Do You Need a Master’s to Be a Social Worker?

Written by Kim Borwick

new graduate

Aspiring social workers can enter their chosen field without a master’s degree in many cases. The minimum educational criteria to become a social worker who practices as a generalist in most states is a bachelor’s degree in social work or a related field.

If, however, you plan to specialize in an area of social work, you will find a broader range of opportunities if you have a master’s degree in social work.

And if you have your sights set on a clinical career as a licensed clinical social worker, you must possess a master’s degree from a Council on Social Work Education-accredited school of social work.

How Long Does it Take to Earn a Social Work Master’s Degree?

Traditional Master of Social Work (MSW) programs take roughly two to three years. This includes fieldwork hours.

Some MSW programs can be completed in one year. These programs, referred to as advanced standing programs, are available to students who have completed some college-level social work courses.

You will need a bachelor’s degree to be admitted into an MSW program, and after you receive your master’s, you may have to go through the licensing process. The path to licensure includes passing state exams, such as the California Law and Ethics Exam and Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) Clinical Exam, which can take several months if you don’t pass the first time you take the required exams.

Do I Need To Complete a Thesis for a Social Work Master’s Degree?

Typically, MSW programs don’t include a thesis. Rather, these programs place an emphasis on field education. Field education, or practicums, provide master’s students with real-world experience with social work models and interventions under the supervision of experienced social work professionals.

For MSW students, field education is superior to a thesis because the work environment for which they are preparing requires the application of skills in a community setting — as opposed to the theoretical skills required in research-based work.

According to the National Association of Social Workers, field placement in settings such as child and family service agencies and policy organizations is a unique feature of social work education.

How Do I Choose an MSW Program?

If you decide that your career goals will be best served by earning your social work master’s degree, you will find many respectable and flexible programs throughout California.

Take the time to consider the following factors before you settle on a MSW program:

The training and support you receive from the program faculty and staff can significantly influence your social work career, especially in the early stages when you’re seeking entry-level positions with growth potential.

Don’t take this decision lightly. Find a program that fits your long-term goals as well as your immediate needs.

What Types of Social Work Jobs Can I Get with a Master of Social Work Degree?

protest in the streets

The National Association of Social Workers lists several positions available to MSW holders, including program management or supervisory positions and social justice roles.

Other social work titles for practitioners with a master’s degree include:

In addition to qualifying for higher-level positions, a master’s degree in social work will increase your salary potential.

Will I Be Eligible for a Research, Academic, or Management Social Work Role with an MSW?

A master of social work degree can certainly serve you on the path to a leadership or research career in the field, but these roles often require a DSW or Ph.D. in social work.

If you are interested in teaching social work at the post-secondary level or publishing original social work research, you’ll need to obtain a doctoral degree after you have earned your MSW.

What Happens after I Get My Master’s?

Depending on where you practice and whether you specialize in a particular area of social work practice, you may opt to obtain licensure.

For example, in California, if you want to practice in a clinical setting, you will first gain experience as an associate clinical social worker (ASW) under the supervision of a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW).

After you’ve completed 3,000 hours of supervised practice and passed the California LCSW Law and Ethics Exam, you are eligible to apply for your LCSW designation.

Whether you obtain a professional social work license, go on to a DSW or Ph.D. program, enter the field as specialist, or apply your skills and talents as a generalist to micro-, mezzo-, or macro-level practice, you will continue to advance your knowledge through continuing education (CE) courses and professional associations.

Is California Different From Other States Regarding Needing a Master’s Degree To Become A Social Worker?

The California Board of Behavioral Sciences (BBS) oversees the only professional license for social workers recognized in California: the licensed clinical social worker credential (LCSW).

Only social workers who hold social work master’s degrees from accredited MSW programs are eligible to apply for licensure in the state.

What Is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker?

A licensed clinical social worker is a master’s-level social work practitioner who is authorized to work in a clinical setting.

LCSWs can diagnose mental health disorders, provide one-on-one psychotherapy, and deliver advanced clinical treatment to people with psychological and behavioral problems.