If you’re aiming to make a change in society, then it’s important to first make the right academic choices. There is much more to social work than meets the eye, and the opportunities are boundless when you pursue a social work degree.
What degree do you need to become a social worker? How long do these degrees take? What other options will you have? This article will answer these and similar questions related to the dynamic, and growing field of social work.
Social work is a profession that aims to improve the well-being and quality of life of individuals, families, groups, and communities, especially those who are marginalized, vulnerable, or simply in need of help. Social workers apply various theories, methods, and skills to address the needs of their clients, as well as to promote social change. It is a diverse and dynamic field that offers many opportunities for personal and professional growth and for making a positive difference in the world.
Social work degrees prepare students for careers in social work. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES)’ Classification of Instructional Programs (CIP) defines social work degrees as:
Programs that prepare individuals for the professional practice of social welfare administration and counseling, and that focus on the study of organized means of providing basic support services for vulnerable individuals and groups. Includes instruction in social welfare policy; case work planning; social counseling and intervention strategies; administrative procedures and regulations; and specific applications in areas such as child welfare and family services, probation, employment services, and disability counseling.
If you’re looking for a career with meaning, action, diversity, satisfaction, and a variety of options, consider social work.
Let’s look at the degrees you can pursue if you want to build a career in social work.
An associate degree in social work (ASW) is a two-year program that can equip you with a basic understanding of social work professions and prepare you for entry-level jobs or further education in the field.
Types of ASW Degrees Available
- Associate of Arts (AA) in Social Work
- Associate of Science (AS) in Social Work
Typical Duration for ASW Programs
Typical No. of Credits Required
Curriculum for ASW Programs
The curriculum for an ASW degree typically includes the following courses:
- History of Social Work
- Social Welfare Policies
- Code of Ethics and Values in Social Work
- Human Development
- Social Work Practice Methods
- Ethics in Professional Social Work
- Social Justice
- Social Policy
- Research Methods
- General education courses in English, humanities, math, and science (the latter emphasized more in AS programs)
- Introductory courses in diversity, sociology, and psychology
- Generalist social work classes focusing on working with individuals, families, groups, and communities
This curriculum will help you build basic knowledge and skills in social work, preparing you for entry-level positions and serving as a basis for further education in the field.
AA vs AS in Social Work
While searching for ASW degrees, you’ll find that most colleges and universities offer Associate of Arts programs, which include courses in humanities and social sciences. Associate of Science programs in social work are rare, though they exist.
Here’s a short breakdown of the key distinctions:
Associate of Arts (AA):
- Emphasizes a broader liberal arts education.
- Integrates social work principles with a well-rounded exploration of humanities.
- Ideal for those seeking a holistic understanding of societal dynamics.
Associate of Science (AS):
- Focuses on a more science-oriented curriculum.
- Incorporates practical skills and technical knowledge applicable to social work.
- Suited for individuals aiming for a hands-on, skill-centric approach.
The core courses for both programs are quite similar and, from an employer’s perspective, not significantly different.
Jobs You Can Get with an Associate Degree in Social Work
An associate degree in social work can qualify you for some entry-level jobs in the social work field, such as:
Social and Human Service Assistants
Social and human service assistants help individuals, families, and communities by providing support and assistance in various settings, such as nursing homes, group homes, and assisted-living facilities. Their duties often include answering telephones, providing referrals, greeting clients, and performing administrative tasks.
See BLS data for Social and Human Service Assistants
Childcare workers provide care and supervision for children in various settings, such as daycare centers, preschools, and private homes. They may also assist with activities, meals, and naps, as well as help children develop social and emotional skills.
See BLS data for Childcare Workers
Case Manager Aides
Case manager aides assist case managers with coordinating and monitoring the services and resources for clients with complex needs, such as mental health, substance abuse, or homelessness. They typically work in shelters, rehabilitation centers, or correctional facilities.
Community Outreach Workers
Community outreach workers engage with various communities to promote awareness, education, and advocacy on various social issues, such as health, safety, or human rights. They may work for organizations such as nonprofits, charities, or churches.
