MSW vs. MSSW vs. MSSA: Which Is Right for Me?

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By Kasia Kovacs

Reviewed by Melissa Russiano, LCSW, LISW

Published on September 13, 2021

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Social workers take on critical roles in our society, providing help and guidance to vulnerable people. They make a positive change at various levels, including individuals' lives and policy matters.

The pathway to becoming a social worker requires dedication and study. Aspiring social workers usually need at least a bachelor's degree for entry-level positions, and those who wish to work in clinical or supervisory roles need a master's degree.

If you feel set on social work as a career path, then you may need to choose between a few different types of master's degrees, such as an MSW, MSSW, or MSSA. This guide breaks down these degrees so you can make an informed decision about your education.

What Is an MSW?

As the most common type of social work graduate degree, a master of social work (MSW) prepares students for clinical roles. The curriculum builds upon students' undergraduate education with advanced courses in social work topics like clinical theory, child welfare, trauma, organizational theory, and adult development. These programs typically take two years for full-time students.

Students interested in earning their MSW first need a bachelor's degree. Not all MSW programs require applicants to hold a bachelor of social work degree, but some programs do look for prospective students with this qualification.

Students who prefer flexible learning should consider online MSW programs, which allow distance learners to study on their own time, reduce travel and expenses by attending lectures from home, and attend to jobs and family obligations.

Whether you enroll in an on-campus or online social work program, make sure your program is accredited. Otherwise, you may have difficulty finding employment since obtaining a state-issued license will not be possible. The Council on Social Work Education ensures that academic programs offer students a quality education.

What Can You Do With an MSW?

MSW graduates often go on to pursue careers in the social work field. Many students become clinical social workers, but their MSW degrees can prepare them for specialized roles and careers in adjacent fields. Below is a list of common careers for MSW graduates.

MSW Jobs

What Is an MSSW?

A master of science in social work (MSSW) teaches prospective social workers how to succeed in the industry. The program usually lasts two years, and students learn about social welfare policy and human behavior within a social environment. This degree also requires learners to participate in fieldwork.

What Is an MSSA?

A master of science in social administration (MSSA) trains students to become social workers from more of a macro-level viewpoint. MSSA candidates learn about social policy and care through theoretical courses and fieldwork. Full-time learners can typically complete these programs in two years.

What Is the Difference Between an MSW, MSSW, and MSSA?

Although MSW, MSSW, and MSSA degrees have different names, these programs are very similar when it comes to preparing students for careers in social work.

However, each program offers unique courses and potential concentrations. Students should find the program that best fits their specific career goals.

In terms of graduate admission requirements, online vs. on-campus formats, fieldwork expectations, and general curriculum goals, each of these degrees serves the same general purpose: to equip graduates with the skills they need to become social workers.

Graduation Requirements for MSW, MSSW, and MSSA programs

Generally speaking, incoming students need a competitive undergraduate GPA to gain admission into these programs. After enrolling in a master's program, here are a few common requirements you must meet to succeed in graduate school:

MSW, MSSW, and MSSA Concentrations

Clinical Social Work
Aspiring social workers who want to work directly with individuals often choose this concentration. Some schools break this option down even further, with specializations that focus on working with different populations, such as trauma, children, families, or the elderly.
Administration
This specialization prepares students to work at the management level, teaching participants the strategic skills needed to supervise staff, evaluate programs, and handle finances.
Community Development
Students who choose this concentration learn how to work at community-level organizations like nonprofits and government groups. Learners study topics related to effective community planning and organization.
Social Policy
Individuals who want to make a difference at the macro level by influencing policies and legislation regarding social welfare may be interested in this option. Students learn about current policy and how to engage in policy research and analysis to advocate for change.
Social Justice
Some schools offer this specialization for students who wish to develop equitable solutions to social problems like food and housing security.

Career and Salary Outlook for MSW, MSSW, and MSSAGraduates

Many individuals seeking MSW jobs can look forward to a bright future. In terms of career outlook, the social work field continues to grow. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects 12% job growth for the profession between 2020 and 2020, which is faster than average. During the same period, the BLS also projects 17% job growth for health educators and 15% job growth for social and community service managers

Salaries for social work professionals vary based on factors like location and years of experience. According to the BLS, social workers earned a median annual salary of $51,760, as of May 2020.

Frequently Asked Questions About MSW, MSSW, and MSSA Degrees

What does an MSW social worker do?

Social workers with an MSW often work in clinical roles, helping clients manage unemployment, addiction, substance misuse, and other difficulties. Licensed clinical social workers can also diagnose mental, behavioral, and emotional issues. They provide services like therapy to help clients live with and overcome these challenges.

Is social work a social science?

Social work falls into the social science category, since it deals with human behavior within society. MSW programs often delve into social welfare and policy, examining how to provide support to vulnerable individuals.

What does MSSA stand for in social work?

MSSA stands for master of science in social administration. This degree prepares students for the same careers as an MSW through fieldwork and advanced theoretical courses.

Is an MSW an arts or science degree?

An MSW isn't a master of arts or a master of science degree. However, some colleges and universities offer a master of science in social work or master of science in social administration. Although schools may offer master's-level social work programs with different names, they prepare students for careers in social work, just like MSW degrees.


Reviewed by:

Melissa Russiano is a licensed clinical social worker in private practice that has organically developed into a specialty helping working professionals. Russiano has a proven track record helping professionals avoid burnout in a unique way that holds clinicians accountable through laughter, tears, blunt (yet very supportive) feedback and quirky analogies that are grounded in solid theoretical research. Russiano practices solely in a virtual setting in the states of California, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee. In addition, Russiano is a professor at Simmons University online, imparting her experiences and knowledge in the field to graduate social work students.


Melissa Russiano is a paid member of the Red Ventures Education freelance review network.

Feature Image: Halfpoint Images / Moment / Getty Images

What does a licensed clinical social worker actually do? Learn what the field of social work entails in this candid interview with a private-practice LCSW. Social work represents a vast, challenging, and oftentimes rewarding field. Social workers help diverse populations -- including children, seniors, and patients with chronic illnesses -- in a variety of work settings such as schools, hospitals, and substance abuse clinics. Most social workers start out in the field after earning a bachelor's in social work. However, […] Launch your career with an online bachelor's in social work program. Compare top schools by affordability and academic quality. Earn your bachelor's in social work.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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