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The Online Master’s in Social Work

An impact degree

Social work is a profession focused on helping others, with the goal of improving the well-being of individuals, families and the community. Studying human behavior in social, cultural and financial contexts, this interdisciplinary field spans multiple areas of expertise, from sociology and psychology to health and counseling.

Social workers may specialize in crisis intervention, child welfare, behavioral issues, mental health, substance abuse, public policy, education, clinical practice, community organization and other areas. With such a diverse range of occupations, students can narrow down their studies to a particular career path and develop a unique program to meet their needs. Through a graduate program in social work, students can develop advanced knowledge of how human development, social institutions, cultural influences and social forces interact, positioning them as agents of change in their local communities.

This guide explores the online master’s in social work degree, examining application requirements, concentration subject areas, curriculum and coursework, as well as career options after graduation.

Top Online Master's in Social Work

As more professionals head back to school in the pursuit of graduate degrees, colleges and universities have stepped up to the plate, and have begun offering a wider array of programs to allow busy students a way to fit in earning their master’s degrees into their lives. The below list details the schools that stand above the rest when it comes to their master’s in social work programs.

SCORE:  99.01 CAREER COUNSELING: Yes JOB PLACEMENT: Yes STATE: Virginia

Online students at Virginia Commonwealth University have access to many of the same resources as on-campus students, including advising, financial aid help, access to the learning and writing centers, technology help and library resources. Their Learning Center also offers students with both tutoring and academic coaching.

VCU students interested in rehabilitation counseling can take all classes for their master’s degree online, though there are two required on-campus development courses. Each on-campus course lasts one week. While students earning their Master of Social Work degree must complete a required field internship at an agency in Virginia or Washington, D.C., and attend two in-person classes per semester, all other classes are offered online.

  • MS in Sociology
  • MS in Gerontology
  • MS in Rehabilitation Counseling
SCORE:  98.31 CAREER COUNSELING: Yes JOB PLACEMENT: Yes STATE: Nebraska

Students interested in social work will find numerous programs in child, youth and family development through this university, all of which can be completed entirely online. Many of the programs are administered through the Great Plains Interactive Distance Education Alliance, a consortium of 11 universities that offer fully-online degrees.

Students typically have three years to complete their master’s degree. The professors for online courses are the same teachers that helm the on-campus courses, and students can also take advantage of seasoned faculty advisors. Upon graduation, students can take advantage of all the benefits offered by the Nebraska Alumni Association.

  • MS in Family and Community Services
  • MS in Human and Family Services Administration
  • MS in International Family Studies
SCORE:  97.9 CAREER COUNSELING: Yes JOB PLACEMENT: Yes STATE: North Dakota

Both students with a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW) and those without can earn their Master of Social Work at the University of North Dakota. In both programs, students learn key social work concepts, social systems and communication skills as they gain knowledge of the roles social workers have in society.

Students coming into the program already with a BSW can complete the MSW in two years, and will begin every summer, earning 36 credits over the course of the program. Students without a BSW start their program in the spring semester, earn 60 credits and can take three years or more to earn their master’s degree.

  • MSW (for BSW students)
  • MSW (for non-BSW students)
SCORE:  97.55 CAREER COUNSELING: Yes JOB PLACEMENT: Yes STATE: North Carolina

Individuals attending North Carolina State University may obtain a Master of Family Life and Youth Development degree which will aid them in a career providing support to children and families. This master’s degree requires 36 total credits that must be obtained within six years, allowing students to attend either part or full-time.

Required courses include research and the completion of a thesis. Students may specialize in several areas, such as gerontology, family life coaching or volunteer managements and administration. Upon graduation, students should be prepared for careers in government and communities agencies, court and prison systems, social service organizations, schools and religious organizations.

  • Master of Family Life and Youth Development
  • MS in Family Life and Youth Development
SCORE:  97.41 CAREER COUNSELING: Yes JOB PLACEMENT: Yes STATE: Texas

The Master of Science in Rehabilitation Counseling program at the University of North Texas takes a little more than two years to complete. During the course of the program, students will complete both a practicum and an internship. The internship should last at least 600 hours and take place at a rehabilitation agency. The practicum must include 100 hours of supervised experience.

Potential students are required to have at least a 2.8 GPA for admission. Students will also need to submit GRE scores unless they have two years’ experience working with people with disabilities. Applicants will need to apply to both the Toulouse Graduate School and the Rehabilitation Counseling program.

