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

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What will you learn in a clinical social work program? Read about program requirements, the pros and cons of a master's and Ph.D. degree and potential careers.
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Study Clinical Social Work: Master's and Ph.D. Degrees at a Glance

Clinical social workers diagnose and provide therapy to clients suffering from mental, behavioral and emotional disorders. All states require clinical social workers to be licensed, though specific requirements vary by state. To become a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), you must typically earn a Master of Social Work (MSW), complete two years of supervised clinical experience and pass an exam.

Working within a system sometimes ill-equipped to respond to the needs of clients with social disadvantages and mental health problems can be stressful. Furthermore, your salary is likely to make paying off student loan debts you may acquire in graduate school challenging. However, this career, which is a calling for many, can be personally rewarding. Furthermore, job prospects are strong. The BLS predicted faster-than-average job growth of 25% from 2010-2020 for social workers.

Master's Doctorate
Who is this degree for? Students interested in becoming licensed clinical social workers Students who wish to work as professors, researchers, policy makers, community planners or social services agency administrators
Common Career Paths (with approximate median annual salary) - Child, family and school social worker ($41,000)*
- Mental health social worker ($39,000)*
- Substance abuse social worker ($39,000)*
- Social services director ($96,000 - may require 7 years' experience)**
- Associate professor of social work ($67,000 - may require 7 years' experience)**
- Social work professor ($83,000 - may require 12 years' experience)**
- Director of advocacy organization (salary unavailable)
Time to Completion 2 years full-time (1 year full-time for candidates with a bachelor's degree in social work) 4 years after the master's
Common Graduation Requirements - Comprehensive exam, capstone project or thesis
- Field internships
- PhD qualifier exams
- Dissertation proposal
- Dissertation
Prerequisites Bachelor's degree in social work or other degree with liberal arts courses Usually a master's degree in social work or related field
Online Availability Yes Rare

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

Master's Degrees in Clinical Social Work

Not all degree programs that lead to a Master of Social Work (MSW) emphasize the development of psychotherapy knowledge and skills necessary to become a licensed clinical social worker. Some MSW programs offer clinical social work training as a track or concentration, as well as the option to pursue a concentration in social work administration or advocacy. MSW programs that don't offer concentrations may be dedicated to clinical social work training or more focused on training students for administrative or leadership roles in social work. If you wish to become a licensed clinical social worker, researching MSW program options carefully is important.

Program accreditation is also a key point to verify. The state in which you intend to work will likely require licensure candidates to have earned their MSW from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). Many MSW programs offer an 'advanced standing' option to candidates who have recently completed a Bachelor of Social Work degree program. Advanced standing status generally allows you to complete your MSW program in one year (typically three semesters) of full-time study rather than two years (or five semesters). Finally, the location of the school you attend will determine the types of field work experiences you have; schools in rural communities and urban centers typically offer classes and field experiences specific to local needs, which is worth considering in light of your career goals.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Many programs offer part- and full-time completion plans.
  • Applicants may have undergraduate degrees in a wide variety of disciplines.
  • Students have field placements and job options working with various populations in diverse settings (like community mental health clinics, substance abuse clinics, nursing homes, schools and military bases).

Cons

  • Relative to average social work salaries, the cost of earning an MSW is high.
  • A minimum of two years or 3,000 hours of post-master's experience is typically required to get licensed to practice as a clinical social worker.
  • Clinical social workers are prone to high stress due to understaffing and heavy case loads.

Courses and Requirements

In MSW programs, a significant part of the curriculum is geared toward providing you with a foundation in social work principles. According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), core values of social work professionals include social justice, the dignity of the individual and service. As a social worker, your professional code of ethics includes respecting diversity and challenging exploitation and discrimination. Some foundational courses you may take include topics like institutional oppression, diversity (class, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and other forms), community organization and human behavior (considered in the context of the social environment).

Once you acquire a general understanding of general social work concepts and practices, you take courses more specific to clinical social work. Rather than 'macro' psychosocial issues faced within larger social groups, like organizations and communities, clinical social work addresses mental, behavioral and emotional disorders faced by individuals, families and groups at the 'micro' level. Some courses you may encounter in your clinical social work studies include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Diagnosis of mental health disorders
  • Substance abuse intervention
  • Trauma theory and assessment
  • Family violence

Your MSW training will be focused on crucial internship experiences in the field. MSW programs typically require a minimum of 900 hours of field study in community organizations or social services agencies. Several programs don't require you to complete a thesis to graduate; however, many have a thesis option, as well as options to take comprehensive exams or complete a capstone project.

Online Availability

Because MSW programs emphasize field education, they lend themselves well to online formats; several CSWE-accredited MSW programs are available online. Some programs have components in which you participate in 'real-time' classes or allow you to have video chats with professors during their online office hours. Others allow you to study, post ideas on discussion boards, watch videos and take exams according to the needs of your schedule, though assignment and test deadlines must be met. Your program will typically provide assistance in locating appropriate placements in government or social services agencies, schools, hospitals and other organizations to meet your field placement requirements.

Stand Out With This Degree

Social work is a field with a strong job outlook. In particular, clinical social workers specializing in mental health and substance abuse can expect, according to the BLS, to see a 31% increase in job growth from 2010-2020, which is much faster than average. Nevertheless, by taking strategic steps while earning your MSW, you may be able to position yourself for the social work job of your choice.

