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Overview of Social Work Degrees

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Degrees in social work are available at the bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral levels. Social work is an interdisciplinary field that draws on theories and practices from sociology, anthropology, psychology, politics, and economics, among others. Thus, undergraduate degrees in sociology, psychology, and other social sciences can also be relevant and valuable educational foundations for graduate studies in social work.

As both an academic and a professional discipline, social work focuses on promoting social welfare. Often, social work involves the study of micro- and macro- level social issues such as poverty and social inequality.

In the professional world, social workers are responsible for assisting people with their everyday issues that impact their daily lives, like personal, family, and relationship issues. Sometimes social workers are involved in helping clients with disabilities, diseases, or social issues like substance abuse or unemployment. Families with domestic conflicts can also turn to social workers for relief and guidance during difficult times.

In addition to earning a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degree in social work, aspiring social workers will also need to be certified in order to work in the field. All states and the District of Columbia require that a social worker attain some sort of license, certification, or registration before practicing. Most States require 2 years or a total of 3,000 hours of supervised clinical experience for the social worker to be licensed.

Online Social Work Degrees

Students pursuing degrees in social work can do so through on-campus programs or through online programs. There are over 200 social work degrees offered by accredited online colleges and universities. These degrees are typically available at the associate, bachelor’s, master’s, doctoral, and certificate levels at a range of online colleges and universities and tend to provide more flexible and affordable educational opportunities than their on-campus counterparts.

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Bachelor’s Degrees in Social Work

The path to becoming a qualified social worker in the United States usually starts with a bachelor's degree in social work from an accredited institution. The bachelor's degree in social work normally takes four years to complete, and includes both in-class coursework and supervised field experience. Bachelor’s programs instruct students in the values and ethics of social work while familiarizing them with the policies of social welfare, methods of social research, and field education that observes human behavior in social environments. This field experience is key to the program, since all accredited programs require 400 hours minimum of field experience conducted under professional supervision.

As a student pursuing a bachelor’s degree in social work, you can expect courses in social work practice, issues in social welfare, history and philosophy of social welfare, diversity and the struggle for human rights, promotion of social and economic justice, social welfare policy, social work practice, social research methods, and human behavior theory. You may also have liberal arts electives such as psychological studies, cultural anthropology, sociology, and biology.

Many schools also include field assignments or internship components, which provide students with a broad range of experience in human service agencies including child welfare agencies, community centers, detention centers, domestic violence agencies, medical and psychiatric hospitals, schools, nursing homes, mental health clinics, youth service agencies, substance abuse agencies, and residential treatment facilities.

In addition to a four-year bachelor's degree in social work, all social workers must pass a bachelor-level examination monitored by the Association of Social Work Boards. Each state has different requirements, but the exam generally includes 170 multiple-choice questions. In 2015, the national pass rate for first-time test takers at the bachelor level was 77.5 percent[1].

Master’s Degrees in Social Work

Master’s programs are pursued by many social workers, especially since these programs help students develop new and more advanced forms of social service skills. These programs can take two to three years to complete, and do not always require a bachelor’s degree before receiving admission.

The following courses are commonly required during the MSW:

  • Psychopathology: Students learn about different types of disorders that can be present in children and adults, such as PTSD, anxiety, depression, and mood disorders.
  • Social Justice: Students learn about discrimination and oppression in society. Students study the different social institutions that contribute to social injustice.
  • Social Welfare Policy: Courses in social welfare look at the history of social welfare programs and the role these programs assume in different societies. Students also learn how social welfare programs affect people in different communities, such as rural and urban areas.
  • Social Work Practice: Students learn about methods for interacting with and helping different clients. Students study methods for assessing and evaluating children, adults, and families.

In addition to in-class educational experiences, MSW programs also require 900 hours of supervised field instruction. Field experience is an important part of the MSW degree. This experience usually takes one year to complete. Students intern in a social work setting while being supervised by an experienced social worker. This field experience helps students work toward the 4,500 hours of clinical experience that is usually required to become a licensed clinical social worker[3].

