Most social workers choose the field not for the money, but because they have a calling to help people. However, social workers still need to earn a living. It’s wise for a social worker considering going back to school to ask what to expect from a master’s in social work salary.
What Is a Master’s of Social Work (MSW)?
First off, what is a Master of Social Work (MSW), anyway? The MSW is the graduate-level degree that fits the practice-focused objectives of the social work field.
In the field of social work a master’s degree is not required for entry-level roles. A Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) is sufficient for working directly with clients as a licensed social worker.
Nor is a graduate degree in social work primarily for research, management opportunities or pure prestige. Earning your MSW opens the door to new roles for social workers. Specifically, the Master of Social Work (MSW) degree is mandatory for those who want to become licensed as clinical social workers.
What does this change in job title have to do with the social worker salary with a masters degree? Whether they use their MSW in a clinical role, a managerial role or an advocacy role, a master’s in social work degree allows established social workers to move into more lucrative positions at better-paying employers.
How Can a Master of Social Work Improve My Salary?
Historically, social workers with a master’s degree have seen a significant wage premium compared to a social worker salary with a bachelor’s degree.
An article by the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports a 25% wage premium for social workers with a master’s degree over how much those with only a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) earn.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics isn’t the only source that has reported a big social worker master degree salary increase. Social workers who earn their MSW earn upwards of $13,000 more than their less highly educated counterparts, the National Association of Social Workers reported.
Improving your salary isn’t the only benefit of earning your graduate degree in social work. The BLS predicts that candidates with a master’s degree will have the most positive job outlook over the next decade.
Master’s of Social Work Jobs
The social worker salary with a master’s degree shows a significant improvement over salary potential with a bachelor’s degree. Why do social workers benefit so much financially from earning their MSW?
This advanced degree isn’t just the next logical step toward career advancement. A master’s -level social work program qualifies you for leadership roles in social work. A master’s degree can also make a much bigger difference in what you do as a social worker.
Licensed Clinical Social Worker
Getting your MSW degree is an essential step toward becoming a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW). The LCSW credential qualifies you to diagnose and treat mental and behavioral health disorders.
You might think of a clinical social worker as similar to a mental health counselor. Licensed clinical social workers administer the tests and assessments used to diagnose mental health issues. Through therapeutic mental health interventions like talk therapy, they treat mental disorders.
Many factors affect human behavior and mental disorders. Practitioners in the clinical social work career path approach mental health from a different perspective than mental health professionals in other fields. They emphasize social and environmental factors that affect mental health.
Licensed clinical social workers provide therapy to individuals, families and groups. Many clinical social workers focus on diagnosing and treating mental health and substance abuse issues in the general adult population. Other LCSWs specialize in clinical social work practice with children, adolescents or older adults.
In a Master of Social Work program, aspiring licensed clinical social workers may take classes in topics like the following:
- Mental health diagnostics
- Anxiety and depression
- Substance abuse disorders
- Loss and crisis intervention
- Psychodynamic theory
- Cognitive behavioral therapy
- Play therapy
The coursework and fieldwork in clinical settings that students complete to get their MSW prepares them to obtain licensure and provide clinical mental health treatment services.
As a licensed clinical social worker, you could open a private practice and be your own boss. You might work in more healthcare-oriented roles. Healthcare social workers find employment in settings like the following:
- Ambulatory healthcare services
- Government agencies
- Individual and family services
- Nursing homes
- Corrections facilities
- Other healthcare facilities
Earning a Master of Social Work degree is an important step for licensed clinical social workers. Before they can dive into a career in mental health treatment, though, they must get a license.
According to the BLS, licensing requirements in most states include the following:
- Completing at least two years of postgraduate supervised clinical experience
- Passing a clinical exam
- Meeting any state-specific licensing requirements that apply in your job location
The average masters degree in social work salary for professionals working in clinical practice amounted to $77,400, Salary.com reported in 2023.
Management Roles in Social Work
Not all students who earn a Master of Social Work degree choose to become licensed clinical social workers. Some move up into management roles in social work, overseeing social services programs and the professional practice of other social workers. Social workers in manager roles earn much higher salaries than other social workers.
Macro Social Work Jobs With a Master’s Degree
You could also use a Master of Social Work degree to do work outside of direct social work practice. Part of a social worker’s role is to advocate for social justice, improved social welfare and access to social services and resources for vulnerable and underserved populations.
With an interest in this “macro” side of social work and a Master of Social Work degree, you might find work settings like the following:
- Think tanks
- Social justice-oriented nonprofit organizations
- Political campaigns
Some roles you might hold in macro social work include:
- Community organizer
- Legislative aide
- Outreach coordinator
- Program developer
The master’s degree in social work salary for macro social work jobs, as in other areas of social work, is significantly higher than the average salary that accompanies a bachelor’s degree.
The Salary Range for Social Workers With and Without a Master’s Degree
Social work has a reputation for being a low-paying career, but that isn’t always the case.
