In a career path with notoriously low earning potential, you need to aim for the highest-paying positions to make your investment in an education worthwhile. Although it’s true that some social workers earn little, others can make a very comfortable living doing what they love. Often, the differences between the highest- and lowest-paying jobs in social work include level of education, level of experience, industry or type of employer, specialization and job function. In particular, social workers in clinical roles and management roles tend to make the most money. For both types of roles, social workers typically need an advanced education, with the Master of Social Work (MSW) degree being the most common requirement.

The Difference a Master’s Degree Makes

For social workers as a whole, the median salary is $49,470 per year, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported. While that wage is considerably above the $38,640 median wage for all occupations, it may not seem like much for a career that requires a minimum of a bachelor’s degree and, in many states, a license – not to mention a great deal of stress.

Earning your MSW is a popular way to improve earning potential, and for good reason. Social workers with their MSW earn upwards of $13,000 more per year than their colleagues with only a Bachelor of Social Work, or BSW, degree, according to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). The BLS found that social worker salaries increase by 25 percent with a master’s degree.

Income potential is even higher with a doctorate. Ph.D. and Doctor of Social Work (DSW) holders make $20,000 to $25,000 more than MSW holders, the NASW reported, but doctoral degrees are mainly needed in positions in research and higher education.

Licensed Clinical Social Worker

The reason a master’s degree raises income potential so much isn’t due solely to the significance of a graduate education. It’s because the MSW degree, combined with thousands of hours of supervised clinical experience, allows candidates to become licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs).

Clinical social work refers to the practice of social work in the context of providing mental health services. Unlike non-clinical social workers, whose job duties as they relate to mental health only encompass with connecting clients with resources and social service programs that can help them, clinical social workers are themselves qualified to provide mental health services. Through their graduate-level coursework and lengthy internships as well as post-graduate clinical experiences, they develop the skills to assess, diagnose and treat mental health issues through counseling, psychotherapy and other non-pharmaceutical interventions.

What Are the Highest Paying Jobs in Social Work?

IMAGE SOURCE: Buddpaul, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons license

Determining the precise difference in pay between clinical and non-clinical social workers is challenging. Organizations like the BLS don’t distinguish between clinical and non-clinical social workers when reporting median salary, instead dividing social workers by specialty of practice rather than job function. U.S. News & World Report listed a median salary of $54,870 for clinical social workers, while Glassdoor reported $55,426 and PayScale, $56,724. All of these figures show an improvement over the salary social workers with only a bachelor’s degree can expect working in most areas of practice. Factors like location, type of employment setting and specialization play a role in determining how much money an individual clinical social worker may make.

For many clinical social workers, starting a private practice is a great way to improve earning potential. In a private practice, you are reaping the benefits of your hard work by earning all the money that comes in, rather than a salary chosen for you by the owners or administrators of an agency or organization. Some social workers choose to engage in private practice part-time to supplement their income from other social work roles.

Although there are some risks and a lot of responsibilities that go along with self-employment, it often pays off in the field of clinical social work. Each situation is different, but some social workers employed in state entities have gone on to improve their income by as much as 30 percent. It’s not uncommon for clinical social workers in private practice to earn wages between $50,000 and $80,000 annually, The New Social Worker reported, noting that those who see an average of 30 patients each week and make a combined $75 per session – between insurance payments and patients’ copayments – can make up to $90,000.

If you’re thinking about starting a private practice, make sure you understand all of the factors. Since you won’t receive employer benefits, you will have to purchase your own insurance and establish your own retirement savings account.

Manager Roles in Social Work

Social work agencies, social service programs and other settings that employ a number of social workers and other social and community service professionals need strong leadership. Naturally, the best people to manage these organizations are social workers with experience and an advanced education. Some MSW programs offer a management specialization that helps to develop students’ leadership skills along with their knowledge of social work practice.

There are different levels of social work management roles, from the lowest level supervisory role to the senior-level social service director role, with accompanying variances in salary. The median salary for community and social service managers is $65,320, with the highest-paying top employing industry, local government entities, paying a median wage of $83,660, the BLS reported.

Often, ambitious social workers can begin working toward low-level management roles with just a couple of years of experience and work their way up from there. Although it is possible to become a manager with just a BSW, many employers prefer an MSW.

Additional Resources

What Is the Salary Potential for Someone With a Social Work Degree?

What Should You Know When You Interview for a Job With a Master’s Degree in Social Work?

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

What Are the Benefits of Pursuing a Master’s Degree in Social Work?