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Social Work Degrees by Degree Program Level

The field of social work focuses on human welfare, social conditions, human interactions and the coordination of community resources to ensure individual and family well-being. Social work degrees help prepare students for this rewarding work.

Essential Information

Social work degree programs are available at the bachelor's through doctoral degree levels. Bachelor's degree programs in social work are designed for students who want to work as social work generalists in correctional institutions, health care settings and educational institutions. Students learn about human behavior, family services, mental illness and abuse, and they complete field experiences.

Those who desire career advancement may pursue a master's degree in social work, which focuses on intervention, case management and clinical assessment. Graduates may pursue social work licensure or earn a voluntary certification. Those interested in education and research may continue their education with a doctoral degree in social work. Doctoral students typically select an area of focus, pass a comprehensive exam and complete a dissertation on a specialized topic.

Some bachelor's level and master's level courses and programs are available online.


Bachelor of Social Work

Bachelor's programs in social work prepare candidates for generalist practice through a curriculum that prioritizes a foundation in liberal arts studies with particular attention to the psychological, biological, and social sciences. Students are usually accepted into an undergraduate social work program upon completion of their first two years of general college coursework. Students in these programs gain both knowledge and skills that can be used to address social justice issues and help individuals and families improve their social environment. Accredited social work degrees typically require at least 400 hours of supervised field experience. Social work curricula cover a wide range of topics including abuse and neglect, poverty, social change, mental illness, family dynamics and juvenile crime. Required coursework typically includes:

  • Society and diversity
  • Human behavior
  • Social welfare policies
  • Family services
  • Social research methods

Master of Social Work

Master of Social Work programs provide students with knowledge and skills needed to conduct direct and indirect interventions that are problem-focused, research-based and client-centered. Programs typically take about 2 years of full-time study. Although a bachelor's degree in social work is preferred for admission into a master's program, other undergraduate degrees in the social sciences are often accepted. Coursework prepares students to work with groups, communities, organizations, families and individuals. Students learn to manage large caseloads, perform clinical assessments and coordinate social services. Students are able to customize their curriculum through elective courses in social work specialties. Required courses typically include:

  • Human rights
  • Social welfare
  • Social work practice
  • Behavior and the social environment
  • Cultural diversity

Ph.D. in Social Work

Social work Ph.D. programs involve in-depth study of contemporary issues in social work practice such as the various methods used to analyze social policy and the effects of research on professional practice. Most programs require applicants to have completed several years of professional practice. Doctoral students learn to evaluate problems that impact the human condition, along with how to develop strategies to improve those conditions.

Completing a Ph.D. in the field prepares graduates for leadership roles in the development of social work policy and practice, as well as academic positions in social work education. In addition to classroom lecture and discussion, most Ph.D. programs require students to conduct focused research in order to complete and defend a dissertation. Before beginning work on their dissertations, students must pass a comprehensive exam in order to demonstrate general social work competencies. Course requirements often include:

  • Social work research
  • Research methods
  • Contemporary intervention methods
  • History of social work in the U.S.
  • Social science theory

Popular Career Options

Completing an undergraduate degree in social work prepares individuals for entry into beginning social work practice. Social work generalists are needed in the following settings:

  • Public and private welfare agencies
  • Correctional institutions
  • Educational systems
  • Health care settings
  • Mental health centers

Ph.D. graduates typically enter the world of academia, educating future social work professionals and performing research that has the potential to influence future social work policy. Career opportunities include:

  • Researcher
  • College professor
  • Social services administrator

Employment Outlook and Salary Info

The number of employed social workers was expected to grow 12% from 2014-2024, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The mean salary for child, family and school social workers was $46,610 as of 2015, while mental health and substance abuse social workers earned an average salary of $47,190.

Continuing Education Information

A bachelor's degree in social work (BSW) provides an excellent foundation in social work principles and practices for those wishing to pursue higher levels of education in the field. A Master of Social Work requires a more in-depth examination of social work interventions and provides an opportunity for career advancement.

The National Association of Social Workers offers a variety of voluntary credentials for individuals with a master's degree in social work. Added credentials can particularly improve the expertise and creditability of social workers in private practice. Social workers also are required to become licensed. For individuals interested in pursuing careers in social work research and education, a social work Ph.D. is recommended.

In addition to field work, programs in social work provide classes discussing human behavior, family services, mental illness and abuse. Different levels of degrees provide different tools for working in a number of environments, so knowing you careers goals before picking a program can be useful.


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