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Social Worker School: Degree Program Options and Career Info

Learn about degree program options for the aspiring social worker. This article highlights educational prerequisites, program coursework and career options.

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Essential Information

Social workers provide counseling and other services to individuals, families and communities in need. Social work degrees are available at the bachelor's, master's and doctorate levels. Each level qualifies its graduates for specific career options. Career outcomes include social worker, mental health assistant or counselor. Featuring courses such as applied psychology, sociology, drug abuse counseling techniques and data interpretation, some such programs may be offered online. Depending on the program level, field research or a dissertation may be necessary.

Bachelor's Degree in Social Work

A bachelor's degree is the minimum requirement to become a social worker; however, because many employers and states require social workers to hold advanced degrees, a bachelor's degree is more commonly earned en route to a master's degree. Programs include general education requirements in addition to the social work coursework. Social work is inherently interdisciplinary and involves study in a number of related fields, such as psychology, sociology and family science. Candidates learn to work with varied demographics, including small groups, families, organizations and communities. The overall goal of these programs is to equip graduates with fundamental skills that can be used to ensure the wellness of people in a number of different settings.

Educational Prerequisites

Requirements to enter bachelor's degree programs in social work include standardized test scores, high school transcripts and letters of recommendation. Many schools prefer applicants with volunteer experience.

Program Coursework

Students can expect to spend time both learning theory and observing or participating in the field. Some courses that might appear in the curriculum include the following:

  • Psychology
  • Group psychology
  • Sociology
  • Principles of counseling
  • Social welfare policy

Popular Career Options

Many social work positions require graduate-level degrees; however, career options are available for bachelor's degree holders. Following are a few examples of relevant job titles:

  • Drug counselor
  • Mental health assistant
  • Counseling assistant
  • Residential counselor
  • Group home worker

Master's Degree in Social Work

Master's degree programs in social work build on skills taught in bachelor's degree programs and introduce advanced field techniques. Candidates typically specialize in particular areas of counseling, such as drug counseling, medical and public health, child and family counseling, occupational therapy or mental health. Most graduates find employment as social workers and are generally qualified to tackle large caseloads, perform clinical assessments and accept leadership roles. Many programs also offer training in advanced research. Programs usually take two years to complete. Some social work master's degree programs are available online.

Educational Prerequisites

Applicants must have bachelor's degrees to be considered for admission to master's degree programs in social work. While some schools prefer applicants with bachelor's degrees in social work, others are more open to bachelor's degrees in other fields - especially related fields like sociology, psychology or social work.

Program Coursework

Like most graduate programs, master's degree programs in social work focus on specialized study and advanced, original research. Some courses that might appear in the curriculum are as follows:

  • Drug abuse counseling techniques
  • Field research
  • Applied psychology
  • Patient treatment ethics
  • Advanced family dynamics

Employment Outlook and Salary Information

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) expected employment of social workers to grow 25% between 2010 and 2020 - a faster-than-average rate ( As of May 2012, the median annual salary was $41,530 for child and family social workers, $49,830 for healthcare social workers, and $39,980 for mental health and substance abuse social workers.

Ph.D. in Social Work

Doctorate degrees in social work are suited to those with substantial social work experience who wish to pursue university teaching careers. As such, programs almost always put heavy emphasis on specialized study and substantial individual research. Programs culminate in a dissertation, a book-length work of original research, which is overseen by an advisory committee. Many programs train students in research techniques, including large-scale psychological study and advanced statistics, that can be implemented in the field. Most students also take pedagogical training courses. Programs may take 3-5 years to complete on a full-time basis.

Educational Prerequisites

Applicants must have bachelor's degrees to be considered for admission, although many programs only admit those who either have master's degrees or substantial work experience in the field. Standardized test scores, college transcripts, letters of recommendation and resumes may also be required.

Program Coursework

Many programs bring in experts to discuss advanced social work principles and techniques. Some classes common to these programs include the following:

  • Statistical polling and analysis
  • Data interpretation
  • Drug addiction physiology
  • Extreme behavior problems
  • Family dysfunction

Employment Outlook and Salary Information

The most common career for graduates of doctorate programs in social work is post-secondary instruction. The BLS expected the employment rate in this field to grow 17% from 2010-2020, about as fast as the average for all occupations. The median annual salary for post-secondary social work teachers was $63,250 as of May 2012, reported the BLS. The lowest-paid ten percent of these teachers made $35,090 or less, while the highest-paid ten percent made more than $117,000.

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Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics