One of the highest paying master’s degrees is the Master of Social Work (MSW), the graduate-level, practice-oriented degree that prepares you for advanced roles in the helping occupation of social worker. You don’t necessarily need to earn an MSW to start working in the field of social work. Many entry-level social work jobs are available to candidates with only a bachelor’s degree in the discipline, and many social workers have a fulfilling career without ever going on to graduate school. Of course, there are some roles in social work for which a master’s degree is preferred or even mandatory.
Social Work Careers With a Bachelor’s Degree
A Bachelor of Social Work, or BSW, degree is the entry-level education for this field, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Bachelor’s social workers, as the BLS calls them, can find opportunities in any of the three main types of social work: micro, macro and mezzo. However, within each type of social work, some of the best opportunities are reserved for practitioners with a graduate education.
Social workers specialize in different fields, and your ability to find a job with only a BSW depends a lot on your intended area of specialization. Among social workers in the fields of child, family and school social work, for example, 69 percent have only a bachelor’s degree, and just 29 percent have a master’s degree, according to O*NET. Considering that nearly half of all social workers – 342,500 out of 713,200 – work in this field of social work, according to the BLS, that’s a lot of job opportunities.
Social workers in these areas handle a lot of different functions. Some child and family social workers identify and remove children from abusive or neglectful situations. Others assist families with accessing the resources they need when dealing with problems such as finding housing for the homeless, setting up food stamp benefits for families living in poverty or finding affordable childcare programs and services. Social workers also help find temporary or permanent homes for children through adoption or foster homes. When social workers work in schools, they often coordinate programs and services to help students improve their academic and social performance.
Some examples of the job titles you could hold with a BSW degree include caseworker, residential case manager, family service worker, mental health assistant, habilitation specialist and community activity director.
What You Can’t Do Without a Master’s in Social Work Degree
Certain specialties of social work are often out of reach if you only have a bachelor’s degree. More than half of mental health and substance abuse social workers – 57 percent – report that a master’s degree is their highest level of education, and another 15 percent have completed a post-master’s certificate, according to O*NET. Healthcare roles in social work favor a graduate education even more. An overwhelming 92 percent of healthcare social workers have a master’s degree as their highest level of study, and another four percent have a post-master’s certificate, O*NET reported. The remaining four percent of the profession reported having a post-baccalaureate certificate.
One job opportunity that you will miss out on if you don’t have an MSW is the chance to work in clinical practice. Clinical social work is a field that emphasizes the diagnosis of mental and emotional health disorders and the application of psychotherapeutic interventions to treat these conditions or otherwise help clients cope with difficult situations. Although the focus of clinical social work has a lot in common with fields like counseling and psychology, the approach a clinical social worker takes to treatment is slightly different, emphasizing the importance of the client’s social environment. To be a clinical social worker, you have to not only earn your MSW but also complete at least two – and in some states, three to four – years of supervised clinical work experience after graduate school. Then you can sit for the exam to earn a state-issued license, at which point you’re qualified as a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW).
An LCSW also has the option of running their own private practice as a solo practitioner or choosing to join a group practice as a clinical mental health provider. Without your MSW, you wouldn’t qualify to perform the clinical social work that is done in a private practice setting.