Social workers with master’s degrees often choose to specialize in an area of interest, such as child welfare, school social work, licensed clinical social work, and mental health and substance abuse. Social work specializations are carried out in unique settings or with specific populations or goals.
For example, according to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), school social workers “work directly with school administrations as well as students and families, providing leadership in forming school discipline policies, mental health intervention, crisis management, and support services.”
Child welfare social workers also work with children, but they “specialize in building upon the strengths within a family and their community to help provide a safe and loving environment for their children.” Thus, these social work specialists help clients in similar age groups to those of school social workers, but in different settings and with distinct goals.
Behavioral health social workers, on the other hand, provide services to children and adults and may work in hospitals, treatment centers, or within their own private practices.
Social Work Specialist Careers in California
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) breaks social work specializations into the following categories:
California currently ranks among the highest paying and largest employing states of each of these social worker specializations.
Top Paying States
Top Paying Metropolitan Areas
2nd – 14,430
1st – $88,380
10 out of top 10 areas
Child, family, and school
1st – 49,310
Not in top 5
3 out of top 10 areas
Mental health and substance abuse
1st – 15,780
2nd – $81,720
8 out of top 10 areas
1st – 6,000
Not in top 5
1st – $88,680
7th – $82,530
California’s metropolitan area of Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim has the highest number of child, family, and school social workers, with 22,440 professionals in this specialization area and an annual mean wage of $69,420.
Many universities and colleges in California offer accredited social work master’s programs with concentrations in specific client populations, practice areas, or social issues—such as homelessness, addiction, and immigration—to meet the needs of California residents and people and families in communities across the United States.
MSW Specializations Defined
From health care and education to mental health and substance abuse treatment, MSW specializations exist to prepare graduates for their chosen field of social work.
Compassionate professionals specializing in the unique needs of aging populations. Responsibilities include conducting comprehensive assessments, providing emotional support, and developing personalized care plans to enhance the well-being of older adults. They collaborate with healthcare teams, families, and community resources to address issues such as healthcare access, end-of-life planning, and social isolation. Gerontology Social Workers navigate complex healthcare systems, advocating for age-friendly policies and empowering seniors to maintain independence and quality of life. Through a combination of expertise and empathy, they play a pivotal role in promoting dignified and fulfilling aging experiences for individuals and their families.
Child welfare social workers specialize in protecting and supporting children at risk of abuse or neglect. They assess family situations, facilitate foster care or adoption placement, and work with parents to improve their parenting skills and access necessary services. They make home visits and provide counseling. According to the BLS, industries that employ child welfare social workers include individual and family services, local and state government, elementary and secondary schools, community food and housing, and emergency and relief services.
School Social Workers
School social workers support students in educational settings, addressing issues such as bullying, truancy, special education needs, and family challenges that impact a child’s ability to learn. They collaborate with educators and parents to create a supportive learning environment, traveling to schools throughout the district.
As dynamic professionals dedicated to fostering rehabilitation and societal reintegration within the criminal justice system, these experts assess the needs of individuals involved in legal processes, offering tailored intervention and support services. Responsibilities include conducting psychosocial assessments, developing case plans, and collaborating with legal teams to advocate for clients. They address underlying issues such as substance abuse, mental health, and family dynamics, promoting positive change and preventing recidivism. Criminal justice social workers play a pivotal role in bridging legal and social domains, working towards holistic justice and creating pathways for individuals to rebuild their lives while navigating the complexities of the legal system.
The LCSW is the only social work license in California, and it is regulated by the Board of Behavioral Sciences.
Clinical social workers, also known as licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs), assess and treat emotional and psychological problems, including depression, anxiety, trauma, and addiction, and work in settings where therapeutic counseling is provided to individuals, families, and groups. They are responsible for case management and crisis intervention programs and may work in community mental health centers, psychiatric hospitals, behavioral health systems, drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers, residential and day treatment hospitals, employment assistance program providers, schools, family service agencies, and private or group practices.
At the intersection of data analysis and social work are proficient professionals adept at merging social work with data-driven insights. These experts harness statistical tools and methodologies to analyze social trends, assess program effectiveness, and enhance client outcomes. Responsibilities encompass collecting and interpreting data, identifying patterns, and making informed decisions to optimize interventions. They collaborate with interdisciplinary teams, leveraging data to inform evidence-based strategies for addressing societal challenges. This role involves translating complex data into actionable recommendations, contributing to policy development, and continuously refining social work practices through empirical analysis. Data Analysis Social Workers play a pivotal role in driving innovation and improving the efficiency and impact of social services.