Note that an ASW degree does not qualify you for professional social work licensure or certification, which usually requires a bachelor of social work (BSW) or a master of social work (MSW) degree. If you want to advance your career or practice as a licensed social worker, you may need to pursue further education in social work.
While not sufficient for becoming a licensed social worker, an ASW degree can serve as a great starting point for further education and career advancement in the field.
A Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) is a four-year program that goes a step beyond what you’d learn from an associate degree, arming you with a strong working knowledge of the field of social work.
Types of BSW Degrees Available
- Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Social Work
- Bachelor of Science (BS) in Social Work
Typical Duration for BSW Programs
Typical No. of Credits Required
Curriculum for BSW Programs
The core courses for a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree typically include a combination of general education requirements and social work major requirements. Here are the common core courses found in BSW programs:
- Introduction to Social Work
- Human Behavior and Social Environment
- Social Welfare Policy and Programs
- Social Diversity
- Foundations of Scientific Inquiry with Social Systems
- Generalist Social Work Practice
- Field Experience/Practicum
These courses provide students with a solid foundation in social work practice, ethics, research, and field experience. BSW degrees are a step up from ASW programs and can prepare you to kickstart your professional journey in social work.
BA vs. BS in Social Work
The main difference between a BA and a BS in Social Work is the focus of the curriculum. A BA may have a broader liberal arts focus, while a BS may have a more science and research-oriented focus. However, the specific differences can vary by institution. As with associate degrees in this field, the differences between BA and BS programs in social work aren’t so vast.
Jobs You Can Get With a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work
Earning a bachelor’s degree in social work can open up several opportunities since graduates learn many transferable skills along with their knowledge of professional social work.
Here are some popular careers that social work majors pursue after obtaining a bachelor’s degree:
Students who pursue a BSW generally aim to be professional social workers of some form.
Social workers are professionals who work to improve the well-being of individuals, families, groups, and communities. They provide support and help to people in need, such as those experiencing poverty, abuse, addiction, and mental illness. They can be found in many settings, including public agencies, non-profits, private businesses, hospitals, schools, nursing homes, police departments, courts, prisons, and private practices.
In most states, to become a social worker, you need either a bachelor’s or a master’s degree from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE).
Becoming a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) typically requires a master’s degree in social work, plus supervised clinical experience after graduation.
Some states also require nonclinical social workers to have a license or credential.
A Bachelor of Science (BS) in Social Work typically emphasizes research methods, and more math or science courses compared to a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Social Work. Both degrees can lead to various non-clinical social work roles, such as case managers, public health social workers, community organizers, policy analysts, and program managers. However, the specific job opportunities available to graduates with a BS or BA in social work may vary by institution and state. You should carefully research the specific curriculum, concentrations, and career outcomes associated with each degree program before making a decision.
See BLS data on Social Workers
We’ve previously covered how to become a social worker, including the step-by-step process from education to licensure, FAQs, and more. Read the article for detailed information on becoming a social worker.
Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers
Mental health and substance abuse social workers are a specialized type of social workers who provide assistance to individuals and families dealing with mental health and substance abuse issues. They provide counseling, connect clients with needed resources, and help them create change in their own lives. Mental health and substance abuse social workers are currently in high demand due to the growing need for mental health services in society.
See O*NET data on Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers
Social and Community Service Managers
Social and community service managers are professionals who plan, direct, and coordinate social service programs. They work to improve the quality of life in society by managing programs that provide assistance to communities and people in need. Social and community service managers can be found in a variety of settings, including non-profits, government agencies, and private businesses.
See BLS data for Social and Community Service Managers
Recreation workers are professionals who plan, organize, and lead recreational activities for individuals and groups. They work in a variety of settings, including parks, community centers, and schools, and provide opportunities for people to engage in leisure activities that promote physical and mental well-being. Recreation workers may also work with people with disabilities or those living in poverty, to enable them to participate in recreational activities that they may not otherwise have access to.
See O*NET data for Recreation Workers
Master’s degrees in social work are designed to prepare students for advanced practice in the field of social work.
Types of Master’s Degrees Available
There are three options for students who want to pursue education in social work at the master’s level.