  • MS in Rehabilitation Counseling
  • MS in Long-Term Care
  • Senior Housing
SCORE:  96.95 CAREER COUNSELING: Yes JOB PLACEMENT: Yes STATE: Florida

Florida State University offers two online master’s degrees in social work for those interested in becoming practitioners in the social and community services sector. Students must live in one of the program’s service areas, with includes specific counties within Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota.

Students take two courses each semester, allowing them to graduate in six or nine semesters, depending on the program. Most classes are asynchronous so students can log in and complete coursework at their convenience – as long as they meet course deadlines. Students are assigned their own “degree roadmap,†a program of study designed to meet their individual needs.

  • MSW (Advanced Standing Master of Social Work)
  • MSW (Traditional Master of Social Work)
SCORE:  96.65 CAREER COUNSELING: Yes JOB PLACEMENT: Yes STATE: Massachusetts

Students interested in an online master’s degree in social work can opt for the Master of Science in Rehabilitation Counseling or the Master of Science in Family Therapy through UMass Online. The rehabilitation counseling program is a 60-credit course that can be completed almost entirely online; students must attend on-campus clinical courses for two weeks during the first summer of the program.

Graduates will be prepared to not only become licensed in the state of Massachusetts, but also sit for national certification as a Certified Rehabilitation Counselor. Residents of Alabama, Maryland, Arkansas or Minnesota are currently not eligible for admission due to regulations in those states. The Family Therapy program is temporarily closed to new applicants.

  • MS in Rehabilitation Counseling
  • Master's in Gerontology (Management of Aging Services)
SCORE:  96.32 CAREER COUNSELING: Yes JOB PLACEMENT: Yes STATE: Hawaii

Aspiring social work students can opt for the Master of Social Work or the Master of Science in Rehabilitation Counseling through distance learning at UH, Manoa. The MSW program is available to students on neighboring islands, with on-site training required once per year on the island of Oahu.

Students complete courses during the 3-year plan through a variety of distance learning possibilities, including two-way video conferencing and via a virtual classroom. Students in the Rehabilitation Counseling program typically complete their studies within three years of hybrid education, taking most of their courses online but meeting face-to-face with professors at specific times during the program.

  • MS in Kinesiology and Rehabilitation Science (Rehabilitation Counseling)
  • MSW
SCORE:  95.78 CAREER COUNSELING: Yes JOB PLACEMENT: Yes STATE: California

The Tseng College at CSUN offers a graduate level social work program that can be completed online, as a 2-year, full-time program. The course offers a virtual meeting once a week during the semester with professors and students.

The graduate-level social work program focuses on preparing students to embark on a career in social work with an urban focus, where they will have the chance to work with at-risk populations from the individual and family level, to larger group and societal levels. Students will also benefit from a dedicated Program Manager to assist them every step of the way, from application to graduation.

  • MS in Assistive Technology Studies and Human Services
  • MSW
SCORE:  95.71 CAREER COUNSELING: Yes JOB PLACEMENT: Yes STATE: Georgia

Fort Valley State University developed its Master of Science in Rehabilitation Counseling and case management for students interested in a career working with the physically and emotionally disabled.

Accredited by the Council on Rehabilitation Counselor Education, the online program also requires extensive field experience, and program applicants should be prepared to spend time outside the online classroom. Graduates will be eligible for the national certifying exam to earn their Certified Rehabilitation Counselors credential. Fort Valley’s online programs follow the traditional university schedule, with classes starting three times during the year.

  • MS in Rehabilitation Counseling and Case Management
SCORE:  95.65 CAREER COUNSELING: Yes JOB PLACEMENT: Yes STATE: Wyoming

The Master of Social Work program at the University of Wyoming is a hybrid program consisting of online classes, video conferencing and in-person meetings. Each semester there are five weekend meetings required at the Laramie campus.

The standard program is meant for students who have a bachelor’s degree in a subject other than social work, while the advanced standing program is for students with a social work bachelor’s degree. At the end of the program, students participate in two field practicums that will measure 10 core competencies. The first practicum totals about 400 hours overall, while the second is about 500 hours overall.

  • MSW
SCORE:  95.28 CAREER COUNSELING: Yes JOB PLACEMENT: Yes STATE: New Mexico

Students earning their Master of Social Work degree at Western New Mexico University have three options for completing the program: An advanced standing MSW program, or a two- or three-year MSW program. Students who hold advanced standing can complete the program in one year. Those in the two-year program commit to taking classes full-time, while students in the three-year program take classes on a part-time schedule.

No matter the program, all students take the same core classes. They include Cultural Competency in Social Work Practice, Understanding the Rural Community and Social Work Clinical Intervention & Assessment. Students in both the two- and three-year program will complete field practicums.