  • Join a professional association. Becoming a student member of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) provides you with several benefits. As a member, you may win NASW scholarships, receive low-cost student social work liability insurance, take professional development classes and have access to professional journals. Your NASW student membership may help you impress potential employers with your professional awareness and commitment.
  • Become bilingual. You may also consider studying or improving your skills in a commonly spoken immigrant language, like Spanish. The U.S. Census Bureau predicted that Hispanics will account for 30% of the total U.S. population in 2050; the 2010 Census reported a Hispanic population of around 16.3% of the nation's population. Some of the 16 states with Hispanic populations of over a half million are experiencing acute shortages of bilingual social workers; therefore, speaking Spanish can place you in high demand.
  • Earn voluntary credentials. The NASW offers many certification programs to licensed social workers to expand career opportunities and improve professional skills. With an MSW, you may consider earning credentials like the Certified Clinical Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drugs Social Worker, Qualified Clinical Social Worker or Clinical Social Worker in Gerontology. Obtaining specialized professional credentials may broaden your knowledge of sub-fields in social work and increase your job prospects.

Degree Alternatives

If you're interested in working with younger clients, you may consider a career as a school psychologist. As a school psychologist, you work with K-12 students and their families to overcome behavioral, mental or emotional problems that interfere with students' success at school. The BLS predicted clinical, counseling and school psychologists to experience a faster-than-average 22% increase in job growth from 2010-2020.

Though clinical and counseling psychologists are generally required to earn a doctoral degree, you may become a school psychologist by earning a master's degree or higher in school psychology. In a master's degree program in school psychology, you can expect to take courses in the psychology of learning, child and adolescent development, multiculturalism, psychopathology, therapeutic methods and behavior management, among others. According to a May 2011 report by the BLS, clinical, counseling and school psychologists earned an average salary of about $73,000.

Doctoral Degrees in Clinical Social Work

Earning a Ph.D. in Social Work can help you advance in your clinical practice career, as well as open up other options in scholarship and teaching, research, policy making, community planning and agency administration. Typically, applicants need to have earned an MSW to apply, although related degrees and experience affiliated with social work are also acceptable by some programs; admissions teams tend to view applications as a whole rather than checking off specific criteria, evaluating your commitment and experience in the field, as well as potential for success in research and scholarship.

You can expect smaller class sizes in Ph.D. programs, which result in enhanced mentorship experiences. Research skills acquired through coursework and participation in research projects prepares you for your dissertation proposal, research and writing. As at the MSW level, selecting a program in an area compatible with your career goals is crucial, as well as identifying programs with faculty areas of expertise in line with your research interests. For example, if you're interested in exploring issues like children's mental health, you may consider applying to programs with well-published faculty members actively engaged in well-funded research projects in your area of interest.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • A Ph.D. program may allow you to develop advanced knowledge in psychotherapy and holistic therapy to enhance your work with patients.
  • Working within your area of specialization and with faculty advisors, you can work toward becoming an authority in a specific area of clinical social work.
  • Earning a Ph.D. can open up careers with more leadership responsibilities and greater salary potentials. These careers may also provide opportunities to create positive social changes for underserved communities.

Cons

  • Few clinical social work jobs require higher than a master's degree, and applied clinical and leadership experience may count more than a Ph.D. for advancement in some cases.
  • Ph.D. programs in social work are demanding and may require a full-time commitment for timely completion.
  • Beginning with your undergraduate studies, you may spend more than ten years in school.

Courses and Requirements

In doctoral programs in social work, you typically choose an area of specialization, like mental health, gerontology or military social work. Coursework at the Ph.D. level tends to be focused on developing research skills and a theoretical perspective. In addition to core courses, you can expect to take electives, in which you may, for example, develop additional research skills or acquire a foreign language.

Some examples of core and elective social work courses at the Ph.D. level:

  • Theory of social work practice
  • Analysis of social policy theory
  • Statistics
  • Mental health and culture
  • International perspectives on women and mental health

Courses you take during the first phase of your doctoral program are designed to provide a foundation for your dissertation work and defense. Typically, you're required to submit a qualifying paper and/or pass comprehensive oral exams before advancing to doctoral candidacy. If you don't enter the program with an MSW, some programs allow you to do internships. You may also be engaged in research or teaching assistantships during your program, which may be optional or a required part of your aid package.

Online Availability

Exclusively online doctoral programs in social work aren't available; however, you may consider a hybrid Ph.D. program, though rare. In addition to some on-campus presence, you may be required to participate in online seminars in 'real time.' This option may be attractive if you're working as a clinical social worker and primarily seek to advance in your practice or gain a promotional advantage; however, if you want to enter an academic, research or policy career, the research and mentorship advantages of an accredited on-campus program may be essential to your career transition.

Stand Out With This Degree

Completing graduate research and/or teaching assistantships can help you develop important skills for academic careers. Working as a research assistant, for example, provides you with the opportunity to participate in funded projects in areas like adult mental health, substance abuse or child welfare. Assistantships are usually paid, either through a monthly stipend or through tuition reimbursement. Through this participation, you may have opportunities to do professional presentations, network and publish. These experiences can give you an advantage in the academic job search that other candidates lack.

Popular Schools

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Featured Schools

Grand Canyon University

  • MS in Addiction Counseling
  • M.S. in Professional Counseling with an Emphasis in Marriage and Family Therapy
  • M.S. in Professional Counseling with an Emphasis in Trauma

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Colorado State University Global

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University of the Rockies

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  • MA Counseling - Marriage, Couples, and Family Counseling

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Regent University

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  • Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership - Healthcare Management
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Northcentral University

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  • Master of Arts in Marriage & Family Therapy (MAMFT)
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Herzing University

  • MBA Dual Concentration: Healthcare Management and Public Safety Leadership
  • MBA Dual Concentration: Healthcare Management and Project Management

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American InterContinental University

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  • Master of Business Admin: Healthcare Admin

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Colorado Technical University

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