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What Social Work Path is Right for You? Degrees and Licenses Explained

Considering a degree in social work? Use this guide to figure out the right path, degree, and license for you in this discipline dedicated to serving others.

Author: Rebecca Newman
Editor: STEPS Staff

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A man kneels while talking to a young boy wearing a backpack outdoors. The man, possibly discussing social work education, is holding a white clipboard, and both appear engaged in conversation. The background is filled with greenery and sunlight.

Embarking on a career in social work is an incredibly meaningful decision. You’ll be dedicating your work to serving vulnerable populations and advocating for those in need. Thanks to groundwork laid by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) and a strong national curriculum and licensure standards, those who earn a degree and license in social work garner respect from their colleagues and are well prepared to help their clients.

You might be unsure about how to become a social worker. This guide is a great place to start learning what area of social work you’d like to focus on and gathering information about which degree and license you’ll need. However, one of the best parts of social work is the universality of the education. You can begin a career in one area and pivot to another without having to augment your education or licensure.

In this guide you’ll will:

  • Learn about the different social work careers
  • Explore which degree is necessary for your desired path
  • Better understand the Social Work licensing process

Step 1: Choose a Social Work Specialization

The more you learn about social work, the more you may realize that social workers are all around you, filling crucial roles throughout society. This means that you can specialize and work with a population of interest in a job that feels meaningful and purposeful for you. While those with an associate or bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW) typically are qualified for positions in service agencies, the master of social work (MSW) is the gold standard, particularly for career advancement. Far from an exhaustive list, these are some of the most common and in-demand specialties in social work and the institutions where you can learn the best and most current practices in the field:

Child and Family Social Work

Supporting families to improve their health and resilience is at the center of child and family social work. You may work in a maternal care organization, adoption or foster placement, child welfare, housing, domestic violence prevention, or other service agency geared toward family well-being. Those with BSWs typically participate in outreach and community engagement efforts, while those with MSW degrees tend to engage in the implementation of evidence-based practices.

Check out: Boston College’s MSW program with a Children, Youth, & Families Concentration

Clinical Counseling as Social Worker

If you’re interested in a career as a psychotherapist from a social-work lens, earning an MSW and eventually a clinical license will provide that option in as little as four years. Social workers are well-regarded clinicians and may work in college counseling centers, group practices, private practices, or other counseling settings, seeing individuals, couples, and families for psychotherapy or facilitate therapy groups. Click here to compare and contrast the differences between a social work and psychology path.

Check out: New York University’s MSW program with Advanced Specialized Clinical Practice

Community Social Work

What comes to many people’s minds as classic social work is best captured by the category of community social work. This path involves working in community agencies, typically providing services, resources, or assisting a vulnerable population. Community social work includes housing services, disability services and resources, help with government assistance benefits, health or nutrition resources, advocacy organizations, and social justice movements. Individuals with an associate degree or BSW serve vital roles in these organizations, with MSWs managing leadership roles.

Check out: University of Washington’s MSW with Community-Centered Integrative Practice Specialization

Geriatric Social Work

The American (and global) population is aging rapidly, placing a demand on services and practitioners with an expertise in the needs of our older population. Social workers with a specialization in gerontology work in senior services, housing services, nursing or respite care facilities, assisted living, or primary care offices. Participating in case management may be a role available to those with a BSW, while implementation of evidence-based practices or advanced care planning typically requires an MSW.

Check out: University of Pittsburgh’s MSW with a Gerontology Certificate

Immigration Social Work

Immigration social service agencies are prevalent, particularly in major cities, to assist newcomers in the process of getting established in their new homes. Social workers in this area assist with job training placement, government assistance benefits, obtaining necessary identification and documentation, and providing information about reputable systems and scams. These agencies may utilize the support of BSW holders for case management tasks, which can be a rewarding way to build relationships in a community of new immigrants.

Check out: City University of New York’s Global Social Work and Practice with Immigrants and Refugees Specialization

Justice, Corrections, and Reentry Social Work

There’s a delicate balance — and at times an uneasy alliance — between social work and criminal justice. The justice system has been affected by centuries of racial bias; those earning a specialization in this area are equipped with the tools to dismantle some of these factors. These concentrations also offer further education on supporting the complex task of reentry following incarceration, a vulnerable time for individuals and their families. Many social workers in this area work in the court or prison system, while others work in agencies dedicated to this population.