  • MSW
SCORE:  93.83 CAREER COUNSELING: Yes JOB PLACEMENT: Yes STATE: Kansas

Emporia State University’s online master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling is part of the college’s counselor education offerings. The program is nationally accredited by the Council on Rehabilitation Education and is the only one of its kind in Kansas.

While it is an online program, students must complete 100 hours of practicum experience and 600 hours of supervised internship prior to graduation. Students may choose to complete a thesis in lieu of passing a comprehensive exam at the end of the program. The distance learning program at Emporia empowers students to complete their master’s while maintaining their busy everyday schedules.

  • MS in Rehabilitation Counseling
SCORE:  93.14 CAREER COUNSELING: Yes JOB PLACEMENT: Yes STATE: Indiana

Indiana University, Bloomington’s online master’s of social work is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education. Their School of Social Work has been in existence since 1923 and its online degree is comparable to its traditional on-campus program.

While many other online social work programs are state-specific, IU’s is geographically open and available to all students regardless of location. Students can take all classes online, with the exception of the required practicum hours. Courses are taught via Oncourse, the university’s online course management system, and are available throughout the year in 11-week classes.

  • MSW
SCORE:  93.08 CAREER COUNSELING: Yes JOB PLACEMENT: Yes STATE: Wisconsin

University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point offers a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling that students can earn completely online. The program is designed for those currently working in the field, or those who have previous experience working with people with disabilities. Taking two courses per semester, students can finish their degree in three years.

The University’s eCampus has asynchronous courses, which means assignments can be done at the best time for the student as long as specific deadlines are met. Students communicate with peers and instructors via email or discussion boards, though some classes require field-based activities, such as projects with local rehabilitation service companies.

  • MS in Vocational Rehabilitation (Rehabilitation Counseling)
SCORE:  92.64 CAREER COUNSELING: Yes JOB PLACEMENT: Yes STATE: South Dakota

Students seeking a master’s level degree in Human Sciences, Family and Community Services may obtain one from South Dakota State University. The 36-credit online only program has been developed to train students who seek a career working with children, adults and families through social and behavioral help.

Of the 36-credit hours necessary to complete this course, 30 are mandatory, while six are electives. Students will obtain the same quality of education as on-campus students, but some classes may be taught by faculty outside South Dakota State University, which is part of the Great Plains Interactive Distance Education Alliance.

  • MS in Human Sciences (Family and Community Services)
SCORE:  92.42 CAREER COUNSELING: Yes JOB PLACEMENT: Yes STATE: Massachusetts

The only online graduate degree program offered in the northeast United States, Assumption College’s MA in rehabilitation counseling is a 60-credit program that will be completed across 20 courses. Students may be able to complete their degree within 3 years, and can be done within 8 semesters.

The program is student-centered, and professors focus on maintaining communication and facilitating academic excellence. Despite being an entirely online-based program, Assumption College prides itself on providing students continuing interaction with professors and administration, and provides dedicated IT support. Upon completion, students should be ready to sit for the Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor (CRC) certification exam.

  • MA in Rehabilitation Counseling
SCORE:  92.34 CAREER COUNSELING: Yes JOB PLACEMENT: Yes STATE: Pennsylvania

Clarion University of Pennsylvania offers an online master of science degree in rehabilitative sciences for students who wish to pursue a career in the social work arena. The program is designed for students who have experience working with people who have mental or health problems, chemical dependency, aging, poverty, mental retardation and other at-risk issues.

Students of the program will learn skills in analyzing the needs of clients and developing a plan of action to assist them. Though the program is virtual, Clarion encourages (but does not require) students to cross over and take courses from the parallel on-campus program. Clarion offers an online student orientation to help students attain success in an online environment.

  • MS in Rehabilitative Sciences
SCORE:  91.99 CAREER COUNSELING: Yes JOB PLACEMENT: Yes STATE: Maine

The University of New England’s Master of Social Work program can be completed in as little as 16 months. The 100% online-based program is designed for both those already working in the field, and students who are new to social work.

Two concentrations are available: clinical practice and community practice. Both concentrations require field education, which consists of two 560-hour placements, and offer schedule flexibility, weekly seminars and placement supervision. Students with advanced standing only need to complete one placement. A capstone project completes the social work program, which students will develop over their final two semesters.

  • MSW
SCORE:  91.24 CAREER COUNSELING: Yes JOB PLACEMENT: Yes STATE: Kentucky

Students can earn a master’s in social work entirely online through the Kent School of Social Work. There are two options for students: the 60-hour standard program, designed for those who already hold a bachelor’s degree in another field; and the 30-hour advanced standing program, designed for those who have earned a bachelor’s degree in social work over the past seven years. Admission to both program occurs during the fall semester.

