Medicine and healthcare aren't the only career fields that can allow you to help your fellow human beings for a living. If you're passionate about social justice and working to level the playing field for underserved groups and individuals, an online master's degree in social work can prepare you to make a career out of empowering the less fortunate.

The list of available fields of practice for social workers is diverse, including child welfare, family counseling, criminal justice, mental health, medical care, student assistance and more. Whatever specific role you're hoping to fill, the right degree program can help you gain the knowledge and skills you need to get started.

On this page, we answer some common questions about education and employment in the field of social work — What does a social worker do? How long does a master of social work program take to complete? How can graduates improve their job prospects? — and provide some information about different concentrations in the discipline. Read on to learn how the right degree program can help you make a difference.

Frequently Asked Questions

Many institutions offer social work master's programs fully online for students that need the extra schedule flexibility that the virtual classroom provides. Some programs may delivered in a synchronous format, requiring online attendance at set times throughout the week, while others take an asynchronous approach that allows you to view course materials at times that are convenient to your existing schedule.

Social work is a fairly complex field, and a thorough education is an essential part of working effectively to improve your clients' lives. Although some entry-level positions may be available with a bachelor's degree, many careers in social work require a license that can only be earned after you've completed an advanced education program. If you're committed to becoming a clinical social worker or contributing to the practice by conducting academic research, a master's degree in social work should definitely be on your radar.

Ensuring that the program you attend is accredited is an important step in the qualification process. Accreditation serves as proof that the instruction and academic services of an institution have met or exceeded a national standard of quality. Social work degrees in the U.S. are accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), and most states require students to earn a degree from a CSWE-accredited institution before sitting for their license exams. As of June 2020, CSWE has awarded accreditation to over 500 bachelor's programs and nearly 300 master's programs in social work.


Master's in Social Work Program Overview

Online master's programs in social work can lead to a few different types of degree. The Master of Social Work (M.S.W.) is the most common option, but some institutions may style their credentials as a Master of Science in Social Work (M.S.S.W.) or a Master of Arts in Social Work (M.A.S.W.) and offer slightly different programs of study.

The exact curriculum offered to graduate students depends on the school's course offerings and a student's chosen concentration, but there are a few common concepts shared among a large percentage of programs at this level:

  • Social welfare policy
  • Research methods in social science
  • Individual social work practice
  • Group social work practice
  • Diversity and multicultural environments
  • Human behavior

Certain colleges and universities also offer dual-degree programs for social work majors, allowing them to earn an M.S.W. alongside a second graduate degree that adds value to their skills. Common second subjects available in dual-degree social work programs include Master of Business Administration (MBA), Master of Public Policy (M.P.P.), Master of Public Health (M.P.H.) and Juris Doctor (J.D.) degrees.

Earning an Online Master's Degree in Social Work

How long does an online master's in social work program take?

Times to completion for graduate programs in social work can vary quite a bit from one institution or specialization to another. Many study plans require between 45 and 60 credit hours of coursework, which can be comfortably completed in two to three years, but some colleges and universities offer accelerated plans that allow you to shorten your time to graduation by taking a denser semester schedule and attending school during traditional class breaks in summer and winter.

Dual-degree programs tend to require additional credits, which can extend your time in school, and students who pursue their degrees on a part-time basis also typically see longer times to completion.

What are the requirements to start an online master's degree in social work?

The basic requirement for admission to a campus-based or online social work master's program is a bachelor's degree from an accredited institution. If you were a social work major as an undergraduate, and you earned your Bachelor of Social Work (B.S.W.) degree from a program accredited by the CSWE, you're already well on your way to qualifying for a master's in social work program.

Most institutions ask you for official transcripts of your previous college work, as well as letters of recommendation from professors or supervisors and a current professional resume. Graduate admissions test scores may or may not be required.

Why earn a master's in social work online?

If you've joined the workforce since earning your bachelor's degree and want to maintain your existing job as you earn the degree you need to move up, online study can be a big help. Institutions that offer an accredited master's in social work online can provide the same level of educational quality and academic rigor offered in campus-based programs without requiring you to travel to campus multiple times a week to attend classes.

Online social work degree plans can even offer internships or other hands-on sections by collaborating with local assistance firms and social service agencies, although they typically require some in-person attendance.

Degree Timeline

Early study

As you begin your program, you usually get started with courses that introduce you to applications of research in social work practice and the history of policies and practices in social welfare.

Choose a specialization and take elective courses

Study plans that cover different concentrations begin to diverge after those introductory courses, offering students a selection of elective courses designed to focus their education on the specialization they choose.

Thesis/capstone project

Most graduate programs in social work require that students complete a final project that ties together the lessons they've learned — typically either an extensive written thesis or a multimedia presentation project.

Internships and fieldwork

You may have access to an internship or other real-world learning option during the latter portion of your social work degree, consisting of supervised professional experience at an established social service agency.

