Is a master’s degree in social work worth it?

BY Sarah Thomas-OxtobyFebruary 28, 2023, 6:29 PM
University of Idaho students on campus, as seen in January 2023 in Moscow, Idaho. (Angela Palermo—Idaho Statesman/Tribune News Service/Getty Images)

People who are drawn to social work are generally seeking a career that’s defined by a sense of purpose, rather than lofty salary projections. But with the outlook for social work positions projected to grow at a rate faster than the average for all occupations, that demand will create more career pathways—and, potentially, ones that are higher paying—for students pursuing degrees in this field.

While the outlook for social work roles as a whole is projected to grow 9% by 2031, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand is even stronger for some specific roles, including social workers who specialize in health care or in mental health and substance abuse. These job titles are expected to see job growth of 11%, BLS figures show.

Being a mental health provider or substance use provider are “very good areas for social workers to focus on right now,” Mirean Coleman, clinical director at the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), tells Fortune. “Although we’re producing a lot of social workers for mental health and substance use services, the demand is so high that we’re not able to meet that demand.”

And some of these fast-growing roles require a master’s degree in social work (MSW) to get a foot in the door. “If you want to work in nursing homes or with hospice care, a lot of times an MSW is required,” Mandy Weirich, MSW online program coordinator at West Virginia University, tells Fortune. “In some places, it’s just easier to get a promotion if you have a master’s level education.” 

Even with this backdrop of robust demand, people considering a master’s degree program in social work may understandably wonder whether the time and cost to attend a program that typically takes about two to three years to complete will be worthwhile. Here are some things to consider when weighing that decision.

A master’s in social work can expand your career horizons

Earning a master’s degree in social work increases your salary potential partly thanks to the additional experience you’ll obtain. Along with the degree, completing two years in a clinical setting and passing the licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) exam can ultimately help you earn more money in the field, Coleman says.

“For those who are licensed at the clinical level, they can go into private practice, and they can make more money in those types of settings,” she adds.

A master’s degree can also open the door to a wider variety of career options for social workers who hold only a bachelor’s degree.

“The majority of our students have already been doing this kind of work, and are looking to have the credentials to move into other spaces, or move into leadership,” Crystal Diaz-Espinoza, director of enrollment and alumni services at Baylor University, tells Fortune.

A master’s degree in social work can also help people pivot careers—and the COVID-19 pandemic inspired some people to move into this field.

“We’re seeing students switching careers. It’s not always a shift that is planned, and sometimes it’s a shift that is something they’ve always wanted to do and just didn’t get a chance to do earlier,” Christen Argueta, senior lecturer and online MSW program director at Baylor University, tells Fortune.

Similarly, the MSW program at West Virginia has attracted some new types of applicants, according to Weirich. “We get a lot of students who are typically older, so maybe this is career number two for them,” she says, adding that 2020 was “a big awakening” for people, in terms of racial injustice. “A lot of people have been moved by that to look into social work.”

Finally, shifts in other careers may be benefiting social work. “We have a big exodus of schoolteachers either looking for something different or they’ve already been doing social work, and that just means being a teacher,” Weirich notes. And earning a master’s degree allows teachers who perform many similar functions as social workers to learn the theory of social work and formally move into the occupation, she adds.

3 specialty areas in need of social workers

If you’re considering a master’s degree in social work, you should also consider your goals postgraduation. That’s because, as Coleman notes, three specialty areas are in the most dire need of social workers right now: mental health, behavioral health, and health care.

Health care is “a very good market” for social workers to be involved in, as certain health care positions—including as a clinical social worker—will require a master’s degree, Coleman says. One such role is assisting physicians who administer psychedelic therapy—a form of treatment for people who suffer from major depressive disorders. A clinical social worker monitors patients after a physician administers the psychedelic medicine.

“If you want to provide mental health treatment or substance use treatment, then you need to get the clinical license in order to perform work,” Coleman says.

And while a higher level of education often unlocks a higher level of pay, Coleman notes that a “passion” or calling is “the number one driver” for those entering the field of social work.

A master’s degree can help boost salaries for social workers

As of February 2023, the median annual salary of social workers was more than $57,000, according to Indeed. However, with more years of experience, social workers can expect to earn higher pay. Social workers on the higher end of the pay scale can break the $83,000 earnings mark, Indeed reports.

And salaries for social workers who hold a master’s degree are at least $13,000 higher than people with only a bachelor’s degree, according to the NASW.

What’s more, social workers in larger metropolitan areas may be able to even exceed the six-figure benchmark for salaries. For example, social workers in Washington, D.C., make well above the average, earning more than $109,000 annually, according to Indeed.

Still, the cost to obtain this advanced degree is a consideration for many applicants. An online master’s in social work is offered in two program tracks, and the tuition varies depending on whether you enter the program on the standard or advanced track. Applicants who already possess a bachelor’s degree in social work can enter on the advanced track, while the standard or regular track is for anyone who holds a bachelor’s degree in any other field.

The advanced track generally takes about half as long to complete as the standard track. The standard track generally takes at least two years to complete for full-time students, as compared to one year for full-time students on the advanced track.

Students on the standard track can expect to pay anywhere from just under $29,000 to $85,000, according to Fortune’s ranking of the best online master’s in social work programs. Meanwhile, students who enter the program on the advanced track can expect to pay substantially less, with the schools on Fortune’s ranking reporting tuitions ranging from just under $16,000 to $41,000.

The pandemic made social work jobs more flexible

A final consideration when thinking about whether a master’s degree is worthwhile is if the specifics of the jobs will match your expectations. The good news is there’s more flexibility for social workers now than prior to the pandemic.

The pandemic highlighted an unfulfilled need for mental health and behavioral health services, which created flexibility in a field which Coleman says was once considered a “feet on the ground” profession. The end result is there are more settings in which people can work now, she adds.

Whereas social workers were previously confined to the geographic areas where they were physically located, now they can serve more communities in a hybrid or online setting. “This makes it really convenient for social workers to select a job where you have the option of working remotely,” Coleman notes.

Finally, thanks to an expanding number of jobs and ways to work as a social worker, a master’s degree in social work has become even more valuable, according to Diaz-Espinoza of Baylor University.

“There’s so many areas that people don’t realize that when you have an MSW it really does empower you to do almost anything,” she says. “The breadth of areas that our students are in, really, it’s all over the place. I think that’s the beauty of the MSW.”

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