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What Education Does a Social Worker Need?

In order to understand the required education to become a social worker, it is helpful to first determine the type of work the social worker wants to do. Some social work jobs require no relevant experience, while others can’t be performed without a doctoral degree. Here’s a breakdown of four levels of education for social workers and the type of work for which each educational level prepares social workers.

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No Degree in Social Work

A bachelor’s degree is the lowest level of education needed for a career in social work. It may be possible to occasionally find low-level social work jobs that only require an associate’s degree. These positions would offer little pay, little career advancement, and limited duties. A bachelor of arts (BA) degree in sociology, human services or psychology is often accepted for entry-level jobs in social work. Positions with a turnover rate, like a case manager for a Department of Child Protective Services, are more likely to accept applicants without a degree in social work. It’s possible to use a beginning role in social work as a springboard for earning a master’s degree in social work (MSW) and moving onto a better job.

Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work (BSW)

With a bachelor’s degree in social work, candidates will be eligible for a wide range of jobs. Common titles at this education level include Case Manager, Family Support Specialist and Program Manager. According to the U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), all four-year programs in social work require students to complete an internship. This work experience can be a valuable first step in finding a social work position. Many graduate programs offer accelerated master’s degrees for students with a BSW, making it easy to obtain further education.

Master of Social Work (MSW)

An MSW gives graduates access to almost every possible role in social work. With a focus in clinical counseling, a social worker can become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) and offer talk therapy services to patients. MSW-prepared graduates can obtain management roles at a variety of public sector and non-profit organizations. Many specialized roles in social work, like hospital social work, school social work and addictions counseling, require an MSW. Leadership roles in policy advocacy and management often require a master’s degree as well.

Ph.D. and DSW

Social workers who want to conduct research to advance the field should pursue a Doctorate of Philosophy in Social Work, or Ph.D. Almost all tenured, full-time professors are required to have this degree. Another graduate-level option is the Doctorate in Social Work, or DSW. This degree helps social workers hone their clinical and client-focused skills. With either degree, graduates are able to rise to the top of the profession and serve as leaders in the social work community. Many universities offer online doctoral programs for both the Ph.D. and DSW degree.

For some roles, years of experience can be substituted for educational requirements. For example, a case manager with ten years on the job can work as a manager, even without an MSW. While the path to being a social worker doesn’t have to be one-size-fits-all, this guide offers a start to understanding the necessary education and experience.

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