What is an MSW? Is a Social Work Degree Worth it?

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Those who hold a master’s degree or higher experience low rates of unemployment (at just 2.1%), according to 2018 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data, compared to 5.6% for those with less than a high school diploma. On average, there is a $12,000+ annual increase in pay per each advanced level of education attained.

Although these figures represent overall unemployment rates and salaries, they can be an indicator of the appeal of earning a graduate degree such as a master’s in social work. Is an MSW worth it? To help you decide if this is the right path for you, here is a look at what the degree is, whether an MSW is necessary to practice in the field, and the pros and cons of getting a master’s in social work.

What Is an MSW?

An MSW, or master’s degree in social work, is the master’s degree that students earn in an MSW graduate program that is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education. It is common for students in an MSW program to have a bachelor’s in social work, or a BSW. However, candidates who hold a different liberal arts degree, such as psychology, may find success in a master’s in social work program.

In addition to completing core coursework, students must complete a practicum or internship that varies by school or program. The National Association of Colleges and Employers Journal states that students with in-field experience are more likely to find employment than applicants without this training period.

Do You Need an MSW To Practice Social Work?

The short answer is no. While a BSW is the traditional starting block for a master’s in social work; this undergraduate degree qualifies you for a variety of social work positions, including:

  • Caseworker
  • Mental Health Assistant
  • Community Outreach Worker
  • Activity Director
  • Juvenile Court Liaison

Most jobs open to BSWs are entry-level and do not provide room for advancement without further education. On the other hand, an MSW offers additional opportunities in clinical, specialty or supervisory practice.

Arguments for and Against Getting an MSW

When going through any decision-making process, several factors, both positive and negative, must be considered. The factors that should be taken into account when considering an MSW include workplace environment, earning potential and student debt.

Pros of Getting an MSW

Even though job opportunities exist for candidates who possess a bachelor’s of social work, there are several benefits to earning an MSW degree.

Flexibility in the Workplace

Because a master’s in social work is a diverse, multidisciplinary degree, you will find greater flexibility in career options than fellow graduates with a master’s degree from a different field.

While it is common for clinical social workers to take on administration, research, teaching and writing roles, you are not bound to these positions. With an MSW, you can specialize in an area that interests you, like family social work, mental health or substance abuse within a variety of workplaces, such as schools, clinics, hospitals and government.

Obtain Licensure

Almost every state requires a license to practice clinical social work, which includes assessment, diagnosis, intervention and treatment in a variety of settings. But it’s important to contact your state’s social work licensing board for more information about specific requirements.

The completion of your coursework and internship will qualify you for licensure, which can lead to several career opportunities, including positions in hospitals, residential treatment facilities, not-for-profit agencies and private practice.

You gain skills like communication, leadership and critical thinking when pursuing an MSW program. This can prove useful in both your personal and professional life.

Higher Earning Potential

Your level of education in social work will affect your salary and earning potential. The BLS reports that the national average weekly wage for persons with a master’s degree in 2018 was $1,434, which is  16.5% higher than employees who held a bachelor’s degree.

As for differences between education levels among social workers, the 2017 National Association of Social Workers Workforce Study indicates MSWs earned $13,000 more per year than BSWs.

Positive Job Outlook

According to the NASW Survey of 2018 Graduates, “More than four of five (80.5%) MSW graduates who applied for employment received at least one job offer, and 43.2% received two or more.” Figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor of Statistics support continued openings for the social work industry.

The BLS national outlook for social workers is a growth of 11% from 2018–2028, which is faster than the average for all occupations. Clinical social workers who work in health care and mental health and substance abuse should see much higher growth rates of 17% and 18%, respectively.

Cons of Getting an MSW

Even though there are many benefits from pursuing an MSW, several drawbacks exist.

Undervalued Degree

Some salaries for new MSWs are not as competitive when compared to other fields such as psychiatry or those with private practices. According to a 2018 study performed by NASW, the average income for new social workers was $42,500, whereas those entering positions in government agencies, hospitals and educational settings earned $47,500.

Longer Curriculum

Be prepared to spend a few extra years working toward your MSW and license. It is common for MSW programs to offer BSW degree students advanced standing, which could allow them to complete the MSW coursework within a year, based on full-time attendance, versus two years for those who possess a non-social work undergraduate degree.

For part-time students, the length of the program would be two to four years. In addition, you will need to complete an internship or practicum to obtain licensure in the state in which you wish to work.

Increased Student Debt

It goes without saying, time spent earning an advanced degree comes with added financial obligations. It is essential to note the amount of debt from the master’s program is in addition to the undergraduate figure, which leaves the average new MSW graduate burdened with student loans that will take some time to pay back.

Summing It Up

While several factors such as flexibility in workplace options and higher earning potential present a strong case for an MSW, downsides such as increased student debt and a tight job market remain.

So is a social work degree worth it? Consider this statistic from an NASW study: “Over 92% of MSWs and BSWs said they would recommend a social work degree to others.” This high figure is in spite of the negatives.

The reason behind this response is because people like you do not choose social work as a career for the money or accolades. You enter the field because you are passionate about helping others and making a difference.

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