Check out: University of Pennsylvania’s MSW with Criminal Justice Specialization

Medical Social Work

Hospital medical social workers have the most in common with project managers in other fields. These social workers begin with a patient at hospital admission, assess their needs, participate as a member of the treatment team, advocate for the patient and family’s needs, and serve as the point person for discharge planning and aftercare. Medical social workers who are embedded in outpatient settings may fill similar roles of connecting vulnerable patients, particularly in oncology or nursing care settings, with resources and support.

Check out:Rutgers University’s MSW with a Health Area of Emphasis

Mental Health and Substance Use Social Work

In its own category from medical social work, mental health and substance use social workers can work at any level of care serving those in high need, such as a crisis response center, inpatient mental health treatment, detoxification, inpatient rehabilitation, partial hospitalization, intensive outpatient, or outpatient clinical or counseling settings. Social workers in this domain are among the most vulnerable to burnout.

Check out: Case Western Reserve University’s MSW with a Substance Use Disorders and Recovery Path of Study

Nonprofit Leadership Social Work

Macro social work is the alternative to a clinically focused track, meaning you learn more about advocacy and leadership in the social service sector. If you’re interested in taking the helm of an organization and affecting change on a large scale, this track may be right for you. After all, the social work field needs well-trained leaders just as much as direct-practice providers. Macro-focused social workers may work in a large nonprofit agency, government agency, or national professional organization like the NASW or another advocacy group.

Check out: Bryn Mawr College’s MSS Concentration in Macro Practice(Note: While less common, an MSS is equivalent to an MSW.)

School Social Work

Schools are one of the most unique institutions in our society. They serve children’s needs for education, recreation, nutrition, socialization, and community, all at once. Whether in a traditional school or a homeschool, attendance at school is compulsory for children and is an effective way to assess their progress and provide support and resources for children in need. School social workers look at academic performance, emotional development and well-being, and habits and behavior patterns for children to determine how to best support them. Some high-needs schools even coordinate care resources, such as dentistry clinics, to improve the health of their communities. In keeping with educational and licensing requirements for teachers, school social work certificates/credentials are offered for those interested in working with this population.

Check out: West Chester University’s MSW with School Social Work Certificate

Step 2: Explore Social Work Degrees

Let’s first break down the types of social work degrees, including how long it takes to complete each one, the social work jobs and roles you can fill at each tier, and even schools where you could earn the degree. While the MSW is a terminal degree and the gold standard for working as a social worker, many find a fulfilling role at the BSW level. Others go beyond to a doctorate or PhD to work in leadership, research, elevated clinical practice, or education.

Associate Degree in Social Work

Open to all previous educational experiences and backgrounds, you can expect to complete an associate degree in social work in approximately four semesters or two years. Students may utilize this degree as a springboard to study at a four-year college. However it’s important to note that there’s no Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) accreditation for associate degree programs, which means that credits may not transfer to a BSW program. You’ll develop a working understanding of systems, human behavior, and person-centered care that are core to the social work ethos. After you graduate, you’re qualified to work as a one-to-one care worker, such as a behavioral health technician or special education paraprofessional. Get more details on associate degrees in social work here.

Check out:

Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work

For those looking to begin their path into social work as an undergraduate, a BSW is the place to start. Your four-year degree’s coursework will include a fundamental knowledge base in issues related to social welfare, social justice, inequality, and focus on the individual, while still exploring other courses as part of your undergraduate studies. Make sure that your prospective degree program is accredited by the CSWE, which ensures it holds to the rigors of social work education. After earning a BSW, you may be able to earn an advanced standing MSW, which counts bachelor’s coursework toward an MSW and allows you to earn an accelerated MSW in as little as 12 months. After earning a BSW, you’ll be equipped to work in a social service agency providing case management, informal counseling, advocacy, or support. Dive into the specifics of a BSW with this guide.

Check out:

Master’s Degree in Social Work

The gold standard in social work practice, and the degree around which social work licensure is predicated, is the MSW degree. It provides focused, targeted education on social work, including two rigorous field placements, advanced coursework on social justice, human behavior, and social science research. Most traditional MSW programs can be completed in two years full time, three years part time, or as little as one year for advanced standing (see BSW description). Once you earn an MSW, you’re equipped to work in a social service agency, school, hospital, or any setting in service or in advocacy of others or providing clinical care. Learn more about top online MSW programs with this guide.

