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What Is an MSW? Master of Social Work Explained

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Published on: 09/29/2022
Last Updated: 04/17/2024
9 minute read

Interested in joining an expanding field of healthcare professionals, working in the private, public, and nonprofit sectors? There are several pathways for entering the social work profession, but for many, the Master in Social Work (MSW) can be the first step toward entering the field. An MSW is a master’s level degree and a requirement for many careers in social work.

That said, there’s plenty more to discover about this degree. From the prerequisites to earning an MSW to the career opportunities the degree can provide, this article will take a deep dive into everything you need to know about the Master of Social work degree. 

What Are The Prerequisites for Earning An MSW?

Before you learn how to get a Master’s in Social Work, it’s advisable to understand the prerequisites associated with acceptance to an MSW program. The MSW degree is given out by colleges and universities backed by federal and state accreditation.

Different schools can offer a range of complementary coursework in their Master of Social Work program. That said, ensure that any institution you apply to is transparent about its accreditation, tuition costs, and student resources. 

Requirements for applying to an MSW degree program can include:1

  • A Bachelor’s degree – Typically, all Master's degree programs require a Bachelor’s degree for entry into the program. You may need to provide the transcripts from the institution that you graduated from, and you may need to contact administrative offices to ensure your transcripts are sent.
  • Entrance exams – MSW programs may request that you take a standardized test before admissions. The Graduate Records Examination (GRE) is a common requirement for many universities, and there are a variety of options available for taking the test.
  • Admissions essay – In addition to your admission materials, programs may require an essay about your interest in the study of social work. Depending on the prompt, you may be able to draw from personal and professional experiences related to the field.

Your grade-point average (GPA) may also have a deciding factor in your admission decision. If you’re still completing your undergraduate degree, it’s recommended that you prioritize your grades and engage in extracurricular activities related to your field of study. A strong application can be the best way to ensure you make it into your ideal program.

Do I Need a BSW to Pursue an MSW?

The short answer is “no.” Programs do not typically exclude applicants with undergraduate degrees in fields besides social work. While a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree may increase your application’s likelihood of acceptance, it is in no way a prerequisite for an MSW. It’s important to know, though, that earning a Bachelor’s degree is the essential first step when it comes to how to become a social worker.

Additionally, there are several fields of study that may be complementary to a higher degree in social work, including:

  • Psychology – Human behavior, cognitive development, and clinical research are important to the field of psychology as well as social work. An undergraduate degree in psychology may prepare you for the more scientific aspects of your MSW coursework.
  • Public policy – The legal, ethical, and sociological studies that make up a public policy degree are also helpful in the field of social work. Those with a background in public policy may find themselves specializing in the related field of public health while earning their MSW
  • Anthropology – With a degree in anthropology, you may already be well versed in field research and human biology. These skills can serve you well as an MSW graduate student and could expand your knowledge of various fields of social work.

Even if your Bachelor’s degree is unrelated to social work, the critical thinking skills and educational experience of your undergraduate education can be highly useful in any MSW program. 

Explore our MSW Degree

What Can I Expect in an MSW Program?

After completing your application and earning acceptance to an accredited program, you can expect 1 to 2 years of education to complete your degree.2 Every program will differ in terms of coursework, faculty, and expectations, but many programs draw from a common core of social work knowledge.

After entering your program, you may have the option of in-person, online, or hybrid learning. Each way of learning offers its own set of benefits, and it’s important for you to evaluate your needs to determine the best fit for your lifestyle and career goals.

No matter how you’re program is set up, you may expect to study coursework related to3:

  • Law and ethics – Those in the field of social work may need a strong foundation of legal and ethical theory. These classes can explore various cases and scenarios that you may experience in your career.
  • Clinical practice – You’ll likely engage in practical work designed to familiarize you with the tools and treatment techniques associated with the  social work practice. Additionally, your program may allow you to work with professional social workers and engage in real-world clinical experiences.
  • Social policy – You can expect coursework related to addiction, trauma, community outreach, and social services. While you may not deal with all of these topics in your career, it can be helpful to have a firm background in a variety of social policies and programs.

What About Scholarships and Financial Aid?

For those accepted into a  Master in Social Work degree program, financial resources may be a determining factor in your educational pursuits. You may be able to partially or completely fund your education through a variety of sources, including:

  • Public scholarships
  • Private scholarships
  • Institutional scholarships
  • Financial aid packages

Scholarships and aid are typically allocated based on need and merit. Look into your program's various opportunities and consider reaching out to the appropriate office to ask about what packages you may be eligible for.

