Social work may not seem like a highly academic field, but it is a career path that requires a higher education. Social workers need, at minimum, a bachelor’s degree, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), and a graduate degree can open new opportunities in the occupation. There are good jobs available in social work at both the undergraduate and graduate levels that give you the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of people who need help. Students considering a social work degree should think about what factors make a job appealing to them personally and which degree path is the better option for attaining that role.
Job Opportunities With a Bachelor of Social Work Degree
The Bachelor of Social Work, or BSW, degree is the education you need for most social work jobs. With this undergraduate degree, you can attain an entry-level role in the field and make a long-term career of working in specialties like individual and family services without a need for a graduate degree.
Although the Council for Social Work Education (CSWE) reports that BSW programs prepare students primarily for direct service roles, an undergraduate degree may offer other options, as well. In the field of macro social work, which refers to the practice of advocating for improving and expanding the social services, programs and policies in place, BSW holders can hold entry-level roles, according to the BLS.
Nearly 70 percent of child, family and school social workers have a bachelor’s degree, making this degree the most common level of education among professionals in the largest areas of social work.
Jobs With a Master of Social Work Degree
The biggest difference between the jobs you can get with a BSW and the jobs you can get with a Master of Social Work, or MSW, degree involves your career options in clinical practice. With a BSW, you aren’t qualified to perform the clinical work of providing counseling and psychotherapy services to clients. You can certainly listen to their experiences and help them find resources that can provide these services, but you’re not authorized to do this yourself. This can be frustrating when you feel that you really understand where a client is coming from and could help them more if only you were able to provide a greater extent of services.
For social workers with an MSW degree, you are on your way to becoming a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW). LCSWs can provide these clinical services and may even choose to open their own private clinical practices. Besides the satisfaction of knowing that you’re providing real help to people in need, this opportunity gives you professional freedom and better income potential. The National Association of Social Workers reported that social workers in private practice earn the highest wages.
Are there any drawbacks to getting your MSW? Besides the cost of tuition and the time – ordinarily, two years – that it takes to complete your degree, you still need to do more before you can get your license. Most states require aspiring clinical social workers to complete at least two years of clinical experience after graduating with their MSW, plus earn a passing score on an exam.
If you’re considering graduate school as a way to improve your established social work career, look for a program that offers advanced standing to BSW holders. This would allow you to save time and money by reducing your time to graduation to just one year.
“Good” Jobs in Social Work
Good is a subjective term. What makes a social work job good? It depends on your perception, but this could involve everything from earning potential to caseload to job duties. While most social workers would agree that they would rather have a higher salary and a smaller caseload that allows them to devote more time to each client, different people might prefer different job duties.
You might love working in the trenches, helping struggling families find resources for support and helping neglected children find loving families. You might find fulfillment in providing counseling and psychotherapy services to individuals, families and groups who are coping with tough times or mental illnesses. A job in social justice and advocacy that allows you to make a real impact at the public policy level could be your ideal career.
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Either the BSW or the MSW can prepare you to work in direct client service. The MSW degree is needed when you want to expand the scope of services you can provide to include clinical work. At the macro level of social work that involves advocacy and policy, you often need a master’s degree for high-level jobs, but bachelor’s social workers can also work in this arena, the BLS reported.
When it comes to wages, the data is clear that a master’s degree in social work leads to higher salaries. Salaries with an MSW degree are more than $13,000 higher than those with just a BSW degree, according to the NASW. The wage premium for having a graduate degree in this field is an increase of 25 percent, the BLS reported. Yet social work isn’t an occupation that anyone chooses based on salary potential. It’s a calling, and depending on what specifically you feel called to do, either the BSW or the MSW option can equip you with the skills to follow your altruistic career dreams.
Among social workers in the specialty practice of child welfare, the average caseload falls into the range of 24 to 31 children – even though the NASW recognizes a “manageable” caseload as just 14.4 families.