Entrance into the program is fiercely competitive, as it is ranked first in Kentucky for social work master’s programs, and is in the top 16% of like programs nationwide.

  • MS in Social Work
SCORE:  90.92 CAREER COUNSELING: Yes JOB PLACEMENT: Yes STATE: Pennsylvania

The master’s in social work program at Widener University focuses specifically on social work and trauma. The program’s 64 credits are earned from 35-credit hours in core courses, 23 in advanced concentration classes and six in electives. Advanced classes include Clinical Social Work with Individuals, Organization & Program Development and Clinical Social Work Seminar.

Online students are not required to attend any on-campus classes, though supervised fieldwork is a required part of the program. Graduates of this program are eligible to take the Licensed Social Worker (LSW) exam. They may also take the Licensed Clinical Social Work (LCSW) exam after two years of supervised clinical practice.

  • MSW (Trauma focus)
SCORE:  90.79 CAREER COUNSELING: Yes JOB PLACEMENT: Yes STATE: District of Columbia

Accredited by the Council on Social Work Education, the online Master of Social Work program at Catholic University of America should prepare students to obtain their licenses in clinical social work. Graduates of the program may go on to careers in areas such as mental health therapy, clinical work, school social work and community-based work.

Students of the MSW course will find small class sizes, with professors dedicated to creating a professional working relationship. Faculty also work closely with students to ensure they find the best possible fit for their field training. The online MSW program helps prepare students to take the Licensed Graduate Social Work Exam, and the program boasts a 95% passing rate upon first attempt.

  • MSW
SCORE:  87.19 CAREER COUNSELING: Yes JOB PLACEMENT: No STATE: North Carolina

Students in the Rehabilitation Counseling Program at Winston-Salem University complete 60 credit hours over the course of the program. In classes like Vocational Placement, Medical Aspects of Disabilities in Rehabilitation Counseling and Theories and Techniques of Counseling, students can gain the skills and knowledge they need to work with people with mental, physical or emotional disabilities.

Students can choose to study one of four areas of emphasis: Rural VR, Transition, Deaf and Hard of Hearing or Vocational Evaluation. One 100-hour practicum and one 600-hour internship are required as part of the program. The internship can be completed in one or two semesters.

  • MS in Rehabilitation Counseling
SCORE:  81.14 CAREER COUNSELING: Yes JOB PLACEMENT: No STATE: Alabama

The Master of Arts (M.A.) in Marriage and Family Therapy program at Amridge University can help prepare students for careers in marriage and family therapy. Students will learn the techniques and approaches that may prepare them to offer therapeutic services to individuals or groups in settings like churches, governmental agencies or in private practice. Post program, students may also be prepared to continue in an advanced field of study.

Amridge also offers a Master of Divinity in Marriage and Family Therapy, a professional-level degree for those individuals who are looking to enter full-time ministry.

Courses can be attended both on a part or full time basis, and students at Amridge can expect to complete the required coursework in seven semesters. Students must obtain 60 graduate semester hours, 33 of which are to be done at Amridge, and will need to maintain at least a 3.0 grade point average in each course.

It is important to note that students are responsible for arranging their own practicum and clinical experience, and should prepare to make these arrangements well ahead of time.

  • MS in Human Services

An Overview of the Online Master’s in Social Work

The online master’s degree in counseling offers students the opportunity to pursue a range of specialized career training. Educational programs in social work provide a conceptual understanding of the field, along with hands-on clinical experience. Students develop skills in a variety of areas including education, client advocacy, policy development, intervention, prevention, counseling and therapy.

These online programs are designed to mirror the same curriculum and expectations of on-campus options. Social work master’s programs blend academic study with clinical internships in specialized career areas, which expose students to real-world scenarios. The clinical experience is a vital component of the master’s program, requiring students to complete either a set number of hours or multiple internships in a variety of practice areas.

The online learning experience typically takes one of two formats: synchronous (requiring real-time student attendance) or asynchronous (self-paced instruction). Most online master’s in social work programs can be completed entirely online, with internships in the student’s local area.

Given the vast number of online MSW programs available, graduate students should review a list of factors to assess the quality, suitability, and career preparation of a potential program. Here are six areas to consider before selecting a program for an online degree in social work.

CSWE Accreditation

Is the program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE)? Online programs are held to the same accreditation standards as their campus-based counterparts.

Concentrations Offered

Students should ensure that an online MSW program offers concentrations in their area of interest. For example, some departments may offer community and mental health concentrations, while others may only provide a single focus of study. Students should also review the program’s clinical concentration, if applicable.

