In the field of social work, a graduate degree really is optional. You can be a social worker and hold many different roles in different areas of specialty, all with only your Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree. However, there are many compelling reasons to pursue a master’s degree in social work. With a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree, social workers can expand their career opportunities considerably, allowing them to work in more specialized and satisfying roles, command higher salaries and move into new work environments.
Opportunities With a Master’s vs. a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work
If your career goal is simply to become a social worker, you might choose to end your college education at the bachelor’s degree level. The BSW equips students with the skills needed to work in direct service roles in individual and family services, according to the Council for Social Work Education (CSWE). With this degree, you might find work as a caseworker in specialties such as child and family social work, healthcare social work or school social work, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Your job would include working directly with clients to help them improve their lives through advocacy, developing plans to solve problems and identifying services and resources available to clients. Other jobs with a BSW degree might include habilitation specialist, family service worker or mental health assistant.
One crucial area of social work that you must have your MSW degree to work in is clinical social work. Clinical social work involves diagnosing and treating mental health disorders. A clinical social worker has the skills to provide counseling and other therapeutic interventions. What makes a clinical social worker different from other mental health professionals is the perspective of viewing clients as individuals within their social environments and planning and implementing treatments accordingly.
Opportunities also differ between BSW holders and MSW holders when it comes to the macro level of social work. Macro social work refers to efforts at the policy level, rather than individual level, to advocate for social justice and improvements to social services. Both BSW and MSW holders can work in macro social work to some capacity, but your degree level affects your potential for advancement. High-level positions in macro social work, like lobbyist and college instructor, usually require an advanced degree.
A master’s degree might also help you move into leadership roles within a social work agency or organization.
The Curriculum of a Master’s in Social Work Degree
MSW programs are usually structured so that the first year of study covers foundational coursework at the graduate level, while the second and final year covers advanced subject matter. The first year is also the generalist year of study, while MSW students in their second year take specialized coursework. Specializations might be broad, such as choosing between clinical and advocacy tracks, or they may be narrower, such as focusing on a niche like children and families or health and mental health.
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Generalist foundation courses might include studies social work research methods, human behavior and the social environment, social welfare policy and services, diversity and oppression, the foundations of clinical assessment and social work practice as it pertains to individuals, families and larger groups. Advanced coursework varies by specialization. In a clinical social work path, it might include in-depth studies into the skills and techniques of therapeutic work in clinical settings. For macro social work, the curriculum might cover the complex issues that involve social welfare policies that apply to groups such as aging adults or to matters such as violence against women and children.
An important part of the MSW degree is field experience. CSWE-accredited MSW programs include at least 900 hours of supervised experience.
The Advantages of a Graduate Social Work Education
There are many benefits to pursuing a master’s degree in social work. For one thing, you can improve your income potential by a great deal. Although social work isn’t known as an especially lucrative career path, the BLS reports that social workers with a master’s degree earn 25 percent more than those without. Social workers with their MSW can expect to earn more than $13,000 above what BSW holders make, according to the National Association of Social Workers.
Most people who get into the field of social work do so because they have a calling to help others. While all social work roles serve this goal of helping, they do so in different ways. When debating whether to go to graduate school, students need to consider how they want to make a difference. Your MSW degree qualifies you to help others in more ways than you are able to do with only a BSW degree, but ultimately, the question comes down to what you want to do with your social work career.
Although the MSW is a crucial part of becoming a clinical social worker, there are further steps involved in the process, including two years of post-graduate supervised experience and acquiring and maintaining a license.