Can You Get an MSW Without a BSW?

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A social worker is interviewing a teenager struggling.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 various 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 often makes it a satisfying career to pursue. Due to the critical nature of this occupation, the path to becoming a licensed social worker has specific education 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 is it possible for an individual to earn an MSW without a BSW?

Pursuing 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. While many MSW students hold bachelor’s degrees in social work, others have undergraduate degrees in different areas of study.

For example, individuals can also 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 can provide students with foundational knowledge in topics, theories and concepts associated with the social work role, such as diverse populations, social welfare and human behavior. They can 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. Most of these degrees, including BSW programs, often 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 exploration provides individuals with the opportunity to develop a greater level of expertise in advanced levels of social work. It may also involve 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 professionals and 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, including that of a clinical social worker, it’s not the only prerequisite for building a successful career. All clinical social workers must earn the credential of Licensed Clinical Social Worker (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.

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 others marginalized by society or struggling to cope with a major life challenge.

University of Nevada, Reno’s online Master of Social Work program is designed to help people interested in advanced social work roles prepare for successful and impactful careers. Students need not have a bachelor’s in social work to apply; we encourage individuals with degrees in fields such as social sciences, humanities, research or human biology to investigate 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:

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

What Is Case Management in Social Work?

Why Is Mental Health Important to Social Work?


Association of Social Work Boards, Laws and Regulations Database

Houston Chronicle, “Career Objectives for a Social Worker”

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