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The Big Picture: Understanding the Full Social Work Scope

Pursuing a career in social work can prove complicated as individuals must balance state licensure requirements, variable licensing expectations relative to different positions, and a wide range of degree considerations that can have a sweeping impact on one’s career. With these challenges in mind, let’s explore the full scope of the social work degree progression and take a look at how continuing education can position individuals to advance their careers and take on fulfilling work.

Getting started

Before pursuing a degree, take a look at what you can expect from a career in social work by volunteering. Volunteer groups, such as Americorp or the United Way give individuals an opportunity to get a glimpse into what social work looks like in practice, provide experience, and connect individuals with experts who can serve as references later. Whether you are looking into a bachelor’s in social work or considering a career change through a master’s in social work degree, starting out with volunteering allows you to make a better choice in your next steps.

The bachelor’s degree in social work in a nutshell

A BSW is very much an entry-level degree in social work and comes with significant limitations for career opportunities. Some states do not extend licensure to individuals with a BSW, and many states tend to have very specific regulations pertaining to the types of activities that can be performed by those with this degree. In most cases, social workers holding a BSW will be limited to tasks such as case and program management, or leading community groups. In some cases, basic counseling – such as connecting individuals to relevant programs or providing advice under supervision of a more experienced expert — is possible.

Essentially, a BSW is a great starting point for those interested in pursuing social work and getting their careers off on the right foot, but it is predominantly a first step to the more advanced and financially rewarding opportunities.

Advancing to a Master’s in Social Work degree

The MSW degree represents a vital part of the social work profession, as it opens individuals up to more licensure opportunities and a broader scope of job opportunities. The MSW is such a foundational part of the social work industry that it is fairly common in the sector. The NASW found that in the 2014-2015 academic year, just 42.8 percent of social work graduates obtained bachelor’s degrees. Conversely, 56.5 percent of social work graduates obtained master’s degrees.

Why get an MSW

Pursuing an MSW gives individuals an opportunity to get more involved in clinical care, including counseling and similar practices. Social Work Licensure pointed out that most MSW programs provide education for specialized practice skills that allow social workers to get involved in more advanced and nuanced practices. For the most part, programs offer concentrations that vary based on clinical or non-clinical practices, something that is incredibly important depending on whether you want to focus on patient care or administrative work. It is important to note that while some leading administrative positions in the field may be open to individuals with a BSW, most job opportunities in social work management will come with an MSW as the preferred degree held by applicants.

Getting an MSW with a BSW

Individuals holding their BSW from a CSWE-accredited institution can apply to an advanced standing MSW program. Advanced standing MSW programs are designed for the BSW student who has completed the foundational social work coursework. According to Social Work Licensure, most MSW programs will feature general practice courses alongside specialized classes and experiential learning. Those who hold a BSW degree are usually able to start their MSW coursework in the advanced portion of the curriculum, allowing them to obtain their degree more quickly.

Obtaining an MSW without a BSW

The MSW degree is a natural fit for career changers or individuals who pursued a degree outside of social work during their undergraduate studies. Any liberal arts degree will usually provide the necessary prerequisite for an MSW program, and GRE completion is often unnecessary, Social Work Licensing explained. The only disadvantage of entering an MSW program without a BSW is having to take some general coursework that serves as an introductory to the skills and competencies of the profession. Because of this, the MSW serves as a prime entry point for those who have decided to pursue social work later in their professional life and want to move forward into the field without having to obtain a BSW.

Does the bachelor’s degree impact licensure qualifications?

Once an individual has obtained an MSW, whether or not that person holds a BSW does not impact licensure. Instead, individuals with a BSW or a non-social work bachelor’s degree are equally well- placed for certification once they have their MSW, Social Work Licensure reported.

Career expectations for social workers

So you have your MSW, what does that mean for your career? Social workers have an opportunity to work in a wide range of fields, and a National Association of Social Workers fact sheet highlighted a variety of opportunities. Some of these are:

Community organizations and advocacy groups

These professions represent the lifeblood of the social work industry as leaders in community and advocacy groups create the awareness and support network needed to help individuals identify problems and seek help in the first place. In many cases, community and advocacy groups are developed to counter the negative societal forces that are pushing people into bad situations and work to get to the core problems that make social work necessary.

Substance abuse

Drug and alcohol addiction, as well as a variety of other forms of substance abuse can have a detrimental impact on a wide range of people. Social workers are necessary in this sector to help individuals move beyond addictions and support those who are suffering as a result of substance abuse in their families and communities.

Elder care

A rapidly aging population is making the pursuit of social justice for the elderly extremely important in the United States. Many social work positions involve helping aging populations to live independently by connecting them with the resources they need for physical, psychological, economic, and social support as they age.

Child welfare

As the name implies, taking care of children by building up families and intervening when family environments become hazardous to children is a key component of the social work industry. This can take a wide range of forms, such as counseling or connecting children with foster care.

International services

Globalization and social issues that cross borders have led to demand for social workers who can help individuals in refugee camps, support government and non-government organizations working across national lines and otherwise serve individuals in hospitals and similar care settings.

These are just a few of the areas highlighted by the NASW, with others including the criminal justice system, administrative services, mental health settings, more traditional health care, supporting those with developmental disabilities, and public welfare.

Moving into the most advanced areas of social work

Social workers who want to move their careers beyond the MSW level can pursue either a doctorate degree in social work or a Ph.D. degree in social work. According to Social Work Licensure, the two degree types have generally been separated into two distinct focal points. The doctorate in social work is generally regarded as an opportunity to gain incredibly advanced clinical skills meant for specialized practice. The Ph.D., on the other hand, tends to be treated primarily as a research degree. However, it is important to note that these are primarily historic designations and are not formalized within the sector. As such, individuals seeking a doctorate or Ph.D. need to closely look at the contents of any program they are considering to be sure it will emphasize the skills and capabilities they care about.

Why get a Ph.D. or doctorate in social work

The Ph.D. or doctorate in social work is a fairly niche degree. Social Work Licensure explained that the MSW has long been considered the terminal degree in the sector, with the Ph.D. and doctorate opportunities only existing for very specific situations. The most prominent of these is work in the higher education sector. Because certification is so important in the social work sector, accreditation is particularly vital for universities. The Council on Social Work Education, for example, weighs faculty qualifications when performing accreditation, so having doctorate-level staff in place at institutions remains essential.

The aftermath of education

Pursuing an advanced degree in social work can be expensive, and many social work jobs are for non-profit groups, limiting salary potential. However, the social work profession emphasizes altruism, not wealth generation, and the government has responded with loan forgiveness or assistance programs to help social workers deal with the cost of education. A report from The Social Work Career Center explained that two bills have created a framework for loan forgiveness for social workers, and graduates have a variety of opportunities to get financial help.

Opportunity ahead

Social work has the potential to be an incredibly rewarding field because the job involves helping people find help when they are in difficult circumstances. These rewards are almost impossible to quantify, but they aren’t the only benefits of pursuing advanced degrees in social work. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that job growth in social work should happen at a 12 percent rate for the 2014 to 2024 period, much faster than the average pace.

With good job prospects and fulfilling work on the horizon, now may be the time to pursue a social work degree, and the online MSW program at Rutgers University provides a leading educational opportunity in an accessible learning framework for those interested in a social work career.

Recommended Readings:
Career Paths: Which Type of Social Work is Right for you?

Tips for Applying Research in Social Work Practice

The Role of Social Workers in Child Protective Services Investigations


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