Social Work Graduate Programs and Degrees

Graduate social work programs are designed to meet the needs of students seeking an advanced degree in social work or to become fully licensed social workers (LMSWs) and clinical practitioners.

They may provide a comprehensive overview of social work theory and methods, as well as allow for a focus on a specific population, issue or type of work. Example specializations include community practice, trauma, addiction, aging and children and families.

What can you do with a masters in social work?

What Are Social Work Graduate Programs?

Graduate programs in social work offer continued education for students who have earned a bachelors degree and wish to expand their understanding of human behavior, social policy, social justice and clinical practice. They are typically offered at three different levels and include Master of Social Work (MSW), Doctor of Social Work (DSW) or PhD in social work, and Social Work Certificate programs.

Most graduate social work programs take a practical approach to subject matter and may integrate practicums or other forms of hands on study. However research focused programs, typically in the form of PhD social work programs, may be available.

What Is a Social Worker? Exploring Postgraduate Optionsi

Considered a helping profession, social workers assist or advocate on behalf of individuals or communities. They help people solve and cope with problems in their lives.

Clinical social workers also diagnose and treat mental, behavioral, and emotional issues. They may work in mental health clinics, schools, child welfare and human service agencies, hospitals, community development corporations, and private practices.

Within this broad category, there are several kinds of social workers, with different job descriptions. Each role may therefore have slightly different educational and/or licensing requirements.

A Bachelor of Social Work, earned at a school approved by the Council on

Social Work, is usually the minimum educational requirement for initiating a career as a social worker. Social workers at this level of education may be assistants, case workers or in direct-service position, but they are not diagnosticians.

Clinical positions require a masters in social work degree and additional licensure.

Why Attend a Graduate Social Work Program?

If you aspire to a specialist or advanced practice social worker role such as licensed clinical social worker (LCSWs), wish to work in private practice, or aim for leadership and management roles, earning a graduate social work degree may be an important next step - and a timely one.

Demand is rising for healthcare and social services which is likely to generate faster than average employment growth. This is especially true for clinical social workers, who hold a masters degree in social work (MSW) and licensure.i

Per the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), social workers, regardless of their career stage, are ethically responsible to stay informed of current research, theory, and techniques.ii Beyond professional development and the addition of credentials, social work graduate programs may enable social workers to follow a variety of potential career paths and possibly earn better salaries.iii

Per the BLS, social workers with an MSW degree earned 25% higher wages than individuals with a Bachelors in Social Work (BSW) degree as recently as 2013.iv

Fact: 24,576 MSW, 363 Research Doctorate, and 6 Professional Doctorate Social Work degrees were awarded in 2014.v

Graduate Programs in Social Work: A Potential Path to Licensure

Social work graduate programs may appeal to career changers – students whose undergraduate degree is in a related field such as human services or counseling psychology, as well as to BSW graduates seeking to comply with state licensure. States may require that social workers obtain a masters degree in social work or a relevant doctoral degree before applying for advanced social work licensure.i

Licensure requirements vary by state and typically fall into four categories. Below are some guidelines to help you determine which graduate social work program might match your goals.

  • Initial licensure: Licensed Baccalaureate Social Workers (LBSW) hold a bachelors degree.
  • Master licensure: Licensed Master Social Workers (LMSW) must hold an MSW degree.
  • Clinical licensure: Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSW) must hold an MSW and have supervised clinical experience.
  • Advanced Generalist: Licensed Advanced Generalist Social works mush hold a MSW and have post graduate supervised experience.viii

Licensure at each of these levels also typically requires applicants to pass a standardized exam. However, this is just a general outline. Licensing requirements vary by state and position. It's best to contact your state's board to learn more.

Types of Social Work Programs

Social Work Graduate Programs are available as Masters in Social Work (MSW Programs), Doctorate of Social Work (DSW Programs), P.h.D. in Social Work Programs, and graduate certificates. Each may be ideally suited to different levels of experience and goals.

