Master's Degree in Social Work Career Options

For those interested in a career in social work, the Master of Social Work (MSW) is increasingly important in today's competitive job market. While there are still many employment opportunities for individuals with bachelor's degrees in the field, those who hold advanced degrees in social work are qualified for positions that show promise of significant growth over the next several years. Students in a master's program can develop documented expertise in specific areas such as addiction and drug abuse, marital issues, or gerontology. The following guide aims to help new and prospective master's students identify important career-related information, including information on specializations, licensure, career options, and professional development.

Benefits of a Master of Social Work Degree

If you're wondering if obtaining the MSW is worth the effort, it's important to understand the reasons why social workers pursue a master's degree. You'll also want to know more about the professional skills and personal traits that successful social workers with advanced degrees often possess and what kind of salary can be earned with an MSW.

Why Earn a Master's in Social Work Degree?

Many individuals earn a master's degree in social work so they can pursue specific careers in the field, work with their desired category of patients, and increase their employment opportunities. The master's degree helps social workers refine their skillset, and they become valuable employees at hospitals, government agencies, schools and private practices.

Almost half of the social workers in the United States in 2016, or approximately 317,600 professionals, worked with children, families and schools, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). In these scenarios, professionals with a master's degree are trained to intervene when children are in danger, find housing and services for families in need, and even help arrange adoptions.

The BLS projects that employment in child, family, and school social work will increase by 14 percent by 2026--almost twice as fast as the national average for all other occupations.

Earning a master's degree in social work could help position you for licensure as a clinical social worker or licensed clinical social worker, according to the BLS. Licensed social workers (LSW) may diagnose and treat behavioral, mental, and emotional disorders, and all states require clinical social workers to be licensed. After completing coursework, LSW candidates typically have two years of supervised clinical experience and must pass a clinical licensure exam. Whether social workers choose to pursue licensure or not, earning a master's degree affords them the opportunities to provide a high level of care for their patients and clients while working in specialized areas that satisfy their professional and personal needs.

What Skills Are Required for This Career?

Hard Skills

What are hard skills?

Hard skills are those job-specific skills that one needs to perform a job well. Students learn these skills through training and completing all necessary coursework while in a social work master's degree program.

What are some social work hard skills?

Research Skills

Social workers must be strong researchers and problem-solvers in their respective areas of the field. Researching and assessing the social, environmental, personal, and/or health-related aspects of any given scenario is essential for any social worker to provide effective care or guidance.

Continuous learning

Social workers must stay abreast on new research and practices in the field in order to make knowledgeable assessments and develop accurate treatment plans for their clients.

Technological Knowledge

According to The New Social Worker, technical skills and technical literacy are now essential for modern social workers: "The clients we serve integrate technology into their lives like the weaving of thread in a fabric . . . If we are not assessing the impact of technology on our client populations, then this is a disservice to them and our profession." This is not a new idea. As The New Social Worker points out, even back in 2005, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) and Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) addressed the undeniable impact of new digital technologies on social workers' practices by created technology-based standards of practice and code for its members. The magazine article refers to up-to-date knowledge technological advancements as an essential "cultural competency" with which all social workers need to be familiar and comfortable. Technological skills fall into the learnable hard skills category that social work students should develop while pursuing their undergraduate and graduate degrees.

Soft Skills

What are soft skills?

Soft skills are personal character traits and social skills that help you succeed in your position. For a social worker, this includes being a good listener, offering sound advice, and dealing with your personal emotions in challenging scenarios. While soft skills can be cultivated and honed while you are in training, they also include natural attributes that you develop over the course of a lifetime.

What are some social work soft skills?

The Basics

Soft skills include communication abilities, creative thinking, decision-making, management skills, and conflict resolution.

Clients and Character

Social workers need to be decisive, creative, and confident when they work with and treat clients. In a way, they assume leadership roles to assess individuals' and communities' needs and determine the best ways to intervene and improve the situation. While social workers' methods and strategies for handling these scenarios are inextricably bound to hard skills, they heavily rely on a professional's social skills and character traits to be effective in the field.

How the MSW Degree Helps in the Job Market

  • Increases Earning Potential: According to the National Association of Social Workers, professionals with a master's degree in social work earn approximately $13,000 more annually than those with only a bachelor's degree in the field.

  • Advances Skillset: A master's degree in social work takes at least two years to complete. Those who seek licensure or want jobs in clinical social work typically take an additional two years for supervised training and experience. That means you will have up to four years of additional training and education beyond a bachelor's degree. As a graduate student, you can take advantage of smaller class sizes, fewer classes on your weekly schedule and work more closely with professors and advisors than in your undergraduate career. All of these factors contribute to you further developing your craft and learning to provide the best possible care for your clients.

  • Increases Employment Opportunities: Most social work jobs beyond entry-level positions require a graduate degree. The master's degree helps you further refine your skill set and, perhaps, develop an area of expertise while making you a stronger candidate in the competitive job market.

  • Enables Earning of Transferable Skills: In a master's program, students expect to develop a wide range of skills that are applicable both inside and outside the social work field. An advanced degree in social work can help you acquire leadership, management and networking skills that are useful in other fields. If you finish a master's in social work and then find yourself interested in other fields, you may still have a versatile degree with transferable skills.

  • Helps with the Development of a Specialization: The master's program allows you to dig deeper into a topic or area of the field that you love. When you get to choose a specialization, you are more likely to enjoy your work and be better at your job. It's a win-win situation for you and your clients.

Learn More About Master's Degrees in Social Work

Master of Social Work Career Paths & Salary Potential

The seven careers listed below are some of the most popular positions in the field. We offer a detailed description of what these professionals do in their given area of expertise. Additionally, we consider salary statistics from a few credible sources to give you a strong idea of one's salary potential in these areas. It's also important to note that most of these careers have some overlap. Most of them require similar education and licensing.

10 Ways to Prepare for Your Social Work Career

Whether you are still in school or a new graduate, there are some concrete, valuable actions you can take to further prepare for your career as a social worker.

  1. Network: Take advantage of networking sites such as LinkedIn and seek out professionals in the field. Many young professionals gain valuable advice and even make value contacts by reaching out to professional in their field.

  2. Trust Your Faculty Members: For those who are about to enter or are still in school, be sure to take advantage of your teachers. They are experts in their respective areas and can offer advice on how to prepare for professional life after school.

  3. Join a Professional Organization: Many organizations offer unique and worthwhile opportunities for students and young professionals. You should be as active in these organizations as your schedule allows.

  4. Get Specialty Credentials: Consider earning a specialty credential offered by the the National Association of Social Workers. This distinction could mean the difference between landing a job or not and have the potential to increase your earning potential.

  5. Make the Most of Your Training: Be prepared to go the extra mile while in your practicum placements or internship experiences. The more you put into these experiences, the more you learn from them.

  6. Plan Ahead: It is okay to start a job search before you graduate or complete your credentials. Searching for a job often takes more time than we realize. If you can target an area of the field, go ahead and start looking.

  7. Be Open to New Ideas: Many of us enter school thinking we have to follow some predetermined plan to land straight in our dream job. You may find a more rewarding path into a career by taking chances, researching new topics, trying new classes and meeting people as you progress.

  8. Know About Licensure: If you are planning on seeking licensure, make sure you know the state's requirements where you intend to work.

  9. Volunteer: Many facilities and organizations that employ social workers also need volunteers throughout the year. This is a great way to meet important people, get an insider's look at a facility and get some hands-on experience.

  10. Write and Get Published: If there is a research component to your dream job, it is a good idea to write publishable materials at any point in your professional career. While it may be important to land a publication in the flagship academic journal, even publishing well-written and informed material online or in popular publications is useful for your resume.

Expert Q&A

Advice From a Psychiatric Social Worker

Rebecca Newman, MSW, LCSW

Rebecca Newman, MSW, LCSW is a Psychiatric Social Worker at Thomas Jefferson University Physicians Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, where she provides individual psychotherapy in Philadelphia, PA. She earned a BA from Oberlin College and an MSW from the University of Pennsylvania, where she received the John Hope Franklin Award for Combating American Racism. She specializes in working with eating disorders, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, grief and loss, LGBTQIA+ topics, trauma and adjustment to life changes.

What is some advice you give to current students or recent MSW graduates about entering or preparing for the job market?

Begin conversations with mentors, faculty, or field placement supervisors regarding job opportunities that might be a good fit for you around the start of your last semester. They may be able to offer you an opportunity at their agency, or have colleagues elsewhere who can pull your application to a director's attention, instead of applying incessantly into the ether online. If you plan to relocate to another area after graduation, start those conversations even earlier, ideally before the last year of your program. Take advantage of networking opportunities in your destination city, as well as asking your mentors about colleagues they have in that area who might connect you. Your last semester is a good time to start attending professional development seminars and trainings to begin growing your own regional network and help set your expectations about continuing education.

What is a new technology (software, device, tool, etc.) that has proven useful in your career since you graduated in 2012?

A useful technology tool is to set up a unique email address and Google Voice phone number that is for professional use. You may work in a setting where you need to be in active communication with your clients (mobile therapy, case management, even working in a group psychotherapy practice), and if your agency doesn't provide a work cell phone, you can use these tools as a way to distinguish your work communication from personal to maintain boundaries.

What is one thing you wish you knew when you applied for your first social work job after graduation?

Stay patient! Early jobs in the field can be challenging, and ultimately, they are where you will learn the most and help you become a better social worker or clinician. Try to not get discouraged if you don't get a glossy job right out of school (even if others in your cohort do), and make the best choices for you as you go. After several years in the field, I landed my dream job when a former director cold called me while I was working contently at another organization about a single available position in an affiliated division. While there were dozens of social workers that passed through his agency over the years, he said that I took my previous position seriously and worked diligently, and others saw it as a stepping stone towards clinical licensure or another opportunity.

How do you keep up with news and research in the field?

Attending conferences in an area of particular interest is a great way to meet other professionals and learn about what is current in your area. Joining the National Association of Social Workers is a useful way to remain connected on a national level, and there may also be a regional social work association (often for a niche interest, like Clinical Social Workers) to stay up-to-date on issues facing your particular community, build your local network for referrals, and develop strong professional relationships.

Resources for MSW Majors

  • Association of VA Social Workers (AVASW): This association, which boasts a membership of more than 12,000, supports healthcare services and caretakers for Veterans and their families. The group also works to increase the recruitment and recognition of social workers who advocate for veterans.

  • Canadian Association of Social Workers (CASW): The association promotes social work as a profession and advances social justice in Canada. Members have access to a group insurance plan including professional liability, national representation on coalitions lobbying to the Parliament of Canada, legal advice and a job board.

  • Clinical Social Work Association (CSWA): This is the largest organization of mental health clinicians who work with children, teens, adults, couples and families. Members receive access to up-to-date clinical information, free legal consulting, jobs boards and more.

  • International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW): This 126-country organization promotes social work to achieve social development, advocate for social justice and provide an online space for professionals in the field to connect.

  • National Association of Black Social Workers: This association is dedicated to serving people of African ancestry through social work research, human services delivery and advocacy. They support professionals and social work students by offering scholarships, conferences and networking opportunities.

  • National Association of Puerto Rican Hispanic Social Workers (NAPRHSW): This group supports students, social workers and other human services professions who are committed to working for the betterment of Puerto Rican/Hispanic communities. The association offers a job board, networking opportunities and scholarships.

  • National Association of Social Workers (NASW): This is the largest membership organization of social workers. It serves as a networking organization where professionals can pool resources, find jobs and stay current on research in the field.

  • The Network for Social Work Management: This organization offers its members training, resources and networking opportunities for managers in social work careers. Members come from a variety of backgrounds, including those in the public and private sectors, nonprofit and for-profit organizations, schools, consulting firms and other types of agencies.

  • School Social Work Association of America: This organization empowers school social workers and strives to enhance the social and emotional growth of all students. Members participate in national research projects and take advantage of the association's networking opportunities.

  • Society for Social Work and Research (SSWR): This group works collaboratively with other organizations to promote the advancement of social work research. The society has 1,800 members and represents more than 200 universities and institutions.