Your Complete Guide to

Masters in Social Work

Online Masters Degree
on February 8, 2024

Why We Love It

  • Competitive Salary
  • Excellent Growth Potential
  • Feeling Good About Yourself
  • Lots of Options

* The Why We Love It section is solely based on the opinion of's Editorial Team. Any salary & growth research or estimates should be referenced further at the Bureau of Labor and Statistics data published at for your specific desired career.

What is an MSW Degree?

Social work is an important calling.  Assessing the needs of the people and making sure that those needs are met is one of the most basic foundations of any functioning community.  If we don’t take care of those who need it the most, “community” and “civilization” are just words.

MSW stands for Master of Social Work, a professional degree in areas of study related to the important field of social work.  Whereas a bachelor’s in social work focuses on social work in the field (such as in a hospital), an MSW is more concerned with the micro-, meso-, and macro-aspects of social work.

Most MSW programs accept students with a wide range of undergraduate degrees, and many allow students to choose a track to focus on either actual direct practice, or macro issues like human services management, political advocacy, or community organizing.


A Master of Social Work will teach you about the theory and application of several social sciences, such as:

  • Sociology: This is the study of the development, structure, and functions of society, as well as social problems.
  • Psychology: A working understanding of the human mind and human behavior is a crucial part of social work.
  • Economics: Economics is another important concept to apply when analyzing and improving society.
  • Community Development: This a process by which community members take collective action to address common problems.
  • Public Health: The science and art of preventing disease, prolonging life, and improving quality of life, this is one of the most basic functions of any society.
  • Political Science and Law: Systems of governance, politics, and the justice system are important parts of society, and they can often be causes of or solutions to social problems.

Recommended Schools

What Can You Do With a Master of Social Work?

That all depends on whom you want to help!

A grief counselor helps a family to heal after the sudden loss of a loved one.  A social work planner develops and optimizes school bus routes for after-school programs.

An addiction counselor aids in the fight against the opioid crisis, saving lives and improving public safety.  These are all potential futures for someone with a Master of Social Work, and all could help improve the quality of life for the people in your community.

The demand for social workers increased during the pandemic. Families and marriages were seen facing psychological problems, and emotional distress, and abuse was on the rise.

These are only a few examples.  The possibilities are endless.  You get to choose what you’ll do, and you don’t have to know what that is right now.  An MSW could give you the tools you need to do a wide variety of jobs, so you’re not committing to a career before you even finish your degree.

Best Programs for Master of Social Work

Here’s the best part: We’re going to give you the secrets to finding the best programs for adults, programs that could help you get your MSW degree faster and with as few headaches as possible.

We know planning for college can be confusing, and is dedicated to helping you find the right path for you so that you can complete your degree and start your new career as soon as possible.

Why We Love an MSW Degree

  1. Competitive salary:  As in many fields, social workers with master’s degrees are often better paid than their colleagues with bachelor’s degrees. And not just higher salaries, people with a master’s degree in social work also end up with higher job stability and opportunities for career progression. This can be an important factor during times of economic instability.
  2. Excellent growth potential:  Social work is an ever-growing field with plenty of room for advancement. This easily translates into job security and stability which is much needed during times of inflation and changing economies.
  3. Feeling good about yourself:  An MSW is a great way to give back to the community and help ensure the safety of those you care about. There is a sense of fulfillment that comes with helping build communities. Having a career in this field brings a sense of purpose not just professionally, but also personally.
  4. Lots of options:  Since social work encompasses so many smaller fields, an MSW degree could be your gateway to a wide variety of career paths.

Online vs. Traditional Campus

Most people who think about going back to school and getting their Master’s in Social Work never even get started.  Exams, application fees, and other entrance hurdles can be time-consuming, plus it’s tough to make school work around your schedule.

While a degree can definitely allow you unparalleled growth, for someone with family and work commitments, it can get really tough.

You may think that’s the case, but continuing your education is easier than ever before.

With adult-friendly schools, there is really no reason not to go back to school anymore.  What makes a school adult-friendly?  Here are a few key attributes:

  • Adult-friendly schools are totally online.  Online learning is best for busy adults, who have to balance their ongoing education with work, kids, and everything else that comes with being a grownup. Online and distance learning has made its mark in the world during the pandemic, with educational institutions along with everything else shutting down, and technological advancements assisting in finding new ways to continue learning. Online schools allow you to work college around your life, not the other way around.
  • Adult-friendly schools can offer accelerated programs, with ongoing enrollment.  What’s better than getting your master’s in two years?  Getting it in fourteen months.  And with ongoing enrollment, you don’t have to wait until fall or spring to start on your new journey; many schools offer monthly enrollment periods, meaning you can start whenever it works for you.
  • Adult-friendly schools can offer more support than traditional schools.  This includes but is not limited to, career services, making it easier for you to begin your new career.  Because, at the end of the day, isn’t that why you’re going back to school?

