Though entry-level jobs in social work can be gained with a bachelor’s degree, many social workers earn an MSW, as it is the required educational level for those who aspire to be licensed clinical social workers, or LCSWs. This qualification opens up employment options, leads to increased salaries, offers more opportunities for advancement, and allows social workers to move into supervisory positions. Some roles, such as those in the education or healthcare sectors, require applicants to hold a master’s degree to be considered for even entry-level employment.

Steps to Entry into a Master’s Social Work Program

Those interested in obtaining a master’s degree in social work must follow specific steps to be accepted into a program. The following list helps prospective students choose, prepare for, and enter the appropriate degree matched to their skills and aspirations.

1.Significant Research

Social work is a popular field, and there are numerous degree programs available through countless colleges and universities. Students should do in-depth research on what each program offers, the accreditation status of the school, how students engage in real-world training, and the range of networking opportunities available.


Once the field is narrowed, the actual application process begins. Applications typically require a wide variety of information, including past educational experience and transcripts, research and publication credits, and other information to help students stand out in a competitive applicant field.

3.Letters of Recommendation

Most social work graduate programs require at least three letters of recommendation. Faculty members, employers or other professionals who are well aware of the skills, knowledge and attitude of the applicant can write these. Glowing recommendations from faculty members tend to hold a great deal of weight with admissions committees, so students should try to get at least two of the three letters from professors.


Some graduate programs require in-person interviews with aspiring students who are close to receiving acceptance. For those pursuing an online master’s degree in social work, these interviews may be conducted via Skype, Face Time or other electronic means. The interview allows professors to get a sense of who students are, what their intentions are in the field, and how they are likely to handle the pressures of graduate study.

5.Prerequisite Courses

Students entering graduate programs in social work should be certain all prerequisites are met, or ensure those courses can be completed during the first semester of their program. Each school has varying requirements, but most involve courses in social, behavioral and biological sciences.

6.Financial Aid Inquiries

Receiving the letter of acceptance from a college or university is a very exciting moment, but it quickly leads to the question of finances. Students should not only look into financial assistance at the federal and state levels, but also pursue scholarships, grants and fellowships. Those designed specifically for aspiring social workers are a good place to start, but don’t discount general scholarship and financing opportunities.

7.Formal Acceptance

The final step in starting an MSW program is formal acceptance. Once the college or university is chosen, students should fill out required paperwork, pay any initial fees, and begin preparing for classes.

Master’s in Social Work Program Requirements

Each program in social work has certain requirements that must be met for students to graduate. These may vary from one program to another, though a few tend to be universal. Requirements commonly in place for the master’s degree in social work include:

Credits and Field Instruction

A certain number of credits are required in order to graduate from a master’s degree program. These credits are commonly divided between classroom work and field instruction; for instance, the University of Pittsburg requires students to complete 42 hours of coursework and 18 credits of field practicum. Most programs require at least two field experiences, one based on foundation concepts and one based on students’ chosen concentrations.

Foundation Courses

These courses usually round out the first year and include core concepts and fundamental studies required for further education. Sample courses include human behavior in the social environment, social welfare, generalist foundations in social work, and social work research.

Concentration Courses

These courses go more in-depth with a particular area or focus of social work. Programs often offer numerous concentrations, including individual practice, community practice, social welfare policy, organizational research, group and family practice, or community practice.

Field Experience

Experience in a real-world setting is vitally important, not just for the purposes of educational pursuits, but also for the graduate to become licensed in social work. Some colleges require students to earn their field experience through a certain number of hours per week, similar to a work-study program. Others will place students in a local hospital, clinic or business where they will be supervised by a social worker during certain periods of time. In many cases, a minimum of 900 hours of practical field experience is required for graduation.

Students can also choose an advanced standing track, assuming they have already earned a bachelor’s degree in social work. This prior education meets the foundational course requirements and will be counted toward the master’s degree, allowing students to graduate in three semesters of full-time study. Other options include dual enrollment, which allows students to obtain two degrees simultaneous and often in a closely related field with overlapping coursework requirements. Students may choose to obtain their master’s degree in social work while also earning a master’s degree in public health. Depending on requirements, this may be completed in the same two-year timeframe or may add an extra semester.

Goals of the Master’s in Social Work

Master’s degrees in social work prepare students to become licensed clinical social workers (LCSW), a highly reputable and challenging career path. In light of the esteem in which the degree and subsequent work is held, master’s programs recognize that certain goals should be met by the time a student graduates.