- Master of Social Work (MSW):
This is the most common and widely recognized degree for social work professionals. MSW programs cover both theoretical and practical aspects of social work. MSW graduates are eligible for licensure and can work in various settings, such as schools, hospitals, mental health agencies, and community organizations. They can also pursue advanced certifications or doctoral degrees in social work.
- Master of Science in Social Work (MSSW):
This is less common than the MSW but is equivalent in terms of curriculum and career opportunities. MSSW degrees may focus more on the scientific and research aspects of social work or have a specific emphasis.
- Master of Science in Social Administration (MSSA):
MSSA degree programs may focus more on the administrative and managerial aspects of social work, or have a unique approach or philosophy.
Regardless of the degree name, graduates from these programs are usually eligible for the same licensure and career options in social work.
Typical No. of Credits Required
In the field of social work, the terms ‘Master of Arts’ (MA) and ‘Master of Science’ (MS) are often used interchangeably for MSW (Master of Social Work) degrees. The specific title (MA or MS) may depend on the university and the focus of the program. The Master of Science in Social Work (MSSW), and the Master of Science in Social Administration (MSSA) are science degrees, which usually include more courses in STEM-related subjects. However, the core curriculum tends to remain the same, irrespective of degree titles.
The core courses typically include a combination of foundation courses, specialized practice courses, and field education. Here are common core courses found in most social work programs at the master’s level:
- Human Behavior and Social Environments:
These courses focus on understanding human development, behavior, and the impact of social systems on individuals and families. They often include psychological principles and theories.
- Social Welfare Policy and Services:
These courses teach students about the history and current state of social welfare policies and programs, often with a more contemporary context than you’d see in a BSW.
- Social Work Practice with Individuals and Families:
These classes cover the theories and methods of working with individuals and families in a social work context.
- Social Work Practice with Groups and Communities:
These practical courses help build skills in group dynamics, community organization, and the practice of social work at the macro level.
- Research Methods:
These courses provide students with the skills to critically evaluate research and apply evidence-based practices in social work.
- Field Education / Practicum:
Master’s programs in social work typically include a significant field education component, where students gain hands-on experience in a social work setting under the supervision of a professional social worker.
These courses provide students with a comprehensive understanding of social work practice, policy, and research, preparing them for advanced roles in the field of social work.
Typical Admission Requirements
The typical admission requirements for master’s programs in social work include:
- Completion of a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution
- Transcripts of all post-secondary academic coursework
- Professional resume / CV
- Personal statement or essay
- Letters of recommendation
- A certain minimum GPA that typically ranges from 2.5 to 3.0, on a 4.0 scale
- Relevant volunteer or work experience in social services.
Admission requirements for social work programs vary by institution. Some may require you to get certain scores on tests such as the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). Before applying, you should ensure that you’re aware of the specific admission requirements for your desired programs.
Jobs You Can Get with a Master’s Degree in Social Work
A master’s degree can prepare you for many roles in social work, and help you earn higher pay than you would with a bachelor’s degree. Here are some career options that typically require a relevant master’s in the field:
Healthcare Social Workers
Healthcare social workers provide emotional and social support to patients and their families who are dealing with medical issues. They work in healthcare settings such as hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, hospices, and rehabilitation centers. They help patients understand their diagnosis and treatment options and connect them with resources and services.
See O*NET data for Healthcare Social Workers
School and Career Counselors and Advisors
School and career counselors and advisors help students develop academic and social skills and plans for their future. They typically work in educational settings, such as schools, colleges, universities, and career centers, but may also have their own private practices. They help students choose programs, majors, and careers that match their interests, abilities, and goals. Some also provide counseling and support to help students overcome academic, personal, or social problems. Some academic advisors also conduct assessments, organize workshops, and coordinate programs to encourage students’ learning and development.
See BLS data for School and Career Counselors and Advisors
Veterans Affairs Social Workers
VA social workers assist veterans and their families, especially those dealing with physical and mental health issues. They often work in healthcare settings, such as hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, hospices, and rehabilitation centers. They help veterans understand their diagnoses and treatment options, connect them with resources and services, and advocate for their rights.
Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSWs)
After earning an MSW, many graduates aim to become Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSWs), by earning the LCSW license. A licensed clinical social worker can provide independent social work services, such as counseling and case management. The LCSW is the highest level of license for social workers with MSWs. If you want to become an independent practitioner or lead multifaceted social work teams, then you will need to earn this license, no matter which state you want to establish yourself in. Read on for more information on the LCSW and similar social work licenses.
Pursuing a doctorate in social work can provide advanced training and expand career opportunities. A doctorate in social work can open high-level professional opportunities in social work administration, policymaking, and agency leadership.
Types of Degrees Available
- Doctor of Social Work (DSW)
- Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Social Work
The duration of doctoral programs in social work varies depending on the program and your course load. A DSW degree program can take between 2-5 years to complete, while a PhD in social work can take 4-6 years to complete (not counting the duration of your master’s and bachelor’s degrees).
Typical No. of Credits Required
The number of credits required for a doctoral degree in social work will vary depending on your program and concentration. A DSW program typically requires 40-60 credits, while a PhD program usually requires 45-90 credits and independent research culminating in a dissertation.
The curriculum for both PhD and DSW programs includes advanced coursework in practical social work, research methods, policy, and field education. You may also have the opportunity to choose a concentration, letting you specialize in your area of interest within social work.
DSW vs. PhD in Social Work
A DSW program focuses on social work practice, supervision, and applied research, whereas a PhD program’s emphasis is scholarly and theoretical research. A DSW degree is ideal for those who want to extend their work as a licensed social worker, while a PhD in social work is ideal for those who want to conduct research or teach at the university level.
What Can You Do With a Doctoral Degree in Social Work?
Doctoral degrees in social work prepare you for top careers in the field, in research, academia, and private practice.
A common role DSW majors opt for is that of Postsecondary Social Work Teachers. They primarily teach courses in social work, and some may also engage in research. Their tasks include initiating and moderating classroom discussions, preparing course materials, and evaluating students’ work. Besides this, they may supervise teaching, internship, and research work, and their responsibilities often involve a combination of teaching and research.
Earning a doctoral degree in social work also prepares you for leadership roles in the field, leading areas such as policy and social justice, and truly allowing you to make a significant difference in society.
There are different types of licenses and certifications for social workers, depending on their level of education, scope of practice, and area of concentration. Some of the common licenses and certifications are:
Licensed Social Worker (LSW)
This is the entry-level license for social workers who have a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW) or a related field. It allows them to provide general social work services under the supervision of a more advanced practitioner. The LSW license is required in most states for social workers who work in public or private agencies. Note that some states may require you to have earned a master’s to be eligible for licensure.
Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW)
This is the license for social workers who have a master’s degree in social work (MSW) or a related field. It allows them to provide more advanced social work services, including assessment, diagnosis, intervention, and evaluation, under the supervision of a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) or a similar professional. The LMSW license is required in most states for social workers who work in clinical or specialized settings.
Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
This is the highest level of license for social workers who have a master’s degree in social work (MSW) or a related field, and at least two years of supervised clinical experience. It allows them to provide independent social work services, such as psychotherapy, counseling, and case management, to individuals, groups, and families. The LCSW license is required in most states for social workers who practice independently or as part of a multidisciplinary team. LCSW requirements may differ by state, so it’s best to refer to the official state website to know the specific rules for licensure in your state.
Certified Social Worker (CSW)
This is a voluntary certification for social workers who have a master’s degree in social work (MSW) or a related field, and meet the criteria of a national or international association, such as the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) or the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW). It indicates that the social worker has achieved a certain level of professional development and recognition in the field of social work. The CSW certification is not a substitute for a license, but it may enhance the social worker’s career prospects and credibility.