Clinical vs. Administrative Focus

Social work offers diverse career opportunities, both in direct practice and administrative focus. Students should review the direct concentrations offered, including clinical tracks, as well as the generalist concentration, which allows graduates to pursue career opportunities with larger organizations.

Faculty Experience and Background

Graduate faculty members directly impact the quality of a program. Learning about the background, experience, licensures and certifications of faculty members helps students know what to expect from an online degree program. Students should seek programs that have a mix of academic- and experienced-based instructors.

Residency Requirements

MSW students must satisfy clinical training requirements in order to graduate. Some online programs may have residencies, which require students to attend training or intensive learning sessions on-campus.

Field Placements

The MSW requires clinical practice as a graduation requirement. Students should become familiar with the site selection process, the types of clinical skills they can develop, and how the overall field placement process works.

Social Work Practice Areas

Master’s programs in social work equip students to foster relationships and administer efficient treatment therapies in various intervention areas, such as mental health, community and education. According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), intervention areas are divided into major areas of practice. Students can pursue focused learning opportunities in both macro- and micro-based degree programs. Below is an overview of social work practice areas, with some insight into the work involved in each field.

Military

Veterans and active service members face unique challenges and issues. Social workers help military members gain access to emotional, mental, financial and social support. From providing mental health therapy to helping with military to civilian life transitions, military social workers serve an indispensable role in the field.

Clinical

A focused area of practice, clinical social work involves the assessment, diagnosis and treatment of a range of mental, emotional and behavioral disorders. Clinical social workers are trained and licensed to provide services in facilities such as primary care offices, hospitals, private practices and community health organizations.

Children, Adolescents & Families

The contemporary issues facing today’s families require a comprehensive set of services for children, adolescents and adults. Services in this practice area include primary prevention, intervention and rehabilitation within the family context. Social workers support families dealing with loss of employment, divorce, illness and other challenges.

Education

School-based social work addresses the emotional, social and environmental issues that may interfere with a student’s learning process. Functioning as a student advocate, the school social worker is tasked with identifying and addressing learning and behavioral problems through individual services, collaboration with teachers and administration, and consultation with parents and other family members.

Gerontology/Aging

The number of Americans aged 65 or older is expected to reach 70 million by 2030, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Aging and gerontology social work is an emerging and quickly growing occupation. Social workers specializing in gerontology provide a range of clinical services to older adults, including geriatric assessments, group psychotherapy, case management, crisis intervention and more.

Mental Health

Social workers in the mental health field serve as supporters, assessing and treating a range of client issues in mental health facilities, day treatment centers, outpatient clinics, community-based health centers and other environments. Mental health social workers may specialize in an area of treatment, such as adults, children and adolescents, substance abuse or elders.

Healthcare

This varied specialty deals with individuals of all ages, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and economic status. The healthcare social worker is an essential part of health services delivery, helping families deal with diagnosis of illness, loss of a loved one and other challenges.

Hospice & Palliative

Related to healthcare social work, hospice and palliative services are designed to maximize the quality of life for individuals and their families facing a terminal illness or serious disease. Part of an interdisciplinary team of physicians, nurses, clergy and counselors, social workers help to develop a care plan that may include therapy, pain management, emotional support, medical equipment access and counseling.

Community Development

Social work in community development includes the planning, development and implementation of community programs, education and advocacy, policy legislation and more. Examples of professional settings include community associations, local and state government organizations, and advocacy organizations.

Corrections and Criminal Justice

Criminal justice is a complex, integrated system that presents a variety of professional opportunities for social workers. They may provide rehabilitation and life skills development services in correctional facilities, counseling and addiction treatment services to parolees, trauma services to police departments, and more.

Concentrations in the Online Social Work Master’s Degree

Specializations within the online master’s in social work prepare students to identify, assess and treat a spectrum of personal, social, emotional and behavioral issues. Under the major areas of practice are degree concentrations that align with specific career paths, allowing graduates to provide services to a specific part of the population. Below is a list of just some of the common MSW degree concentrations available through most online master’s in social work programs.

Community Planning & Organization

In this concentration, students develop a range of skills in areas such as financial management, policy creation and analysis, and marketing. This prepares them for administrative leadership positions in local government organizations, nonprofits, advocacy groups or community service agencies.

Clinical Social Work

Students focusing in clinical practice are trained in the core competencies of social work: behavioral, family systems, cognitive behavior and psychodynamics. They learn how to assess and treat a spectrum of disorders and issues for individuals, couples and families.

Child Welfare

Students in the child welfare concentration are prepared to provide a range of services to children and their families through public and private welfare agencies. Topics of study include domestic violence, childhood trauma, family therapy systems, family meeting strategies and more.

