What Jobs Can You Get with an MSW Degree?

An Overview of Social Work

On a broad level, social workers can be defined as those who help people solve and cope with problems in their everyday lives, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In addition, clinical social workers can diagnose and treat mental, behavioral and emotional issues. For social workers, obtaining an MSW degree can open more doors than just possessing a bachelor’s degree. A BSW typically allows work within entry-level positions in the field, but further education will permit – and often be required for – quicker career advancement. While duties vary depending on specific roles, generally it can be expected that social workers will:

  • Identify people and communities in need of help.
  • Assess clients’ needs from a holistic approach to determine their goals.
  • Assist in the adjustment periods that clients face, including: illness, divorce or unemployment.
  • Research and provide information on community resources, like food stamps, childcare and healthcare that improve a clients’ well-being. This also includes advocating for the existence of these programs to aid in their clients’ lives.
  • Deal with crisis situations, like child abuse and mental health emergencies.
  • Follow up with clients to determine that their situations have improved, or are improving
  • Maintain records and case files.
  • Initiate and assess programs and services to determine that basic needs are being met.
  • Provide psychotherapy services.

The number of active social workers in the field has seen steady growth. According to the Profile of the Social Work Workforce, between 2004/2005 and 2014/2015, the number of practicing social workers grew between 15.5% to 22.8% (varying between results found by the BLS and ACS, respectively). Among the specific types of social workers, the most common were child, family and school social workers (305,000 in 2014), followed by 160,000 health care social workers. Health care social workers are the fastest-growing group over the decade, increasing by 45%. Along with the overall growth in the field, there has also been significant expansion in the social work educational pipeline.

Between 2005 and 2015, the number of MSWs received grew from 16,956 to 26,329, which is an increase of 55.3%. This supports the growth of social workers in the workforce.

When considering an MSW, it is important to note that it can impact where an individual may end up working in the field, as well as how much they make. Bachelor’s level graduates were more likely to work in the administration of human resource programs, or in individual and family services (41% to 31% with MSW). Social workers with master’s degrees are more likely to work in hospitals, or be employed in elementary and secondary schools. Compensation for those with MSWs working in individual and family services was $45,000, whereas those with bachelor’s degrees earned an average of 39,000 in the same field.

School social worker with child

Job Opportunities with an MSW

Determining where to go in the field of social work is dependent on many factors — like what setting someone sees themselves working best in, what they are most passionate about and where they live.

Macro Social Work

Macro social work can be seen as a tent, consisting of administration, community organizing and analysis, so it encapsulates several fields. However, micro social work is dominant in the general perspective of what social workers do – which is direct work with clients, as opposed to more administrative or program development roles. Social Work Today noted that macro social work can be seen as everything from community organizing to coalition building and political engagement, the centric theme being that macro social work is focused on activities social workers engage in to improve policies. It is important to note that macro social work is the basis of the field, considering Jane Addams’ work and the settlement house movement. The founding of Hull House was an act of macro social work.

While it’s obvious that social justice has always been an integral part of social work, there’s an increase in the number of people entering social work to work at a political level. Macro level social work is vital for addressing the systemic barriers that impact work with clients’ on a daily basis, when roadblocks in the system prevent clients from moving forward in a treatment plan.

Macro level jobs may include:

Community Organizer

Community organizers work with community members and stakeholders to identify necessary programs and services. Typically, one would work for a specific social or human service organization that focus on a certain demographic, like children or veterans or the focus may be on helping people with particular challenges, like substance abuse or long-term unemployment. They may plan and manage outreach activities to advocate for program awareness and write proposals for funding. Community organizers may also be responsible for supervising staff, including social workers. According to the BLS, the median annual wage for community organizers is $65,320 as of May 2018.

Legislative Aide

A legislative aide, or assistant, will assist legislators in carrying out their duties by helping in research, administration and communications. One may be assigned to focus on a specific policy area, like education, the environment or taxes. According to PayScale, the average salary for an aide is $38,499 but can go up to $65,496 depending on education and experience.

For macro level jobs, many opportunities may be found within political campaigns and non-profits with a focus on social justice.

Child and Family Social Workers

When most people think of social workers, the child and family specialization is typically what comes to mind. This involves direct services to individuals and families in various settings. This work provides a safety net for those experiencing socioeconomic challenges and looks for children and families that are in need of advocacy. Social workers in this field work in child welfare agencies, community youth programs, shelters or other non-clinical settings, and the primary focus is that children and families are being cared for and meeting their basic needs. The main goal for those with this role is to help families become self-sufficient, and social workers assist their clients in facing issues that are preventing this. The reasons vary, including substance abuse, mental health, domestic violence, poverty, unemployment and trauma. Child and family social workers can assist with these issues through basic counseling, environmental assessment, referrals, working with community partners, case management, advocacy, ongoing monitoring and, when necessary, out-of-home placement and adoption. According to the NASW, the single most satisfying aspect of the work of social workers in child welfare is “successes with children and families.”

Other findings from a survey done by the NASW include that the majority of social workers report earning slightly higher salaries than other professionals in the field of child welfare and having reasonably sized caseloads. They also feel safe making home visits alone, believe they have adequate training opportunities and have an encouraging attitude towards new professionals joining the child welfare field.

Child abuse is recognized as a pervasive problem in America, explaining why this field is a draw for many social workers and why it is in growing demand. Every day, an average 2,400 children are victims of child abuse. Child protective services agencies receive more than 50,000 calls per week regarding suspected or known instances of child abuse.

