Social Work Education: Can You Get a Master’s Without a Bachelor’s?

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A student takes notes while looking at a laptop screen.Social work occupies a unique and critical place in the social sciences. Social workers apply elements of other social sciences, including sociology, economics and psychology, along with topics such as public health and community development, to social issues at the community and individual levels. Once they’ve identified a social issue or problem, social workers strive to address it. Their work may involve advocating for change within a marginalized community or helping vulnerable people address personal issues such as mental health, domestic abuse, substance misuse and child neglect.

Social work has a direct and powerful impact on improving people’s lives, which can make it a satisfying career to pursue. Due to the critical nature of this occupation, the path to becoming a licensed social worker has specific educational requirements. While entry-level jobs require an undergraduate degree, such as a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW), graduates aspiring to pursue a career in social work at a higher level must earn a Master of Social Work (MSW). But can you get a master’s without a bachelor’s degree in social work?

BSW vs. MSW: What Is the Difference?

Identifying what distinguishes a BSW from an MSW can help you gain a better understanding of how to become a social worker.

A BSW is a four-year undergraduate degree that establishes the foundational knowledge and skills needed for entry-level and assistive positions in social work. The curriculum commonly features a mix of classes devoted to social work along with core general education courses in math, science and the humanities. Social work courses cover fundamental topics such as social work theories, human behaviors and psychology. Coursework may be augmented by volunteer opportunities or internships.

An MSW is a graduate degree that builds on the foundation of an undergraduate degree to prepare students for advanced careers in social work, like becoming licensed clinical social workers (LCSW), and may include specializations that focus on areas such as substance use. The curriculum delves into greater detail on topics such as the legal and ethical aspects of social work, theories derived from specific studies, and treatment of behavioral or mental health conditions. MSW programs typically contain a research element and commonly require the completion of a practicum, internship or supervised clinical hours.

Can You Get an MSW Without a BSW?

Earning a bachelor’s degree is the first step toward a career in social work, as well as a prerequisite for pursuing a Master of Social Work — a requirement for advanced social work. However, you can get a master’s without a bachelor’s degree in social work. While many MSW students do indeed hold bachelor’s degrees in social work, others have undergraduate degrees in different areas of study.
For example, individuals can complete the undergraduate requirement for an MSW program by earning a degree in a related social science field such as psychology or sociology. These fields provide students with foundational knowledge in topics, theories and concepts associated with social work, such as diverse populations, social welfare and human behavior. They may also cover other topics relevant to social work, such as ethics.
Regardless of the bachelor’s degree earned, students en route to pursuing an MSW typically take courses in psychology, sociology, political science and economics. Many of these degrees, including BSW programs, require students to complete either an internship or some supervised fieldwork.

The Importance of an MSW Degree

An MSW program builds upon the knowledge gained from a range of undergraduate degrees in the social sciences by taking a deeper dive into fundamental concepts. This allows students to develop a greater level of expertise in advanced levels of social work. It may also explore the creation and execution of clinical or therapy-driven social work strategies designed to aid a targeted group of individuals in achieving a goal, such as changing behaviors or learning to cope with difficult situations.
Earning an MSW does more than just advance an individual’s knowledge and skills. It can also unlock a wider range of potential career paths. Advanced careers such as a clinical social worker commonly require an MSW degree. Additionally, some organizations may prefer to hire MSW graduates for certain roles, even if the job description doesn’t list an advanced degree as a qualification.

Social Work Licensing Requirements

While earning an MSW is essential for pursuing an advanced role in social work, it’s not the only prerequisite for building a successful career. All clinical social workers must earn the credential of LCSW. Becoming an LCSW entails passing a clinical exam, which candidates may take after earning an MSW, and completing two years of supervised postgraduate clinical experience.
Because licensing requirements for social workers vary from state to state, they impact when and where an individual can practice. Most states require licensing or certification for nonclinical social workers who have earned an undergraduate degree. Since some don’t, however, individuals should research the requirements of the state where they plan to practice prior to graduation so they can plan accordingly.

BSW vs. MSW: Different Paths, One Goal

Several degree paths can lead to a rewarding career in social work, including earning an MSW without a BSW. But whether students are intent on pursuing a clinical social work role after earning an MSW or simply interested in completing an undergraduate degree and landing an entry-level job in the field, their primary goal is the same: to help improve the lives and well-being of those who are marginalized by society or struggling to cope with a major life challenge.

The University of Nevada, Reno’s online Master of Social Work program is designed to help individuals interested in advanced social work roles prepare for successful and impactful careers. The program offers two paths to earning an MSW: an advanced standing track for students with a BSW, and a traditional track for non-BSW students. We encourage individuals with degrees in fields such as social sciences, humanities, research or human biology to explore our program.

UNR’s coursework can deepen your knowledge and elevate your skill set to prepare you to expertly handle any social work situation that may come your way. Learn how you can take a key step toward pursuing an immensely rewarding career.

Recommended Readings

Role of Social Workers in Mental Health

What Can I Do With a Master’s in Social Work?

What Is Case Management in Social Work?


Association of Social Work Boards, Laws and Regulations Database

Indeed, “MSW vs. BSW: What’s the Difference?”

Indeed, “What Are Social Worker Career Goals?”

International Federation of Social Workers, Global Definition of Social Work

National Association of Social Workers, “Why Choose the Social Work Profession?”

Therapist Development Center, Social Work Licensure By State

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Social Workers