and MSW dual-degree programs that will take five years to complete.

The dual degree (BSW and MSW) programs help you save time and can also cut tuition costs. For example, in a dual-degree program, you could earn a bachelor of social work online and a master of social work online in five years.

Should I Get a Master's in Social Work (MSW)?

An MSW is worth it if you want to advance your career as a clinical social worker or another advanced position. Maybe you've already earned a BSW. You can work in an entry-level position to gain experience, then continue your education.

Or, you might be considering an education in social work and debating on where to start. Either way, an MSW can help you get there.

BSW Jobs

  • Social Work Case Manager
  • Substance Misuse Counselor
  • Social Work Organizer
  • Probation Officer
  • Child Welfare Worker
  • Juvenile Court Liaison
  • Eligibility Worker
  • Community Outreach Worker

MSW Jobs

  • Licensed Clinical Social Worker
  • Mental Health Therapist (inpatient or outpatient care to individuals, families, or groups)
  • School Social Worker
  • Medical Social Worker

An MSW can also help social workers who want to increase their earning potential. The BLS reports that the unemployment rate was also lower at 2.6% for those with a master's degree compared to 3.5% for those with a bachelor's degree.

Earning Potential

$1,334
Median usual weekly earnings with a bachelor's degree

$1,574
Median usual weekly earnings with a master's degree

$50,390
Median annual wage for social workers

$82,840
Median annual wage for the highest 10% of social workers

(Data from: BLS Employment Projections, BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook)

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