Policy Practice

The curriculum of policy practice concentrations teaches students about the foundations of social service and welfare policies. Students learn how to define the scope of social problems, conduct needs assessments, and develop and implement social programs.

Forensics

Students examine the relationship between social, legal and clinical social services in the forensics concentration. Studying the social service principles of the legal system, students are prepared to work with individuals, families and youth in a variety of criminal justice settings.

Substance Abuse

Sometimes offered as a standalone specialization or a sub-concentration of behavioral health services, the substance abuse specialty prepares students to help diverse client populations handle a range of addiction disorders and issues.

Social Work Curriculum and Courses

The social work profession is closely aligned with degree concentrations. Coursework varies within each concentration, as schools and departments of social work may emphasize different theoretical methods or intervention models. By reviewing the courses for a particular area of study, graduate students can understand how the curriculum can position them for post-graduation licensure and career success. Below is a list of real courses from online master’s in social work programs spanning each of the major concentrations.

Human Neuropsychology

In this class, students are exposed to the fundamental concepts of common neuropsychological disorders and how they relate to the functions of the nervous system. Serving as a basic introduction to neuroscience, the class helps students understand how these disorders fit within a clinical context.

Adult Psychopathology

Through this course, students develop a conceptual framework for human behavior, studying disorders including PTSD, mood and anxiety disorders, personality disorders and more.

Adult Psychopathology

This course provides students with a framework for understanding human behavior and helping adults cope and function in the face of major challenges. Through the study of genetic, biological, social and economic factors, students gain insight into the assessment and identification of mental disorders. They will also become familiar with research literature in the field.

Family Therapy

In this course, studies focus on multiple family therapy methods and contemporary family issues. Students will develop skills in family-centered assessment, intervention, and treatment, building a proficiency that can be used in clinical settings.

Ethics of Social Work

This class provides an overview of the ethical obligations of the practice, examining broad areas such as decision-making, code of ethics, and ethical treatment processes. Students explore the challenges of practicing social work, becoming familiar with licensure requirements, legal ramifications and other professional issues.

Children and Families Social Work Policy

This class introduces and examines policies related to child welfare, such as child abuse and neglect, protective measures for maltreated children, and local, state, and federal child welfare laws. Students also gain an understanding of how child welfare systems operate, as well as the broad legal and social forces that impact the U.S. child welfare system.

Behavioral and Cognitive Treatment

Students examine the underlying conceptual and theoretical frameworks for behavioral and cognitive treatment in children and adults. While developing practical skills, students learn how to leverage therapy models to address a range of issues in clinical settings.

Social Policy of Mental Health

This course provides a comprehensive review of current mental health policy in the United States and how that it affects social work practice. Addressing mental health from various angles, students discuss service delivery trends (such as managed care), legal and ethical issues, and social work advocacy opportunities.

Social Work Foundations

In this course, students receive evidence-based instruction in the delivery of social work services to individuals, groups, families and communities. Covering various social work methods, purposes, contexts and goals, this class takes a comprehensive, holistic approach to teaching students about the practice.

History and Philosophy of Social Work and Social Welfare

This course offers an historical perspective of current issues in social welfare and social work. It examines the social, racial, political and economic forces that influence the development of the U.S. social work industry. Particular emphasis is placed on how gender and race shape social policy. Students will explore various programs, policies and issues with an eye toward improving social and economic conditions and enabling oppressed groups to have full participation.

Social Environment and Human Behavior

This course studies the relationship between the social environment and human behavior, examining the role of social interaction in a variety of settings, including families and groups. Students learn about cultural and familial traditions and how they impact individual human development.

MSW Degree: Expectations and Timeline

As an interdisciplinary program of study, the MSW attracts students from a variety of educational backgrounds. Depending on the institution, students may complete their degree entirely online without visiting campus, and may enroll as either a part-time or full-time student. Students typically must complete between 60 and 66 semester credit hours to earn a master’s in social work, translating to approximately 24 to 36 months in the degree program.

Because of its inherently specialized nature, students should develop a list of questions to ask faculty and program directors about the online master’s in social work program. For example:

  • Is each MSW program accredited?
  • What is the application process?
  • Does the MSW program offer peer mentorship?
  • How is a faculty advisor selected?
  • Can a student use their existing job as a field placement?
  • What is the minimum GPA required for admission?
  • Can a student work while attending the online MSW program?
  • How long does it take to complete the online MSW degree?
  • Which faculty members teach in the online MSW program?