There are also voluntary certifications for social workers who have a master’s degree in social work (MSW) or a related field and want to demonstrate their expertise and competence in a specific area of social work. They are offered by various national or international associations, such as:
- The National Association of Social Workers (NASW)
- The International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW)
- The American Board of Clinical Social Work (ABCSW)
- The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE)
They usually require additional education, experience, and exams, and the certifications may have different names, such as Certified Clinical Alcohol, Tobacco, and Other Drugs Social Worker (C-CATODSW), Clinical Social Worker in Gerontology (CSW-G), or Diplomate in Clinical Social Work (DCSW), etc.
The Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) has a handy directory of licensing websites, including links to statutes and administrative rules across states. A valuable resource if you’re looking for specific information on licensing rules in particular states.
Professional licenses and certifications in social work can benefit aspiring social workers in many ways, such as:
- Enhancing their knowledge and skills in the field
- Increasing their credibility and reputation among clients, employers, and colleagues
- Expanding their career opportunities and income potential
- Meeting the legal and ethical requirements for social work practice
- Contributing to the advancement and recognition of the social work profession
To sum that up:
For some professions, licensure is mandatory, while a degree is enough for others. Ensure that you’re aware of the requirements for the roles you want to pursue.
Yes, online degrees in social work do exist, but they aren’t extremely common. Universities realized that many students with a passion for social work engage in volunteer work, community service, or related activities. This often made it difficult for them to complete a full-time, in-person college degree, which is why online, hybrid and part-time social work degree programs emerged.
Here are some of the main things to consider with both online and in-person degrees in social work:
Online Social Work Degrees
- Offer flexibility and convenience for students who have other responsibilities or cannot attend traditional campus-based programs.
- May be more expensive than other online programs due to the limited number of universities offering online programs in social work.
- Require students to have a fair amount of self-discipline to complete the program.
- Tend to offer broader networking opportunities, but may have fewer in-person contacts and mentorship opportunities.
In-person Social Work Degrees
- Offer face-to-face interactions with faculty members and classmates, which can be beneficial for mentorship and networking opportunities.
- Provide a more structured learning environment, with a rigid class schedule to keep students on track.
- May be more affordable than online programs, as there are more universities offering in-person programs.
- Require students to attend classes on campus, which may not be feasible for those with other responsibilities or who live far away from the campus.
The choice between online and in-person degrees in social work depends on your preferences and circumstances. Online programs offer flexibility and convenience, while in-person programs provide face-to-face interactions and a more structured learning environment. When deciding between online and in-person degrees in social work, you should research accredited programs and consider factors such as cost, location, and personal preferences. Our free college match tool can help you with the process.
Studying social work is a great path for those who are passionate about making a positive impact in society and are committed to helping people in need. It is a dynamic field with unique opportunities that can be quite fulfilling.
Here are some reasons why studying social work is worthwhile:
- Meaningful Careers
Social work offers careers filled with meaning, action, and the power to make a difference for those in need. It provides the opportunity to make a meaningful and positive impact on the well-being of individuals and communities. Very few other paths offer the same level of fulfillment as social work.
- Diverse Job Options
A degree in social work can open doors to a wide range of job opportunities, such as working with child protection, older people, in hospitals, or in criminal justice. This diversity allows individuals to pursue roles that align with their interests and passions.
- Transferable Skills
Social work education equips individuals with valuable transferable skills such as communication, problem-solving, and empathy, which are highly valued by employers in various fields.
Pursuing a degree in social work offers a diverse range of opportunities for those seeking to make a meaningful impact in the lives of others and in their communities. Whether at the associate, bachelor’s, master’s, or doctorate level, each social work degree equips students with the knowledge and skills to address social issues, promote social justice, and importantly–to make a difference.
The field of social work is expected to grow, and professionals with advanced degrees are in high demand. By completing a social work degree, you can aim for a variety of fulfilling careers, including clinical practice, administration, research, education, and policy analysis.
To make a positive impact on society, it’s important to make the right academic choices.
Yes, licensure is often required, and the specific requirements vary by state. Most states have licensing exams and additional supervised work experience criteria to ensure that social work professionals meet established standards of practice.
Start by researching accredited programs, considering your career goals and preferred specialization. Talk to current students and alumni, and explore internship opportunities to get a feel for the program’s culture and practical experiences offered. Our college match tool can also help you find the program you’re looking for.