Social work is a multifaceted, strengths-based helping profession that is dedicated to addressing internal and external struggles faced by society’s most vulnerable. The International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) defines social work as any practice that nurtures “social change and development for the empowerment and liberation of people.” Tracing back to 4th-century Rome, social work began under Constantine’s rule when homeless shelters, nursing homes, and orphanages were first built. In 1869, Helen Bosanquet and Octavia Hill of London established the Charity Organization Society, the profession’s first organized aid effort. In the United States, Jane Addams advanced social work during the 1880s with the Settlement House Movement for poverty relief.

Ranking: Top 10 Most Affordable Online MSW Programs

Influential social workers like Jeannette Rankin, Frances Perkins, Edith Abbott, and Grace Coyle carried on these historic initiatives to modernize CNN Money’s 71st best job. Social workers have altruistic responsibilities to fight injustices, advocate for legal rights, and crush societal barriers. Social workers function at three levels: macro for large-scale community changes, mezzo for mid-sized organization improvements, and micro for individual and family interventions. Their passionate practice helps all at-risk people, such as senior citizens, drug addicts, abused children, gays, traumatized veterans, and the mentally ill. Becoming a social worker requires a postsecondary degree and licensing to certify one’s human service skills.

What is a MSW Degree?

The Master of Social Work degree, often abbreviated to MSW, is a terminal professional program that trains advanced practitioners for leading client-centered services. Started by Simmons College in 1904, accredited MSW programs are currently offered at 242 U.S. graduate schools. On the academic ladder, the MSW is sandwiched between Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) and Doctor of Social Work (DSW) based on depth of specialized knowledge. Master’s study traditionally takes social workers two years full-time or four years part-time. Advanced Standing MSW tracks are relatively new inventions where post-BSW transfer certain courses for accelerated 12-month training.

Unlike similar human services alternatives like the M.S. in Counseling or M.S. in Psychology, the MSW degree has broader preparation for any client-empowering career. The curriculum will likely require 36-72 credits depending on previous experience. Master of Social Work training may be labeled “advanced generalist” to cover multi-level, multi-method approaches in diverse fields, but many are specialized. MSW students would select a concentration for tailoring their electives, practicum, and research with like-minded faculty. Popular MSW specializations include Child Welfare, Substance Abuse, School Social Work, Clinical Mental Health, Social Work Policy, Nonprofit Management, and Geriatrics.

Core courses, such as social welfare, human behavior, and research methods, are only part of the MSW training. Master of Social Work programs are practice-oriented, skill-building experiences that mandate 900 to 1,200 cumulative hours of fieldwork. Hours might be reduced by 400 to 600 hours for Advanced Standing MSW post-grads. Even if it’s an online MSW degree, paid or unpaid internship placements must be arranged at approved social service agencies with a clinical supervisor. Viable options include hospitals, adoption centers, drug rehabs, school districts, food pantries, criminal courts, and hospices. MSW fieldwork could even happen internationally with organizations like United Nations and Save the Children.

Considering a MSW degree can be ideal for recent graduates, career changers, and seasoned mid-career social workers called into this rewarding vocation. According to the Association of Social Work Boards, master’s study is requisite for those entering clinical practice in 50 states. Becoming a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) generally mandates being age 21 or older, having a MSW, finishing 12 clinical credits, and passing a certification exam. Some states offer Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW) or Licensed Graduate Social Worker (LGSW) titles for MSW advancement too. If earning a PhD to teach is one’s goal, a Master of Social Work also provides a competitive edge for admission.

Successfully applying to Master of Social Work programs will require fulfilling the checklist of applicant criteria. Each MSW only accepts post-graduates who’ve culminated a four-year bachelor’s degree. Course prerequisites, such as statistics, psychology, or sociology, might be enforced. Advanced Standing MSW offerings only consider Bachelor of Social Work holders from the 536 CSWE-accredited undergrad schools. Academic achievement is crucial with minimum GPAs usually set at 3.0 for “B” averages. MSW programs may have score cutoffs for the 3.5-hour, $205 Graduate Record Exam given each October, November, and February. Human services experience, moral character, communication skills, and sound judgment are other common requirements.

How to Find the Top MSW Degree Programs

Obtaining a Master of Social Work is an intensive process that takes tremendous time, effort, and often money, so picking schools wisely is pivotal. Accreditation is the most unbiased method for checking a university’s academic quality. Social workers typically need to graduate from schools accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) to fulfill licensing requirements and gain employers’ respect. MSW curriculum given this recognition will exceed candidacy benchmarks for complying to industry standards. Looking at different ranking publications can help determine which accredited MSWs are prestigious. For example, the U.S. News & World Report has ranked the top 220 social work graduate schools by peer surveys.

Searching solely for Master of Social Work online programs can ensure great flexibility. Online colleges use platforms like Blackboard and Moodle to connect MSW post-grads to content, peer discussions, and faculty support 24/7. An accredited MSW online degree must meet the same quality bar as brick-and-mortar programs. Detailed research from MIT found online study is as effective as traditional lectures. Online graduate schools with physical campuses often don’t distinguish where degrees are earned, so employers will still consider résumés fairly. Web-based programs let MSW majors keep their current employment, attend schools out-of-state, customize study schedules, foster tech prowess, and save money on commuting.

The National Center for Education Statistics reported that the average graduate school tuition was $16,435 per year in 2013. Paying for MSW training can be tricky since the Institute for College Access & Success reports that bachelor’s grads already have median debt of $29,400. Therefore, another major consideration should be prospective colleges’ affordability. In-state public universities frequently have the lowest MSW prices available for as little as $4,000 annually. Don’t forget to consider financial aid packages though because some private colleges have big endowments for reducing published tuition rates. Master’s social workers can also win external funding by way of scholarships and memorial awards.

