Social Work Degree & Career Guide

What to expect from a social work degree program

A social work degree promises a dynamic and rewarding career path, with a projected 7% growth rate over the next decade — faster than the national average — this demand, coupled with salaries exceeding the national median, positions social work as an attractive field.

While a Master in Social Work (MSW) is required for licensure, undergraduate degrees can provide promising opportunities with roles like healthcare liaisons and community outreach coordinators. Some districts also welcome social work undergraduates as school counselors. Doctorate-level pursuits lead to careers in research and academia, although many choose to remain hands-on practitioners, utilizing advanced knowledge to make a lasting impact on individuals and communities.

These diverse opportunities make social work a fulfilling and versatile field for those passionate about effecting positive change.

Types of social work degrees

Associate degree

Associate degrees in social work are designed for students seeking a practical entry into the field, offering a more accessible alternative to a full bachelor’s degree. These programs provide foundational knowledge in sociology, psychology, and social work practices and often include introductory courses on human behavior, social welfare policies, and basic counseling skills.

Upon graduation, students are equipped to be social work assistants, case management aides, or community outreach coordinators. Additionally, many students with this degree go on to pursue advanced degrees later on.

  • Degrees available: Associate of Arts (AA), Associate of Science (AS), Associate of Applied Science (AAS)
  • Minimum credits: 20
  • Average length of program: 2 years full-time

Bachelor’s degree

A bachelor’s degree in social work is ideal for those committed to addressing societal challenges and passionate about positively impacting individuals and communities. Students study sociology, psychology, and policy analysis alongside hands-on experiences like internships and capstone courses. These opportunities are essential as they provide practical insights into real-world social work scenarios.

Graduates are well-equipped for entry-level child welfare, healthcare, or social counseling positions. In all professionals, social work practitioners advocate for vulnerable populations, facilitate community programs, and contribute to policy development.

  • Degrees available: Bachelor of Arts (BA), Bachelor of Science (BS) 
  • Minimum credits: 120 
  • Average length of program: 4 years full-time

Master’s degree

Designed for students with bachelor’s degrees aspiring to become professional social workers, a master’s degree in social work (MSW) provides advanced training and specialization. Tailored for students committed to leadership and clinical roles, these programs include intensive coursework and research and often offer options for a capstone project or thesis. Internships and field placements are integral, offering hands-on experience in diverse settings.

Graduates are prepared for roles as clinical social workers or therapists, equipped with advanced skills in assessment, intervention, and policy analysis. The MSW expands career opportunities and fosters the expertise needed to address complex social issues and advocate for systemic change within communities and organizations.

  • Degrees available: Master of Social Work (MSW), Master of Science in Social Work (MSSW), Master of Arts in Social Work (MASW) 
  • Minimum credits: 60
  • Average length of program: 2 years full-time

Doctorate degree

A doctorate in social work is tailored for seasoned professionals seeking the pinnacle of expertise in social work leadership, research, and academia. Designed for individuals with a master’s degree in social work or a related field, the curriculum is research-intensive, encompassing advanced methodologies, theoretical frameworks, and specialized courses. Students engage in in-depth dissertations, contributing to the scholarly discourse in social work.

Graduates are positioned for high-level roles, including academia, policy analysis, and leadership in social service organizations. A doctorate in social work enhances clinical and research skills while empowering individuals to shape the future of social work practice, policy, and education.

  • Degrees available: Doctorate of Social Work (DSW), Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) 
  • Minimum credits: 60
  • Average length of program: 4 years full-time

Specialization options

Social work offers many specialties that attend to unique societal needs. While many of these specialties become accessible at the graduate level, within master’s or doctoral programs, it’s crucial to start considering these options early in your academic journey. Even at the undergraduate level, aligning coursework with a particular specialty can prepare you for future advanced degrees. Delving into areas such as clinical social work, school social work, or medical social work offers a glimpse into the varied paths within the field.

  • Clinical social work: Specializing in clinical social work involves providing therapeutic services to individuals, families, and groups. Clinical social workers assess mental health needs, diagnose conditions, and implement interventions to enhance clients’ well-being, often in healthcare settings, private practices, or mental health agencies.
  • School social work: School social workers support students’ academic success by addressing social, emotional, and behavioral challenges. They collaborate with educators, parents, and community resources to create a positive and inclusive learning environment, helping students overcome obstacles that may hinder their educational progress.
  • Medical social work: Medical social workers operate within healthcare settings, assisting patients and their families in coping with the challenges of illness. They provide emotional support, connect individuals with resources, and ensure a holistic approach to healthcare, addressing the medical and psychosocial aspects of a patient’s welfare.
  • Geriatric social work: Specializing in the elderly population, geriatric social workers focus on improving the quality of life for older adults. They address aging, healthcare, and social support issues, advocating for seniors’ rights and well-being.
  • Child welfare social work: Child welfare social workers concentrate on protecting the well-being of children. They may work in adoption services or foster care, intervening in cases of abuse or neglect while aiming to create safe and supportive environments for children.
  • Substance abuse social work: Social workers specializing in substance abuse assist individuals dealing with addiction issues. They provide counseling support groups and connect clients with resources to overcome substance abuse challenges and maintain recovery.