The Median Social Worker Salary
The median annual salary for a social worker – regardless of his or her highest level of education – was $50,390 as of 2021, according to the BLS. That’s not a lucrative salary. Still, it’s significantly above the $45,760 median wage that the BLS reported across all industries in 2020. A social work salary with master’s degree education is better than a social work salary with only a bachelor’s degree.
Social Workers Salaries for Specific Jobs
Different jobs within the field of social work earn different pay rates. This makes comparing social work salaries a bit more complex than you might have expected.
Child, Family and School Social Workers Salaries
Among the lowest-paying jobs in social work are child, family and school social worker. The primary job duty of child, family and school social workers is to protect children. Child, family and school social workers work in settings like social service agencies and elementary and secondary schools.
Overall, child, family and school social workers earned a median wage of just $49,150 per year in 2021, the BLS reported.
A Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Worker’s Salary
Mental health and substance abuse social workers earned a similar median wage of $49,130 as of 2021.
This figure isn’t specific to a masters in social work salary. Social workers with only a bachelor’s degree aren’t qualified to treat substance abuse in a clinical capacity, but they can still serve as substance abuse social workers in case management and care coordination capacities. Licensed clinical social workers salaries for roles in mental health and substance abuse are considerably higher.
Healthcare Social Workers Salaries
Income was considerably higher for healthcare social workers, at $60,840 annually as of 2021. This social worker salary makes healthcare social workers some of highest-paid professionals in the field.
Salary Ranges for Social Workers in Other Fields
Disregarding the impact of a masters of social work salary for a moment, which social workers earn the highest salary? That honor belongs to what the BLS classified as “all other” social workers.
The “other” social work classification encompasses 59,000 workers in the United States as of 2021. That amounts to less than one-tenth of the total social work occupation. Despite representing only a small fraction of the occupation, this category enjoys a higher salary than others. The median annual wage for social workers in the “other” category was $61,190 as of 2021, the BLS reported.
These social work professionals include all those who work in an industry outside of mental health, substance abuse, child and family social work, school social work and healthcare social work.
Social Worker Salary With a Master Degree vs. a Bachelor’s Degree
The BLS reports on earning potential, job outlook, and other occupational data. Unfortunately, it doesn’t distinguish between social workers with master’s degrees and those with only bachelor’s degrees. To better understand the salary for social worker with masters degree and how it differs from a bachelor’s degree, we need to look elsewhere.
Salary.com reports a difference of several thousands of dollars per year between these two roles. The median annual salary for social workers with BSW degrees nationwide was $62,476 as of 2023. Salaries for bachelor’s-level social workers fall in the range between $53,148 and $66,402.
For a social worker salary with masters degree, Salary.com listed a median wage of $69,356 as of 2023. The social work master’s degree salary range went from $62,655 through $76,503.
Over the course of your professional life, earning an additional $6,000 to $7,000 more per year can add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars of extra income. If you go by the $13,000 pay difference reported by the National Association of Social Workers, you could be looking at additional earnings of nearly half a million dollars.
That’s not a bad payoff for a Master of Social Work degree. Consider, too, how little time you actually have to spend in school to mean this credential. Established social workers with a BSW can often enter graduate programs with advanced standing. This means they can complete their Master of Social Work degrees in as little as one year.
Master’s Degree in Social Work Salary for Managers
One reason a master degree in social work salary tends to be significantly higher than a BSW salary is that this advanced degree is more likely to lead to management roles.
In the field of social work, as in other occupations, wages rise as you move into management roles. For example, the BLS reported a median salary of $74,000 in 2021 for social and community services managers. The social and community service managers occupation, according to O*NET, includes job titles like the following:
- Social services director
- Community services director
- Clinical services director
- Social worker supervisor
The nationwide median annual salary for social work supervisor roles, specifically, was $89,771 in 2023, according to Salary.com. Wages for social work supervisors typically fell between the range of $80,497 and $102,081 in 2023. Social service directors can make salaries in the six-figure range, Salary.com reported.
Like direct-service social workers, social and community services managers make a difference. Still, this role is very different than direct-service social work positions and clinical social work roles.
The tasks that are most important for social and community services managers include the following:
- Establishing administrative procedures and organizational policies
- Creating and monitoring administrative documents and records
- Hiring, training and overseeing the performance of staff, including social workers
- Developing and coordinating social services programs
In a managerial role in social work, you handle more of the work behind the scenes. There are both advantages and disadvantages to leaving behind direct-service roles. You no longer have the same stress you face when dealing directly with clients, but you face plenty of administrative stress. Some social workers find their work less fulfilling without that direct connection to the people they help.
The master degree in social work salary potential is especially relevant to managers in the social work field. A master’s degree is the second most common level of education for social and community service managers. Nearly one-quarter of all social and community services managers report having a master’s degree, according to O*NET.
That said, a Master of Social Work isn’t a requirement for management jobs. Half of social and community services managers have a bachelor’s degree. The associate’s degree is the third most common level of education for this profession.
Employment Settings Where Social Workers Make the Most Money
What kind of work you do isn’t the only factor that affects your income. Social worker salaries vary widely depending on several other factors.
One of the most important factors in social worker salaries is where a social worker is employed. This factor encompasses industries of employment, actual work settings and geographic location.