Careers and Salaries for MSW Degree Graduates

Demand for master’s-trained social workers is booming with faster-than-average job growth of 15 percent projected by the U.S. Department of Labor. It’s expected that the number of social work jobs will jump from 682,100 in 2016 to 784,200 in 2026 for 102,100 new openings. Increased diagnosis of mental illness and addiction will drive the need for LCSWs skyward by 18 percent. Thirteen percent growth will add 42,100 child and family social work positions this decade too. Current listings on the Social Work Job Bank are numerous with Harbor Health, Safe Horizon, St. Vincent Family Center, Hawaii State Judiciary, Boston Public Schools, and many more. Here are some sample descriptions of hot MSW jobs and their average salaries, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Healthcare Social Worker – Online MSW degree graduates could get hired as healthcare social workers to help patients and families cope with the psychosocial challenges of medical conditions like Alzheimer’s or heart disease. Each case varies, but they traditionally design health-promoting interventions, explain treatment options, alleviate anxiety, assist with insurance, provide assistive technologies, influence health policy, counsel caregivers, and arrange in-home support. The average annual healthcare social work salary is $55,510, or $26.69 per hour.

School Social Worker Worker-The United States’ 98,271 K-12 public schools create MSW jobs for advanced practitioners to nurture safe, effective learning environments that cater to students’ unique needs, including autism and emotional disturbance. School social workers review teachers’ referrals, assess undesirable behaviors, customize intervention plans, monitor IEP goals, facilitate counseling, give social skills training, conduct home visits, report child abuse, and address truancy. The mean annual salary is $47,510, $22.84 per hour, in school social work.

Community Services Manager – Graduating with a Master of Social Work gives a leg’s up competition for upper-level administrative jobs supervising the delivery of outreach and advocacy programs. The 147,300 community services managers nationwide move from client-facing roles to write grant proposals, handle human resources, set policy direction, meet stakeholder objectives, evaluate initiative effectiveness, recommend strategy changes, and direct social workers. Salaries in community services management currently average $70,870 yearly, or $34.04 per hour.

Social Work Instructor – Colleges frequently hire faculty with MSW training and field experience to teach undergraduate courses for training tomorrow’s generation of justice advocates. Social work instructors in CSWE-accredited departments create syllabi, give inspiring lectures, grade assignments, test skill competency, supervise fieldwork, advise Phi Alpha Honor Society chapters, arrange service learning, mentor on career choices, and present at professional conferences. The 11,860 social work teaching jobs grant an average salary of $74,280.

Geriatric Social Worker – Seniors over 65 will outnumber young people by 2033, so opportunities are plentiful for online MSW grads to help aging Americans receive adequate social, emotional, biological, and financial support. Geriatric social workers may perform cognitive assessments, provide counseling interventions, collaborate with medical staff, refer appropriate resources, protect against elder abuse, help legislate gerontological policies, monitor client well-being, and run nursing homes. Geriatric social workers reap a mean yearly wage of $45,280, or $21.77 per hour.

According to PayScale, the median yearly MSW salary in 2018 is $45,145, which equates to $23.48 per hour. Licensed Clinical Social Workers fare slightly better with median pay of $55,661. That’s a significant improvement over the median BSW wage of $37,670. The Bureau of Labor Statistics highlights Connecticut, the District of Columbia, New Jersey, and Rhode Island as the top-paying states with average salaries of $66,410, $63,260, $61,740, and $59,660 respectively. The entry-level Master of Social Work salary is $42,988, but 10 years of experience brings median income to $52,615 and 20 years of experience rises average profit to $60,041.

Additional Resources for MSW Degrees and Related Careers

NASW Career Center: As the United States’ largest MSW organization with 120,000 members in 55 chapters, the National Association of Social Workers maintains this Career Center for job-hunting tips, résumé examples, salary guides, state licensing steps, and occupational profiles.
The New Social Worker: Founded by Linda May Grobman, MSW, in 1994, The New Social Worker is a free electronic publication where subscribers can read news articles, career tips, book reviews, practice strategies, grad school profiles, and Social Work Month project ideas.
Social Work Helper: On Android and iOS devices, Social Work Helper has an award-winning mobile app designed by Editor Deona Hooper, MSW, to keep practitioners connected to news and research findings in diverse fields from mental health to emergency management and disability.
inSocialWork Podcast Series: At the University of Buffalo’s CSWE-accredited School of Social Work, the inSocialWork Podcast Series releases free, bi-weekly episodes recorded by leading minds like Dr. Jessica Greenawalt and Dr. Allan Barsky for helpful career guidance on best practices.
Great Nonprofits: Endorsed by Bill Gates, Great Nonprofits is a premier, community-sourced online platform where post-grads can find open Master of Social Work jobs at top-rated charities from Seattle to St. Paul by social justice issue, such as AIDS, human trafficking, immigration, or oncology.
Social Work Today: Owned by Great Valley Publishing Co. in Spring City, Social Work Today is a print and digital magazine that’s packed with MSW resources like technology trends, behavioral health briefs, education guides, and ethics forums for $14.99 one-year subscriptions.
Child Welfare League of America: Led by CEO Christine James-Brown, the CWLA offers social work resources for working with youth, including advocacy articles, policy blueprints, eLearning webinars, Children’s Voice magazine, job boards, and the four-day Annual Conference.
Social Workers Speak: Launched in 2008, Social Workers Speak is a blog sponsored by the NASW Communications Network that archives articles and interviews with experts like Dr. Angelo McClain to learn about the latest professional issues portrayed by the news media.