As students review the benefits of each program, they should also consider the non-academic side of the university and online program. Topics to investigate include the learning management system, licensure options after graduation, career networking opportunities, and career placement assistance options. The first two steps of selecting an MSW program are 1) conducting program research and 2) submitting an application.

Step 1

Program Research

It’s worth the time and effort to develop a list of potential schools, pros and cons of each program, and cost of attendance. Students should start that process as early as possible, as there may be additional prerequisites to complete (particularly if the student does not have a bachelor’s in social work), essays to prepare and transcripts to order. Below is a list of common items students should review for each online program:

  • Available degree concentrations
  • Faculty educational background
  • Faculty professional experience in the concentration area of study
  • Total cost of attendance (tuition, fees, books, equipment, etc.)
  • Technology requirements for online learning
  • Internship and/or residency requirements
  • Total number of credit hours required to graduate
  • Deadlines for applications
  • Standardized test score requirements
  • Fees for applications
Step 2

Applying to Schools

Admission requirements vary by department and program. Before applying, students should review the individual application requirements. Graduate schools in social work may require additional documents or test scores for admission. Based on a review of online master’s in social work programs, below is a list of common requirements:

  • Application
  • Resume
  • Personal essay or statement of purpose
  • Three references
  • Interview
  • Undergraduate transcripts
  • Volunteer experience
  • Standardized scores (e.g., GRE, ACT, etc.)

Students should create a degree timeline to establish the framework from start to finish, including the application process. The below hypothetical timelines apply to degree plans for both a 24-month and 36-month online MSW program.

Year 1

Foundational Coursework

The first year of study is dedicated to choosing a field of practice and completing coursework from a generalist perspective. Students work with faculty advisors to complete a program of study form, which outlines the courses a student will take to finish the degree. Finally, students collaborate with a faculty advisor or site placement coordinator on the internship placement process, selecting a local location that aligns with their target career path.

Year 2

Concentration Coursework

The second year of study focuses on completing advanced studies in the area of concentration. During this year, students can concentrate solely on their specific field of practice. Students coordinate with their faculty advisors to choose a clinical practice opportunity that meets their professional goals, interests and location.

24-month, 60-credit Program Degree Timeline
Year 1
Course Semester Credit Hours
Introduction to Social Work Fall 2
Individual and Family Social Work Fall 5
Introduction to Group Social Work Fall 3
Foundations of Social Justice Fall 3
Internship I Fall 4
Social Work Research & Methodologies Spring 3
Social Work Policy Spring 3
Aging and Mental Health Spring 3
Internship II Spring 4
Year 2
Course Semester Credit Hours
Advanced Family Social Work Fall 5
Sociology of Aging Fall 3
Administration of Social Work Fall 3
Models of Practice with Children and Families Fall 3
Community Practice for Social Work Fall 3
Advanced Internship Spring 7
Research Project Spring 3
Capstone Project Spring 3
36-Month, 60-Credit Program Degree Timeline
Year 1
Course Semester Credits
Introduction to Social Work Fall 2
Family and Children Social Work Fall 5
Introduction to Group Social Work Fall 3
Mental Health Foundations Fall 3
Foundations of Social Justice Spring 3
Community Social Work Spring 3
Year 2
Course Semester Credits
Internship I Fall 4
Social Work Research & Methodologies Spring 3
Community Practice for Social Work Spring 3
Internship II Spring 4
Year 3
Course Semester Credits
Advanced Family Social Work Fall 5
Sociology of Aging Fall 3
Social Work Policy Fall 3
Administration of Social Work Fall 3
Advanced Internship Spring 7
Research Project Spring 3
Capstone Spring 3

The Inside Scoop: Insight from an MSW Grad

Stephen Black’s primary goal was always to become a licensed clinical social worker. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in social work, he immediately applied was accepted into an online MSW program.

Although accepted with advanced standing, Black chose to work while earning his degree and enrolled as a part-time student. During the two years it took him to complete his MSW coursework, he served as a case manager and supervisor for an agency, providing support services to families referred to Child Protective Services.

Today, as a youth clinician for LMSW, he provides individual therapy to children as well as case management services.

Black shares his advice to potential MSW students and future licensed social workers:

“If you know you eventually want your master’s degree,you should definitely do your undergraduate and graduate studies back-to-back,” he recommends.

What does he wish he would have done differently? Black says, “I wish I had worked at some type of social work agency while in school.” He explains that not only could he have taken that work experience and related it back to his studies, but it also would have been a positive addition to his resume.

Finally, Black advises MSW graduates to take the licensing exam immediately. “Take the test as soon as possible after your graduation while everything is still fresh in your mind,” he says, noting that once an individual starts a job, their work experience can affect their test answers.

