How long does it take to earn a master’s degree in social work?

BY Kayla SolinoFebruary 22, 2023, 8:17 PM
Students sit on a bench in front of the library at the University of South Carolina, as seen in August 2020 in Columbia, South Carolina. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

The number of jobs in social work is expected to grow 9% by 2031, a rate faster than average across all occupations, which is likely to draw some people from other fields. While the number of social work positions is rising, it isn’t as simple of a task to quickly make the leap into this field. That’s because a master’s degree in social work is typically a necessary step for many roles in clinics or as a supervisor—and applicants to master’s program will need to complete various requirements both in and out of class.

Master’s degree programs in social work can vary in when, where, and how students take classes, pace their program, and complete fieldwork. These differences can impact how fast or slow a student takes to finish a master’s in social work (MSW), though most programs follow a detailed plan in order to fulfill credit and fieldwork hour requirements.

A student in an MSW program can typically expect to finish in about two to three years at several online programs such as Baylor University’s School of Social Work, West Virginia University’s School of Social Work, Rutgers University’s School of Social Work, and Boise State University’s School of Social Work. That said, it may take some students up to four years to graduate, while others can complete some programs in as few as 12 to 15 months—and the differing lengths of time comes down to whether or not a student already holds a bachelor’s degree in social work and how the program is offered.

For example, West Virginia University’s online MSW program is only offered in a part-time, cohort-based structure, so there is a “linear” set course plan, says Mandy Weirich, a clinical instructor and the MSW online program coordinator at West Virginia University.

“The cohort starts in the fall, and then they go through the program together,” she explains. “They may end up in classes with other cohorts, but that whole cohort graduates at the same time. They can’t really piecemeal their degree plan.”

Advanced standing and regular standing options

One of the largest considerations in how long an MSW program takes is the type of track you qualify for based on prior academic experiences. Most schools offer regular standing track options designed for students who already hold a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university that is unrelated to social work. These tracks are sometimes offered in part-time or full-time formats, and will take longer to complete than an advanced standing option. Regular standing programs typically require 60 credit hours of coursework, compared with 30 to 45 credit hours for advanced standing programs. 

Advanced standing programs are for those students who wish to pursue an MSW but already earned a bachelor’s degree in social work. At some institutions, there is a statute of limitations tied to the date your degree was bestowed. In order to be eligible for advanced standing MSW placement at certain schools, your bachelor’s degree must have been obtained within a specific timeframe, typically within the last five to 10 years, to ensure MSW candidates learn the most up-to-date industry knowledge.

At WVU, for example, a student can be considered for advanced standing if their degree was obtained within the last eight years. At Baylor, 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.

How fieldwork affects the length of an MSW program

Every MSW program includes a fieldwork component that requires a large commitment of time from the student. Fieldwork is a necessary piece of any program in order to make the degree compliant with the Council on Social Work Education’s (CSWE) Commission on Accreditation. Certified CSWE programs prepare graduates to sit for the state licensure exams upon graduation from the program. The licensure process and requirements are different for each state. 

Fieldwork, sometimes referred to as a practicum, is similar to an internship. MSW students work for a set number of hours each week in a social work position under the supervision of a trained professional to gain real-world experience. The total number of hours required to be completed by a student 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. 

At WVU, students on track to complete a regular standing MSW degree must complete 300 hours as a part of their first fieldwork placement, the “generalist placement” and 600 hours for their second placement, or the “advanced placement.” Advanced standing students only complete one, 600-hour placement, since they previously completed at least 300 hours of fieldwork for their bachelor’s degree in social work.

“Usually, these [hours] take place over a couple of semesters with an agency, and we work with students in their home community,” Weirich tells Fortune. “Our field coordinator works with those agencies to set up the contracts, and so they do a bulk of that work for the students.”

Fieldwork placements can occur in a varying number of settings for students—which may help them find their best fit for future social work jobs.

“They could be working in a school, they could be working in a hospital. It could be that they’re in a community-based clinic or nursing home, all kinds of different settings depending on their interests,” Sarah Swords, a clinical associate professor and assistant dean for master’s programs at the University of Texas at Austin tells Fortune

Make sure an online MSW is right for you

Even with the necessary investment of time required to complete a master’s in social work, it proves to be a malleable degree. “Social work is a very, very flexible degree,” Swords notes. “There’s greater openness than ever for social workers to do a variety of things with their master’s degree.”

And while an online program can offer flexibility, particularly for people who are working or have other family obligations, it’s important for prospective students to consider the total workload of an MSW program. And don’t assume an online program will require any less of a commitment.

“For online, we really recommend students do some soul searching to think about what kind of students they are, if they’re self-motivated and disciplined to keep up with that kind of weekly rigor … are they disciplined enough to log in multiple times a week,” Weirich says. “They have to be willing to seek out those resources and kind-of learn how to be an online student.” 

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