Social Worker Salaries by Industries and Employment Settings
While there are more than a dozen different kinds of work settings that employ social workers, some work settings are known for offering higher salaries than average.
Social Worker Salaries in Healthcare Settings
Hospitals and ambulatory healthcare services offer some of the highest salaries for social workers in general, and especially those with master’s degrees. Salary.com reported a $59,656 median wage for medical social workers with a BSW in 2023. The median annual salary for medical social workers with an MSW in 2023 was $69,291.
Social Worker Salaries in Government Agencies
Government agencies at the state and local levels combined employ 29 percent of the total social worker occupation, according to the BLS. Local government agencies happen to be among the best-paying industries for social workers in general. The BLS reported a median annual wage of $61,190 for social workers in this industry in 2021. Social workers employed by the state government (outside school and hospital settings) made a median salary of $48,090 per year as of 2021.
Social Worker Salaries in Individual and Family Services
On the other hand, social workers working in individual and family services earn thousands of dollars less than the median wage per year. The median wage for social workers in individual and family services as of 2021 was $46,640, the BLS reported.
Self-Employment Income Potential for Social Workers
One way you can improve your earning potential with a master’s of social work is by establishing your own practice as a licensed clinical social worker. Self-employment isn’t for everyone. However, it apparently appeals to thousands of social workers. Approximately two percent of all social workers identified as self-employed in 2016, according to the BLS. That amounts to 13,600 total professionals in the social work field (at that time).
There is no guarantee that a licensed clinical social worker will earn more money by going into private practice. Still, one of the benefits of self-employment is the ability to be in charge of your own earning potential instead of negotiating a salary with an employer.
It’s possible for full-time self-employed licensed clinical social workers to earn a net income in the six-figure range, according to American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. There are risks involved, though.
If you do choose to consider self-employment, be aware of the business expenses that detract from your earnings. Business expenses for self-employed social workers may include the following:
- Costs of renting an office
- Liability insurance
- Professional association dues
- Medical billing costs
- Other expenses
The Best and Worst States for Social Worker Salaries
Geographical location is another factor that impacts your master’s degree in social work salary.
The state where social workers, in general, earn the most money is Hawaii. The average salary there was $85,760 as of 2021, according to the BLS. Social workers in Massachusetts made $85,730 per year, on average. Social workers in Washington reported average earnings of $79,210 in 2021. In Nevada, social workers earned a mean wage of $78,120 annually. New Hampshire rounded out the five best paying states for social workers for 2021.
Tennessee is the worst-paying state in the U.S. for social workers as of 2021. The average salary here was just $48,350 per year, the BLS reported. The lowest-paying states also include Montana and Missouri. Average social worker salaries in these states were $50,190 and $50,870, respectively. Even in the states where social workers earn the least, the average salary for this occupation is still an improvement over social worker wages in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. For social workers in Puerto Rico, the BLS reported an average salary of just $40,210.
Affording a Master of Social Work Degree
The high master’s in social work salary proves that there’s value in the MSW degree. If the type of work that brings in this higher social worker salary appeals to you, your next question must be how to pay for a Master of Social Work program.
Earning your MSW won’t necessarily be cheap. Some schools charge $35,000 or more in tuition and fees for a Master of Social Work program. Knowing that social work isn’t a particularly lucrative field, you might balk at this cost.
The good news is that students can often find more affordable options. If you’re looking to earn your MSW without breaking the bank, look for schools that offer some of the following:
- Graduate assistantships
- Other types of financial aid
You can also look for other ways to make higher education more affordable. Some employers offer tuition reimbursement benefits that can cover some of the costs of getting your MSW. You might also use your new master’s degree to find a job that qualifies you for loan repayment programs. The Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program and the National Health Service Corps Loan Repayment Program are two examples of this type of program. Although you may have to take on student debt to go to school, working in a role that qualifies you for loan repayment or forgiveness benefits reduces the amount you owe after the fact.
In addition to traditional MSW programs offered on campus, many graduate schools now offer online Master of Social Work programs. An online master’s degree program in social work from an accredited institution is just as rigorous as a campus-based program. Studying online may save you money, especially if you would otherwise have to relocate, pay out-of-state tuition or make a long commute to school. Online studies may also better accommodate working professionals.
Social Workers Deserve a Higher Salary
Social work is an important and, at times, stressful career. Agencies are often understaffed. There’s never enough time to do it all. Burnout is a common problem.
If you’re a person who feels a calling to help others, you didn’t go into the field of social work for the money. Still, given how hard you have to work and how emotionally draining this career can be, you deserve to make a decent living. A master in social work salary may require more schooling but is also more likely to get your earning potential where you want it to be.
When you complete a master’s in social work (MSW) degree – especially at a top-ranked program – you can advance to higher-paying roles like clinical social worker and find a job in a more lucrative work setting.
Your earning potential will vary depending on the type of social work job you do and the industry, employer and geographical location in which you work. However, you can expect a social work master’s salary to noticeably improve your income in the field of social work. Some of the roles where having your master’s of social work degree will benefit you the most in terms of earning potential include clinical social worker, social services manager and macro social worker.