Master Programs in Social Work

The Master of Social Work (MSW) degree is a professional degree in social work and the miminum education for many advanced forms of licensure. As such, all MSW programs include coursework, as well as a supervised practicum.

Prospective MSW students are not always required to hold a bachelor's degree in social work. However, it is recommended to have taken courses in psychology, sociology, economics, and political science. Average time to completion is two years for students with no previous social worker degree, and one year for advanced standing students who have completed a BSW program. Note that program lengths vary.

Types of Masters In Social Work Programs

Social work masters programs can typically be divided into two general categories: Clinical or Community Practice.

  • Clinical MSW programs prepare graduates to work directly with clients and develop clinical assessments, interventions and evaluations.
  • Community Practice or Macro MSW programs focus more on policy, advocacy, community organizing and human services management.

Within each of these categories, individual masters in social work programs may have different areas of focus. Often MSW students choose a specializaion, either a type of population, like children, or an issue, such as addiction or trauma.

The differences between each program may be limited or vast, depending on the social work school and program curriculum. Some programs take a more generalist approach and have a large core curriculum. Others may be more specifically tailored from the start. Therefore it's best to contact preferred MSW programs directly and read course lists.

Doctor of Social Work - DSW Programs

At the doctorate level, students who have earned their Masters in Social Work might pursue either a Doctor of Social Work (DSW) or a PhD in Social Work degree. These social work graduate programs offer the highest level of education in social work and may appeal to experienced professionals interested in social welfare policy or sociological research.

Earning a doctorate degree does not lead to advanced licensure, however, it may open the door to potential careers in research, academia or higher-level administrative

The DSW is a professional degree and therefore focuses on the application of research and work in the field. A PhD in Social Work is an academic degree and may be more theoretical in nature.

In either program, most students must successfully complete coursework, pass comprehensive exams, and write and defend a dissertation. It might take a full time student about three to six years to earn a doctorate degree in social work, although time to completion varies.

Social Work Graduate Certificates

Graduate Certificates in Social Work may be a great choice for students who want to deepen their knowledge and skill sets to work with specific populations. Typically shorter in duration than a full social work program, students might learn very targeted skills (e.g. trauma, addictions) in around one year. Program length varies.

Sometimes credits earned in a certificate program may be applied to a later MSW program. This varies by school, so it's best to talk to an advisor before enrolling.

Could I Earn an Online Degree in Social Work?

Graduate programs in social work may be offered online or on campus, with options that might encompass full-time and part-time programs. Use our on-page navigation to search for ‘online’, ‘campus’ or ‘hybrid’ graduate social worker degree programs. Alternatively, use our location setting to find graduate schools for social work by city, state or country.

  • Online Social Work Graduate Programs: Either fully online or with campus requirements. Study in the virtual classroom from a remote location. Online programs may allow you to pursue your education without compromising your lifestyle.
  • Hybrid Social Work Graduate Programs: Distance learning combination of online and on campus courses for both interaction and scheduling flexibility.
  • Campus Social Work Graduate Programs: Traditional face-to-face in person learning offered at social work schools in different locations. This may provide additional hands on study, as well as access to student resources and other campus facilities.

CSWE Accredited Social Work Graduate Programs

The Council on Social Work Education is the accrediting agency recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation as the sole accrediting agency for social work education. Their mission is to ensure and enhance “the quality of social work education for a professional practice that promotes individual, family, and community well-being, and social and economic justice”.vii

Graduation from an accredited graduate social work program may be required for licensure. Therefore, you may want to contact graduate social work schools directly to learn if they qualify.

Find Graduate Social Work Programs

Graduate programs in social work could help you define yourself as a social worker and jumpstart your career. Whether you choose to study full time or part time, in a traditional or virtual classroom, consider different options to land on a program that aligns with your interests and goals!

See sponsored listings for MSW, DSW, PhD and Certificates in Social Work here. Or use the menu to filter your options by level, location and format. When you're ready, click the link to request information on admissions, requirements and curriculum.

Finding a graduate social work program could be fast and simple. And the next enrollment may be soon. Start now!

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