Online Graduate Programs in Social Work: Degree Options

Read important info about online programs in social work. Learn about program requirements, course topics and degree levels, and check out career and continuing education options.

Essential Information

Some graduate programs in social work can be completed 100% online, while other online programs have some in-person requirements. Degrees in social work are offered at both the master's and doctoral levels. Depending on the degree level, students may be required to gain practical experience, participate in residencies, attend retreats or conduct research in person. Residencies and retreats can last about 1-2 weeks. Applicants to these programs usually need a bachelor's degree in social work and experience in the field.

While graduate degrees in social work can be applied toward licensure, social workers typically also need to gain two years of supervised clinical experience after graduation. After earning at least a master's degree and gaining the required clinical experience, social workers must pass an exam to receive their state license.

Master's Degree in Social Work

Social work programs are a division of a school's health and human services department. Students in these programs are taught advanced skills for practicing and assuming leadership positions in the field. Related programs include social and community services and counseling.

Most programs require a bachelor's degree in social work and experience as a practicing social worker for admission. If a student's bachelor degree is in a field other than social work, he or she may have to complete statistics and human biology courses prior to admission.

Program Information and Requirements

Online master's degree programs in social work require four years of study. Schools typically offer regular and advanced study tracks. The advanced track requires three years of study but is only open to students with a bachelor's degree in social work and experience working in the field. Students in advanced study programs are often required to choose an area of specialization.

Although coursework is delivered online, students in social work programs must complete several internships. Regular track students may need to complete as many as four internships during the program; advanced track students complete three or fewer internships.

Course Topics

Coursework in master's degree social work programs teach students how to be an advocate for individuals, families and the disabled. Lessons also cover the prevention and management of social problems such as child abuse and drug addiction.

Social Policy and Justice

Students in this course discuss the formation and operation of the U.S. social welfare system and its effect on the different cultures in the population. The system's history, values and policy development are analyzed for failures and successes.

Human Behavior and Social Environment

This course investigates motivations and how they impact an individual's lifestyle. Human rights and how they are addressed by different organizations are included in coursework. Discussion also covers topics such as inequities and the influence of value systems.

Social Work Practice

This course teaches students various methods for assisting individuals, families and groups. Instruction covers general theories of social work and assisting diverse cultural groups.


Doctor of Social Work

Doctoral social work programs are sometimes labeled 'human service' programs. These programs focus on the theories of working in the community, with particular emphasis on researching and writing about topics in the field. Often, students in these programs are able to choose an area of concentration; the prevention and causes of child abuse is one example.

Program Information and Requirements

Social work doctoral programs consist of 72-102-course credit hours. These programs are completed on a time frame set by the student. It is possible, therefore, for completion of the program to take as many as 5-6 years. Most programs require students to research and defend a dissertation on a social work topic of their choice.

Because of the research-oriented nature of these programs, there is usually not an internship or practicum requirement. However, students must research and defend their dissertation in person. Otherwise, all coursework is delivered online by the Internet and email.

Course Topics

Students in human service doctoral programs are required to research and write a dissertation on an original topic of their choice. This topic can be pertinent either to the field of social work as a whole or their concentration. While there are no specific general course requirements, most programs offer coursework on leadership and technology use in social work.

Social Change, Leadership & Advocacy

Students in this course analyze the impact of current social structure and trends on counseling services. This course emphasizes the role of social workers as community advocates and leaders of social change.

Qualitative Research

This course instructs students in the proper methods of researching at the doctoral methods. Students use software programs to organize and interpret collected data. Strategies and theories for collecting data in the field and quality control of data are discussed.

Research and Theory of Cross-Cultural Psychology

This course focuses on the impact of culture on counseling services. Also addressed are the interactions and relationships between mental health, physical illnesses and social or behavioral problems.


Career Information for Graduates

Graduates of a master's degree program in social work can work as a social worker for children and families. These counselors work to improve family functioning and the effectiveness of the child's education. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that in 2015 child, family, and school social workers earned an average salary of $46,610 (www.bls.gov).

Graduates can also be employed as mental health social workers either by a hospital or clinic, private company, non-profit organization or the government. This type of social worker assists individuals addicted to alcohol or drugs to eliminate their dependency. In 2015, mental health and substance abuse social workers earned a median salary of $42,170.

In addition to practicing in the field, graduates of a doctoral program can work as professors of social work. Most schools require professors to hold a doctoral degree. The BLS reports that in 2015, post-secondary professors of social work earned an average salary of $69,030 per year.

Continuing Education Information

All states require social workers to be licensed and fulfill continuing education requirements to retain licensure. The Council for Social Work Education provides licensing requirements and other resources for graduates of a social work program seeking to work in the field.

A student may also continue his or her education and earn a Ph.D. in social work. These programs typically require four to six years of study and are offered online. The requirements for licensure, which vary by state but include a specific number of clinical hours, are not different for doctoral degree holders than for master's degree program graduates.

For individuals looking at graduate level social work programs, most universities offer both online and on-campus programs. While some programs are offered fully online, some may require students to make on-campus visits to complete necessary work, such as research and residencies.


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