Get a Social Work Degree Online

Social work is a specialized, interdisciplinary field concerned with improving the lives of others through direct practice, intervention, advocacy and case management. Social workers can have a variety of professional roles, including counselor, case manager, community development worker, public policy analyst or school advocate.

In addition to being a helpful profession, social work is also an in-demand career, one that the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects will grow by 19 percent nationally between 2012 and 2022. Social workers can be found in nearly every industry, including health care, health and human services, and education.

This is fundamentally a diverse occupation, and professionals may encounter or specialize in an assorted array of public issues, such as health care social work, adoption, substance abuse, and child welfare. In turn, prospective students may select from multiple concentrations of social work, according to the National Association of Social Workers. These include:

  • Military
  • Clinical
  • Gerontology
  • Hospice and Palliative Care
  • Youth and Family
  • Health care
  • Addictions
  • Case Management
  • Education

Types of educational programs in social work

Educational programs in social work help students develop the theoretical understanding of the profession, while also honing practical, service-oriented skills in several areas, such as the following:

Q&A with a social worker

Judith Shine is the president of the American Council for School Social Work and has more than 30 years of experience as a school social worker. She shared her thoughts on the field in general, education and why social work is a rewarding profession.

1. Where did you get your degree?

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which was an awesome program.

2. What are the some of the most important things you learned during your degree program?

I learned, and have come to deeply appreciate, the versatility of the social work degree. Not only can the skills and knowledge transfer to a multitude of social work settings, they can be utilized in any number of professions. I have friends who are principals, special education directors, school board members, and a range of other service-oriented fields.

3. For you personally, what's the best thing about the social work field or being a social worker?

The best thing has been the ability to help to at least some degree in virtually any situation. If we don't know a resource, we know how to find one for the individual in need.

4. What is the most challenging part of your job or social work in general?

Sometimes the most challenging part is not seeing progress for a long time. Having worked with children and youth and their parents, movement can be slow. Families are complex and their challenges can seem insurmountable. In the school setting, patience is a virtue.

5. Do you have any advice for prospective students considering a career in social work?

Not to let anyone discourage them from entering the field. Non-monetary rewards are tremendous and the opportunity to use their skills and talents in many settings through the years is wonderful. … I would additionally encourage them to pursue a master's degree because they will find more opportunities and challenges to lead.

  • Counseling and therapy
  • Intervention
  • Advocacy
  • Education
  • Case management
  • Policy development

Offered at both the undergraduate and graduate level, degrees in social work prepare students to work with a spectrum of clients. According to the BLS, a bachelor's of social work is the minimum educational requirement to enter the profession, while a master's degree and post-graduation training are required to become a licensed clinical social worker. Below is an overview of degree options in social work and what students can expect to encounter in each type of program.

Bachelor's degrees in social work

Undergraduate social work programs are designed to prepare students for entry-level, general practice in the field. These degrees are commonly available in two variations: Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) and Bachelor of Arts in Social Work (BASW).

Curricula at the bachelor's level are based on the educational foundations set by the Council on Social Work Education, the national accrediting body for social work degree programs. Through their courses, students are introduced to those core areas of social work including:

  • Diversity
  • Social welfare and policy
  • Values and ethics
  • At-risk populations
  • Economic justice
  • Human behavior and the social environment
  • Research
  • Social work practice
  • Field education

During their studies, students cultivate an array of professional skills, including assessment, case management, research, interviewing and more. Generally, these programs require between 120 and 128 credit hours of study to complete. To develop real-world, hands-on experience, bachelor's of social work programs also include a supervised clinical practicum, field placement, or internship at a social services agency or related organization.

Master's degrees in social work

The Master of Social Work (MSW) is designed to prepare social work practitioners for advanced or specialized positions within the profession. The curriculum of these programs expands upon the foundations of social work knowledge, values and ethics learned at the undergraduate level. Through the MSW, students can focus their studies in specific social work concentrations such as substance abuse, education, mental health, youth and family, clinical social work, and more.

Depending on the professional goals of the student, whether to become a licensed clinical social worker or a private practice social worker dealing with policy issues in health care, the curriculum of MSW programs can be customized to fit the needs of each student.

