What Is the Best Degree Path to Becoming a Social Worker?

major for social worker

If you want to help others improve their lives, a career in social work could be the perfect choice for you. Social work is a rewarding career field. Social workers have the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of their patients or clients every day. They also earn a median wage higher than that of all occupations: $44,200, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. The first step to a fulfilling career in social work is earning a college degree.

A Career in Social Work

Social workers assist a wide range of people in coping with a variety of problems, from injuries and illnesses to abuse and addictions to life changes. One type of social work professional, the clinical social worker, is a licensed healthcare professional who diagnoses and treats patients’ mental health conditions. Social workers find employment in:

  • hospitals
  • nursing homes
  • doctors’ offices
  • schools
  • prisons
  • government agencies
  • substance abuse clinics

Bachelor’s versus Master’s Degrees in Social Work

Some social workers enter the field with a background in psychology or sociology. Earning a degree in social work specifically is a good choice for any aspiring social worker. However, to plan their educational path, aspiring social workers need to decide what their professional goals are and how much education they will need to reach them. Opportunities exist for social workers at both the bachelor’s and master’s degree levels, but those opportunities are very different from one another.

With a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW), you can attain entry-level positions as a mental health assistant and caseworker. However, a master’s degree in social work (MSW) is essential if you aspire to become a clinical social worker, and for many positions in the education and healthcare industries.

In a BSW degree program, you will study topics such as:

  • human behavior
  • diverse populations
  • social welfare policy.

You will gain hands-on experience working with clients and patients through an internship.

Master’s degree programs typically prepare you for specialized work in the field of social work as well as providing you with the tools to clinically assess and diagnose patients.

Some students earn a BSW and then complete their MSW studies over an additional two years.  Others earn their undergraduate degree in sociology, psychology, economics or another related field before beginning their graduate-level studies.

Still other students enroll in accelerated programs that allow them to earn both a BSW and an MSW in five years of study. Deciding which educational path is right for you depends on your personal career goals.

Associate Degree in Social Work

Not everyone who works in the social work field has a bachelor’s or master’s degree. It’s possible to find work in this industry with only an associate’s degree. Often available from vocational schools and community colleges, these programs take roughly two years to complete. Called both an Associate of Social Work and an ASW, this degree helps graduates find work as social service assistants. The program typically requires that students take a minimum of 60 credits of work, including both social work and general education courses. Incoming students need either a high school diploma or GED.

Human Services Associate Degree

human services degree for social work

Students also have the option of studying human services at the associate’s level rather than social work. This is the best option for those who aren’t sure who they want to work with in the field and those who do not plan on finishing a higher degree. Human services programs prepare you for working in organizations that help and support others. You might work for a nonprofit organization that helps the homeless or a treatment center that offers programs for drug addicts. A human services associate’s degree program will still require at least two years of full-time work.

Jobs Available with an Associate’s Degree

Looking at what to major in to become a social worker helps you see the careers that are open to you when you complete a degree program. An associate’s degree prepares you for most entry-level positions. You can work as a community outreach worker and case management aid. A case management aid helps with the management of individual clients and their cases. They are responsible for finding resources for the client and handling other aspects of the case. A community outreach worker usually works with a larger group of people. They might host public forums and meetings to talk with locals about their medical options or to talk about an outbreak.

BSW Career Options

What Is the Best Degree Path to Becoming a Social Worker?

Students who complete a BSW program generally have more career options open to them. They can work as social workers for the state and get a license. A common job title given to these graduates is caseworker. Nonprofit organizations and government agencies hire caseworkers to handle the needs of a large group. A caseworker is responsible for guiding clients through difficult and traumatic situations and ensuring that they have the resources they need. BSW degree holders can also find work as directors and family service workers. Family service workers specialize in helping individuals with difficult home/family lives, including victims of abuse.

Doctor of Social Work

Though some schools call the MSW a terminal degree because it is the highest one that they offer, students can earn a Doctor of Social Work (DSW) too. A DSW program allows students to specialize their degrees and pick from concentrations based on what they want to study. They can pick a concentration in addiction work if they want to focus on helping those with addiction issues or criminal justice if they want to support those in jail or prison. Most programs include concentrations in social work administration and family crisis support too.

Applying to a Doctoral Program

Students applying to a doctoral program usually need a minimum of an MSW. Some programs accept students who have a graduate degree in another area of social sciences such as psychology. They may need at least two years of professional social work experience that they show on a resume. Many programs require that students gain this experience within the last five to seven years. Doctoral programs often ask for a small application fee and transcripts, too. Students need to submit transcripts from any schools where they earned credits toward an MSW degree.

Social Work PhD

Another option for students who want to advance their studies is a Ph.D. program in social work. In a Ph.D. program, students do a high level of research and prepare a dissertation that shows their experiences in the program and the education that they received. Though students may have the chance to study community outreach or public policy, they focus more on research. Graduates learn how to solve complex problems based on the available research and how to research current issues in the field. Many schools keep copies of the student’s dissertation on-file for future students to read and study.

DSW vs. PhD: Choosing the Right One

Social workers do not need an advanced degree to work in the field. They only need advanced degrees if they want to work in higher positions. They should compare DSW and Ph.D. programs to decide which is best for them. DSW programs focus more on preparing you for working in administration positions. A Ph.D. program helps you hone you research skills and prepare you for jobs where you do research. Those with a DSW might work as a hospital administrator or a social work supervisor who oversees the work that caseworkers do. A Ph.D. holder can use his or her degree to write and publish work on community issues and other problems affecting the field.

