What career opportunities are available to someone with a master’s degree in social work?

BY Kayla SolinoFebruary 23, 2023, 4:55 PM
Job seekers visit booths during the Spring Job Fair at the Las Vegas Convention Center, as seen in April 2022. (Photo by K.M. Cannon—Las Vegas Review-Journal/Getty Images)

In the next decade, the field of social work is expected to see an average of nearly 75,000 openings each year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In addition to a growing number of job opportunities, the field is likely to draw more people partly because of its popularity among the American public. In fact, a national survey from Ipsos finds that 80% of Americans have a favorable opinion of social workers.

While social work is a suitable field for those people who are driven by a desire to help others, not every position requires a master’s of social work (MSW) degree to be successful. So what’s the benefit of pursuing an advanced degree in social work? 

A master’s in social work (MSW) degree can open the door to more specialized career opportunities in clinical and community settings. Often, degree tracks can help prospective students narrow down their interests to find their passion and ultimately connect them with the best practice of social work practice to pursue. 

Here’s what you need to know about career options with an MSW. 

Jobs you can pursue with an MSW

Many MSW programs can prepare students for either community or clinical social work with specialized electives and fieldwork.  

For example, at Baylor University’s School of Social Work, students must choose a specialization in clinical or community social work after completing the basic required courses of the MSW. The community practice curriculum, which places emphasis on community development, planning, and organizing, teaches students social work skills so they’re flexible and adaptive for working in a myriad of unique contexts. Meanwhile, the clinical social work curriculum allows students to explore paths in mental health, trauma, diagnosis, and trauma-informed care, as well as examine clinical practice with children and families.

Other programs, like the one at West Virginia University, utilize an “integrated practice” approach to their MSW courses, compiling elements of both clinical and community social work within the curriculum, says Mandy Weirich, a clinical instructor and the MSW online program coordinator at the university. 

Social workers typically practice within three different levels: micro, mezzo, and macro, Weirich tells Fortune. Micro refers to one-on-one care, mezzo to community and group work, and macro to larger-scale state or federal initiatives, including policy and law. 

“[WVU] decided that all of our students would have the skills to practice at all those different levels. Just by the nature of where they live and work, they may have to be able to do all of those things,” Weirich says. “We have some electives where they could focus on their interest, but in their core classes, they’re going to get exposed to all those different levels of practice.” 

How much can you earn as a social worker with an MSW?

Most social workers work full-time and the median annual wage for social workers in 2001 was more than $50,000, according to BLS figures. As with many other forms of continuing education, an MSW degree can provide grads with an opportunity to increase your salary, climb the ladder at a current job, or help shift to a new opportunity. 

An MSW helps equip students with further skills that are often specialized to a clinical or community setting, and often is a necessary step for gaining licenses. As a result, completing the degree can offer an edge to grads who are looking to place themselves within one of the top-earning social work job roles. In 2021, median annual wages ranged between $46,640 to $61,190 for social workers in the top industries—local government (excluding education and hospitals), ambulatory health care services, state government (excluding education and hospitals), and individual and family services. 

“One of the draws is that social work is a licensable degree,” Sarah Swords, a clinical associate professor, and assistant dean for master’s programs at the University of Texas at Austin tells Fortune. “People can get a professional license. There are very clear standards. It’s something you can transfer across states and it’s very, very attractive.”

Weirich agrees that the best thing about the field is its flexibility. “The coolest thing about social work, I think, is that it’s so versatile, you can do anything with a social work degree,” Weirich says. “You are the social worker. You’re going to take this paradigm wherever you go, and a lot of the skills are transferable to different lines of work.” 

Social workers with an MSW also have the flexibility to work with anybody, at any age.

“I do think there’s a big return on investment [from a social work degree],” Weirich says. “You leave and you’re eligible to be licensed in all 50 states, so you can go anywhere with it. You can work with any population you know, from cradle to the grave.”

Common career paths for grads with a master’s of social work

In terms of career paths for MSW holders, the options can be endless, says Crystal Diaz-Espinoza, the director of enrollment and alumni services at Baylor University’s School of Social Work. “It’s hard when you think of social work to use the word typical. As a social worker, there’s so many things that you can do.” 

Graduates from an MSW program have the option to work within niche fields or areas, follow their passion, and more easily climb the ladder at existing roles, and many students move into careers in human resources, schools, and different types of hospitals, Diaz-Espinoza adds.

Other common career paths for students may include clinical roles such as a therapist, case manager, adoption worker, or outpatient health worker as well as community social work roles such as a nonprofit administrator, executive director, program coordinator or manager, or a community liaison. Graduates can even pursue policy and law.

In fact, Swords tells Fortune that former attorneys frequent the UT Austin program. 

“We get a lot of students who are pivoting to a new career, for example, attorneys,” Sword says. “Frequently we have attorneys who come in, they could be in their 30s or 40s, but they have had it with the legal profession for a variety of reasons.”

Some people don’t even realize the reach social work can have, says Christine Argueta, a senior lecturer and MSW online program director at Baylor University.

“There isn’t an industry or an area that our students aren’t in,” Argueta tells Fortune. “I think social work is just so broad. I know students that are working in athletics. I know students are working in marketing and helping with messaging and narrative because they want to look at it through a DEI lens. There’s so many areas that people don’t realize that when you have a social work degree, it really does empower you to do almost anything.”

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