Associate degrees in social work

Although an associate degree cannot qualify a graduate as a social worker, it can pave the way to entry-level employment in the human services industry. These degree programs typically serve as introductions to the field, covering topics such as human development, social problems, general psychology, and more.

Doctoral degrees in social work

Doctoral degree programs in social work prepare graduates to become social work researchers or educators. Two types of doctorate degrees are common: Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Social Work and Doctor of Social Work (DSW). The Ph.D. is traditionally considered an academic research-based degree that aims to transition graduates into scholarship-focused positions as researchers or faculty members at higher education institutions or think tanks. The DSW is a professional practice degree that prepares students for advanced clinical practice and leadership positions.

Online degrees in social work

In addition to campus-based formats, other options are available to students including online, hybrid and degree completion programs. Although some programs are fully online, others are delivered in a hybrid format, requiring both online courses and face-to-face instruction. In degree completion programs, students typically complete a prescribed number of courses through campus-based instruction and then finish the remainder of the degree through online classes.

Below are three example online MSW programs offered at universities throughout the country:

  • University of Southern California: Through its Virtual Academic Center, USC offers a fully online Master of Social Work.
  • Boston University:BU's School of Social Work offers students an online Master of Social Work program.
  • Indiana University:The IU School of Social Work offers MSW Direct, an online Master of Social Work program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education.

These are far from the only options, however, and prospective students might want to start their search by comparing social work schools online and on-campus.

Licensing requirements for social workers

The purposing of licensing and certification is to ensure professional standards are maintained and upheld within the field of social work. Licensing occurs at the state-level, with each state determining its own guidelines and policies. However, the basic requirements for clinical licensure includes the following:

  • Completing an accredited MSW program
  • Completing at least 3,000 hours or two years of supervised clinical experience after graduating
  • Passing a credentialing examination from the Association of Social Work Boards

Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB). The ASWB serves as the national organization dedicated to the regulation of social work. Comprised of state-based regulatory boards within the US (except California), Canada and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The ASWB offers four licensure examinations:

  • Bachelor's
  • Master's
  • Advanced Generalist
  • Clinical

National Association of Social Workers. A membership-based organization, the NASW offers professional and practice development opportunities. NASW examination credentials are divided into professional social work credentials and advanced practice specialty credentials. Professional credentials include the Academy of Certified Social Workers (ACSW) and the Diplomate in Clinical Social Work (DCSW). Advanced practice specialty credentials cover the various concentration areas of social work, such as clinical, youth and family, health care, case management, and more. Below are example specialty credentials:

  • Qualified Clinical Social Worker (QSW)
  • Clinical Social Worker in Gerontology (CSW-G)
  • Advanced Certified Hospice and Palliative Social Worker (ACHP-SW)
  • Certified Children, Youth, and Family Social Worker (C-CYFSW)
  • Certified School Social Work Specialist (C-SSWS)

American Board of Examiners in Clinical Social Work (ABE). The American Board of Examiners provides advanced credentials in clinical social work in four areas:

  • Children and their families (BCD-Children)
  • Clinical supervision (BCD-Supervisor)
  • Psychoanalysis (BCD-Psychoanalyst)
  • Advanced generalist (BCD) or Board Certified Diplomate in Clinical Social Work

1. Credentials, American Board of Examiners in Clinical Social Work, https://www.abecsw.org/abe-credentials.html
2. Master of Social Work, Boston University, http://onlinemsw.bu.edu/msw-overview
3. Distance Education, Council on Social Work Education, http://www.cswe.org/Accreditation/Information/DistanceEducation.aspx
4. Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards, Council on Social Work Education, http://www.cswe.org/File.aspx?id=14115
5. IU Direct, Indiana University, http://mswdirect.iu.edu/advantage.htm
6. National Association of Social Workers, http://www.naswdc.org/credentials/default.asp
7. Judith Shine, President of the American Council for School Social Work, Interviewed by the author on Jan. 30, 2015
8. Master of Social Work, University of Southern California, http://msw.usc.edu/
9. Doctor of Social Work Program, University of Tennessee, http://www.csw.utk.edu/dsw/
10. PhD in Social Work, University of Texas at Austin, http://www.utexas.edu/ssw/phd/
11. Social Workers, "Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition," Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Jan. 8, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/social-workers.htm

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