Social Worker School: Degree Program Options and Career Info

Social workers provide counseling and other services to individuals, families and communities in need. Social worker degrees are available at the bachelor's, master's and doctoral levels.

Essential Information

Each level of social work degree qualifies its graduates for specific career options. These options include social worker, mental health assistant and counselor. A bachelor's degree requires a high school diploma or equivalent and 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. A bachelor's degree is also required for master's programs, preferably in a social work related field. Doctoral degree programs can also be found, which require a bachelor's and/or master's degree for admission. Some social work degree programs may be offered online.

Bachelor's Degree in Social Work

Bachelor's programs last four years and 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.

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

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

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 social work such as drug counseling, medical and public health, child and family counseling, occupational therapy or mental health. Many programs also offer courses in advanced research.

Most graduates find employment as social workers and are generally qualified to tackle large caseloads, perform clinical assessments and accept leadership roles. Programs usually take two years to complete.

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:

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

Ph.D. in Social Work

Doctoral degrees in social work are suited to professionals 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 studies and advanced statistics. Most students also take pedagogical training courses. Programs may take three to five years to complete on a full-time basis.

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

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

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

Employment Outlook and Salary Information

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) expects employment of social workers to grow 12% between 2014 and 2024--a faster-than-average rate ( As of May 2015, the median annual salary was $42,350 for child, family and school social workers, $52,380 for healthcare social workers, and $42,170 for mental health and substance abuse social workers.

Many graduates of doctoral programs in social work enter careers in post-secondary instruction. The BLS expects the employment rate for all post-secondary teachers to grow 13% from 2014-2024, faster-than-average for all occupations. The median annual salary for post-secondary social work teachers specifically was $63,390 as of May 2015, reported the BLS. The lowest-paid ten percent of these teachers made $32,130 or less, while the highest-paid ten percent made more than $113,670.

Those considering a future in social work may pursue a bachelor's, master's, or doctoral degree. These programs prepare individuals for work in a variety of occupations, including instructors, counselors, and many others.

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