Pursuing a master’s in social work (MSW) can open up a world of opportunities in social work, from clinical practice, community development, and non-profit management to policy analysis and advocacy.
With the growing demand for social workers, particularly in areas like substance abuse counseling, finding the right MSW online program is particularly rewarding for traditional students or individuals looking to change careers.
This comprehensive guide will help you choose a suitable online program for your needs. Keep reading to further understand different career paths and areas of specializations within social work.
For non-clinical roles, a bachelor’s in social work (BSW) degree is often not a firm requirement to pursue a master’s in social work (MSW) degree. Many MSW programs accept students from diverse undergraduate backgrounds, including fields outside of social work: PsychologySociologyAnthropologyPolitical scienceHuman behaviorResearch based statistical data analysis—valuable in evidence-based social work practice—to help interpret group social dynamicsEconomics
|Factors to Consider||MSW Online Programs||MSW In-Person Programs|
|Flexibility and Convenience||Study from anywhere, at your own pace and schedule. Accommodates work and family commitments.||Fixed class schedules, may require adjusting work or family obligations.|
|Field Placement Opportunities||Access local placements in your own community. Arrange placements based on your preferences and availability.||Local placement options with established partnerships.|
|Networking and Peer Interaction||Engage in online platforms for networking and collaboration with classmates and faculty worldwide. Gain diverse perspectives and access to a global network of social work professionals.||Immediate access to faculty and peers for in-person networking. Establish stronger bonds within a local social work community.|
|Learning Style and Engagement||Personalized self-paced learning. Review course materials as required. Accommodates various learning preferences.||Active participation in in-person discussions, projects, and exercises. Receive immediate feedback and engage face-to-face with faculty and peers.|
|Technology and Technical Skills||Develop proficiency in online platforms, enhancing digital literacy and communication skills. Prepare for technologically advanced social work practices.||Basic technology skills required. Focus on traditional teaching methods and personal interactions.|
|Cost and Financial Considerations||Potential cost savings: no commuting or relocation expenses. Better financial management and access to online resources and scholarships.||Additional expenses: commuting, relocation, potentially higher tuition fees. May require adjusting budgets and financial planning.|
|Geographic Location||No geographical constraints. Choose from a wide range of online programs regardless of your location. Study from anywhere, even remote areas.||Proximity to the institution required. Limited options based on geographical location. Access local resources and support systems.|
An MSW program online offers flexibility and convenience, allowing you to study at your own pace and access course materials from anywhere. You engage in interactive online learning through discussions, virtual classrooms, and multimedia resources.
Field education is also included, with support in securing local placements. You can access various digital resources to enhance your learning experience.
Course Offerings and Concentrations
The curriculum for an MSW online program typically consists of a combination of core courses, concentration-specific courses, and field education. The exact curriculum may vary across different universities and programs, but here is a general overview of what you can expect:
- Foundation courses provide a solid grounding in social work theory, ethics, and diversity.
- Core courses:
- Social work practice and research
- Diversity, human rights, and social justice
- Human behavior
- Social environment
- Social policy and welfare
- Policy analysis and advocacy
- Social work practice with adolescents, children, and family systems
- Human sexuality
- Medical social work
- Trauma and crisis resolution
- Field experience education: You will be placed in a local agency or organization where you will apply your knowledge and skills under the supervision of an experienced social worker.
MSW online programs often offer a range of concentrations that allow you to focus your studies on specific areas of social work practice. The availability of concentrations may vary across different MSW online programs, but here are some common specializations you may find:
- Community Practice: Promote social justice and create social change through community organizing, policy analysis, program development, and community-based research.
- Policy and Administration: Shape social policies, lead social service agencies, and advocate for systemic change through policy analysis, program evaluation, and leadership.
- Child and Family Social Work: Support children, youth, and families in various settings, addressing child development, family systems, and interventions for healthy functioning.
- Healthcare Social Work: Address the psychosocial needs of patients, coordinate care, and advocate for individuals and families in healthcare settings.
- Aging and Gerontology: Serve older adults by addressing their social, emotional, and health-related needs, including aging policies and interventions for enhanced well-being.
- School Social Work: Support students’ academic, social, and emotional development in educational settings through counseling, interventions, and collaboration.
Before diving into the search for an MSW online program, clarify your goals and interests. In social work, there are three different levels you can work on, or you can work across all of them—micro (individuals, families, and smaller groups), mezzo (communities and organizations), and macro (social systems) levels.
Consider the type of work you want to do, the population you wish to serve, and the setting you’d like to practice. To give you a way to think about how you want to serve, here are descriptions of the levels:
Micro Social Work
In micro social work, you work directly with individuals, families, or small groups to address their needs and concerns.
You provide counseling, therapy, case management, and advocacy services, helping clients navigate personal challenges and develop coping strategies. Your goal will be to enhance their well-being and promote positive change at the individual level.
Mezzo Social Work
Mezzo social work involves working with communities, groups, or organizations to address issues and bring systemic change.
You will collaborate with community groups, schools, or non-profit organizations, identifying community needs and developing programs to meet them. You may organize support groups, conduct community assessments, or advocate for policy changes that benefit specific populations or address social disparities.
Macro Social Work
In macro social work, you take a broader perspective and focus on large-scale social systems and policies.
You’ll work in government agencies, research institutions, or advocacy organizations, engaging in policy analysis, community organizing, and program development. You will aim to influence policies, laws, and social structures to promote equality, social equity, and the well-being of entire communities or populations.
