Should I Seek the MSW, PhD or DSW for a Career in Social Work?

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Unlike many fields, social work has several graduate degree options. Many applicants considering careers in social work wonder which degree is right for them. 

MSW Careers

While bachelor's degree holders in social work are employed in social work settings and work alongside social workers in many therapeutic roles, they must be supervised by MSW-level supervisors.  In this sense, the MSW is the standard entry requirement for most social work positions.

Advancement to supervisor, program manager, assistant director, or executive director of a social service agency or department requires a graduate degree, at minimum an MSW, and experience. With an MSW a social worker may engage research, advocacy, and consulting. Social workers who go into private practice require, at a minimum, an MSW, supervised work experience, and state certification.

MSW Programs

Master’s degree programs in social work prepare graduates for work in a specialized field, such as with children and families, adolescents, or the elderly. MSW students learn how to perform clinical assessments, supervise others, and manage large caseloads. Master’s programs generally require 2 years of study and include a minimum of 900 hours of supervised field instruction or internship. A part-time program may take 4 years. Seek programs that are accredited by the Council on Social Work Education to ensure that the graduate program you choose will provide an appropriate education and meet state requirements for licensure and certification.

The Council on Social Work Education accredits over 180 master’s programs.

Doctoral Social Work Programs

Social work applicants have two choices of doctoral degrees: the DSW and the Ph.D. A doctorate in social work (DSW) prepares graduates for the most advanced jobs, such as administration, supervision, and staff training positions.

Generally speaking, the DSW is an applied degree in the sense that it prepares DSW holders for roles in practice settings as administrators, trainers, and evaluators. The Ph.D. in social work is a research degree. In other words, similar to the PsyD and  Ph.D. (degrees in psychology), the DSW and Ph.D. differ with regard to an emphasis on practice vs research. The DSW emphasizes training in practice, so graduates become expert practitioners, whereas the Ph.D. emphasizes research, training graduates for careers in research and teaching. College and university teaching positions and most research appointments generally require a Ph.D. and sometimes a DSW degree.

Licensure and Certification

All States and the District of Columbia have licensing, certification, or registration requirements regarding social work practice and the use of professional titles. Although standards for licensing vary by State, most require completion of an exam plus 2 years (3,000 hours) of supervised clinical experience for licensure of clinical social workers.  The Association of Social Work Boards provides information about licensure for all states and the District of Columbia.

In addition, the National Association of Social Workers offers voluntary credentials to MSW holders, such as the Academy of Certified Social Workers (ACSW), the Qualified Clinical Social Worker (QCSW), or the Diplomate in Clinical Social Work (DCSW) credential, based on their professional experience.

Certification is a marker of experience, and is particularly important for social workers in private practice; some health insurance providers require certification for reimbursement.