Can Social Workers Have an Online Degree?

Are online degrees OK for social work

Though social workers need some type of degree, they do not need a traditional degree from a program that features on-campus classes. Many top colleges now offer online social work degree programs at all levels. The most important thing to look for in an online program is its accreditation. The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) is a professional organization that grants accreditation to more than 200 graduate programs and even more bachelor’s programs. This accreditation shows students that they will take the same courses and have the same experiences that students in a traditional program would have. Some doctoral and associate’s programs are available online too.

MSW Residency Work

Many colleges that offer online MSW programs have a residency component. The residency can last for as little as four days up to a full semester. Every student enrolled in the program must agree to complete a residency before they graduate. They usually need to do a residency by the end of the first year. Some schools hold residency sessions in the summer to help those with full-time jobs attend. Students spend their time working with their professors and meeting with the students from their online classes. It also ensures that they have the skills needed to remain in the program.

Field Placement Options

An important part of an MSW program is the field placement. Schools can call this different names, including:

  • fieldwork
  • field assignments
  • internships

Depending on the program, students may need to spend as much as 500 hours in the field. They are responsible for keeping track of the hours that they work and writing reports to detail what they did. Those who want to study more than one subject can do a placement in one organization during the first semester and another in the next. Though online students must also do internships, they can work with their schools to find a placement location or find a place to work and get approval from the school. Students can also do their internships with their employers as long as they have different job duties.

Jobs with an MSW

Having an MSW allows you to seek different job opportunities. Many of these programs allow you to study different subjects and earn certificates. This  can help you find work as counselors. You might use your degree to counsel those with addiction issues or patients struggling with mental health problems. Hospice and other medical facilities often look for those with an MSW when hiring social workers. These workers help patients nearing the end of their lives, and their families. They may make arrangements for patients to have extra help at home such as a home nurse or health care aid, too.

Careers with Doctoral Degrees

Students may want to look at the degree needed to work as a social worker because they want to know if finishing a doctoral degree is worth it. One of the more common jobs available for those with a doctoral degree is a professor. Professors help students understand complex topics and both assign and grade work. Schools often look for professors who have experience teaching in a former degree program as well as fieldwork experience. Field researchers and social work administrators are other positions open to those with a doctoral program.

Continuing Education for Social Workers

Not all social workers finish one degree and then never go back to school. Continuing education programs help professionals gain extra experience and keep up with changes in the field. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) offers several of these programs. Students can sign up for one or more of the classes available through the NASW Online Continuing Education Institute. The organization created the institute as a way to help social workers take classes without finding a nearby school. Students who belong to the organization or a regional chapter qualify for a discount on their classes.

Students have the option of attending traditional and online schools, too. Those with a BSW can enroll in a graduate program that features online classes and a summer residency. Though some classes run for a standard 16 weeks, others are shorter and more intensive. Students can finish those classes in as few as eight weeks as long as they can handle the rigorous schedule. Webinars and virtual events offered by the NASW can also help them continue their education.

Getting a Social Work License

If you want to work as a social worker you must have a license. You need a minimum of a bachelor’s degree, but most states accept those who studied any aspect of social science. Many states either require that applicants have an MSW or plan to earn one later. Those who do not have an MSW need to show proof that they enrolled in one of these programs and that they made progress towards finishing their degree every year. They also need to fulfill any of the other requirements that the state has.

One of the more common requirements is a passing score on a national licensing exam. The Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) offers these exams. Students can pass a generalist exam or one of the specialized exams based on what they want to do with their degrees. The ASWB asks students to register for one of the exams online and pay the exam fee. It also offers an online exam that students can take after they register. This exam includes sample questions from previous tests and helps students see what the exam entails along with what to expect when they take the real one.

Types of Social Work Practice

The ASWB divides the types of social work practice into four areas. Those who have a bachelor’s degree fall into the lowest category, which the organization refers to as entry-level work. It lists two practice areas for those with an MSW:

  • one for those who have just a degree and no experience
  • one for those with a minimum of two years of professional work since finishing the degree

This is the generalist area.

The ASWB also created a clinical area that includes those with two years or more of post-graduate work that did not include any supervision. Students can only choose the exams that are available to those in specific areas.

Internships for Social Work Majors

Social work internships

All social work degree programs include internship opportunities for students. Students may want to do an internship in the summer when they’re at home or in the middle of the school year when they’re on campus. While undergrads usually earn up to three credits for their internships, graduate students can earn more credits for their work.

Nonprofit organizations often hire students and give them an inside look at how the organization functions. Those who do strong work and make good connections can turn their internships into full-time jobs after they graduate. The criminal justice system also uses social work interns. They may work in the district attorney’s office or a local jail. Interns must show their schools that they gained practical experience through the internship to obtain credit. This may include writing a report at the end of the semester or submitting a final project.

More Than Just Social Work

Looking at what to major in to become a social worker shows students that they don’t need to study social work to gain employment in this field. Even if they want to take a national licensing exam, they can do so as long as they have a social science degree. Psychology is the most popular option of those sciences. It looks at humans and how they develop as well as why they think and behave in the ways they do.

Sociology looks at how humans relate to their environments and society as a whole. Those enrolled in schools that do not offer a social work major can study some of the same subjects in a sociology program. Other social sciences that can prepare students for the social work field include political science, economics, history and anthropology.

Choosing to embark on a career in social work and choosing which educational path to pursue are major decisions, but social workers find the career fulfilling. Like other graduates of the social sciences, they can expect to earn $2.5 million over the course of their work-life. They also enjoy the chance to make a real difference in the lives of their clients.

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