Social work is a meaningful career path, but before you can get started in this field, you need a college degree. How long you will need to spend in school depends on what you want to do with your education. You can earn a social work degree in as little as two years, but for many social work jobs – including some of the highest-paying roles – you need to go to graduate school and earn an advanced degree.
The Levels of Social Work Degrees
Colleges offer degrees in social work at numerous levels of study. While there are associate’s degree programs in social work, these two-year programs are usually stepping stones to a bachelor’s degree. The most common programs of study for aspiring social workers are the Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree and the Master of Social Work (MSW) degree.
A BSW is the minimum level of education needed to become a social worker, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). It’s also the most common degree for social workers in most occupations. In fact, 69 percent of child, family and school social workers have a bachelor’s degree, while 26 percent of these workers hold a master’s degree.
An associate’s degree in social work won’t qualify you for employment as a social worker, but it can help you land entry-level social and human service assistant roles, such as social work assistant, case work aide and clinical social work aid, the BLS reported.
How Long to Earn a BSW
Like most bachelor’s degree programs, the Bachelor of Social Work degree can be completed in four years of full-time study, although some students are in school longer. In a BSW program, coursework might include social work theory and history, social welfare, human behavior in the social environment, the role of social workers in groups, helping processes, institutional racism, social research and the evaluation of social work programs and practices.
Because it’s important for you to practice, not just study, social work, hands-on internships are a big part of most BSW degree programs. Often, internship opportunities exist at both agencies and community organizations and may include work with children, the aging population, individuals with developmental disabilities, patients with mental health or substance abuse disorders, victims of domestic violence, patients in hospitals, incarcerated individuals and students in schools.
While a bachelor’s degree is necessary for social workers, it doesn’t have to be a degree in social work. Some social workers approach the field with an undergraduate degree in sociology or psychology, according to the BLS.
How Long to Earn Your MSW
Earning your master’s degree will greatly expand your career opportunities in social work, but it takes time. Like many other master’s degree programs, two years is the typical time to earn the degree for full-time students. A lot of that two years of graduate study – a minimum of 900 hours, according to the Council on Social Work Education – is devoted to gaining that experience.
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Aside from your internships, MSW students typically complete graduate-level courses in foundational topics such as social welfare and social work, the practice of social work with individuals, families and groups, human behavior in social environments, community intervention strategies, methods of social work research and the promotion of social justice. Students also complete advance practice coursework that can help them in many different areas of social work. Advance practice options can range from health policy studies to addiction and substance abuse treatment and from psychotherapy for adults to non-profit management.
The remainder of your coursework in an MSW program is likely to focus on an area of specialization. There are many different areas of social work, so it makes sense that MSW programs often offer numerous specialization options. You might opt to concentrate your studies on a subject like health social work, school social work, military social work, or mental health social work. Specializations exist based on the populations of clients you will serve, including work with children and families or with senior citizens.
You might also focus on leadership and development in social services roles. Not all MSW graduates go on to provide direct client service in clinical roles. The advanced education you gain through graduate school can qualify you for influential roles such as lobbyist in the macro social work, or the area of social work involved in community and social advocacy.
Although earning your MSW takes two years on top of the four years needed to earn a bachelor’s degree, you’re still not a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) yet. You need two years of supervised experience after graduation to get your license, the BLS reported.