Mental health and substance abuse social workers help people struggling with substance use disorders and addiction. They provide counseling, treatment planning, and support for clients in recovery. They may work in outpatient care centers, individual and family service facilities, local government agencies, residential disability centers, mental health and substance misuse rehabilitation facilities, and private practices.
Forensic Social Workers
According to the vision statement of the National Organization of Forensic Social Work, forensic social workers “endeavor to advance social justice through the interprofessional collaboration of human service and legal systems.” Forensic social workers work within the criminal justice system, providing support to victims of crimes and people involved in legal proceedings. According to career website Zippia, California employs the most forensic social workers in the United States, with 4,322 jobs.
Military Social Workers
Social workers who serve veterans and military families by assisting them with social services, mental health counseling, housing, health care, and care coordination provide support to this deserving population in a variety of ways. Military social workers may be found in military branches of the armed forces, private practices, Fisher Houses, and public health agencies. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the VA is the largest employer of social workers in the country, with more than 17,300 master’s prepared social workers on staff.
Macro Social Workers
Professionals at the broad level of macro social work leverage advocacy, policy reform, and research to identify interventions for systemic social issues that affect local, state, national, and international communities.
California MSW Degree Program Accreditation & Specializations
Although not all social work careers require a master’s degree, MSW graduate degree programs offer social workers the opportunity to level up their education in preparation for clinical or supervisory state licensure in advanced generalized practice and specialized practice.
California master’s degree programs in social work are accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), the national accrediting body for social work programs. The CWSE’s Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards requires that MSW concentrations “extend and enhance the nine social work competencies.”
Accredited MSW Programs & Specializations in California
|School – Degree
|Area of Specialized Practice
|Alliant International University – MSW
|Advanced Generalist, Clinical or Direct Practice
|Azusa Pacific University – MSW
|Clinical or Direct Practice, Community Development and Social Systems, Management or Administration
|Cal Poly Humboldt – MSW
|California Baptist University – MSW
|California State University, Bakersfield – MSW
|California State University, Chico
|California State University, East Bay – MSW
|Children, Youth, and Families; Mental Health
|California State University, Fullerton – MSW
|California State University, Long Beach – MSW
|Children, Youth, and Families; Health; Mental Health; School Social Work; Aging and Gerontological Practice
|California State University, Los Angeles – MSW
|California State University, Monterey Bay – MSW
|California State University, Northridge – MSW
|California State University, Sacramento – MSW
|Children, Youth, and Families; Health; Mental Health; Aging and Gerontological Practice
|California State University, San Bernardino – MSW
|California State University, San Marcos – MSW
|California State University, Stanislaus – MSW
|Advanced Generalist, Integrated Practice
|Fresno Pacific University – MSW
|Fresno State University – MSW
|Children, Youth, and Families; Social Policy; Human Behavior; Integrated Practice
|Loma Linda University – MSW
|Clinical or Direct Practice, Health, Mental Health
|National University – MSW
|Pacific Oaks College – MSW
|Samuel Merritt University – MSW
|San Diego State University – MSW
|Clinical or Direct Practice, Community Development and Social Systems, Management or Administration
|San Francisco State University – MSW
|Advanced Generalist; Children, Youth, and Families; Clinical or Direct Practice; School Social Work
|San Jose State University – MSW
|University of California at Berkeley – MSW
|Children, Youth, and Families; Health; Management or Administration; Mental Health; School Social Work
|University of California at Los Angeles – MSW
|Children, Youth, and Families; Health; Mental Health
|University of Massachusetts Global – MSW
|University of Southern California – MSW
|Advanced Generalist; Children, Youth, and Families; Community Development and Social Systems; Health; Mental Health; Military Social Work; School Social Work; Macro Social Work; Integrated Practice
|University of the Pacific – MSW
MSW programs generally require a specific number of credits in generalist practice course work, elective courses based on the student’s chosen area of specialization, a field practicum and/or seminar, and social research methods.
The curriculum taught in California Master of Social Work programs ensures that graduates have mastered specialized practice competencies in addition to the nine social work competencies of generalist social work practice. These include:
MSW Specializations & Licensing
The Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) notes that the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution gives states the authority to protect public health and safety and that individual states are responsible for licensing and regulating social workers.
This means that the requirements to practice as a specialized social worker differ among states, with some states, including California, requiring licensure for clinical social workers only, and other states requiring licenses for advanced generalist practitioners.
Michigan, for example, requires a Licensed Master Social Worker – Clinical (LMSW-C) for clinical social workers and a Licensed Master Social Worker – Macro (LMSW-M) for advanced generalist social workers.
Currently, at least 28 states require certain social work specialists to hold a Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW) designation. The ASWB recognizes the need for practice mobility and has created a licensing compact for this purpose. To learn more about the status of the compact, follow the ASWB on social media: