Social work is a unique blend of psychology, interpersonal relationships and work for the public good. Social workers might help individuals, children, families or addicts overcome their challenges.
If helping people work through issues that affect their quality of life interests you, you may be wondering: is a master’s in social work worth it? Learn how a master of social work (MSW) can help you grow a social work career, plus explore MSW alternatives to consider if you’re interested in working with people and providing life-improving assistance.
How to Decide Whether an MSW Is Right for You
There are dozens of master of social work online and on-campus programs to choose from. Typically, students who already have completed a bachelor’s in social work may be able to find on-campus and online MSW programs that take one to 1 1/2 years to complete. Otherwise, typical MSW programs take about two years.
Considering the time and financial commitment you’ll make to go back to school, here are some reasons why an MSW program may benefit you.
1. You want to advance your social work career.
If you’re already working in social work, an MSW may make you a more competitive candidate for your dream job. An MSW is typically a requirement to become a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW). Being licensed means you can provide mental health services to clients that might include diagnosing and treating mental, emotional and behavioral disorders. An LCSW typically can take on larger responsibilities compared to a social worker who does not have licensure.
A master’s degree can also bring higher pay than a bachelor’s degree. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the 2018 median usual weekly earnings for those with a master’s degree was $1,434, compared to $1,198 for those with a bachelor’s degree.
2. You want to help people live more fulfilling lives.
If you already have your bachelor’s degree in a field not related to social work, an MSW can help you enter the social work field. Social workers work with a variety of clients, from the elderly to abused children. They help clients find appropriate treatments and resources to thrive.
Social workers often help people who are at their lowest points. Social workers can help vulnerable clients get the tools they need, from food stamps to childcare to housing, to lead meaningful lives.
3. You’re interested in specialized social work.
A bachelor’s in social work usually offers a broad view of the field. An MSW program enables students to dive deeper into work with a particular population or set of issues. MSW degrees are typically required for clinical work, private practice, health care social work and social work training. In an MSW program, you can learn in classes that are geared toward these specialties.
An MSW is also a degree choice if working in private practice interests you, but you’re not interested in a counseling or psychology degree. Many counselors are licensed clinical social workers. In an MSW program, you’ll learn about how to treat mental health issues, but you’ll focus on at-risk populations.
Return on Investment for a Master’s in Social Work
The financial return on investment you get from an MSW will depend on your current work situation, how long you plan to work in social work and where you choose to take your social work career.
You may be able to offset MSW program costs with scholarships and financial aid.
How much could an MSW increase your salary?
The BLS reports 2018 median pay for all social workers, including those with only a bachelor’s degree, was $49,470. The highest paid 10% of all social workers earned more than $81,400, according to the BLS.
The median annual wage for social workers depends on social work type and industry. The BLS reports for health care social workers, the 2018 median annual wage was $56,200. For all other social workers – excluding those who are school, family and child social workers, and substance abuse and mental health social workers – the 2018 median wage was $63,140.1
Licensure obtained after an MSW may increase earning potential. Since licensure can expand the job market and responsibilities for social workers, LCSWs can earn more than those who are not licensed.
Which Social Work Field Should You Choose?
Social workers are in demand across many fields. According to the BLS, the job outlook for social workers is expected to grow 11% between 2018 and 2028, much faster than the average for all occupations. There were 707,400 social worker jobs in 2018, and 81,200 are expected to be added by 2028.
The type of social work field you should choose will depend on the type of population and issues you’re interested in. If you like working with kids, you might want to be a school or child social worker. If you are interested in helping people with addiction, a career as a substance abuse social worker may appeal to you.
In-Demand Social Work Fields
Several social work specializations are available, especially for LCSWs. The following are three social work fields with a high demand for qualified social workers.
1. Substance abuse and mental health social workers 2
Substance abuse and mental health social workers help clients with addictions or mental illnesses. They refer clients to support groups and 12-step programs and may lead those groups or programs themselves.
According to the BLS, there were 125,200 substance abuse and mental health social workers in 2018. About 22,300 new positions are expected to be added between 2018 and 2028, an 18% increase.
Health care social workers work with clients who are undergoing medical issues and who must make changes to lifestyle, health care or housing to live healthier lives. Health care social workers may refer clients to support groups or home health care services. They also work with doctors to help them understand how physical health affects mental and emotional health. Some health care social workers work in hospice and palliative care or geriatric social work.
According to the BLS, there were 180,500 health care social workers in 2018. , with 30,600 expected to be added by 2028, a 17% increase.
School, family and child social workers help families and children who need assistance, including housing services, childcare and benefits like food stamps. School, family and child social workers help families who are in adoption or foster care systems or who are looking to be reunited. They also help children who are abused or neglected.
According to the BLS, there were 339,800 school, family and child social workers in 2018. Some 24,800 positions are expected to be added between 2018 and 2028, a 7% increase.
How Does Life Change After an MSW?
When you’ve completed an MSW program, you can check state licensure requirements to become an LCSW.
Social workers are in demand throughout the country, according to the BLS. If you’ve always wanted to live in a certain state, you can try to obtain licensure in that state and work there. If you specialized in a certain area in your MSW program, you can apply for jobs that help that population.
With an MSW and licensure, you can also open your own private practice and become your own boss. LCSWs in private practice can work with the clients they want on their own schedules.
Master of Social Work Alternatives
If you want to help people but you are not sure if social work is right for you, here are some MSW alternatives to consider:
1. Marriage and family therapist
Marriage and family therapists work with couples and families who are experiencing mental, behavioral and emotional issues within their family units. A master’s in marriage and family therapy teaches students about human sexuality and intimacy, multicultural counseling, and ethics and law for mental health professionals.
Psychologists work with people and groups to improve how they handle emotions, social dynamics, thoughts, behavioral tendencies and cognitive processes. Those who get a master’s in psychology might pursue work as a counselor or go into research.
If you think an MSW is right for you, online MSW programs let you learn and study on your own time, on your own device. You can attend the school you want without having to relocate. Online MSW programs can be a good fit for professionals who want to work full-time or part-time while they attend school.