The social work field is full of career opportunities for those with the knowledge, skills and compassion needed to support people from all walks of life. From clinical positions to administrative roles, there’s no shortage of opportunities to create a more effective and equitable healthcare system. However, with so many career paths available, it can be default to find a clear answer to a rather straightforward question: What can I do with a Master’s in Social Work?
While graduate school isn’t a universal requirement for social work jobs, pursuing a master’s degree can offer aspiring students and established professionals a direct pathway to their long-term career goals. By learning about the structure of power and oppression, the role of social support systems and key intervention strategies, graduate students can build a strong foundation in social work practice that has real-world applicability. This insight is crucial for advocating on behalf of underserved communities and working with individuals struggling with mental illnesses, substance abuse and other interpersonal issues. But to understand the full breadth of opportunities that exist within the social work field, it’s useful to learn about specific occupations and their related responsibilities.
Understanding the social work field
After obtaining a Master’s in Social Work, some students may feel overwhelmed by the wide variety of general and specialized roles available to them. Ultimately, the best social work job is one that aligns with individuals’ personal and professional interests, which is why it’s important to research specific occupations in detail. As a whole, the employment of social workers is expected to grow 11% between 2018 and 2028, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, while increased demand for healthcare and social services is driving employment for social workers, this growth tends to vary between different specializations.
Keep in mind, the social work field is constantly evolving to meet emerging challenges and capitalize on new opportunities for healthcare reform. This adaptability allows social workers to focus on health and structural issues that have the widest impact on vulnerable communities and individual clients. For example, as suicide rates continue to rise in the U.S., social workers are having to develop new intervention processes and resources. According to research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, deaths by suicide have increased by 30% between 2000 and 2016, leading many social work practitioners to prioritize mental health education and support in their therapy work.
What jobs can I get with an MSW?
While it’s difficult to categorize all of the potential social work career paths into an accurate framework, there are some characteristics that can help distinguish different types of occupations. Generally, social workers choose to serve clients directly in clinical and case management roles, or work at nonprofit organizations, government agencies and advocacy groups as policy analysts and community educators. Hands-on social workers tend to help individuals who are dealing with specific challenges in their lives, such as poverty, mental illness, physical abuse and other family problems. Hands-off social workers, on the other hand, are focused on the big picture. They seek to remedy social injustices and break down institutional barriers through policy crafting, advocacy and program development. There are, of course, plenty of opportunities for social workers to serve in both a direct and indirect capacity, though these positions tend to require more real-world experience.
The following are a few of the most popular and impactful social work occupations, along with a breakdown of their responsibilities, job outlook and compensation estimates. Aspiring master’s degree students can use this list as a quick reference for their post-graduation job hunts or to help guide their MSW education.
Hands-on social work jobs
Clinical social worker
Clinical social workers, sometimes called healthcare social workers, serve in a variety of capacities at hospitals, medical agencies, private practices and mental health facilities where members of the public come for treatment and support. Their work focuses on the assessment, diagnosis and care of individual clients who suffer from mental illnesses, emotional disturbances and behavioral issues that impact their quality of life. According to the American Board of Examiners in Clinical Social Work, clinical social workers’ responsibilities may include:
- Assessing clients’ mental, emotional and interpersonal hardships
- Creating detailed treatment plans and support frameworks
- Conducting individual and group interventions
- Evaluating the outcomes of social work therapies
- Managing client cases and documenting actions taken
Pursuing a clinical social worker career does require professionals to obtain a practice license and/or certification. These requirements are managed by state-level accreditation boards, so the specific qualifications tend to vary. In terms of job outlook, employment of clinical social workers is forecasted to grow 17% between 2018 to 2028, according to the BLS. The median annual wage for this profession was $50,470 in 2019, though the highest earners secured salaries of $82,540.
School social worker
School social workers use their specialized knowledge to support the mental, physical and emotional health of children enrolled in public and private schools. In many cases, school social workers have a particular interest in mental health and early childhood development, which allows them to act as advisors to other faculty members. They frequently meet with troubled students to better understand the root causes of their behavioral issues, and may provide individual or group counseling when necessary. According to the School Social Work Association of America, school social workers often perform the following duties:
- Recognizing and reporting signs of child abuse and neglect
- Conducting positive behavioral interventions and conflict resolutions
- Supporting students with anger management and interpersonal issues
- Working with parents to improve students’ academic performance
- Helping families access social programs for children with special needs
School social workers are committed to ensuring that every student receives the care and attention they deserve. They regularly collaborate with teachers, school administrators and community organizations to advocate for mental health resources and create faculty training programs. The employment of school social workers is expected to grow by 7% from 2018 to 2028, which is considered faster than the U.S. national average by the BLS. Professionals in this role earned a median salary of $47,390 in May 2019, though this position is often a stepping stone to higher-paying administrative occupations.
