Social Worker Degrees: Master's, PhD & Online Course Info

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Master's degrees and PhDs in Social Work can lead to careers in and out of social work. Get the truth about the requirements, courses and career options, and find out what you can do with your social work degree.
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Study Social Work: Graduate Degrees at a Glance

A graduate degree in social work could prepare you to work in high-level roles in various settings. Some examples of your employment options include providing services to nonprofit agencies in under served communities, working in the healthcare industry as a clinical social worker, helping shape social work policies and practices or working in academia. If clinical social work is your concentration area, you'll need to take a national licensing exam administered by the Association of Social Work Boards. You can apply to sit for the exam after the completion of your educational and fieldwork requirement.

The job outlook for the social work profession looks promising, and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expected demand for social workers to increase 25% from 2010 to 2020, which is faster than average. While a bachelor's degree may allow you to gain access to entry-level positions, a graduate degree prepares you to work in leadership roles.

Master's PhD
Who is this degree for? People who are interested in clinical practice, organizational management or becoming a licensed social worker People who are interested in positions in research, full time academia or policy development
Common Career Paths (with approximate mean annual salary) - Mental health and substance abuse counselor ($43,000)*
- Child protection social worker ($44,000)*
- Heathcare case Manager ($51,000)*
- University professor ($75,000)*
- Program director associate professor social work (unavailable)
Time to Completion 1-2 years full-time (the one year option is only available to people with a BSW from a four year accredited university ) 4-5 years full-time
Common Graduation Requirements - Completion of fieldwork (900-1200 hours depending on the university)- Completion of courses
- Pass a qualifying exam
- Research and develop a dissertation
- Completion of the dissertation and defense of it
Prerequisites Bachelor's degree from an accredited university in liberal arts or related field Master's degree in social work or from an allied profession or discipline
Online Availability Yes Yes

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures).

Master's in Social Work

A master's degree program in social work provides you with the skills and knowledge needed to address and assess the needs of policy makers, small groups, individuals and families. Most programs are structured for you to complete your foundational courses in the first year and your concentration courses during the second year. The names of the concentration areas will vary slightly depending on the university, but they typically include clinical and macro social work.

Getting a master's degree in social work can be very expensive when you factor in the total cost of your education and how soon you will see a return in your educational investment. According to a study done by the National Center for Educational Statistics, $34,600 was the total average price for 1 year of a full-time master's degree education.

Pros and Cons


  • Excellent job growth (25% expected growth between 2010-2020)*
  • Many career choice options
  • Have a fulfilling career helping others


  • The fieldwork hours required to complete the degree can be demanding
  • It is a competitive program that may require an interview with an admission committee during the review for admission process
  • Has set standard admission requirements before being considered for the program. These requirements include letters of recommendation, a certain grade point average (varies with each university) and a personal statement.

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Courses and Requirements

Students in a social work master's degree program can expect coursework in the subject areas of social work policy, social environment, research and human behavior. As a requirement for graduation, students must complete a certain amount of fieldwork hours. During this hands-on training, students get to put their theoretical curriculum into practice under the supervision of an instructor by actively engaging in professional tasks that reinforce classroom learning. Hospitals, schools and community agencies are the types of settings students may work in.

Typical course requirements:

  • Human development from infancy to adolescence
  • Research on social work ethics and the outcome of practices
  • History of social policy
  • Social work practice from a macro perspective

By the end of the program, students should have a broad understanding of the professional social work practice to be able to work with families, individuals, groups, organizations and communities.

Online Degree Options

Online master's degree options in social work are available. Make sure the Council on Social Work Education accredits the program, especially if you plan to sit for the licensure exam within your state. While the coursework can be taken online, participants still have to complete the required fieldwork in their area. It is a vital part of the learning process and it's needed to successfully complete the degree program.

Getting Ahead with this Degree

Consider completing a dual degree program if your goal is to get a PhD degree after completing your master's degree. Many universities offer dual MSW/PhD programs, and you can get ahead by earning two degrees in less time that it would take you to complete them separately.

Many schools offer certificates of specializations to students who want to enhance their employment opportunities by providing them with special in-depth knowledge on a particular subject. These certificate programs are generally taken during a student's concentration year. Examples of common specialization programs include: infancy and early childhood, aging, school social work practice, Jewish studies and couples and family therapy.

PhD in Social Work

A PhD degree in social work prepares students to become educators, social work researchers and policy experts. The classes are typically intimate and small in size. Teaching, interdisciplinary scholarly research and data analysis are subjects that this degree program focuses on. Getting a PhD graduate degree is not for everyone. It takes commitment, intelligence, self-motivation and maturity to succeed.

The program is structured so that the core curriculum is completed during the first year and second years. The elective courses are taken after the successful completion of the core curriculum. After all of the coursework is completed, students must take and pass a qualifying examination before beginning work on the dissertation.

Pros and Cons


  • Develop advance knowledge in social work policy, teaching, research and program administration
  • Be recognized as an authority in your field
  • Increase your earning potential (people who earn a PhD has an increase of at least $17,000 in annual base pay)


  • It is a lengthy program that averages four to five years for completion full-time; however, it can take much longer to complete if you're attending part-time
  • The workload is equivalent to a full-time job. It is nearly impossible to work and complete this program on a full-time schedule (most schools offer full-time students financial support)
  • Must take foundational courses and then pass a comprehension exam before you qualify to move on to complete the remainder of your degree

Courses and Requirements

Course requirements for a PhD in social work consists of the primary coursework, concentration electives, a written comprehensive exam on the primary coursework completed, a dissertation and an oral defense of it. The dissertation is a lengthy process that can take a few years to complete. It involves completing a series of research courses and the development and proposal of a dissertation topic.

Typical course requirements include:

  • Analysis of social interventions and problems
  • Participate in independent and collaborative research on public policy issues
  • Development, history and evolution of social policy
  • History of social work

Online Degree Options

Online PhDs in social work are available. Make sure the program you are enrolling in is from an accredited educational institute. The online curriculum requirements are very similar to the campus-based programs; however, students must complete residency sessions several times throughout the year. Residences are face-to-face sessions held in your geographical area with faculty members and academic advisors to enhance your learning experience. These sessions can be held in small groups and one-on-one sessions.

Stand Out with this Degree

College professors, social scientists and researchers are common career paths for individuals who earn a PhD in social work. Unfortunately, the tenure-track positions at many colleges and universities are diminishing. Many are moving toward adjunct and part-time positions, so it is a competitive field. Increase your marketability by having a strong technological background. Many schools offer an online platform to its students so they have the flexibility of continuing their education while working. Consider getting a graduate certificate in education technology. These types of programs focus on online teaching and technology integration.

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