Master of Social Work (MSW)

In the field of human services, few degrees offer as wide a variety of job opportunities and titles as the Master of Social Work (MSW). An MSW can set you up for a variety of hands-on positions in clinical practice that typically require licensure, as well as educational or advocacy roles in the field that may not necessarily require you to be licensed, but that do require you to be an expert.

The MSW is the standard for meeting education requirements to become a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) under any state licensing board, and at the same time provides the kind of advanced credentials and knowledge you’d need to compete for a leadership role with a nonprofit, state agency or private contractor. If you’ve got your sights set on a career that involves influencing policy and developing social programs from the top down, an MSW can help get you there too.

Those options extend through all sorts of practice areas and specialties, making an MSW one of the most flexible degrees in human services.

A master’s degree in social work will give you the indispensable tools you need to effect positive change everywhere – whether addressing opioid addiction in your own neighborhood or developing social programs that ensure access to healthcare and social services around the country.


Sponsored Content

Featured Programs:
Sponsored School(s)
Featured CSWE Accredited Social Work Programs | Explore MSW Education Options

CSWE Accreditation is Key

How do you know if the MSW program you might be considering is going to really prepare you for all the challenges and responsibilities that come with a career in human services? Well, you start by finding out whether or not it’s been accredited by the Council on Social Work Education’s (CSWE) Commission on Accreditation.

The CSWE Commission on Accreditation is the sole accrediting body for social work education in the U.S. recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). That means CSWE is quite literally the singular authority when it comes to evaluating social work degree programs and giving a stamp of approval to the ones that are academically sound and methodologically correct in they way they educate future social workers.

As of 2018. there are only 261 social work master’s programs in the country that meet CSWE Commission on Accreditation standards.

The latest version of those standards are outlined in the Commission’s Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards, updated in 2015 to reflect the most current research and thinking about social work practice.

These standards include nine core competencies in areas ranging from ethics to assessments to interventions, and include lengthy guidelines on implicit and explicit curriculum content and pedagogical practices when it comes to both classroom theory and experiential learning through practicum. The standards describe the assessment and evaluation of student outcomes, and outline the lengthy process of site visits, interviews, and analysis that go into determining whether or not accreditation will be offered to a particular program.

When you complete a CSWE-accredited program, you, and your potential employers, know that you have received an education in social work theory and practice that is both comprehensive and up-to-date.

Foundation and Concentration Years for a Master of Social Work

Most MSW programs take, at a minimum, two years to complete. Those years are split into foundation and concentration years.

Year 1: Foundation

The foundation year involves classroom education in core social work concepts such as:

  • Human behavior
  • Research methodology
  • Clinical and macro practices
  • Social policy

These core concepts are explored in detail and integrated during the first year.

Year 2: Concentration

During the second year, you will receive training that is more closely aligned with your ultimate career focus as a social worker. This can be a sub-specialization, if offered by the program, or a course of applied advanced generalist practice, the basic common approach to clinical social work used today.

One of the fastest growing sub-disciplines within social work is a focus on elder related studies; with a rapidly growing aging population, this concentration is becoming more valued. There are some programs that focus on social work with children, providing a deeper understanding of childhood development. Others may offer a concentration in social justice or policy based social work.

Concentration titles you’ll frequently come across as you explore your options include:

  • Gerontological social work
  • Child and family practice
  • School social work
  • Social justice and advocacy
  • Community and organization practice

Licensure Will Require Experience & Passing ASWB Examinations

Even with all the many roles it can prepare you for, an MSW most often serves to lay out the straightest path possible to qualifying for advanced, licensed roles, namely that of licensed clinical social worker (LCSW). But for anybody ambitious enough to go into clinical practice, it doesn’t end there.

In addition to your classroom work, you’ll also need to build your field experience through practicum or supervised field work in order to qualify for an LCSW. To meet CSWE accreditation standards, a program has to provide at least 900 hours of field education, but many states will require far more — as many as 4,000 hours, with 1,000 including direct client contact. All this is necessary to meet the requirements to sit for the LCSW Exam, typically the final step to qualifying for state licensure.

Find out more about social work licensure by viewing our in-depth article here.

The exams that licensing boards in every state and the District of Columbia use to qualify candidates for LCSW licensure are administered at the national level through the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) examination. Depending on the role you are pursuing and the licensing hierarchy in your state, this could include one of four exams:

Of course, the Masters, Advanced Generalist and Clinical exams would be the ones applicable to MSW-prepared exam candidates for any of the various roles. Each exam is designed to put you through your paces, testing you on just how much information you really absorbed during your master’s program.

Not all licensing boards use all four exams, so you’ll need to verify which one is used in your jurisdiction.

Find out more about the social work licensing requirements in your state here.

One Degree, Many Paths

An MSW will open up no shortage of potential career paths for you to pursue, particularly when paired with an LCSW credential. There are positions working for government, for non-profits, or private corporations. You could find a position heavy on one-on-one interaction with individuals, or a job that involves speaking to hundreds or thousands as an advocate. You could even end up teaching, or going into management, supervising other social workers and support staff.

Some of the most common positions the degree opens up are:

  • Marriage and Family Therapist
  • Social and Community Service Manager
  • Social Work Administrator
  • Social Service Permanency Worker
  • Social Service Screener
  • Licensed Clinical Social Work
  • School Social Worker
  • Child Welfare Case Manager

Median Pay for Social Workers

It’s nice to know you can make a living wage helping other people live better lives. As of 2017, the median annual pay for social workers was $47,980 per year, with those in the top 10% earning an average of $79,740 according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

National averages don’t give much insight into what you can expect to earn in your corner of the country, but looking at a few salaries from different metro areas in the country can:

  • Los Angeles, CA – $66,280
  • New York, NY – $68,200
  • Chicago, IL – $70,170

(BLS figures shown for social workers that didn’t identify a specific specialty when surveyed.)

BLS lists some breakdowns of national median pay based on both specialty and industry:

SpecialtyMedian Salary
Child, family, and school$44,380
Mental health and substance abuse$43,250


IndustryMedian Salary
Local government$52,900
Ambulatory healthcare$48,340
State government$46,120
Individual and family services$40,800

MSW Gives You the Freedom to Choose the Career of Your Dreams

As a highly-trained, highly-educated professional in human behavior and social justice, you can pursue almost any path that involves improving lives and building communities at any level. There’s no shortage of demand in conventional roles with well-established agencies and organizations. You could even take a less conventional path by going into a management positionstraight out of school or becoming a faculty member at a university preparing the next generation of social workers.

And there’s also no shortage of entirely new directions you could go as you pursue your dream career. Some of the most successful social programs can be the most unexpected and innovative ones. Lumos, a multinational non-governmental organization founded by Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, is leading the fight to eliminate orphanages and place children in families… In the Netherlands, two young social workers noticed that many of their elderly clients were lonely after their spouses had passed away. Their response was to set up Samen Wille, a speed-dating service for the over-55 set.

But most success stories in social work are more private and more personal; careers dedicated to making an incredible difference in a handful of lives. With an MSW in hand, you have the option to help at any level.

Find out about specific licensing requirements in your state for the social services job you’ve always wanted.