Master's in Social Work Concentrations

Many social work master's programs permit students to concentrate their study on a particular avenue of practice in the professional world. Here's a short list of available concentrations:

  • Clinical social work. Studying clinical social work prepares you to provide therapeutic services to clients of all ages and backgrounds across a range of traditional and improvised clinical settings. Students who choose this concentration often study subjects like clinical interventions and psychopathology.
  • Child welfare social work. Working effectively with at-risk children requires specific knowledge and a special set of skills. Concentrating your education on issues of child welfare and the systems in place to help those affected can give you the tools you need to make a difference.
  • Macro social work. Macro social work is the process of focusing on the big-picture elements of social assistance systems and working to make them more accessible and functional. Choosing this concentration can help you learn how to develop new and better social services, programs and policies.
  • Social work management. Alongside their public-facing mission, organizations that provide social services typically have budgets to set, staff to manage and facilities to maintain. Studying social work management can teach you how to keep such agencies in good organizational shape.

Career Outlook

What Can You Do with a Master's in Social Work?

The skills you learn while pursuing a master's degree in social work can serve you well in a range of related positions. Here's a rundown of some popular careers for master's in social work graduates:

Licensed social worker

Many students begin their master's in social work with the goal of becoming a licensed social worker after graduation. Also known as clinical social workers, these essential professionals work directly with children, adults and families to coordinate social assistance and provide guidance designed to help them manage their lives.

Social service manager

Good management is key to a well-designed social assistance system, whether it takes the form of accounting, policymaking or staff supervision. Social service managers take the reins of different parts of established systems and organizations and help them run as smoothly as possible.

Community health worker

Community health may or may not be considered an official aspect of social work, depending on where you live, but the fact remains that many of the skills taught in social work programs can benefit someone working to promote wellness throughout a community or special population.

Correctional treatment specialist

Formerly incarcerated people are often given rehabilitation or treatment plans to follow once they're released, and skilled and compassionate specialists are needed to develop plans that work. Some additional education in criminal justice may be required for this career, but a master's-level social work education may suffice on its own.

Substance abuse or behavioral disorder counselor

Working with people who suffer from alcoholism, eating disorders, drug addiction and other substance-related or behavioral issues can take skill and patience, and graduates from social work master's programs often have what it takes to handle delicate cases like these.

Social Work Salaries by State

State NameAverage SalaryAnnual Job OpeningsProjected Job Growth Potential
New Jersey$83,05021015%
Rhode Island$74,520102.1%
New Hampshire$74,1601010.3%
Source: 2019 Occupational Employment Statistics and 2018-28 Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics,

Financial Aid for a Master's in Social Work

Although a master's in social work can be expensive, financial aid can help reduce costs. Here's a list of some student aid resources that you might be able to use while pursuing your degree:

Source: Scholarship directory data is copyrighted material which is reproduced on this website by permission of CollegeXpress, a division of Carnegie Dartlet. Copyright © 2020 by CollegeXpress.

Master's in Social Work Certifications and Licenses

To begin their career in social work, MSW students must receive a license. Although license requirements can vary from state to state, thanks to each state having its own social work licensing board, here's a rundown of some licenses and certifications you might consider.

Certified Addiction Specialist (CAS)

The American Academy of Health Care Providers in the Addictive Disorders offers this certification for social workers who have clients struggling with gambling, alcohol or drug addiction disorders, as well as clients with eating disorders.

Requirements: A graduate degree and at least five years of work experience in a job delivering direct addictive disorder services.

Exam Format: 150 multiple-choice questions

How long does the certification last?: One year.

Certified Advanced Social Work Case Manager (C-ASWCM)

This certification is for social work case managers who have completed their M.S.W. or other graduate degree and want to earn a professional credential that verifies their knowledge, skills, values and ethics.

Requirements: A master's degree, current social work license and at least two years of paid and supervised work experience.

Exam Format: 170 multiple-choice questions.

How long does the certification last?: Two years.

Certified School Social Work Specialist (C-SSWS)

This certification, provided by the National Association of Social Workers, allows school social workers to demonstrate a dedication to their practice and an adherence to the ethical standards set forth by the NASW.

Requirements: A master's degree, at least two years of work experience and a current state license.

Exam Format: 170 multiple-choice questions.

How long does the certification last?: Two years.

Qualified Clinical Social Worker (QCSW)

This credential works to ensure employers and clients that you have reached a high level of skill and understanding in the clinical social work field and can meet or exceed national standards set for your profession.

Requirements: A master's degree, a current social work license, three years of work experience and at least 30 hours of continuing professional education in clinical social work over the past two years.

Exam Format: 170 multiple-choice questions.

How long does the certification last?: Two years.

Professional Associations for Master's in Social Work

Belonging to a professional organization can help you keep your finger on the pulse of what's happening in the wider world of social work as well as provide benefits specific to your own career. Here are a few groups to look into:

Practitioners who focus on clinical social work can join ACSWA to get access to an interdisciplinary practice community, discounts on proprietary ebooks and journals and other perks.

This global organization offers access to an international social work job board, invitations to regional and international conferences and a member network that spans over 120 countries.

Full members of NABSW qualify for the association's member rewards program, gain networking opportunities and receive discounted pricing on state, regional, national and international conferences.

Membership in SSWR cones along with reduced subscription rates to a number of social work journals, a job posting service for researchers and scholars and access to the Social Work Research Network (SWRNet).