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Pursuing a degree in social work allows you to embark on a career in which you can assist people with mental health challenges, addictions, and struggles coping with life. If you’re just starting out, it’s natural to wonder what kind of education is necessary to pursue a career in social work. 

Depending on the area of social work you want to practice, you have some degree program options. No matter the education and career path you choose, you’ll have exciting opportunities to help people and communities thrive.

What Degree Do You Need to Be a Social Worker?

Social work requires specific academic study as a prerequisite to state licensing. Therefore, unlike some other professions, you need to complete social work coursework before you can become a licensed social worker.

Even if you’ve already completed some classes or a degree in another major, you’ll still need a social work degree to work in the field. The most common degrees are a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) and a Master of Social Work (MSW).

Bachelor of Social Work

A bachelor's degree in social work is the most common educational starting point to become a social worker. The degree provides foundational knowledge and skills for performing entry-level social work and covers a range of topics, including: 

  • Social work practice with individuals, groups, and communities
  • Social policy
  • Human behavior in the social environment
  • Social justice and advocacy 

BSW degree programs also include an in-person field assignment or internship to help students fulfill state licensing requirements. 

Master of Social Work

Continuing your education with a graduate degree is not a requirement to begin your social work career, but it is an option. According to Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) research, about 45 percent of social workers earn a master’s degree in social work at some point in their career.

An MSW degree program builds on concepts introduced in the BSW program, with a focus on preparing students for clinical practice. It is often a shorter program than the bachelor’s degree program—typically two years—and includes a field assignment.

If you want to pursue advanced study in social work, you could also pursue a doctoral degree in social work after completing the MSW. Although not required to practice social work, a doctorate can prepare you to pursue career paths focused on social work research and university teaching.

Master's Degree vs. Bachelor's Degree for Social Work: Which Is Better?

Although BSW and MSW degree programs differ in curriculum, duration, and licensure preparation, they can both be excellent choices for expanding your social work knowledge and skills. However, whether one degree is better than the other depends on the career path you select and your goals for the future.

If you don’t yet have a bachelor’s degree, the Bachelor of Social Work degree is a great place to start. Earning a bachelor’s degree in social work enables you to pursue some state licenses and begin a career in social work. For example, in Ohio, earning a BSW makes you eligible to apply for three different licenses: Social Work Assistant (SWA), Licensed Social Worker (LSW), and Chemical Dependency Counselor Assistant (CDCA). 

Depending on the license you earn, you can begin performing specific social work duties under the supervision of a licensed clinical social worker. Possible career paths include:

  • Caseworker
  • Chemical dependency counselor assistant
  • Crisis intervention specialist
  • Child and family social worker
  • Facility intake specialist
  • School social worker
  • Geriatric social worker
  • Substance abuse social worker

If you already possess a bachelor’s degree, you can get a Master of Social Work and become eligible to pursue additional licensing. These licenses will further expand the career paths you can pursue. Options in Ohio include:

  • Licensed Independent Social Worker (LISW): This license enables you to practice social work without supervision. 
  • Licensed Independent Social Worker with Supervision (LISW-S): With this license, you can work independently as a social worker and supervise other social workers.

As a licensed independent social worker with a master’s degree, you can take on roles with increasing complexity and responsibility. Because you no longer require supervision, you can also choose to go into private practice.

The Importance of an Accredited Social Work Degree Program

To ensure you’re eligible to take the social work licensing exam in your state, it’s advisable to only consider social work programs accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). Although social work license requirements vary by state, most states recognize CSWE-accredited programs as meeting education requirements.

CSWE-accredited programs for aspiring social workers abide by specific standards for teaching, learning outcomes, and program content. For example, in addition to meeting requirements for course content, social work programs must also offer a minimum number of field practicum hours to students seeking a degree: 400 hours for bachelor’s degree students and 900 for master’s degree students.

Benefits of a Social Work Education

Is a bachelor's degree sufficient to become a social worker? It can be. However, regardless of whether you solely pursue a BSW or add an MSW on top of it, majoring in social work can help you launch a rewarding career in one of society’s most invaluable professions.

Here are some of the benefits you can expect after completing your social work education and pursuing a career path in the field:

Healthy Earning Potential

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), social workers earned a median annual wage of $55,350 in 2022, which was higher than the median for all other occupations ($46,310). Factors such as experience, location, and social work specialty can impact your pay, and so can your education level. Research compiled by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) revealed that social workers with master’s degrees earn more than BSW holders.  

Specialization Options

As a social worker, you can support individuals and communities almost anywhere, including hospitals, rehabilitation centers, schools, and nonprofits. In each of these settings, you can apply your versatile skills to help people across your social work specialties. Options include:

  • Substance abuse and addictions
  • Case management
  • School social work
  • Child welfare
  • Research
  • Community advocacy
  • Gerontology

High Job Satisfaction

Helping individuals cope with life’s challenges certainly comes with its own challenges. However, social workers remain satisfied in their jobs and the work they do to help others. A survey of MSW graduates found that more than 90 percent were very or somewhat satisfied with their roles. The majority of respondents also said they were satisfied with their salary and benefits.

Launch Your Social Work Education

So what degree do you need to be a social worker? In truth, it depends. Social worker education requirements vary depending on what you want to do with your career. But one thing is for sure: Getting a degree in social work can put you on a path to becoming a licensed social worker who helps countless people live more enriched lives.

If you’re ready to pursue a social work education, consider an online program. Completing your Bachelor of Social Work or Master of Social Work degree online provides the flexibility of continuing your education while you work and manage other obligations. To learn more, read our free e-book, Earning Your Accredited Online Social Work Degree.

Or, if you’re ready to apply to MVNU Online and dive into your new degree program, connect with an Enrollment Counselor today!

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