Many schools offer a mission statement or set of goals students should keep in mind throughout their studies. Below are a few examples of common master’s degree goals and what students can expect to obtain in terms of learning, training, experience, and outlook.

To engage in evidence-based work

To advance social and economic well-being

To conduct themselves as professionals

To apply critical-thinking skills to a wide range of issues

To advocate for human rights and justice

To engage in well-informed research

To respond appropriately to demographical, economical and sociopolitical contexts

To be able to effectively evaluate and intervene when necessary

To use diversity and difference to strengthen clients

To apply ethical principles in every area of their practice

Graduates of MSW programs should be well-rounded individuals who are ready to perform to the best of their ability as professional licensed clinical social workers.

Social Work Master’s Degree Program Description

Social Work Master’s Coursework

Coursework is typically broken into foundation and concentration courses taken over the course of two years of full-time study. Foundational classes are usually taken first, setting the stage for more in-depth coursework. These foundation courses, also known as core courses, include instruction in a wide variety of areas pertaining to social work, including psychology, research methods, social policy and welfare, and human behavior.

Samples of foundation courses include:

  • Methods of Social Work Research
  • Human Behavior and the Social Environment
  • Psychopathology
  • Social Work Practice I
  • Social Work Practice II
  • Field Education Practicum
  • Foundations of Social Work with Diverse Populations
  • Foundations of Social Work Practice
  • Principles and Philosophy of Social Work

Concentration courses, often singularly focused on a specific area of social work, can be taken after foundational requirements are met. Students often have a wide variety of advanced courses to choose from, depending upon the concentration chosen. Though courses in a concentration area will vary, the following are a few examples of what students might expect from advanced coursework:

  • Human Resource Management
  • Clinical Social Work: Families and Children
  • Adolescents at Risk
  • Child Welfare Management
  • Supervision and Consultation
  • Play Therapy
  • Clinical Social Work: Aging
  • Clinical Social Work: Survivors of Trauma
  • Clinical Social Work: Mental health
  • Solution Focused Therapy

A third option for coursework in a master’s degree program is general electives. These electives can be taken at any time during the master’s degree and generally focus on current issues, social problems and other points tying into future career paths. Samples of general electives include:

  • Law and Social Work
  • Loss Across the Lifespan
  • Violence and Abuse in Adulthood
  • Understanding Addictive Behaviors
  • Human Sexuality
  • Women’s Issues
  • Spirituality and Social Work
  • Issues in Developmental Disabilities

Social Work Concentrations and Areas of Emphasis

When enrolling in a master’s degree in social work, students are often required to declare a concentration. Some schools allow a student to defer their declaration of concentration until halfway through foundation courses. Concentrations vary widely from one school to another, so students who have an eye on a particular career path – working with the elderly, for instance, or working with adolescents – should make certain their chosen school offers a concentration fitted to their career goals.

Areas of emphasis can also further narrow concentrations. This is usually optional, and can be personalized by taking certain general electives during the course of study.

A few samples of concentrations a student might opt for are listed below:

  • Community, Organization and Social Action
  • Direct Practice with Individuals, Families and Small Groups
  • Management and Policy
  • Clinical Social Work
  • Gerontology
  • Social and Economic Development
  • Social Enterprise Administration
  • School-Based Services

Within those concentrations are often areas of emphasis. Here are some examples:

  • International Social Work
  • Mental and Behavioral Health
  • Health and Healthcare
  • Children, Youth and Families
  • Social Policy
  • Substance Abuse
  • Interpersonal Practice
  • Social and Political Change

The Online Master’s Degree in Social Work

Social work requires meeting with clients in face-to-face consultation, while even those working in research often meet with focus groups, panels and individuals that help further their study. With so much in-person work expected, how can students learn all they need through an online degree? By its very nature, online programs can be solitary pursuits that never require students to set foot inside a classroom.

This is a point online schools have addressed, with solutions honed to perfection over the years. Students attending an online program can expect to take several courses through online platforms, but they also complete field requirements at local clinics, hospitals, and social service agencies. Some schools have agreements in place with a wide variety of organizations where students can get the experience they need, while other schools rely on the student to find an appropriate field experience location.

Other points of college life are addressed through online means, including student services and scheduling. Here’s what to expect from several key components of a college education completed online:

Connections with Faculty

Students work closely with their professors through digital platforms, including chat services, message boards, and video chat. Most professors have office hours that allow students to discuss issues either through the computer or over the phone.

