Which Social Work Degree Do You Need for the Job?

For many, figuring out their future career path is one of the most important decisions they make on their higher education journey. Choosing a career in social work may set you up for a self-gratifying experience centered on helping others. But which types of social work degrees can prepare you for the challenges and opportunities within your desired field?

There are a number of common steps to take if you want to become a social worker and everyone’s path is different. Typically, social workers begin their education with a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree. They may then move on to a Master of Social Work (MSW), depending on the role they wish to work in and type of social worker licensure they’re seeking. From there, they might continue their studies by enrolling in a Doctor of Social Work (DSW) or a Ph.D. program. The social work degree or degrees you choose to pursue will depend on the kind of jobs you’re most interested in. There are a number of career opportunities to consider. In this post, we’ll discuss those options as well as the social work degrees that may provide you with the necessary knowledge and skills to perform in a variety of roles.

If you’re not entirely set on committing to a graduate-level program right after earning your BSW, there are flexible options available too. You can go to school part-time while working an entry-level job to gain experience. You may even consider an online program which allows you to earn your degree on your own schedule. Either way, entering the field often starts with a BSW.

Degree Needed for Entry-Level Social Work Jobs

There are a number of jobs available to BSW graduates, that allow you to apply the social work principles taught in the classroom in real-world settings. Both in-person and online BSW programs may prepare you for entry-level social work jobs, such as case management aides, human services specialists, community outreach workers, and juvenile court liaisons.

In addition to earning a college degree, social workers should also look into state social work licensing requirements to make sure they’re meeting all necessary standards. Every state has different rules, and some provide licenses to BSW holders, while others require graduate-level degrees. Because the requirements vary by state, it’s important for students and recent graduates to familiarize themselves with local requirements so they can plot the best path forward.

Degree Needed for Clinical Social Work Jobs

While all social work jobs follow a central theme of helping people, clinical social workers have the ability to diagnose and treat people with mental illnesses, emotional challenges and trauma, addictions, and even certain medical disorders.

Clinical social workers may work in hospitals, correctional facilities, schools, child welfare agencies, and numerous other establishments. Licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs) may even open their own private practices to help people on their own schedule.

Here are the common steps to becoming an LCSW and maintaining your license:

  • Complete a bachelor’s degree degree program
  • Complete a CSWE-accredited MSW program
  • Complete LCSW licensing and examination requirements
  • Apply for a LCSW licensure in your state of practice
  • Renew your license
  • Advance your career through continued learning

Once again, the requirements for licensure will vary by state, so you should always look for local regulations. Most, however, require a CSWE-accredited master’s degree in social work—though there is often flexibility between in-person and online programs, full-time and part-time curricula, and other factors that can impact a student’s ability to earn their degree based on their unique life circumstances.

There are also considerations such as advanced standing versus traditional standing, which determines how long it will take to earn the MSW. Advanced standing MSW programs are available to those who have earned their BSW from a CSWE-accredited undergraduate degree program. The timeline to earn an MSW through an advanced standing program is often shorter than it is in a traditional program.

Working with Smaller and Local Communities

Want to help local populations outside of a clinical setting? There are a number of social work jobs that allow graduates to give back to their communities and help at-risk individuals of different ages and backgrounds. Here are just three examples:

  • School social workers. These professionals help students do their best and cope with challenges inside and outside of the classroom. They work to create a safe space for everyone at school, and support those who are struggling to maintain their grades while dealing with the effects of emotional, social, and familial issues. Balancing schoolwork, extracurriculars, and at-home challenges may be a difficult feat for some, and school social workers are there to help students manage these tasks successfully. An MSW and state-administered exams are typically required for this career path.
  • Child welfare social workers. These types of social workers work to ensure that families have the tools and resources they need to provide a safe home environment for children. If parents or other guardians are unable to provide this space, the social worker identifies a placement option such as foster care.
  • Geriatric social workers. On the other side of the spectrum, social workers who want to support aging populations may turn to geriatric social work. Older individuals may require just as much mental, emotional, and social support as other age groups. Social workers serving this demographic may often work alongside a team of physicians, nurses, case managers, and other health care professionals to ensure that no patient falls through the cracks, and that all are receiving necessary treatment and care. While a BSW is a minimum requirement, an MSW with a clinical concentration may help social workers advance their careers and provide the best possible support.

Working with Populations at Scale and/or in Leadership Positions

All social work career paths entail helping others. However, while social work at the individual or community level may have lasting impact for those involved, helping larger groups at scale can potentially have a greater long-term impact. For social workers who want to create significant change and develop the next generation of workers, taking the lead often means going back to school first.

At the micro social work level and mezzo social work level (individual and community, respectively), an MSW may provide you with a foundation to build your career. However, for certain macro social work jobs (which may involve leadership positions in academia and policy making), a DSW may be required. Doctorate-level social workers may go on to become administrators in their field, setting guidance for others to follow. They are experts in their specialties but are also committed to developing the expertise of others.

To pursue a DSW, an MSW is often required (PDF, 178 KB)—but not always. It depends on the program selected and the professional background of the student.

As far as instruction, many schools offer in-person and online DSW programs to fit the needs of students. While online social work degree programs allow you to study from the comfort of your home, many still require field education in the form of in-person residencies. Just like medical doctors need to complete residencies to earn their MDs, DSW practitioners must gain in-person experience before graduation. As far as expected program length, it may take you between two and three years to complete.

Teaching and Research Jobs

For those who wish to train the next generation of social workers as a professor or researcher, a Ph.D. may be the next step in their educational journey. Whereas a DSW is required for more clinical settings, a Ph.D. in social work is more geared toward scholarly pursuits.

When pursuing many social work degrees, finding and completing an accredited program is important as it may help you to qualify for certain licenses in your state. For the social work Ph.D., however, there currently is no accrediting body because the degrees are academic based and most people at this level have completed a master’s degree. Therefore, the most important considerations for a program are going to be based on personal preferences. Factors such as concentrations offered (addiction, family studies, criminal justice, etc.), tuition costs, and in-person versus online instruction can all help you decide which program is best for you.

An online social work Ph.D. program may enable you to study at your own pace, on your time. This often benefits working professionals who want to earn their degree without having to discontinue their employment, as well as parents and other family members who have people who need them at home. Consider program timelines, full-time versus part-time scheduling options, and the other factors mentioned above to choose the right school and program for your needs.

Summing It All Up: Which Social Work Degree Should You Get?

The social work degree you pursue will depend largely on your career aspirations and personal circumstances. If you have a specific goal in mind, try looking for minimum requirements in your state to decide which degrees and programs are necessary to achieve that career goal. If you aren’t quite sure of a specialty or focus just yet, starting with a BSW could be a viable option.

Once you earn your BSW, you can decide whether you want to enter the workforce in an entry-level social work position or continue on with your studies to pursue an MSW. No matter what you choose, remember that the experience comes from on-the-job training, so you may want to experiment or shadow professionals in a few different concentrations to figure out which one resonates most with you. Understanding the many social work degree options may also help in your decision making. Be sure to research resource guides on choosing a social work degree online to educate yourself on what to expect.

Last updated: September 2020