California Master of Social Work Degree Specializations

Written by Sam Medley

social worker and teen girl talking

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.


Highest Employment

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


All other

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.

Aging & Gerontology

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

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.

Criminal Justice & Corrections Social Workers

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.

Data Analysis and Social Work

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.

Environmental & Climate Justice Social Work

Environmental and Climate Justice Social Workers are passionate advocates committed to addressing the intersection of social inequality and environmental crises. They work collaboratively to develop strategies promoting equitable access to environmental resources and mitigating climate-related injustices. To this end, their responsibilities include community engagement, assessing the impact of environmental policies on vulnerable populations, and advocating for sustainable, inclusive solutions. They integrate social work principles to empower communities disproportionately affected by climate change, fostering resilience and promoting eco-social well-being. Environmental & Climate Justice Social Workers play a crucial role in advancing environmental justice agendas, bridging gaps between communities, policymakers, and environmental organizations to create a more just and sustainable future.

Financial Social Work

Combining social work expertise with financial acumen to empower individuals and families in achieving economic stability, financial social workers conduct financial assessments, provide budgeting guidance, and facilitate access to resources such as affordable housing and financial education. They collaborate with clients to address financial stressors, navigate government assistance programs, and develop sustainable financial plans. Financial Social Workers play a pivotal role in breaking the cycle of poverty, advocating for economic justice, and fostering financial literacy. Through a compassionate and holistic approach, they strive to enhance the financial well-being of clients, promoting long-term self-sufficiency and economic empowerment.

Social Work in Governmental Agencies

As inextricably linked partners who work to address societal challenges and foster community well-being, social workers within government agencies collaborate across sectors to implement and manage social programs, ensuring equitable access to resources and services. They navigate policy landscapes, advocating for vulnerable populations and influencing systemic change. From child welfare and healthcare to housing and criminal justice, government-affiliated social workers bridge the gap between policy implementation and grassroots intervention. These professionals play a vital role in translating legislative frameworks into impactful, person-centered solutions, striving for social justice, inclusivity, and the advancement of public welfare within the dynamic realm of government services.

Healthcare and Social Work

Compassionate professionals integral to the healthcare system, these kinds of social workers specialize in holistic patient care. Their responsibilities include assessing psychosocial factors affecting health, offering emotional support, and coordinating resources to enhance overall well-being. They collaborate with medical teams, advocating for patient rights, and facilitating communication between patients, families, and healthcare providers. Healthcare Social Workers navigate complex healthcare systems, addressing issues such as chronic illness, mental health, and end-of-life care. With expertise in healthcare ethics and cultural sensitivity, they ensure personalized, patient-centered care. These professionals play a crucial role in optimizing health outcomes, promoting resilience, and addressing the social determinants impacting individuals’ health journeys.

Homelessness and Social Work

Social workers in the Golden State confront the complex and pressing issue of homelessness, employing a multifaceted approach. Engaging with diverse populations, they provide outreach, housing navigation, and mental health support. Amidst the unique challenges of California’s housing crisis, social workers collaborate with local agencies, advocating for affordable housing solutions and addressing systemic barriers. They work tirelessly to bridge gaps in healthcare, substance abuse treatment, and employment opportunities, striving to uplift individuals and families experiencing homelessness. Through innovative interventions and policy advocacy, California’s social workers play a pivotal role in fostering compassion, resilience, and systemic change within the state’s dynamic socio-economic landscape.

Immigration and Refugee Services

Increasingly important in California and across the country, these social workers operate at the forefront of supporting immigrants and refugees in navigating complex legal and social landscapes. Job duties include conducting comprehensive assessments, providing culturally sensitive counseling, and assisting with immigration processes. They advocate for clients’ rights, address trauma, and collaborate with legal teams to ensure fair and just outcomes. Immigration Social Workers connect individuals and families to vital resources, fostering community integration and resilience. Amid evolving immigration policies, these professionals play a crucial role in bridging cultural divides, promoting social justice, and empowering vulnerable populations to build stable and fulfilling lives in their new communities.

