Earning a Master’s in Social Work Online
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Should I Pursue a Master's in Social Work Online?
Career prospects for qualified, licensed social workers continue to grow across the U.S., in social service agencies and a variety of other settings, including hospitals, schools, nursing homes, and mental health facilities. Students often enter the field motivated by their desire to assist vulnerable, marginalized, and at-risk populations such as abused children, victims of domestic violence, or individuals struggling with alcohol or drug addiction.
An online master's in social work (MSW) provides the skills and insight to work with these diverse groups. While many entry-level social work jobs require only a bachelor's degree, earning a master of social work online or through a traditional on-campus program prepares graduates for clinical work and state licensure.
Distance learning appeals to students whose personal or work responsibilities may hamper their ability to take courses in a campus-based program. Online MSW programs feature flexible schedules, some with accelerated or part-time options, offering students the potential for more challenging and higher-paying professional opportunities.
Employment Outlook for MSW Online Graduates
Master's in Social Work Salary
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects the overall demand for social workers to increase by 16% through 2016, proving much faster than the average growth rate for all occupations. Despite this positive job outlook, salary prospects vary considerably by degree level, areas of specialization, geographic location, and years of experience.
Graduates of either campus-based or online MSW programs can expect better compensation than social workers who enter the field with only a bachelor's degree. Social workers in the top paying states earn over $70,000 annually, sitting well above the national average of $56,810. Experienced social workers with 10 or more years in the field can also expect higher salaries.
Top Paying States for Healthcare Social Workers
|State||Employment||Annual Mean Wage|
|District of Columbia||530||$70,580|
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
Pay by Experience Level for Social Workers
- Entry-Level (0-5 Years):
- Mid-Career (5-10 Years):
- Experienced (10-20 Years):
- Late-Career (20+ Years):
Master's in Social Work Careers
Graduates of MSW online programs generally enter the field because of their commitment to helping people from all walks of life. Their compassion, patience, and empathy complement the practical skills and tools acquired in their graduate training. The expansion of social work opportunities throughout the U.S. has opened up many exciting opportunities for these dedicated professionals in specializations such as child and family services, school social work, gerontology, mental health, and addictions counseling.
Social Worker (General)
Annual Median Salary: $61,980
Projected Growth Rate: 8%
Social workers offer a variety of services that help their clients cope with emotional and social issues. They provide treatment plans and resources for clients, families, and caregivers. While graduates with a bachelor's degree may enter entry-level positions, licensed social workers providing clinical services must possess MSW degrees and state licenses to practice.
Child and Family Social Worker
Annual Median Salary: $40,734
Projected Growth Rate: 14%
These social workers assist children and families with socioeconomic and psychological challenges. They advocate on behalf of children and families to receive essential services and resources. Licensed child and family social workers who hold MSW degrees work in clinical settings to counsel families, arrange placements, and provide access to resources for children at risk.
School Social Worker
Annual Median Salary: $61,980
Projected Growth Rate: 8%
School social workers at the elementary through high school levels provide services for students with emotional and behavioral issues. They confer with teachers and staff to identify these students, provide counseling, and arrange referrals to outside professionals if needed. Many school districts require each social worker to obtain an MSW and state certification in school social work.
Healthcare Social Worker
Annual Median Salary: $52,138
Projected Growth Rate: 20%
Hospitals, nursing homes, and medical facilities of all kinds employ these social workers to provide individuals and families with support to cope with chronic, acute, and terminal medical conditions. Social workers in these settings usually must possess licensure and MSW degrees to provide clinical services such as counseling, interventions, and preparation of treatment and end-of-life plans.
Mental Health or Substance Abuse Social Worker
Annual Median Salary: $42,700
Projected Growth Rate: 19%
These professionals treat individuals with mental, emotional, or substance abuse issues. While bachelor degree holders may find employment in this area of social work, many agencies seek licensed social workers with master's degrees and specialized certifications in mental health and substance abuse to provide counseling and group therapy, interventions, and educational programs.
Sources: Bureau of Labor Statstics / PayScale
What Can I Expect From an Online MSW Program?
Accreditation from the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) ensures that potential employers and state licensing agencies will recognize your MSW degree. While requirements vary by school, most CSWE-accredited online MSW programs share similar features. The first year typically offers foundational courses in social policy, research methods, and clinical practice. In the second year, students choose specializations and complete required field placements.
