4 things to know about a master’s degree in social work

BY Kayla SolinoMay 26, 2023, 2:54 PM
Graduates during the commencement ceremony for California State University Northridge, as seen in May 2023. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht—MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News/Getty Images)

A career in social work is not likely to help you gain a six-figure salary, but it’s a rewarding and in-demand field that touches many facets of everyday life. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, social workers have become heavily sought after as individuals, communities, and the government have realized the importance of adopting mental health and support services. 

Jobs in social work are expected to grow 9% by 2031, a rate faster than the average across all occupations, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Though the number of social work jobs is rising, it’s not easy to simply jump into this field. That’s because a master’s degree in social work (MSW) is often required for many roles in clinics or as a supervisor—and applicants to master’s programs must complete various requirements both inside and outside of class.

The master’s degree is the universal standard for advanced social work practice says Yvonne Chase, president-elect of the board of directors for the National Association of Social Workers. She’s also an associate professor at the University of Alaska-Anchorage.

“The MSW does open the doors to many other things—you can go into private practice, you can work in the government systems,” Chase tells Fortune. “It’s the MSW that you actually need to move forward and that gives you the flexibility to move into all these various specialty areas.” 

Before pursuing this advanced degree, however, you’ll need to find a program that best fits your lifestyle. Fortune’s directory of online MSW programs can help narrow your search because we’ve compiled a variety of information—including details about the programs, required credit hours, fieldwork components, and cost. That said, there are some additional things to consider about this master’s degree. Here’s what you need to know. 

Your bachelor’s degree matters…somewhat 

While anyone can pursue a master’s degree in social work, you must have at least a bachelor’s degree from any accredited college or university. You don’t need a bachelor’s in social work (BSW) to enroll in traditional or regular standing MSW programs, but if you have a BSW, you may be eligible for advanced-standing MSW programs. Advanced standing programs often shorten the total time it takes to complete an MSW degree since it usually requires fewer hours of fieldwork and credit hours. 

Regular standing MSW programs typically require at least 60 credit hours of coursework and take on average of two to three years to complete versus the 12 to 15 months for advanced standing programs. Advanced standing eligibility and program details can differ by institution, so be sure to read up on any prospective program you may be interested in. 

To be eligible for advanced standing MSW placement at certain schools, your BSW degree is subject to a statute of limitations. That means you must have obtained this degree within a specific timeframe—typically within the last five to 10 years, to ensure that as an MSW candidate you will learn the most up-to-date industry knowledge.

For example, at West Virginia University, a student can be considered for advanced standing if their degree was obtained within the last eight years. At Baylor University, that timeframe is within the last five years. Other programs have no limitations, like the University of Alabama’s one-year, full-time advanced standing track.

Fieldwork is required 

Fieldwork is a large time commitment for students, but it’s often a necessary component of MSW programs to ensure the degrees are compliant with the Council on Social Work Education’s (CSWE) Commission on Accreditation

Fieldwork, sometimes referred to as a practicum, is similar to an internship. Students work for a set number of hours each week in a social work role under the supervision of a certified professional to gain real-world experience. The total number of hours required will vary by degree track and program, but the CSWE mandates a minimum of 900 hours of fieldwork be completed within a certified MSW program. Advanced standing students can use hours earned during their BSW to count toward this 900 hour requirement. 

The required fieldwork hours often take place over several semesters, Mandy Weirich, a clinical instructor and the MSW online program coordinator at West Virginia University, previously told Fortune. At WVU, a field coordinator works with individual agencies to help set up fieldwork contracts for students.

Some programs have specific limitations on where the fieldwork can be completed, while other programs, such as Baylor University’s online MSW, allow fieldwork to be completed anywhere. Fieldwork placements allow students to gain experience in the field in varying roles—and can also help further define a student’s desired career focus. 

“Your field of placement gives you an opportunity to work in the field under supervision in a way that you can ask questions and not feel like this is going to be your performance review in a job, but really learn if it is the right place for you,” Chase says. “It helps you define what area that you would like to work in and help you to identify the areas you don’t want to work in.” 

Consider specializations or concentrations

While many people pursue a master’s degree to become qualified for more specialized roles in social work, receive higher pay, or get licensure, MSW programs often present candidates with a chance to explore specialized roles. Not every program offers specializations or concentrations, but common program specialty areas include clinical, community, family, children, trauma-informed care, or rural and indigenous social work. 

Just as fieldwork allows you to find their career interests, a master’s degree program in social provides more opportunities to explore your passions and build upon skills you learned in your undergraduate program, Chase tells Fortune. 

“An MSW is an extension and intensification of your BSW,” Chase says. “So as a bachelor’s student, you end up with many of the same basics, obviously that you would have in a master’s program, and the master’s program extends and expands upon those.”

Licensure requirements vary

Most certified CSWE programs prepare graduates to sit for the state licensure exams. The licensure process and requirements are different for each state and are determined by each state’s licensing board or agency. For this reason, it’s a good idea to evaluate where you plan to attend school and that state’s policies, especially if you live in a different state. 

In certain states, you don’t need a license to practice as a social worker in a more limited capacity, though you may experience restrictions on your areas of practice and you may not be able to identify yourself as a social worker. Other states require licensure for any working professional, clinical or not. 

Anyone looking to obtain licensure must take one of the five nationally administered licensing tests, dependent upon your background. The most commonly used social work licensure exam is the one provided by the Association of Social Work Boards.

Check out all of Fortune’s rankings of degree programs, and learn more about specific career paths.