There are several factors to consider when selecting the most suitable MSW online program. These factors include program cost, scheduling flexibility, course offerings, and available specializations. Remember these factors as you research various programs to ensure you find the best fit for your needs.
Ensure that a recognized accrediting body accredits your chosen MSW online program. Accreditation ensures that the program meets established quality standards and is recognized by employers and licensing boards.
The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) is the primary accrediting body for social work programs in the United States. They evaluate and accredit both campus-based and online MSW programs.
Another accrediting body is the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB). It’s responsible for licensing and regulating social work practice in the U.S. While they do not directly accredit programs, their approval is often required for graduates to become licensed social workers.
Quick note: Any institutionally accredited MSW online program operates at a certain level of quality and adheres to established standards of educational excellence. So even when you come across non-CSWE accredited programs, feel free to evaluate their curriculum and see if they’re a better fit for you.
Cost and Financial Aid
Typically, MSW online programs require around 60 credit hours of coursework. If you have a BSW, you can pursue an accredited MSW online program with a reduced curriculum—30 credit hours—also known as an advanced standing program.
Due to the added coursework, a traditional MSW online program may be more expensive than an advanced standing degree. Apply for financial aid and/or scholarships to help reduce your financial burden:
- Complete your FAFSA for this year
- Consult the financial aid office of the specific MSW online programs you are considering to learn about the available financial aid options, scholarships, and grants they offer.
- Seek external assistance to find scholarships, including:
Assess the program’s flexibility and how it aligns with your circumstances. Consider factors such as part-time or full-time options, program duration, and required campus visits or residency components.
While some online MSW programs may require the GRE as part of their admission criteria, many programs have started to waive the GRE requirement. This shift is intended to make the application process more accessible and inclusive for a broader range of students.
To determine the specific GRE requirements for the online MSW programs you are interested in, it is best to review the admission requirements and contact the admissions office of each program directly.
|Aspect||MSW Program||Master’s in Psychology Program|
|Focus and Purpose||Prepares you for a career in social work||Provides advanced knowledge in various fields of psychology|
|Scope of Practice||Work in social work settings, engage in direct client service, policy development, community organizing, and advocacy||Varies depending on specialization (clinical, counseling, research, etc.)|
|Professional Identity||Social work practitioner, emphasis on social justice||Psychology professional, emphasis on understanding human behavior and mental processes|
|Coursework||Social work theories, intervention strategies, ethics, policy analysis||Psychology theories, research methods, psychological assessment|
|Clinical Training||Emphasized in many MSW programs, prepares for counseling and therapy roles||Clinical training may be offered, but more limited compared to MSW programs|
|Career Opportunities||Social worker, counselor, policy analyst, community organizer||Research assistant, psychological services coordinator, industrial organizational psychologist|
|Licensure/Certification||MSW graduates can pursue licensure as clinical social workers||Depending on specialization, graduates may pursue licensure as psychologists or pursue specialized certifications|
With the ongoing opioid crisis and the increasing need for mental health services, the demand for substance abuse counselors is rising. An MSW online program specializing in substance abuse counseling can provide you with the knowledge, skills, and experience to make a meaningful impact in this field.
Yes, an MSW program can provide a solid foundation for substance abuse counseling. The coursework typically covers topics related to addiction, substance abuse treatment, and counseling techniques.
Additionally, MSW programs often include field placements or internships where you can gain hands-on experience working with individuals affected by substance abuse.
While an MSW online program is one path to becoming a substance abuse counselor, there are other degrees and certifications to pursue a career in substance abuse counseling. Some common options include:
- Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology or Counseling: A bachelor’s degree in psychology or counseling can provide a foundation in mental health and counseling principles. To become a substance abuse counselor, additional certification or licensure may be required, such as:
- Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor (CADC) or Substance Abuse Counselor (SAC) Certifications: These certifications are specific to substance abuse counseling and can be obtained through state or national certifying bodies. Requirements vary by jurisdiction but often involve a combination of education, supervised experience, and passing an examination. Some state-level certifications include:
- North Carolina: Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor (CADC)
- Nevada State Board: Certified Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselor (CADAC)
- New York State: Credentialed Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Counselor (CASAC)
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Projections program projects most in-demand industries for mental health and substance abuse social workers for this decade: Private elementary and secondary schoolsPsychiatric and substance abuse hospitals + residential care facilitiesLocal, state, and private educational support servicesAmbulatory healthcare servicesOffices of mental health practitionersSpeech therapists and audiologistsOutpatient care centersServices for the elderly and persons with disabilitiesCommunity food and housing, and emergency and other relief servicesCivic and social organizations
By carefully considering your goals and needs, you can use our guide to find an MSW online program that aligns with your vision for success.
Whether you want to specialize in clinical social work, community practice, policy and administration, or other concentrations, online programs are available to suit your interests.
With the flexibility of online learning, you can pursue your MSW while balancing your personal and professional responsibilities.
A: With an MSW, you can pursue careers in clinical social work, program management, policy analysis, advocacy, research, and social work administration across various settings.
A: Yes, MSW online programs offer flexibility and convenience, making them worthwhile for you to focus on work and family commitments. Ensure the program is accredited and meets your career goals.
A: Some MSW programs have waived the GRE requirement—research individual programs to determine if they require the GRE or if it has been waived.
A: Yes, MSW online programs offer financial aid options such as scholarships, grants, work-study, and student loans. Explore program-specific resources and external funding opportunities.
A: Yes, many MSW programs accept non-BSW applicants. Review specific program requirements as prerequisites or relevant experience may be considered.