According to U.S. News and World Report, the median salary for this role is $44.380. The BLS projects a 14.2% employment growth in child and family social workers between 2016 and 2026. An estimated 45,000 jobs will open up in that time.

Hospital/Health Care Social Workers

It goes without saying that hospitalization, illness or injury, is a huge stressor. Clinical social workers at hospitals and health care centers provide patients and families with psychosocial services to help cope with the challenges families face in the health care process. Hospital social workers are responsible for helping patients understand a particular illness, work through their diagnosis and provide counseling on decisions that have to be made. Social workers are in hospitals are also important members of a health care team, providing doctors, nurses and allied health professionals with tools to understand the emotional and social aspects of a patient’s illness. Case management skills are applied to help patients work through social, psychological and financial problems associated with their illnesses or injuries.

An overview of what hospital social workers may perform includes:

  • Initial screening and evaluation of patients.
  • Psychosocial assessments of patients.
  • Providing patients and their families with further aid when it comes to understand treatment options as well as the consequences of certain treatments or refusal of treatment.
  • Employing crisis intervention, if necessary.
  • Diagnosing underlying mental illnesses and either providing psychotherapy or making referrals for either individual, group or family therapy depending on the situation.
  • Encouraging communication and collaboration with health care team members.
  • Arranging resources to assist in the finances for medications, medical equipment and other services required.
  • Working with patients and their families through various settings of the process, including inpatient, outpatient, home and in the community.
  • Advocating for the rights of patients at the policy level.

According to the Profile of the Social Work Workforce, the number of health care social workers grew by 45% in the past decade, larger than all other segments of the field. This field attracts individuals who enjoy fast-paced environments as well as those with an interest in the medical field, like cutting-edge medical interventions. Working as a social worker in a hospital provides a team-like environment as they work with health care teams to advocate for patients.

Mental Health Social Workers (Clinics & Outpatient)

Social workers that work at mental health clinics have an important role in determining and treating mental health issues. Clinics can be funded by private or public funding, and services provided in these clinics are dictated by terms of intensity and duration. Social workers who provide mental health services are required to be licensed by the state they work in, so individuals should keep this in mind when determining if they want to pursue careers in this particular field. Social workers within these clinics often work as part of a team, so this may appeal to those who like to work collaboratively.

A wide variety of issues are addressed by social workers at mental health clinics and outpatient facilities, including those brought on from the stresses of everyday living, crises initiated by emotional, environmental or situational circumstances, eating disorders, marital problems, problems with parents and children, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorders and other psychological conditions. Roles and job titles vary at mental health clinics, from clinical social worker, licensed clinical social worker, therapist, clinician, case manager and director, meaning particular job functions can also vary. However, the following are a few examples of what to expect:

  • Determining client eligibility for services.
  • Assessing clients for substance use, support systems, physical and emotional functioning, financial stability, suicidal idealization, and various other factors.
  • Developing and implementing treatment plans.
  • Promoting mental health services within the clinic to the greater community
  • Grant writing and evaluation to determine and maintain funding.
  • Managing, training and supervising staff.
  • Working as a part of multidisciplinary treatment team.

Social workers providing therapy are typically expected to have a master’s degree, which makes those graduating MSW programs ideal candidates. According to the NASW, the median pay for social workers in mental health clinics is $50,000.

Social Worker in Schools

Social workers in schools can be found working in elementary, middle and high schools, leaving them with a wide scope of issues to potentially face depending on the age-range. They play a critical role in school systems, provide services to students that allow them to improve their emotional well-being, work to find underlying reasons for academic struggles and assist in helping students and families.

School social workers help students, families and teachers in dealing with an array of problems that arise in a school setting, like social withdrawal or aggression. They also work with the effects of physical, emotional, or economic problems that may be impacting a student’s life and ability to perform in school. While qualifications vary for social workers in schools depending on the state and district, a clinical license may be required. Below is a general overview of what they may do in their role as a school social worker:

  • Conduct biopsychosocial assessments and social histories.
  • Assess students for substance abuse, support systems, barriers to academic performance, peer issues, and suicidal ideation.
  • Providing direct therapeutic services for various issues, for individuals, groups and families.
  • Providing crisis management services.
  • Case management services, like referrals to community services and collaboration with other professionals.
  • Providing trainings and workshops to other staff, including teachers and parents.
  • Contributing to a multidisciplinary treatment team.
  • Conducting home visits.

This is another role that is reliant on the ability to collaborate and work effectively on a team. As mentioned above, if performing therapy and providing mental health services, social workers must be licensed in the state that they are working in. The work done by social workers in a school setting is influential for the students that they serve. Their roles also vary between student to student, providing an unpredictable day-to-day experience. The median salary for social workers with an MSW working in schools is $61,000.

Possessing an MSW degree opens up doors to many opportunities within the social work field and also increases the chances of higher pay. The Master of Social Work program at the University of Nevada, Reno prepares graduates for a broad, diverse scope of challenges in the workforce. Regardless of where graduates choose to work, from nonprofits to community action, they’ll leave the University of Nevada, Reno, with the ability to collaborate across fields and work towards societal change.


Suggested Readings

The Role of It in Helping Social Workers Serve Rural Communities

The Evolution of Social Work: An Interview with University of Nevada, Reno’s Valerie Luevano

University of Nevada, Reno Online Master of Social Work



CSWE – Profile of The Social Work Workforce

Socialworkers.org – “If You’re Right for The Job, It’s The Best Job in the World”

US News – Child and Family Social Worker

BLS – What Social Workers Do

Social Work Today – Trends in Macro Social Work Education