Master of Social Work (MSW)

The Master of Social Work (MSW) can set you up for a variety of hands-on positions in clinical practice that typically require licensure, as well as education and 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.


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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 the way they educate future social workers.

As of 2021, there are only 292 social work master’s programs in the country that meet CSWE Commission on Accreditation standards and hold full accreditation.

The latest version of those standards are outlined in the Commission’s Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards, and reflect the most current research and thinking in the field of social work today.

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.

What to Expect in a Master of Social Work Program: Year 1 – Foundation, Year 2 – Concentration

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, which is the basic common approach to clinical social work used today.

With a rapidly growing aging population, elder related studies is one sub-discipline that is getting more attention these days.

\On the other side of the spectrum as far as specialty focus for specific populations, you have some programs that focus on social work with children, providing a deeper understanding of childhood development.

Other concentrations include areas like social justice and 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 Scores on the ASWB Exams

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-based education, but many states will require far more than that. In fact, some states require as many as 4,000 hours, 1,000 of which need to involve direct client contact.

All this is necessary to meet the requirements to sit for the LCSW Exam in your state, which is 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 five exams:

  • Associate (for jurisdictions that offer licenses to professionals qualifying without a degree)
  • Bachelor’s Social Work Licensing Examination
  • Master’s Social Work Licensing Examination
  • Advanced Generalist Social Work Licensing Examination
  • Clinical Social Work Licensing Examination

Of course, the Masters, Advanced Generalist and Clinical exams would be the ones applicable to MSW-prepared exam candidates. 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 five 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 paired with an LCSW credential is the standard for clinical social work positions in government, non-profits and private corporations. You can find social workers with these credentials working in positions that involve a lot of one-on-one interactions with individual clients, as well as in positions in advocacy that involve communicating a message to hundreds or thousands of people. You will also find them teaching, and in management roles that involve supervising other social workers and support staff.

Your MSW and LCSW license could put you in a position to serve different populations in a variety of settings, from families and couples or positions in school social work and child welfare, to roles in community service management and administration.

Median Pay for Social Workers

It’s nice to know you can make a living helping other people live better lives. As of 2020, the median annual salary for social workers in the U.S. was $51,760 per year, with those in the top 10% earning more than $85,820, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

National figures don’t always 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 can. In the big metro areas, social workers in traditional social services roles outside of schools, healthcare facilities, substance abuse and mental health settings around the country earned an average salary that was fairly consistent:

  • Los Angeles, CA – $77,750
  • New York, NY – $74,750
  • Chicago, IL – $79.870

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

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

SpecialtyMedian Salary
Child, Family and School$48,430
Mental Health and Substance Abuse$48,720


IndustryMedian Salary
Healthcare Services$52,850
Local Government$57,660
State Government$49,860
Individual and Family Services$43,820

2020 Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and job market figures for Social Workers are based on state and national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed June 2021.

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

As a credentialed clinical social worker, you’ll have an opportunity to improve people’s lives and contribute to building healthier, happier communities, whether you work for a state or local government agency or non-profit organization. You could even effect change from the top down by eventually working your way up to a management position, or you could inspire the next generation of social workers by going into teaching at the college level.

And there’s also entirely new directions you could go if you’re inspired to establish your own non-profit to offer specialized services where you see opportunities to serve and help people and communities. Some of the most successful social programs can be the most unexpected and innovative ones. For example, Lumos, a multinational non-governmental organization founded by Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, is leading the fight to eliminate orphanages and place children with loving families… Recently, in the Netherlands, two young social workers set up a service to help elderly clients suffering from loneliness after losing their spouses connect with new companions.

In social work, success comes with making an incredible difference in a handful of lives. With an MSW in hand, you will have that opportunity.

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

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