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What Career Opportunities Does an MSW Offer?

The different types of MSW degrees are designed to provide a strong educational foundation and can also prepare you for the workforce. As an MSW graduate, you’ll likely already have the education and experience to qualify you for many positions in the field.

So what can you do with a master’s in social work? There are several different types of social work career pathways you can choose, including:

  • Individual and family social work – Standard social worker positions can often be the most common pathways to career placement. You can work with individuals or families through their various needs, taking on mental health, emotional, and behavioral issues.
  • School social work – If you’re interested in working with children, you might consider a position as a school social worker or counselor, bringing your clinical knowledge to the educational community.
  • Hospital social work – Counseling and therapy can be a major part of the medical industry. Hospitals and healthcare facilities are often staffed with professional social workers who take on the therapeutic needs of their patients.
  • Outpatient and rehab work – For social workers focused on the impact and implications of addiction, outpatient and rehabilitation centers may offer a variety of career opportunities. From group therapy to individual evaluations, the MSW can help prepare you for this major industry. 
  • HR and administration – You can bring your social work experience into the corporate sector through human resources (HR) and administrative careers. Your background in health policy and clinical treatment can prepare you for inter-office issues and workplace policy management.

There are plenty of other professional options for MSW graduates, from criminal justice to teaching. While completing your MSW, you may even have the opportunity to join a professional network of social workers, providing you with career insights and opportunities.

What Other Educational Opportunities Does an MSW Offer?

After completing your MSW, you may be well prepared to enter the workforce. That said, you may be interested in supplementing your MSW degree with further social work education and accreditation. While the MSW can open new career pathways, there’s always room for more advancement in the field of social work.

Depending on your interests and availability, you may find opportunities for further continuing education through any of the following means:

  • LCSW – Through a series of exams, you can become a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW). Clinical social work licensure can broaden your employment opportunities and may even lead to an increase in salary. So, how long does it take to become a social worker? Different states have different requirements for licensure, but it typically requires at least 2 years of clinical experience following your MSW degree.4

    In other words, the LCSW designation signifies higher expertise attained through clinical practice and licensure. An MSW student delves into social science, social service, and social justice during their program. Upon completing the online MSW program, you may become a certified master social worker qualified to address a broad spectrum of social welfare and human service needs but not carrying the same legal authority or recognition as licensure. While your social work MSW degree provides a comprehensive foundation in social work principles and practice, the licensed master social worker (LMSW) title signifies that you have met standardized practice criteria and demonstrated competency in the field. It would help if you weighed factors such as career outlook and specialization options when navigating the social work graduate program landscape to tailor your educational journey to your aspirations and interests. 
  • Doctoral degrees – For those interested in furthering their social work education beyond the MSW, there are several doctoral programs in social work available. Earning your Doctorate of Social Work (DSW) could prepare you for a research career or even teaching in higher education.
  • Specialized certifications – MSW graduates interested in working in a specialized field are encouraged to investigate additional certification programs. From hospice care to substance abuse, consider exploring the opportunities in your state to further your accreditation and elevate your career.5

Social work can certainly be a lifelong learning process, and further education and accreditation may help you along your career path. Additionally, your first-hand experience in various professional environments during and after your MSW degree can make you a stronger candidate for the position of your dreams.

Earn Your MSW at Alliant International University

The MSW is a great way to make headway in your social work career. Whether you’re just beginning your education or already working in the field of social work, expanding your social work field education is one of the best ways to secure your ideal career. At Alliant, we’re committed to providing an education that prepares students for a lifetime in the field.

With flexible enrollment and 8-week terms, Alliant International University is a great choice for students eager to complete their MSW in record time. You can look forward to online coursework from a highly-trained and diverse faculty, and a rigorous degree program with an emphasis on clinical social work practice and training. Visit Alliant today to learn more about our social work program and apply.


  1.  “Career Path for Social Workers: Everything You Need to Know.” Social Work License Map. October 2021. Accessed May 25, 2022.  
  2.  “Master of Social Work Degree.” Social Work Guide. October 08, 2020. Accessed May 25, 2022.
  3. “Career Path for Social Workers: Everything You Need to Know.” Social Work License Map. October 2021. Accessed May 25, 2022. 
  4.  “LCSW | Licensed Clinical Social Worker Requirement.” Public Health Online. Accessed May 25, 2022 
  5.  “Social Work Credentials and Certifications.” Social Work Degrees. Accessed May 25, 2022. 

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