What Is a Master of Social Work?

Social worker helping man in wheelchair


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The master of social work (MSW) degree is a professional degree that enables the holder to practice social work independently after completing a specified number of hours of supervised practice and obtaining certification.

Typically the MSW requires two years of full-time study, including a minimum of 900 hours of supervised practice and can only be completed after graduating an undergraduate program, preferably with a degree in a related field.

The primary difference between MSW and Bachelor's of Social Work programs is that the MSW focuses more on the big picture and small detail elements of professional social work as opposed to the BSW's attention to direct social work practices in hospitals and community organizations. 

Professional Application of MSW Degrees

A recipient of a Master of Social Work degree is fully ready to enter the professional world, especially in fields that require more attention the micro- or macro- aspects of social work, though not all jobs require more than a bachelor's degree. 

In any case, jobs in the field of social work in the United States do require a degree from a college or university accredited by the Council on Social Work Education, and anyone who wishes to provide therapy must have at least an MSW. Unlicensed providers can hang a shingle and provide “psychotherapy” without breaking any laws in many states (if not all); but in some states, like MA, the term “Mental Health Counseling” is regulated.

Standards of registration and certification vary by state, though, so it is important as a student in an MSW to make sure you complete all applicable processes for licensing, registering, and certifying for social work within the state you hope to work.

Income of MSW Degree Recipients

Due in part to the volatile capital of Nonprofit Organizations (NPOs) that provide a majority of career options in social work, the income of professionals in the field greatly varies by employer. Still, an MSW recipient, as opposed to a BSW recipient, could expect anywhere between a $10,000 to $20,000 increase in salary after earning their degree.

Income also largely depends on the specialization of the MSW degree a graduate receives, with Medical and Public Health Social Work specialized employees topping the chart with an expected annual salary of upwards of $70,000. Psychiatric and Hospital Social Work specialists can expect to earn between $50,000 to $65,000 a year with their MSW degrees.

Advanced Social Work Degrees

For social workers hoping to pursue an administrative career in the nonprofit sector, applying to a Doctorate of Social Work (DSW) to earn their Ph.D. might be required to assume higher-level jobs in the profession.

This degree requires an additional two to four years of university study, completing a dissertation in the field, and additional hours of internship. Professionals who want to further their careers in a more academic and research-oriented direction of social work might pursue this type of degree in the field.

Otherwise, the MSW degree is more than sufficient to pursue a fulfilling career in social work, so the only thing left to do after earning your degree is taking the first steps toward your professional career as a social worker!

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Kuther, Tara, Ph.D. "What Is a Master of Social Work?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/master-of-social-work-degree-msw-1685907. Kuther, Tara, Ph.D. (2020, August 27). What Is a Master of Social Work? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/master-of-social-work-degree-msw-1685907 Kuther, Tara, Ph.D. "What Is a Master of Social Work?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/master-of-social-work-degree-msw-1685907 (accessed March 23, 2023).