Most social workers choose the field not for the money, but because they have a calling to help people. However, social work is an important and, at times, stressful career, and social workers still need to earn a living. It’s reasonable and even wise for you to ask what salary you can earn with a master’s of social work degree, especially if you’re contemplating the big decision that is going back to school for your master’s degree.

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. While 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, 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.

 

masters of social work

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What Is a Master’s of Social Work, and How Can It Improve My Salary?

The graduate-level degree that fits the practice-focused objectives of the social work field is called the Master of Social Work (MSW) degree. Earning your MSW allows you to move into more lucrative positions at better-paying employers.

Historically, social workers with a master’s degree have seen a wage premium of 25 percent compared to those with only a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW), according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). In general, 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.

Master’s of Social Work Jobs

The reason social workers benefit so much financially from earning their MSW is that this degree isn’t just the next logical step to career advancement. This advanced degree qualifies you for leadership roles in social work, but it can also make a much bigger difference in what you do as a social worker. Getting your MSW degree is an essential step toward becoming a licensed clinical social worker, which qualifies you to diagnose and treat mental and behavioral health disorders.

Licensed Clinical Social Worker

In a Master of Social Work program, aspiring licensed clinical social workers may take classes in topics like mental health diagnostics, anxiety and depression, substance abuse disorders, loss and crisis intervention, psychodynamic theory, cognitive behavioral therapy and play therapy. They also prepare for clinical social work practice with children, adolescents, adults, older adults, families and groups through coursework and fieldwork in clinical settings.

As a licensed clinical social worker, you could open a private practice and be your own boss, or you could  work in more healthcare-oriented roles with employers in government, ambulatory healthcare services, individual and family services, hospitals, corrections facilities and many other environments. In addition to earning a Master of Social Work degree, aspiring licensed clinical social workers have to complete at least two years of postgraduate supervised clinical experience, take a clinical licensing examination and potentially meet other state licensing requirements, the BLS reported.

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.

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 in think tanks, social justice-oriented nonprofit organizations and political campaigns. Your role could range from community organizer, educator or advocate to legislative aide, outreach coordinator or program developer.

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.

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 average salary for a social worker – regardless of his or her highest level of education – was $51,760 as of 2020, according to the BLS. That’s not a lucrative salary, for sure, but it is significantly above the $41,950 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.

However, different jobs within the field of social work earn different pay rates, which makes comparing social work salaries a bit more complex than you might have expected.

Among the lowest paying jobs in social work is child or school social worker. Overall, these social workers earned a median wage of just $48,430 per year in 2020, the BLS reported. Mental health and substance abuse social workers earned a similar median wage of $48,720. Income was considerably higher for healthcare social workers, at $57,630 annually.

Among social workers of all other kinds – a classification which encompasses 62,500 workers in the United States, or less than one-tenth of the total social work occupation – the median annual wage was quite a bit higher, at $64,210, 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.

The BLS doesn’t distinguish between social workers with master’s degrees and those with only bachelor’s degrees when reporting on earning potential, job outlook, and other occupational data. However, Salary.com reports a difference of several thousands of dollars per year between these two roles. The median salary for social workers with BSW degrees nationwide was $59,556 in 2021, with salaries typically falling in the range between $53,148 and $66,402. For social workers with their MSW degree, Salary.com lists a median wage of $65,860, with most social work master’s salaries in the range of $59,571 through $72,657.

Over the course of your professional life, earning an additional $6,000 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 bad, especially considering that established social workers with a BSW can often enter graduate programs with advanced standing and complete their Master of Social Work degrees in as little as one year.

Some schools charge $35,000 or more in tuition and fees for a Master of Social Work degree, but students can often find more affordable options, including programs that offer scholarships, graduate assistantships and other types of financial aid. 

Master’s Degree in Social Work Salary for Managers

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 $69,600 in 2020 for social and community services managers, the occupation that, according to O*NET, includes job titles such as social services director, community services director, clinical services director and social worker supervisor. The nationwide median salary for social work supervisor roles, specifically, was $84,966 in 2021, according to Salary.com, with wages typically falling between the range of $76,198 and $96,629. Social service directors can make salaries approaching the six-figure range, Salary.com reported.

While social and community services managers still make a difference, 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 establishing administrative procedures and organizational policies, creating and monitoring administrative documents and records and hiring, training and overseeing the performance of staff, including social workers. In a managerial role in social work, you handle more of the work behind the scenes, developing and coordinating social services programs. There are both advantages and disadvantages to leaving behind direct-service roles. While you no longer have the same stress you face when dealing directly with clients, you face plenty of administrative stress, and some social workers find their work less fulfilling without that direct connection to the people they help.

Nearly one-quarter of all social and community services managers report having a master’s degree, making this the second most common level of education in the field, according to O*NET. Half of social and community services managers have a bachelor’s degree, and 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. Where a social worker is employed matters, too. While there are more than a dozen different kinds of work settings that employ social workers, some work settings are known for offering higher pay rates than average.

Hospitals and ambulatory healthcare services offer some of the highest salaries for social workers in general, and especially those with a master’s degree. Salary.com reported a $56,608 median wage for medical social workers with a BSW but a $65,585 median annual salary for medical social workers with an MSW.

Government agencies at the state and local levels combined employ 27 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, with the BLS reporting a median annual wage of $57,660 for social workers in this industry in 2020, while social workers employed by the state government (outside school and hospital settings) made a median salary of $49,860 per year. On the other hand, social workers working in individual and family services earn thousands of dollars less than the median wage per year, the BLS reported.

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, but approximately two percent of all social workers – 13,600 total professionals in the social work field at the time – identified as self-employed in 2016, according to the BLS. There is no guarantee that a licensed clinical social worker will earn more money by going into private practice, but 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, although there are risks involved. If you do choose to consider self-employment, be aware of the business expenses that detract from your earnings, including the costs of renting an office, liability insurance, professional association dues, medical billing costs and other expenses.

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, where the average salary is $85,740, according to the BLS. Social workers in Massachusetts make $84,540 per year, on average. In Nevada, social workers earn a mean wage of $82,410 annually. Social workers in Rhode Island just miss the $80,000 mark with an average wage of $79,720 per year. Paying a mean annual salary of $77,060, Virginia rounds out the five best paying states for social workers.

Montana is the worst paying state in the U.S. for social workers as of 2020, with an average salary of just $44,790 per year, the BLS reported. That’s still an improvement over social worker wages in Puerto Rico, where the BLS reported an average salary of just $38,240. 

Additional Resources 

Top 10 Paying Jobs in Social Work

What Are the Highest Paying Jobs in Social Work?

How Advanced Does My Degree in Social Work Need to Be to Get a Good Job?

Is There Value in Getting a Master’s Degree in Social Work?