Career Options for Graduates of Online Master’s in Social Work

Social work is one of the most popular graduate degrees in the U.S. In 2013, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than 23,000 students graduated with a master’s in social work. The average tuition was approximately $14,000 – making master’s programs in social work an affordable option. Prospective students should consider the potential return on their educational investment, especially when reviewing possible social work concentrations. As degree specializations are intertwined with career outcomes, the field of social work can impact future earnings.

National median salaries for social workers as an occupational group was approximately $48,000 in 2013, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The table below shows the national salary range for social workers in 2013:

Top 10 % $74,330
Median (50%) $48,370
Bottom 10% $28,040

As a complex and diverse profession, social work has a range of concentration and certification areas, with salaries varying widely. Factors that influence salary include employment sector, location, years of experience, skill sets, employer and case load. With this in mind, the National Association of Social Workers published its most recent salary guidelines in 2012. Below is their recommendation of salaries for both bachelor’s in social work (BSW) and master’s in social work (MSW) graduates, both based on years of experience:

Experience BSW MSW Difference
Less than a year $40,599 $50,753 25.0%
1 – 4 Years $45,162 $55,093 22.0%
5 – 9 Years $45,994 $61,875 34.5%
10 – 19 Years $50,716 $66,354 30.8%
20 Years or More $54,132 $69,999 29.3%

A review of occupational salary data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed that salary ranges for various social work concentration areas spanned $25,000 to $81,000 in 2013. The table below shows the median salary, as well as the bottom 10 percent and top 10 percent of earners (according to BLS occupational groups):

Occupation 10% Median 90%
Social Workers $28,040 $45,050 $74,330
Child, Family, and School Social Workers $27,420 $42,120 $72,350
Counselors, Social Workers, and Other Community and Social Service Specialists $23,790 $40,810 $72,170
Healthcare Social Workers $31,790 $50,820 $75,140
Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers $25,650 $40,970 $69,290
Social Workers, All Other $31,690 $56,510 $81,770

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, National Occupational Wage Estimates, 2013

The top-paying states for healthcare social workers in 2013 included California ($68,380), Nevada ($64,710) and Connecticut ($62,600). For child, family and school social workers, the top states were New Jersey ($62,380), Connecticut ($61,800) and Rhode Island ($60,170). For mental health and substance abuse social workers, Connecticut ($57,740), Wisconsin ($56,300) and New Hampshire ($56,100) topped the list.

Employment Projections for Careers in Social Work

Social work has a bright employment outlook as an increasingly in-demand occupational field. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 19 percent national increase in career opportunities between 2012 and 2022. Below is a table of the national employment projections by social work employment group:

Occupational Field Job Growth %
Child, Family, and School Social Workers 15%
Healthcare Social Workers 27%
Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers 23%
All Other Social Workers 9%

At the state level, Utah, Kentucky and Texas are expected to experience some of the largest employment gains for social workers. The table below shows job projections for various social work employment groups at the state level:

Occupational Field State Job Growth %
Child, Family, and School Social Workers Utah 36.9%
Kentucky 21.2%
New Mexico 21.2%
Virginia 20.3%
Kansas 19.9%
Occupational Field State Job Growth %
Healthcare Social Workers Utah 39.8%
Texas 30.8%
Kentucky 30.4%
Florida 30.1%
Colorado 28.8%
Occupational Field State Job Growth %
Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers Georgia 45.6%
Utah 35.2%
North Carolina 31.0%
Indiana 27.8%
Kentucky 26.2%

Alternative Career Options for Social Work

For students wondering about career paths outside of social work, the skills and knowledge gained in a master’s program translate well to other fields. Social workers develop experience in diverse areas such as case management, public policy, counseling and education, all of which lend themselves to alternative professions. Here is a list of three occupational fields that graduates from online programs in social work may want to consider.

  • Human Resources

    A background in social work facilitates a smooth transition into human resources. The human resources field requires a blend of various skills and abilities, including interpersonal skills, conflict resolution and high ethical standards, all of which reflect social work principles. The HR field also requires a balance between employee support and organizational needs, which social workers are well-equipped to manage.

  • Teaching

    At its core, social work is focused on making a difference in the lives of others. The educational field offers a complementary opportunity, allowing social workers to move into a caring, student-focused occupation. Skills in communications, critical thinking and decision making are helpful in the K-12 educational setting.

  • Marketing

    Understanding human behavior is a fundamental component of marketing, which means social workers are uniquely suited for this career. They can choose from various roles, such as marketing specialist or marketing research analyst, which allow social workers to leverage their broad skill set.

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