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Is a Master's in Social Work Worth It?

Master's in Social Work - Is It Worth It?
Rebecca Safier
Rebecca SafierUpdated May 31, 2023
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Earning your advanced degree in social work requires a significant commitment of time and money, so you may be wondering if a Master’s in Social Work (MSW) is worth it. The answer to this question is different for everyone, since your choice of career is a personal one. However, it’s worth considering several factors, such as average income and job openings, when you are determining whether an MSW would be worth the investment. By going into your social work program with reasonable expectations and clear post-graduation goals, you can make sure your MSW pays off in the end. 

What Is a Master's in Social Work (MSW)?

A Master’s in Social Work is the master’s degree you earn from attending a graduate school program in social work, particularly one that’s accredited by the Council on Social Work Education.This program typically spans two years and may involve a practicum or internship on top of core coursework. You might learn how to help clients cope with life challenges, counsel people in crisis, or connect people with community resources. Following graduation, MSW holders can work in a school, a hospital, or a community center.

Do You Need an MSW to Practice Social Work?

You don’t necessarily need an MSW to practice social work. Having a bachelor’s degree in social work qualifies you for various positions, including caseworker, mental health assistant, program coordinator, and addiction counselor. However, some positions in the social work field may require a master’s degree. So while you can be a social worker with only your bachelor’s, you won’t have the whole world of social work opportunities available to you. 

What Are the Benefits of Getting a Master’s in Social Work?

While a master's degree isn’t necessarily required to become a social worker, there are benefits to earning your MSW. 

Open up Additional Career Opportunities 

Earning your MSW can open up job opportunities, including ones at the managerial level or other leadership positions. It also gives you greater flexibility and the option to work in specialized fields, whether you opt for a school, clinic, hospital, or government setting. 

Increase Your Salary Potential 

Having an advanced degree could mean you earn more money. According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), salaries for social workers with an MSW is nearly $13,000 more than that of social workers with only a bachelor’s degree. And according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Master’s degree holders in general earn a median weekly salary of $1,661, while those with only a bachelor’s degree earn $1,432. 

Specialize in a Certain Area 

By getting your MSW, you can specialize in a certain area, such as family social work, mental health, or substance abuse. This specialization will allow you to pursue specific positions in an area that interests you, whether you work in administration, research, teaching, or another role. 

Gain Clinical Licensure 

Your MSW program may also involve coursework that’s required to gain licensure as a clinical social worker. Clinical work lets you work with clients one-on-one and requires a deep understanding of the various sciences and disciplines that go into social work. 

What Are the Risks of Getting a Master’s in Social Work?

On the flip side, there are some potential risks that might make you think twice about pursuing your Master’s in Social Work. 

More Time in School 

An MSW program often spans two years, so you’ll have to decide if you want to spend additional years in school. This may also involve a loss in potential earnings, since you probably can’t work full-time while you’re studying for your degree. 

Additional Student Debt

You may have to take out student loans for your master’s program, which would be on top of any student loans you already borrowed for your undergraduate education. It may take you 10 years or more to pay off these student loans, and you’ll have to pay interest charges on top of the amount you borrowed. That said, social workers may be eligible for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program after 10 years of working in public service. You can also explore options for state-based student loan forgiveness programs.

Earnings May Be on the Low Side 

Social work may be a fulfilling and rewarding career that involves helping others, but it’s not known for its high paycheck. According to BLS, the median annual salary for a social worker is $50,390. You may find higher salaries in certain areas than others, though. For instance, social workers in Washington, D.C. earn an average annual income of $106,735, according to Indeed, more than double the overall annual median. 

How Much Does a Master’s in Social Work Cost?

The average cost of a master’s degree in a field like social work is $72,770, according to the Education Data Initiative. However, the cost of attendance can vary widely depending on the school. You’ll likely find lower costs at a public, in-state college or online program. A private university, on the other hand, may charge significantly more. Keep in mind that a school’s sticker price can be reduced with financial aid, such as scholarships, grants, and tuition waivers. 

Types of Careers You Can Get With a Master’s in Social Work

Earning your MSW can open up a variety of career opportunities, including jobs in administration, research, teaching, writing, and management. One role that you can get with a Master’s in Social Work is a social work supervisor. Social work supervisors often mentor other social workers and consult in difficult cases. They may work in outpatient care centers, hospitals, community centers, or nonprofits and ensure their organization follows regulations. Another career you can pursue with an MSW is that of a clinical social worker. Clinical social workers often provide therapy and counseling to individuals and groups. They work in hospitals, rehabilitation facilities, and clinics and help patients find jobs, housing, or healthcare services. 

The Future of Social Work

Those who plan to go into social work should find an increasing number of job opportunities in the field in future years. According to the BLS, social work job openings are expected to grow by 9% by 2031. Since the Covid-19 pandemic, social workers may also have more flexibility in where they work. The rise in telehealth and online therapy services means that some social workers may find opportunities to work remotely or in a hybrid remote / in-person setting. 

The Takeaway

Earning your MSW can lead to a fulfilling career in social work, as well as open up career paths and increase your earning potential. In this way, the answer to, “Is a master’s in social work worth it?” could be yes. At the same time, there are some potential downsides, such as challenging work and additional student loan debt. By thinking carefully about your career goals, you can determine whether earning your MSW makes sense for you.    

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Frequently Asked Questions

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Photo credit: iStock/izusek

About the Author

Rebecca Safier

Rebecca Safier

Rebecca Safier has nearly a decade of experience writing about personal finance. Formerly a senior writer with LendingTree and Student Loan Hero, she specializes in student loans, financial aid, and personal loans. She is certified as a student loan counselor with the National Association of Certified Credit Counselors (NACCC).
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