In order to receive a state-issued license and practice as a clinical social worker in the U.S., students must earn a master’s degree in social work.

While the most common type of graduate degree in this field is a Master of Social Work (MSW), there are other options, including a Master of Science in Social Work (MSSW) and Master of Science in Social Administration (MSSA).

This article will explore the differences and similarities in these degree programs and provide guidance to students deciding which type of degree is right for them.

What is an MSW?

An MSW is the most common graduate-level social work degree available. This degree prepares students for clinical social work practice through advanced coursework in areas like social work theory, social welfare policy and services, assessment and diagnosis, human behavior and social environment, and research methods.

These programs also include supervised clinical requirements in which students gain experience working directly with clients under the supervision of a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW). Students are also typically required to complete a capstone or thesis project synthesizing the theoretical and practical knowledge they gained in the program.

Credit requirements for an MSW vary depending on what type of student the program is designed for. Students who have a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) or similar degree can enroll in advanced standing MSW programs, which typically require 30-40 credits and can be completed in 1-2 years of study. Meanwhile, regular MSW programs are designed for students who don’t have a social work background and include foundational as well as advanced coursework. These programs typically require 48-60 credits and take 2-3 years to complete.

What is an MSSW?

The MSSW is less common than the MSW, but it provides the same type of coursework and career preparation as an MSW. These programs typically include both foundational and advanced coursework, making them an ideal option for students who want to enter social work from a different field.

While an MSSW will provide the necessary training to become a licensed clinical social worker, including the required supervised clinical hours, this type of degree may also offer a concentration in non-clinical areas of social work. Concentration options for an MSSW may include administration and policy practice, organizational leadership, and leadership in social justice. These opportunities make MSSW programs an ideal choice for students who are interested in pursuing non-clinical social work jobs.

MSSW programs typically require 60 credits and can be completed in 2-3 years, depending on the student’s pace of study.

What is an MSSA?

An MSSA prepares students for advanced macro-level social work positions. Macro social work focuses on policy development and implementation, advocacy, and research. This degree will give students the skills and training they need to fulfill non-clinical roles in this specific area of social work.

The curriculum for an MSSA includes coursework and field experiences, although students should check with the individual program to find out if they meet the requirements for supervised clinical experiences if they are interested in becoming a clinical social worker. Students can typically complete an MSSA degree in two years of full-time study.

How Do I Decide Whether an MSW, MSSW, or MSSA Is Right For Me?

Consider career goals and interests

Your personal career goals and interests will play a key role in helping you determine which type of degree you should choose. While MSW, MSSW, and MSSA programs are largely similar, there are subtle differences in areas of emphasis or pedagogical approaches that might appeal to different types of students. For example, a student interested in non-clinical management roles may find that an MSSA will help them develop the leadership and administrative skills needed for these types of roles.

Depending on your interests and aspirations, you may also want to pursue a concentration within your social work master’s program. Common concentration options for social work master’s programs include clinical social work, administration, community development, policy, and social justice.

Speak to program representatives

Firsthand knowledge of a program can also be beneficial when determining which type of degree program is right for you. Speak to various program representatives, including admissions counselors, faculty, current students, and alumni. These individuals can provide specific information about classes, student-faculty interaction, and clinical experiences and speak to the nuances of the different degree types.

Review state social work licensure requirements

Individuals must have a state-issued license to practice as clinical social workers in the U.S. To obtain this license, social workers must meet their state’s eligibility requirements, which usually includes a master’s degree from a CSWE-accredited program. Each state sets its own requirements for curriculum and supervised clinical hours, so it’s important to review your state’s requirements before selecting a program. If your degree doesn’t meet these criteria, you may have trouble getting your license.

Determine eligibility criteria

Your educational and professional background also play a role in determining which type of degree is right for you. Many MSW programs are designed for students who have a bachelor’s degree in social work or a similar field (and, in some cases, professional social work experience). Students entering social work from a different educational background will want to seek out a program with a curriculum that includes both introductory and advanced coursework.

Explore MSW and Related Degree Programs

Social Work Career Outlook & Salary Information

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts that overall employment in community and social services occupations will grow faster than the average for all jobs through 2032. This translates to an average of 281,600 new social services jobs each year.

Salaries for social workers can vary widely based on their roles and work environments. For example, LCSWs typically earn more than non-clinical social workers. According to ZipRecruiter, the average annual salary for LCSWs in the U.S. is $94,158. By comparison, social workers with a bachelor’s degree earn $52,521 per year.

Below are some common jobs individuals with an MSW, MSSW, or MSSA qualify for:

  • Social and community services manager – In this administrative position, social workers coordinate and supervise programs and organizations that support public well-being and may manage employees who provide these services.
    • Median annual salary: $$74,240
    • Projected employment growth (through 2032): 9%
    • New jobs projected: 16,000 per year
  • Social workers – Help individuals, groups, and families prevent and cope with problems in their everyday lives.
    • Median annual salary: $55,350
    • Projected employment growth (through 2032): 7%
    • New jobs projected: 63,800 per year
  • Marriage and family therapist – Work with individuals, couples, families, and other groups to diagnose and treat cognitive, behavioral, or similar disorders in the context of relationships and interpersonal dynamics.
    • Median annual salary: $56,570
    • Projected employment growth (through 2032): 15%
    • New jobs projected: 5,900 per year
  • Licensed mental health counselors – Help individuals cope with and recover from a range of issues, including depression, anxiety, trauma, addiction, behavioral disorders, and more.
    • Median annual salary: $49,710
    • Projected employment growth (through 2032): 18%
    • New jobs projected: 42,000 per year

Social Worker Resources

The following organizations help social work students and professionals navigate licensure regulations, find accredited programs, develop professional connections, stay current on industry trends, and more.

  • Council on Social Work Education (CSWE): This organization represents social work education in the U.S., accrediting more than 800 baccalaureate and master’s degree social work programs. It serves social work educators, students, staff, practitioners, and agencies as part of their mission to advance quality social work education.
  • National Association of Social Workers (NASW): As the world’s largest membership organization of professional social workers, the NASW is dedicated to enhancing the professional growth and development of its members, creating and maintaining professional standards, and advancing sound social policies.
  • Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB): This agency provides support and services to the social work regulatory community to advance safe, competent, and ethical practices to strengthen public protection.
  • Clinical Social Work Association (CSWA): This organization represents, protects, and amplifies the voices of clinical social workers and promotes the highest standards of professional practice through advocacy, supporting the effectiveness of state societies, and facilitating educational opportunities.

Learn More About Social Work Degrees