Student Services

Services such as library access and advisors are readily available through online schools. These are often exactly the same as a student might expect to receive if they were on a traditional brick-and-mortar campus, but they are obtained through the computer. Rather than going to an advisor’s office and knocking on the door, students in online programs simply send an email and receive a prompt reply.

Flexible Scheduling

Many of those in the social work realm are constantly building their expertise and experience. Flexible scheduling allows students to continue working in established jobs, complete fieldwork (assuming that their current job does not suit the criteria), and complete coursework – a feat that could not be achieved if they were attending a traditional classroom on a set time schedule.


Students at the graduate level can benefit greatly from a mentor who has been in social work for several years. Online colleges are able to align students with mentors to help select concentrations, areas of emphasis, electives, and future career paths. Contact with mentors can be had either by phone or email.

Peer Reviews

Some courses require peer review of coursework, completed through online chats, video conferencing or forums. While some may have specific meeting times, others leave it up to students to create a plan for completing assignments.

In-Person Residencies

In addition to completing a field practicum, students may have to attend a number of in-person residencies. These meetings typically last three or four days and take place at various locations across the country. Residencies allow students to meet with professors face-to-face, spend time with their classmates, and learn through intensive study.

Online Social Work Master’s Degree Q&A

Here are some points students should consider when thinking about an online master’s degree in social work.

Do professional organizations recognize online programs?

Absolutely. The Council on Social Work Education accredits many online MSW programs. Some of these are offered through online-only schools, while others are attached to well-established colleges and universities across the nation.

Is the academic quality the same?

The educational quality of an online master’s degree in social work is frequently on par with degrees offered in brick-and-mortar institutions; the only difference is the format in which information is delivered to students.

Does financial aid extend to online programs?

In most cases, yes. Financial aid, especially on the federal and state levels, requires a student to attend an accredited program to receive funding. Scholarships and grants are awarded to students who qualify, and it usually doesn’t matter whether they are attending an online school or a traditional institution. Students should check with the sponsor of the grant or scholarship to be absolutely certain.

How do I collaborate with instructors and other students?

Collaboration with peers and professors can be done from anywhere, as long as there is an internet connection and a reliable computer. It might be helpful to plan out a time to “meet” with fellow students to discuss the particulars of a project, but some find that simply communicating via email or chat suffices.

What about internships?

Most colleges and universities offer plenty of internship opportunities for students attending online courses. Professionals at the online institution, who work closely with students and their local businesses, hospitals, clinics, and mental health facilities, facilitate this. Students can often find a list of internships through their school, or create their own and have it approved by the program director.

What is a virtual field experience?

A new trend in online education is virtual field experience. Pioneered by Walden University, this is a series of streaming videos allowing students to watch social workers on the job in various areas of practice and get a feel for day-to-day activities. The analysis component of the field experience includes the social worker discussing how they apply theory to practice in their roles.

Finding the Right Online Master’s Degree in Social Work Program

An online master’s degree in social work can vary widely from one school to another, and some may have a better reputation for a higher-quality education. Here’s how to narrow the field to schools and programs that truly stand out from the pack.


Accreditation means that a school or program has been judged by an independent body and meets the rigorous standards of a high-quality education. The Council on Social Work Education currently accredits 238 master’s degree programs in social work, with another 17 programs in candidacy for approval. Any of these programs would are eligible for students seeking federal aid, and prove to employers that the degree is valid and valuable.

Graduation Rate

How many are students enrolled in a school and how many actually graduated from that enrollment class? The graduation rate of a program will be a tell-tale sign of not only the rigor of the work, but also the experience and effectiveness of the faculty

Licensure Attainment

In addition to the percentage of students graduating, applicants should research how many of those graduates sought and obtained licensure. A great program will thoroughly prepare students to sit for the examination and earn their licensure within a few years of graduation.

Notable Faculty

Those who teach in a program should be well-known, highly educated and widely-published. Look for faculty who have earned respect in the field, and who have a good reputation among graduating students. If considering a specific branch of social work, look for faculty who may be able to serve as mentors within that concentration.

Alumni Success

After graduates leave school and earn their license, then what? Notable work means that their degree propelled them to exciting careers in the social work field. Look for those who work with large professional organizations or who have found significant success in their practice.

Social Work Resources