Hospice & Palliative Care

As specialists in end-of-life care, these social workers provide invaluable support to patients and their families. Responsibilities include conducting psychosocial assessments, facilitating meaningful conversations about end-of-life preferences, and offering emotional and spiritual guidance. They collaborate with interdisciplinary teams to ensure holistic care, addressing complex issues surrounding grief, loss, and advance care planning. Hospice Care Social Workers navigate the delicate balance of promoting dignity and enhancing quality of life during the final stages of illness. Through empathy and expertise, they create a supportive environment, fostering emotional well-being and facilitating the journey towards peaceful and dignified end-of-life experiences for both patients and their loved ones.

Nonprofit Social Work

To serve vulnerable populations within the nonprofit sector, these social workers assess client needs, develop and implement tailored interventions, and advocate for resources to address social disparities. They collaborate with community partners, engage in program development, and mobilize support for initiatives promoting social justice. Nonprofit Social Workers navigate a range of issues, from poverty to mental health, contributing to the organization’s mission of positive community impact. Through a combination of direct service, advocacy, and community building, they play a pivotal role in creating sustainable, empowering solutions to enhance the well-being of individuals and families served by the nonprofit. 

Racial and Social Justice Social Work

In leading transformative change by addressing systemic inequities, racial and social justice social workers conduct critical analyses of racial and social disparities, develop anti-oppressive interventions, and foster inclusive, culturally competent practices. These professionals collaborate with diverse communities, leveraging their expertise to dismantle discriminatory policies and promote equity. Through education, advocacy, and community engagement, racial and social justice social workers strive to eliminate barriers to equal opportunities. They play a pivotal role in dismantling systemic racism, fostering understanding, and building bridges toward a more just and inclusive society.

Technology and Startup Social Work

Technology and startup social workers are pioneering professionals at the intersection of social work and innovation, dedicated to fostering positive societal impact in the fast-paced realm of technology and startups. Tasked with evaluating and addressing unique social challenges inherent to tech environments, they champion workplace well-being and drive initiatives for diversity and inclusion. Collaborating closely with leadership, they embed ethical practices, mitigate burnout, and cultivate supportive workplace cultures. As bridge-builders between rapid technological shifts and employee welfare, Technology and Startup Social Workers ensure that social responsibility is seamlessly integrated into business practices. Their strategic interventions contribute to socially conscious, flourishing workplaces in this ever-evolving sector.

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.

military social worker in session with others

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 – DegreeArea of Specialized Practice
Alliant International University – MSWAdvanced Generalist, Clinical or Direct Practice
Azusa Pacific University – MSWClinical or Direct Practice, Community Development and Social Systems, Management or Administration
Cal Poly Humboldt – MSWAdvanced Generalist
California Baptist University – MSWAdvanced Generalist
California State University, Bakersfield – MSWAdvanced Generalist
California State University, ChicoOther
California State University, East Bay – MSWChildren, Youth, and Families; Mental Health
California State University, Fullerton – MSWAdvanced Generalist
California State University, Long Beach – MSWChildren, Youth, and Families; Health; Mental Health; School Social Work; Aging and Gerontological Practice
California State University, Los Angeles – MSWAdvanced Generalist
California State University, Monterey Bay – MSWAdvanced Generalist
California State University, Northridge – MSWAdvanced Generalist
California State University, Sacramento – MSWChildren, Youth, and Families; Health; Mental Health; Aging and Gerontological Practice
California State University, San Bernardino – MSWAdvanced Generalist
California State University, San Marcos – MSWAdvanced Generalist
California State University, Stanislaus – MSWAdvanced Generalist, Integrated Practice
Fresno Pacific University – MSWAdvanced Generalist
Fresno State University – MSWChildren, Youth, and Families; Social Policy; Human Behavior; Integrated Practice
Loma Linda University – MSWClinical or Direct Practice, Health, Mental Health
National University – MSWAdvanced Generalist
Pacific Oaks College – MSWAdvanced Generalist
Samuel Merritt University – MSWOther
San Diego State University – MSWClinical or Direct Practice, Community Development and Social Systems, Management or Administration
San Francisco State University – MSWAdvanced Generalist; Children, Youth, and Families; Clinical or Direct Practice; School Social Work
San Jose State University – MSWAdvanced Generalist
University of California at Berkeley – MSWChildren, Youth, and Families; Health; Management or Administration; Mental Health; School Social Work
University of California at Los Angeles – MSWChildren, Youth, and Families; Health; Mental Health
University of Massachusetts Global – MSWAdvanced Generalist
University of Southern California – MSWAdvanced 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 – MSWMental Health

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: