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Masters in Social Work (M.S.W.) programs are designed to prepare students for advanced, professional practice in the field of social work. Programs prepare students to work with vulnerable populations, acquaint them with the values and ethics of the social work profession, and give them a broad understanding of the dynamics of human behavior within the larger social environment. At the same time, M.S.W. programs aim to educate students on current social, economic and political forces, teach them about social programs and policies, and train them to design and implement research that will contribute to the profession.

Master’s degree programs in Social Work programs vary widely in scope and specialty. Some programs focus on methodology and public policy, while others are more clinically focused, preparing professionals for a direct practice in psychotherapy. Still others provide students with the background they need for a career in public and non-profit social service agencies, or for social planning and social change. When you are choosing a program, it is important to consider where you can get training that is in line with your larger career goals. Upon entering some program, students are required choose a specialty, such as mental health, employee assistance, aging, health care, corrections, and child welfare.

Accredited M.S.W. programs require at least 900 hours of fieldwork and typically take two years to complete. In the first year, students take foundational courses in human growth and development, social policy, methods of practice, and social research. The second year allows for elective coursework in a student’s area of interest. Most programs have their students working in a field assignment during the first year.

A doctoral level program in Social Work will result in either a Ph.D. or D.S.W. and is typically pursued by individuals interested in working in academia or in a leadership role in a private practice or agency setting.

Degree Information

A Master in Social Work (M.S.W.) is the most common graduate degree. The standard program is two years in duration, although advanced standing programs exist for students who hold a Bachelor’s degree in Social Work (B.S.W.) as well as for individuals currently working in a social work setting. Extended programs are also sometimes available for students who want or need to attend school on a part-time basis. Doctoral programs typically extend at least two years beyond a master’s program. In addition, joint degree programs are sometimes available, most commonly with schools of public health, public policy, and law.

Questions to Ask Yourself When Choosing a Degree Program

  • What is the philosophy or focus of the Social Work program? Is it clinically-oriented? Is it compatible with my career goals?
  • What kind of jobs do recent graduates of this school get?
  • How does the school combine theory and practice?
  • How flexible is the curriculum?
  • Are joint degree programs available?
  • Where is the program located? What types of populations/problems will I be exposed to?
  • Is the school well integrated into the surrounding community?
  • What types of field work settings are students placed into?
  • Is part-time study available?

Career Overview

Social workers collaborate with other human services professionals to look for solutions to the complex problems of modern society. Whereas a bachelor's degree in Social Work generally prepares students for a professional career in entry-level, generalist social work, the M.S.W. and D.S.W./Ph.D. programs prepare students for careers in research and teaching, policy development, direct clinical practice, and administrative positions in the field of social welfare.

Social workers possessing an M.S.W. can be found in a wide range of professional environments. For example, some provide support in psychiatric hospitals or offer family counseling services at community centers. Other social workers help people work through personal or community emergencies, such as dealing with loss or organizing disaster assistance programs. Others are employed in schools, where they help children, parents, and teachers, while others work in social service agencies, connecting people with support services, such as income assistance, housing, and job training.

Social workers also work as counselors for addictive or physical disorders or counsel people with personal, family, professional, or financial problems. Some social workers work in the courts and correction facilities, counseling people in the criminal justice system. There are even some social workers in private practice, offering clinical or counseling services for clients with mental and emotional problems. Social workers in private practice must be licensed as Clinical Social Workers (C.S.W.).

Career/Licensing Requirements

Social workers are licensed after completing a B.S.W./M.S.W. from a Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) accredited program and passing their state's Association of Social Work Boards exam.

Salary Information

The average starting salary is between $40,000 and $50,000, but this will vary according to type of position held.

Related Links

Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB)
The ASWB is a professional association that regulates social work, and develops and maintains the social work licensing exam. Its website includes links to individual state boards.

National Association of Social Workers (NASW)
NASW is the national organization of professional social workers.

Council on Social Work Education
The Council on Social Work Education is the agency that accredits all academic programs in social work.

American Board of Examiners in Clinical Social Work
The American Board of Examiners in Clinical Social Work sets national practice standards, issues an advanced-practice credential, and publishes reference information about its board-certified clinicians.


  • Social Work Theory

  • Basic Social Work Research

  • Clinical Care Of Children

  • Ethnocultural Issues

  • Foundation Field Instruction

  • Gerontological Social Work

  • Human Behavior In The Social Environment

  • Human Sexuality

  • Management, Community Organization, And Policy Practice

  • Mediation

  • Organizational, Community, And Societal

  • Psychotherapy

  • Social Welfare Programs And Policies

  • Social Work Methods

  • Structures And Processes