The Best Social Work Degree Programs

This list features some of the best social work degree programs in the U.S. The schools on this list are non-profit, accredited institutions, either public or private, with high standards for post-secondary education.

We evaluated each degree program on tuition costs, faculty, reputation, and student resources as well as admission, retention, and graduation rates. We also compared our picks to a list of aggregated college rankings from reputable publications, including U.S. News & World Report. Using this data, we calculated an Intelligent Score for each program on a scale of 0 to 100. Read more about our ranking methodology.

What Can I Do With a Degree in Social Work?

A degree in social work provides a diverse selection of potential career paths, addressing various human needs. Students can secure roles like social work assistants or case management aides with an associate’s degree, focusing on immediate community support. Seeking a bachelor’s degree will broaden opportunities, enabling positions as child welfare workers, healthcare liaisons, or school counselors.

Those pursuing a master’s in social work can access advanced roles such as clinical social workers, therapists, or program managers, contributing significantly to individual and community well-being. Doctoral degrees provide opportunities for leadership, academia, and research roles, encouraging individuals to shape social work practice, policy, and education at the highest levels.

Whether advocating for vulnerable populations or influencing systemic change, a social work degree offers a dynamic platform to make a meaningful impact across society.

Social Worker

Median annual salary: $55,350
Job outlook: 7% increase through 2032

Social workers foster individual and community well-being, contributing significantly to creating positive societal change and improving the overall quality of life for those in need. Their responsibilities include assessing clients’ needs, providing counseling and support, and connecting individuals and families with necessary resources.

To pursue this career, a Master’s in Social Work is typically required, equipping social workers with the ability to address diverse issues like mental health, poverty, and family dynamics.

School Counselor

Median annual salary: $60,140
Job outlook: 5% increase through 2032

School counselors guide on academic planning, career exploration, and personal development. They create a supportive environment, addressing students’ social and emotional needs and helping them navigate the challenges of adolescence. Their impact extends beyond academic success, influencing students’ personal growth and preparing them for future endeavors.

While some institutions may accept candidates with a Bachelor’s degree, many prefer those with a Master’s degree for its comprehensive training.

Healthcare Liaison

Median annual salary: $47,180
Job outlook: 8% increase through 2032

A healthcare liaison is a crucial link between patients, providers, and support services, ensuring a seamless and holistic approach to patient care. Healthcare liaisons coordinate patient needs, advocate for necessary services, and promote well-being. A social work background enhances their ability to address the medical aspects of care and the broader social determinants that impact health outcomes.

While it’s possible to enter this field with an associate’s degree, candidates with a bachelor’s degree in social work stand out for their understanding of various social and health-related factors.

Student Resources and Organizations

Pursuing a social work degree is a profound commitment to positively impacting individuals and communities. Before taking the first step, explore the following pages to gain insights and understand degree options.

High school students aspiring to a career in social work can jumpstart their journey by joining pre-professional organizations or clubs. Engaging in groups like the National Association of Social Workers Student Center or a Social Work Club at the high school level provides invaluable perspectives, networking opportunities, and a glimpse into the field’s dynamics. For those not yet ready for a traditional degree, explore alternative pathways like Oregon’s Certified Social Work Associate (CSWA) program, offering a recognized credential without the full degree commitment.

Frequently Asked Questions: Social Work Degrees

Should I get a social work degree in person or online?

This decision will ultimately depend on individual preferences, as online programs often mirror the curriculum of their in-person counterparts. In-person learning provides face-to-face interaction, networking opportunities, and a structured environment, which suits those who thrive in traditional settings. On the other hand, online programs offer flexibility for those balancing their education with work or family commitments, allowing students to pace their studies.

Is a social work degree worth it?

A social work degree is often worth it for individuals committed to making a substantial societal impact. It offers a fulfilling path for those aiming to effect positive change, whether at the undergraduate or graduate level. However, assessing the degree’s return on investment (ROI) is crucial. The payoff is particularly evident at the graduate level, where a Master’s in Social Work provides opportunities for a career as a licensed social worker in various disciplines. Those who pursue this role regularly see salaries that surpass the national median. Yet, even at the undergraduate level, pursuing a career as a healthcare liaison can yield significant returns.

How much does a social work degree cost?

The cost of a social work degree varies depending on the institution and degree level. On average, undergraduate four-year degrees were $26,903 for the 2021-2022 academic year, while graduate degrees averaged $19,749 for 2020-2021. Remember that these figures are general estimates, and actual costs may differ based on specific program structures, financial aid availability, and other circumstances.

Interested in a degree instead?

Learn more about online degrees, their start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.