Curriculum for an Online Master's Degree in Social Work
Social Work Practice with Individuals and Families
This course, required of all social work students, introduces practice theories and skills. Students learn various interviewing techniques, assessment tools, and intervention strategies. The course includes several practice models: problem-solving, solution focused, motivational interviewing, and crisis intervention. Coursework emphasizes ethical, legal, and human rights concerns related to social and economic justice in social work practice.
Social Work Research Methods
This basic research course introduces social work research with applications for all specializations. Students learn research principles and methodologies to use in their practice and acquire critical skills needed as consumers of research. The course stresses ethical standards of scientific inquiry, highlighting how political, economic, and social forces shape research agendas and designs.
Social Work and Social Welfare Policy
Students examine social welfare policy with specific applications for social work practice in aging, healthcare, family policy, and incarceration. The course evaluates the history of policy responses to poverty as a social problem rooted in racialized and gendered social constructions.
Social Work Practice with Families
Learners identify how to create appropriate interventions with families, recognizing the common features and essential differences in family structure. Students interested in family practice learn to apply solution-focused family systems, as well as structural and narrative therapies. Learners also become familiar with non-dominant family theories and consider the impact of intersectionality on family roles and challenges.
Race and Ethnicity in U.S. Social Policy
Social workers must possess an understanding of the conceptions of race and ethnicity regarding social policy and their practice specializations. In this course, students examine social constructions of race and ethnicity and the intersections with gender, citizenship, and class as they shape social policy and practice in an increasingly multicultural society.
Certifications and Licenses a Master's in Social Work Prepares For
Certified School Social Work Specialist: C-SSWS certification for school social workers demonstrates their knowledge of ethics, program development and management, student population demographics, and federal and state laws affecting education. Eligibility includes a CSWE-accredited MSW, at least two years of post-degree experience as a school social worker, and a current master's level social work license -- or a current exam-based school social work credential issued by a state office.
Certified Social Worker in Healthcare: This certification recognizes social workers employed in healthcare facilities providing high-quality services to patients and families. The C-SWHC must be a graduate of a CSWE-accredited MSW program and hold a master's level state license. Candidates must document at least two years or 3,000 hours of supervised post-MSW employment in a healthcare organization.
Professional Organizations and Resources
Joining a professional organization as a student who received an MSW online can provide important benefits and a competitive edge as you prepare to enter the job market. Membership helps you stay informed about major developments and connects you with other professionals in your specialization. Many social work associations provide useful information about licensure, certification, and professional development. Student members often receive discounts on continuing education coursework and access to job banks, internship opportunities, and networking events.
National Association of Social Workers: As the largest professional association for social workers in the world, NASW boasts a membership of 140,000. Student members may take advantage of continuing education and networking opportunities, HIPAA compliance training, and annual conferences.
Council on Social Work Education: Best known for accrediting social work degrees, CSWE also provides significant professional development support to its members, including an annual subscription to the Journal of Social Work Education, email newsletters, and access to the CSWE annual meeting.
Clinical Social Work Association: CSWA advocates on behalf of clinical social workers in mental health practice. The association offers discounted student memberships that provide information about licensing and standards, updates on legal developments in the field, and access to a job board.
School Social Work Association of America: SSWAA provides current information for working with students and their families in the school system in areas such as behavioral management, mental health issues, classroom support, and student counseling. Members receive access to professional development and networking opportunities.
National Organization of Forensic Social Work: NOFSW develops industry standards, provides educational material, and encourages original research to advance the practice of forensic social workers within the legal system. This organization sponsors annual conferences and networking opportunities, in addition to publishing a newsletter and professional journal.
Advances in Social Work: This open access journal covers current events and relevant research for social workers in all areas of practice. Articles address contemporary issues such as human trafficking and global violence against women and the role of mental health social workers in the aftermath of disasters.
The New Social Worker: Published by Loyola University of Chicago's School of Social Work, this online magazine covers research, best practices, ethics, and career information. Students and professionals just entering the field will find useful information on practice, specialties, field placement, and technological developments.
The Social Work Podcast: This user-friendly resource presents downloadable programs for clinical and community-based social workers. The site maintains an extensive archive on best practices, policy, and education. The podcasts also address issues of relevance for psychologists, counselors, and other professionals in the helping professions.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration: Administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, this resource provides practitioners and the general public with information about behavioral health research, substance abuse treatment, grant applications, and recent toolkits and publications.
Mental Health America: This website addresses all aspects of mental healthcare in the U.S., including the importance of prevention services, early identification and intervention for individuals at risk, integrated care services, and support that promotes recovery.
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