Recommended Schools

Admissions Requirements for Master of Social Work

So what do you need to go to grad school?  You need to take the GRE or another entrance exam, right?

Stop thinking that way!

Many adult-friendly schools do not require GRE or entrance exams.  Online programs generally require only a bachelor’s degree to get started, and there are no application fees to worry about.  You start when you’re ready.

Master of Social Work Curriculum

As mentioned above, a Master of Social Work degree will expose you to social sciences, such as sociology, psychology, economics, community development, public health, political science, and law. Knowledge in all of these fields helps young graduates and professionals understand individuals, families, and overall, societies. This is most important to not only succeed in the field but also make an impact on the communities.

What Courses Will I Take in My MSW Program?

Because improving quality of life and ensuring the needs of your community are met, the core curriculum of an MSW program will include courses that build a foundation of knowledge in the social sciences you will need to apply in social work.

Examples include:

  1. Behavioral Psychology: This deals with human behavior, from research and observation to modification.  Understanding why people do what they do is an important part of social work.
  2. Racism and Oppression: It is crucial to understand not only how to deal with racism and oppression in your community, but also how the social constructs of racial hierarchies are formed.
  3. Substance Abuse: Substance abuse is a significant problem in many communities all over the US, and it is important to understand not only the causes and consequences of substance abuse, but also how it is addressed in public health, medical, and legal contexts.
  4. Family Therapy: This branch of psychotherapy deals with helping families and couples in intimate relationships in order to nurture development or change, strengthening the most basic building blocks of any community.
  5. Serving Older Adults: Seniors play an important role in communities, and they have different needs than younger people, in terms of health, comfort, and socialization.
  6. Management of Nonprofit Organizations: Social work needs public and nonprofit organizations in order to be successful, and knowing how to properly plan and manage an organization goes a long way toward helping as many people as possible.

Specializations and Concentrations 

As mentioned above, your MSW program could allow you to choose a clinical or direct practice track.  While a clinical track is traditionally the go-to route, direct practice tracks are gaining in popularity.  A direct practice track will typically focus on one of the following:

  • Community Organizing: This focuses on bringing together people who live in close proximity to one another, forming an organization, and helping them to act in their shared self-interest.
  • Political Advocacy: Since public institutions are often the backbone of social work, it is important to know how to influence decisions that will benefit the community as a whole.
  • Human Services Management: In order to help as many people as possible, someone must lead the way and properly direct workflow and resources in a way that is efficient.
  • Policy Analysis: It is important to enable social workers to evaluate all options and act to carry out the goals of their organization and community.

While a Master of Social Work (MSW) is the most common professional degree in social work, you could also find that your school offers a similar, MSW-related degree under a different name.

Examples include:

  • Master of Science in Social Work (MSSW)
  • Master of Science in Social Administration (MSSA)
  • Master of Social Welfare (also abbreviated MSW)

Finally, your school could offer a joint degree, giving you an MSW as well as a degree in law, public health, or public administration.

Master of Social Work Program Length

Most Master of Public Health programs require between 60 and 70 credits to graduate.  Some programs could also require 900 to 1,200 hours of fieldwork, although this varies by school.  Normally, an MSW program takes two to three years to complete. The sooner, the merrier; a competitive industry like today does not wait for anyone, hence it’s only favorable if you get a degree as fast as possible. An accelerated plan, however, could take closer to a year.

This is where adult-friendly schools really shine.  They know their students have jobs, kids, and other obligations that make a traditional school schedule unrealistic.  The best adult-friendly schools make the process as convenient as possible, and they could get you into the workforce as fast as possible because they know that’s what adults want.

Choosing the Right University or College MSW Program

Choosing the right school for you can be exciting, but it can also be a hassle.  Tuition costs, application fees, accreditation, enrollment windows, and entrance exams are just some of the variables to consider.

That’s why we created the Smartplan.  We want to help people go back to school, to make college more accessible and affordable for everyone.

With our Smartplan, we make it easy for you to start on your path towards your Master of Social Work.