Check out:

Doctorate of Social Work

At the doctoral level, social workers most likely have already achieved their desired licensure status and job prospects. So, the point of further education at the doctoral level is to enhance your knowledge and possibly help you move into an organizational leadership role, while those with an MSW may remain at a managerial/supervisory level. The DSW is a clinical doctorate; the curriculum varies, with some programs focused on leadership from a social work perspective and others focused more on clinical interventions and practices, such as cognitive behavioral therapy. Some DSW programs can be completed in as little as two years, although most are approximately three years for full-time study or five years for part-time study. CSWE is developing accreditation for DSW and PhD programs, but currently CSWE does not offer accreditation for social work doctoral programs. That said, be sure to attend an institution that holds overall accreditation as an institute of higher learning. Dig into the details of earning a DSW online with this guide and ranking.

Check out:

PhD in Social Work

A PhD in social work prepares students for a career in academia or research, rather than direct practice with individuals or supervising a social service agency. Those who earn a PhD seek positions as social work faculty or contribute to literature, research, and discourse in the field. Many PhD programs can be completed in three to five years, including time for a dissertation project. Some PhD programs require full-time attendance, although increasingly programs are offering online courses complemented with brief intensives to make degrees more accessible to a wider range of learners and to allow working students to further their education. Learn more about getting a PhD in social work here.

Check out:

Step 3: Get Your License

After you earn your degree, you will likely want to take the next steps to earn your license. While licensure isn’t standard in macro social work settings, in any form of direct practice your license is a crucial credential and serves as a point of accountability. An exciting development is movement toward a Social Work Licensure Compact, in which becoming licensed in one participating state is tantamount to a license valid in all states in the compact. This replaces the necessity to hold multiple state licenses. Take a moment to familiarize yourself with social work licensure requirements in your state, as they can vary. The Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) administers licensure testing on a national basis so there are some consistent criteria across states.

Associate Degree Licensing

You may earn a Social Work Associate/Licensed Social Work Associate with or without a degree in social work by passing the ASWB Associate Exam. Only a few states offer this credential.

Bachelor’s Degree Licensing

After earning your BSW, you can become a Licensed Bachelor of Social Work (LBSW). This requires earning a BSW from a CSWE-accredited program and passing the BSW exam.

MSW Licensing & Higher

After earning your MSW from a CSWE-accredited program, you can sit for the Licensed Social Worker (LSW) exam. In some states, you can take the exam while you complete your final semester of your MSW program as long as you are in good standing; your license will be issued as soon as your degree is conferred. Some states call this credential Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW).

Following earning an LSW/LMSW and with two years of work experience, in some states you can take an additional exam, the Social Work Generalist exam, to become an LMSW-AG or similar. This exam focuses on the same content as the LSW exam but requires a heightened knowledge base.

Those who have two years of post-LSW experience that is clinically focused and who have documented the requisite amount of clinical supervision can take the Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)exam. Specific requirements vary by state. This credential may also be called Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW). Crucially, LCSWs can participate with commercial and government-based insurance plans, which allows providers to work in private or group clinical practice settings.

Doctorate-level social workers have no additional licenses, as the licensing opportunities are the same as what’s available to master’s-level social workers.

What is the Difference Between Clinical & Macro Social Work?

Clinical social workers primarily focus on individuals, families, or delivering services, and macro social workers typically work with systems or organizations. During the second year of your MSW program, you’ll most likely have to decide between these specialty areas and select a field placement that reflects your professional goals. Macro and clinical social work students take separate practicum-support courses to further refine their skills prior to entering the field. Some practitioners refer to the levels of social work as micro, which is the individual level; mezzo, which is the group level; and macro, which is the community or government level.

What Does Macro Social Work Look Like?

A macro social worker is best equipped for the field after earning an MSW from a CSWE-accredited institution. This ensures that you have met the most current curriculum requirements. Macro social workers work in advocacy, lobbying groups, program evaluation, nonprofit leadership, or other systems-based work that focuses more on large moving parts than individuals or families or providing direct services. Licensing isn’t necessarily standard for macro social workers, although earning an LSW or similar following graduation is best practice.

What Does Clinical Social Work Look Like?

To practice as a clinical social worker, you must earn an MSW from a CSWE-accredited program and pass the LSW exam. After earning an LSW, you can begin clinical supervision with a seasoned LCSW and other similar mental health professionals (psychiatrist, psychologist, licensed professional counselor, or licensed marriage and family therapist) while providing direct services to individuals.

State requirements vary, but after approximately two years of full-time work you may submit your supervision hours to your state licensing board for review and receive approval to take the LCSW exam. Following this credential, you’re eligible to practice psychotherapy or other interventions in a variety of settings, including group practices, private practices, agencies, schools, or other organizations. LCSW psychotherapists can bill individuals privately for their services, which increases your earning potential.

Check out our guide Social Work, Counseling, or Psychology: How to Pick Your Path to learn more about different avenues into clinical work.