Corrections social worker
Corrections social workers, often called correctional treatment specialists, directly serve clients who are in the criminal justice system, such as inmates, past offenders and those on parole. They often work within the prison system to advocate for rehabilitation, substance abuse treatment and mental health resources. Professionals in this field also create action-based intervention plans for individual clients, helping them adjust after leaving the correctional facility. As noted by the National Association of Social Workers, corrections social workers are responsible for:
- Assessing the mental, emotional and interpersonal issues of new inmates
- Advocating for quality healthcare, nutrition and treatment
- Providing hands-on counseling to help former convicts readapt to society
- Identifying educational and vocational opportunities for incarcerated individuals
- Developing new intervention techniques and rehabilitation practices
Corrections social workers often choose to focus on adult prison populations or those in the juvenile corrections system, as each of these demographics faces different challenges and constraints. Professionals who work with troubled youths tend to prioritize behavioral interventions to prevent vulnerable individuals from falling into a life of crime. The employment of corrections social workers is projected to grow just 3% between 2018 and 2028, according to the BLS, though applicants who can speak Spanish fluently may have more job prospects. The median annual wage for this profession was $54,290 in 2019, with the highest earners bringing home upwards of $94,860.
Hands-off social work jobs
Social work administrator
Social work administrators are responsible for overseeing different aspects of community and/or health programs, often working for government agencies like the Veteran’s Administration or non-governmental organizations like the Children’s Defense Fund. They tend to focus on the big picture rather than the well-being of individual clients, yet their role is essential to providing direct services to those in need. Many social work administrators focus on particular issues, such as aging populations, substance abuse and mental health, while others serve in broader managerial roles. Depending on the specific position, professionals in this role may be responsible for the following work duties:
- Developing administrative methods that improve the quality of client care
- Managing case assignments for hands-on social workers
- Creating reports and white papers to advocate for health policies and social services
- Writing grants and managing fundraisers on behalf of their organization
- Assessing existing social and health programs for areas of improvement
Since social work administrators serve in a variety of roles, they tend to have different job titles that align with their day-to-day responsibilities. According to the BLS, employment of social and community service managers is projected to grow 13% from 2018 to 2028. In contrast, the job outlook for medical and health services managers is expected to expand by 18% during the forecasted period. The median salary for social workers at community organizations was $67,150 in 2019, while those working at health-oriented agencies earned a median wage of $100,980.
Social work researcher
The social work field relies on in-depth research and scientific knowledge to inform social policy decisions, health programs and other client-support services. Social work researchers help educate lawmakers and social work administrators about new developments in the field. They also assess the effectiveness of existing social programs and clinical practices to create evidence-based solutions that support substance abuse counseling, inmate rehabilitation and more. According to the Social Work Policy Institute, social work researchers perform the following duties:
- Identifying communities that lack access to social services
- Evaluating the impact of existing programs and support frameworks
- Calculating the cost and benefits of social work activities
- Creating educational briefs on new social work methods and practices
- Assessing new health legislation and social policies to ensure compliance
In terms of what you can do with a social work degree, research positions represent the cutting-edge of social science theory and practice. Professionals in this role are dedicated to finding actionable strategies that can alleviate mental health, interpersonal and community hardships. According to the National Center for O*NET Development, employment of social science researchers is forecasted to grow 7% to 10% between 2018 and 2028. The median salary for social work researchers was $47,510 in May 2019, though many professionals move onto doctoral programs and teaching positions later in their careers.
Social policy analyst
Social policy analysts serve as intermediaries between researchers, clinical professionals and legislators to ensure public policies and social services deliver the best results. They work independently or in teams to keep track of national trends, health laws, social work regulations and government programs. Using their policy expertise, professionals in this field create detailed reports, proposals and assessments that critique existing programs and offer recommendations for improvement. Depending on the organization they work for, social policy analysts may also be asked to contribute to health education campaigns, media academic publications. Some common work duties for this role include:
- Reviewing and evaluating social policies and health legislation
- Collecting data on health trends, social services and underserved communities
- Crafting detailed reports and policy recommendations for government officials
- Collaborating with social work researchers and administrators to assess clients’ needs
- Conducting interviews and surveys on trending health topics
The primary goal of social policy analysts is to ensure government programs and services are equitable, effective and widely accessible. They conduct their own research on proposed legislation to help identify flaws and improve care for everyone, regardless of their cultural or socioeconomic backgrounds. While there isn’t much job growth or compensation data available for social policy analysts, it can be useful to look at roles with similar responsibilities. For example, sociologists are often responsible for policy analysis and public health research. Employment of sociologists is expected to grow by 9% from 2018 to 2028, while the median average wage for these types of roles stood at $83,420 in 2019, according to the BLS.
Propel your social work career forward with an MSW from the University of Nevada, Reno
Are you interested in turning your passion for social change into a career? The online Master of Social Work degree program at the University of Nevada, Reno is designed to prepare students to take on both clinical and administrative social work roles in real-world settings. Through the Advanced Standing Program, undergraduates with a bachelor’s in social work can complete their degrees in as few as 15 months. Those without a background in social work can enroll in the Traditional MSW Program, which is a 62-credit-hour degree that offers a mix of foundation and specialized learning opportunities.