Doctoral Degrees in Social Work

The social work doctorate is a lengthy degree that teaches graduates how to perform research and conduct scholarly inquiry into social issues, such as child welfare, aging, and poverty. During these degrees, students take upper-level classes and complete a dissertation project. The social work PhD typically requires five to nine years of work beyond the master's degree. These programs are designed for experienced social workers who want to gain research experience. Students typically spend the first two years of the degree taking classes such as statistics, qualitative research skills, and social issues.

The final three to six years of the degree are spent on the dissertation. The dissertation is a research project in a particular social work problem. The student's job is to explain the social work issue through careful research. To graduate from the PhD, students have to defend their research methods and conclusion in front of a panel of faculty members.

Most PhD programs in social work require applicants to have a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree. Others accept individuals with a master's degree in a related area, such as sociology, public health, or public policy. Along with the master's, applicants need excellent recommendations from past colleagues or professors and top-notch grades.

In addition to regular PhD programs in social work, there are also dual degree MSW/PhD programs. These degrees take one or two years longer than the regular PhD and allow students to graduate with both degrees. To apply to these programs applicants need a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) or a bachelor's degree in a closely related discipline.

During the first two years of the social work doctorate, students take foundational classes, as well as courses in their specialization areas. Common specialization classes include social welfare policy, sociology of the social work profession, and advanced sociological theory. These classes give students an understanding of the state of the social work profession, the theory behind social work, and the role of the social worker in society. Other foundational classes discuss statistics and research methods. These classes are vital for performing research and completing the dissertation. Students learn how to collect and analyze data.

Students also take a number of courses in a specialty area, such as sociology of religion, ethnic studies, health services, urban studies, healthcare policy, or child welfare. This specialization also helps students narrow down a topic for the dissertation.

Social Work Certifications and Licensures

Every state, including the District of Columbia, has licensing, certification or registration requirements for social work and professional titling. Many require two years or an equivalent of 4,500 hours of supervised clinical experience for licensure. Different states have requirements that restrict unlicensed social workers, so students should check the certification requirements for their state before proceeding into a program. (https://www.socialworkers.org/credentials/credentials/qcsw.asp)

Candidates also have to pass the social work licensing exam. The Association of Social Work Boards issues standardized exams for licensing and can detail each state's requirements for those looking to obtain the different levels of licensure. Individuals holding a bachelor’s degree qualify for the initial license and then become a licensed baccalaureate social worker. That license still requires an individual to work under supervision. Those with an initial license and an MSW can get a master license after completing the necessary field work and exam. They earn the recognition of licensed master social worker. From there, a clinical license can be earned by anyone holding a current license and a graduate degree, making them a licensed clinical social worker. It is a full professional license to work in the field and operate a private, individual practice.

Each license requires renewal and has varying continuing education expectations. This keeps social workers up to date on current methods, trends, and resources. Social workers can find further credentials and certifications can be found through the National Association of Social Workers.

A Guide to Social Work Licensing Exams

  • The Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) offers a very informative and useful FAQ page concerning social work licensing exams.
  • Test Centers are offered in select cities throughout the country. It is important to know if you are close to one of these testing centers before deciding to register for a licensing exam.
  • Licensing Examinations are not offered in languages other than English. However, many jurisdictions do allow special accommodations for candidates whose primary language is something other than English. Contact your local board for information.  
  • The Exam Fee is $175 and must be paid directly to the Association of Social Work Board. However, this fee may vary from state to state.
  • Practice Exams can be found online for a small registration fee. These practice exams are filled with typical examination questions and are very helpful to first-time test takers.  
  • ASWB indicates that national pass rates for first-time takers in 2008 were extremely good, with bachelor's, 77.3%, master's, 74%, advanced generalist, 58.3%, and clinical, 75.9%.
  • Social Work Exam Review helps your realize that you are not alone! There are many other people who are taking the social work exam, or who have taken the test in the past. In fact, last year, ASWB administered over 30,000 tests. Find out where you can connect with past and future test takers alike – and gain valuable study tips – at this online social worker exam blog.

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