Types of Social Work Degrees & Programs

A career in social work is rewarding in that you have the opportunity to make a difference in many lives. You also have the chance to earn a good salary and enjoy a lot of job demand. In more parts of the US, social workers are being relied upon to provide very important social services, clinical and healthcare for large numbers of people.

The degree to which social workers are being relied on in the healthcare system is borne out in government statistics. While the growth rate for social workers overall employment is a solid 12% by 2024, the employment of healthcare social workers will soar by 19% by 2024.

The demand for these highly specialized social workers will grow more important in coming years as more of their help is needed to assist the aging population and their families deal with more medical problems and treatments. These people also will need to be guided to find more healthcare services and resources, which is such a big part of what social workers have done for decades.

In thinking about entering the social work field, there are a number of educational paths you can take to launch your career in social work. Consider the following social work degrees and programs. The one that you select will depend upon how long you want to be in school. You may decide to earn your bachelor’s degree in social work for now and gain several years of experience. Then you can consider earning your graduate degree at a later date, and your employer may pay for much of the degree.

Bachelor of Science in Social Work

Earning a bachelor’s degree in social work is generally the entryway into a career in social work. Most people with their bachelor’s in social work handle more of the entry level tasks in the field, such as case management and connecting clients with social service resources in their community. They may do more macro roles, such as the management of a social services program or community organization.

In a limited fashion, bachelor’s degree holders may deal with some limited forms of counseling to clients, such as when things such as making life adjustments or changes in decision making are in play. In the majority of states, bachelor’s degree holders may not engage in psychotherapy services; this is clinical social work and is reserved to people who have at least a master’s degree. People with a four year degree also may not engage in private practice social work either.

Even if bachelor’s degree holders may not do clinical social work, must states still require them to be certified and have a license. For more information about licensing and certification in your state, you should check the Association of Social Work Boards website.

The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) is the recognized accreditation body for social worker education programs, and it notes that most undergraduate programs for social workers prepare the professional to be a general social worker, with a typical salary of $30,000 to $35,000 to start out. When you earn your undergraduate degree, you can expect to do approximately 400 hours of fieldwork in a social services agency in your area.

Typical classwork in an undergraduate social work program includes:

  • Social welfare policy
  • Community resource development
  • Human behavior
  • Treatments and interventions

Master of Social Work

Earning your master’s degree, or MSW, in social work opens many more doors in the exciting social work field. With a two year MSW degree, you will have the chance to learn highly specialized skills for advanced social work practice.

If you already have a bachelor’s degree, you may get credit for some of the classes you have already had. You may be able to move ahead in your MSW program into more advanced social work competencies. If you already do have your bachelor’s in social work, you can expect to do approximately 30-40 credit hours to earn your MSW.

For those who are entering an MSW program without a bachelor’s in social work, you may need to complete closer to 60 credit hours.


As noted by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), a MSW degree is usually what is required to work in health care social work, which tends to have the most responsibility and highest pay. A MSW holder in this field of social work will often work on social work caseloads where clients have to learn how to deal with serious health diagnoses. You will have to help these patients work through their health care issues, find critical resources, and make difficult decisions about treatment.

Many MSW holders may also work with clients who are dealing with mental illness. To do this kind of work, you do need to have a MSW focusing on either clinical social work or health care social work.

While many of the roles for a MSW holder are in the clinical arena, there also are many jobs available in the administrative arena for master’s holders.

The NASW has many social work specialty certifications that are reserved only for MSW or higher degree holders. Some of these specialties are:

  • Aging
  • Alcohol, Tobacco and Drugs
  • Children, Adolescents and Young Adults
  • Child Welfare
  • Health
  • Private Practice
  • School Social Work
  • Social and Economic Justice and Peace
  • Clinical

You can earn many of these specializations during your MSW program, and this is usually followed up by supervised experience in the field in that specialty.

Of course, when you earn your MSW degree, you can expect to earn more money. Generally, MSW holders who work in a hospital setting in clinical or health care social work can expect a salary in the $50,000 to $60,000 range.

Doctorate in Social Work

Earning a doctorate in social work does not give you a higher or better license in social work, but there are many valid reasons to consider this terminal degree. Experienced social worker may opt to get a doctoral degree so that they can conduct their own scholarly research, lead a social services organization, or to possibly earn a senior faculty position.

Earning a doctoral degree in the field is especially important for a career in academia and education. Virtually any full professor in social work must have a doctoral degree.

This degree also can be a major benefit if you want to have a senior administrative position in a major social services agency. Earning a doctoral degree in social work also is often needed to stay at the forefront of healthcare and clinical social work, which is always evolving and changing.

There are two doctoral degrees in social work to consider: the DSW and Ph.D. The vast majority of doctoral degree holders in social work end up working as postsecondary teachers, or professors.

Doctor of Social Work (DSW)

The DSW has for the most part been always considered as a doctorate for practicing as a social worker, rather than working as a scholarly researcher. While it is a fairly new degree, it still has been around for more than 50 years.

A DSW is generally designed to ready the student for advanced clinical practice and leadership on the advanced practice level. It is largely geared for the working professional, and generally may can be completed in three or four years.


There often is a substantial difference between the DSW and the regular Ph.D. in social work, but not always. Depending upon which university you are considering, the school may call the doctorate degree in social work a DSW or Ph.D. If you see a university that has both, the Ph.D. will nearly always be the degree that is designed for the researcher in social work.

As you are considering your social work doctoral degree, it is important to not just look at the initials of the degree. Even doctoral degrees that state that it is a ‘practice’ degree could have a good deal of research focus as well. Some doctoral programs tend to stress more of the administrative side of the field, while others will focus on the clinical aspects.

Many doctoral programs may require a regular doctoral dissertation but some others may have a different large project a the end of the program. Typical Ph.D. programs in social work focus on giving students the ability to:

  • Do independent social work research that is strong on evidence-based practice and has an impact on the problems studied.
  • Analyze and do translational research that will advance how evidenced based interventions are implemented.
  • Apply advanced social work analytical models and new theories of social work to solve complex social problems and human behaviors.


As noted earlier, the Council on Social Work Education or CSWE is the national association that accredits social work programs from the bachelor’s to doctoral level. It has been recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation as the only accrediting agency for social work education in the US.