Here are just some of the benefits of your Smartplan:

  • No application fees
  • Accredited colleges and universities
  • No entrance exams or testing
  • Faculty and professors who understand adults
  • Discounts and scholarships available
  • Open enrollment dates

Recommended Schools

Best Jobs for Those With a Masters of Social Work

What can you do with an MSW?  What kind of salary can you expect?

Here are some common careers for MSW holders, with salary data estimates provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

  • Group Social Worker: This is someone who works with people in support groups, helping them to relate to others with similar experiences. You could make anywhere from $36,520 to $82,840 per year.
  • Hospice Social Worker: Helping people and their loved ones plan and prepare for end-of-life care is a very important job, especially in a community with an aging population. You could make anywhere from $36,520 to $82,840 per year.
  • Mental Health Counselor: This may involve working with individuals, groups, or both, helping people to achieve optimum mental and emotional health. You could make anywhere from $30,870 to $77,980 per year.
  • School Counselor or School Social Worker:  This could involve working with a wide range of students, helping them to improve academic performance, correct behavioral issues, deal with problems in the home, and choose colleges. You could make anywhere from $37,550 to $98,190 per year.
  • Social Work Planner: Communities need people to plan social services programs and policies to address social problems. You could make anywhere from $36,520 to $82,840 per year.
  • Substance Abuse Counselor: Helping people overcome an addiction to alcohol, street drugs, or prescription drugs is more important than ever. You could make anywhere from $30,870 to $77,980 per year.

We’ve compiled some of our favorite careers, but an MSW does provide you with broad skills to work in a variety of public health jobs, which will likely allow you to draw an excellent salary while helping keep your community healthy and safe.

The best careers are those that pay well AND let you feel fulfilled by giving something back.  And again, you don’t need to know right now which job you want. Further, the novel pandemic coronavirus has opened doors to new opportunities. And at the end of the day, you always have the option of working on your own. These are just some of the possibilities you can choose from.

Cost and Tuition

Cost and tuition vary from school to school, and you’ll want to speak with each of your prospective schools directly.  Fortunately, online schools are generally more affordable than their in-person counterparts. Many such MSW programs come with financial aid and scholarships to help students with their tuition costs.

Adult-friendly colleges understand the financial challenges and work to make the experience viable and wholesome, both in terms of education and savings. These colleges can help you with financial aid if you’re eligible. You’ll definitely want to speak to a few schools, and can help you with that.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Q: Do I need to know what job I want before I start an MSW program?

A: No!  An MSW program could prepare you for a wide variety of careers.  You certainly don’t need to know what job you want today.

Q: Will I make more money with an MSW?

A: That depends on a variety of factors.  But as you can see above in the “Best Jobs for Those With a Master of Social Work” section, your MSW could mean excellent earning potential.

Q: How long will I be in school?

A: That could depend on you, your current job, and any other obligations you might have.  An MSW program could take anywhere from one to three years, but our Smartplan is designed to help you find the right degree for you, so can finish as quickly as possible!


How to save time and money

Our mission is to help you to avoid paying full price for college. We want your Masters in Social Work degree to be affordable and accessible. Here’s how you could save:

Create Your Free SmartPlan

There are many ways to make college affordable and accessible.

That’s why we created a helpful tool called SmartPlan.

It’s free, and helps you find potential ways to save and tons of information about each school you’re considering

Think of it as your “college blueprint”, to help you instantly craft a path to your degree:

  • Which Colleges Match Your Needs
  • Ways You Could Save Time & Money
  • Free Courses You Could Take for Credit
  • Valuable Data and Insights on Each College
  • Detailed Steps You Should Take!

See what’s possible for you and generate a free plan within just a few minutes

Create My SmartPlan

You Might also be Interested in

Many visitors who look for a degree in Masters in Social Work are also interested in the following degrees.

About the Author
Grant founded with a purpose-driven mission: make college accessible and affordable for everyone. After graduating college with an overwhelming amount of debt, he was determined to change how students embark on their education. He's a frequent speaker and author in higher education, and has been featured in Forbes, Bloomberg Businessweek, Business Insider, American Express, AOL, MSN, Thrive Global, Reader's Digest, Inside Higher Ed, Evolllution, EducationDive, and nearly 100 radio shows and podcasts.

Start Towards Your Masters in Social Work Degree, Free.

Generate your free SmartPlan™ to identify schools you like, and potential ways to save on your degree or certification program with courses, offers, and much more!

Get Started