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 health care system. However, with so many career paths available, it can be difficult 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 of Social Work (MSW) can offer 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 with real-world applications. This insight is crucial for advocating on behalf of underserved communities and working with individuals struggling with mental illness, substance misuse 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 an individual’s personal and professional interests, which is why it’s important to research specific occupations in detail.
As a whole, employment of social workers is expected to grow by 12% between 2020 and 2030, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). However, while increased demand for health care and social services is driving employment for social workers, this growth tends to vary between different specializations.
Keep in mind that the social work field is constantly evolving to meet emerging challenges and capitalize on new opportunities for health care 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, roughly one in five U.S. adults experiences some form of mental illness, with varying degrees of severity, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). As a result, many social work practitioners have prioritized 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. There are also plenty of opportunities for social workers to serve in both a direct and an indirect capacity, though these positions tend to require more real-world experience.
The following are a few of the most popular and impactful examples of what you can do with a master’s in social work, 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 job search or to help guide their MSW education.
Hands-On Social Work Jobs
Hands-on social workers generally help individuals who are dealing with specific challenges in their lives such as poverty, mental illness, physical abuse or other family problems. The following types of social workers help clients in this capacity.
Clinical Social Worker
Clinical social workers, sometimes called health care social workers, serve in a variety of capacities at locations where the public comes for treatment and support, including the following:
- Medical agencies
- Private practices
- Mental health facilities
Their work focuses on the assessment, diagnosis and care of individual clients with 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 the following:
- 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
Professionals need to obtain a practice license and/or certification to pursue a career as a clinical social worker. State-level accreditation boards manage these requirements, so the specific qualifications tend to vary.
In terms of job outlook, the BLS forecasts employment of clinical social workers will grow by 13% between 2020 and 2030, which is faster than the national average for all occupations (8%). The median annual salary for this profession was $60,840 in May 2021.
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 advisers to 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 BLS projects that employment of child, family and school social workers will grow by 13% from 2020 to 2030. Professionals in this role earned a median annual salary of $49,150 in May 2021, though this position is often a steppingstone to higher-paying administrative occupations.
Military Social Worker
Military social workers work directly with active-duty service members, veterans and their families. The assistance these social workers provide is similar to that of their peers in other disciplines, but tailored specifically for those who have served in the armed forces. Military social workers need to understand the unique experiences and struggles of their clients, which may include combat-related injuries or mental health issues and the challenges of transitioning to civilian life.
The responsibilities of military social workers often include:
- Providing mental and behavioral health support
- Helping clients find housing or employment
- Coordinating health care services
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is the largest employer of social workers in the nation, with more than 17,000 graduate-level social workers on staff. Social workers who work with veterans and their families provide an array of services, including crisis intervention, benefit assistance and mental health support for conditions such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and substance misuse.
The median annual salary for a social worker at the VA was approximately $71,700 as of May 2022, according to Payscale.
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 parolees. They often work within the prison system to advocate for rehabilitation, treatment for substance misuse, mental health resources and equitable treatment.
Professionals in this field also create action-based intervention plans for individual clients, helping them adjust after leaving a correctional facility. Corrections social workers are responsible for:
- Assessing the mental, emotional and interpersonal issues of new inmates
- Advocating for quality health care, 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 youth tend to prioritize behavioral interventions to prevent vulnerable individuals from falling into a life of crime.
Employment of corrections social workers is projected to grow by just 4% between 2020 and 2030, according to the BLS, though applicants who can speak Spanish fluently may have better job prospects. The median annual salary for this profession was $60,250 in May 2021.
Hands-Off Social Work Jobs
Hands-off social workers focus on the big picture, seeking to remedy social injustices and break down institutional barriers through policymaking, advocacy and program development. For those wondering what they can do with a master’s in social work, these roles present an opportunity to take a more macro approach to social issues.
Social Work Administrator
Social work administrators are responsible for overseeing different aspects of community or health programs, often working for government agencies like the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs or nongovernmental organizations like the Children’s Defense Fund. Though their day-to-day duties are less focused on the well-being of individual clients, their role is essential to providing direct services to those in need.
Many social work administrators focus on particular issues or demographics — such as aging populations or substance misuse 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:
- 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. Employment of social and community service managers, for example, is projected to grow by 15% from 2020 to 2030, according to the BLS. In contrast, the job outlook for medical and health services managers is expected to grow by 32% during the same period.
The median annual salary for social workers at community organizations was $74,000 in May 2021, while those working at health-oriented agencies earned a median annual wage of $101,340.
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 misuse 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 master’s in social work, 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, and interpersonal and community hardships.
The Occupational Information Network forecasts that employment of social science researchers will grow between 5% and 10% from 2020 to 2030. The median annual salary for social work researchers was $49,720 in 2021, though many professionals move on to 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 that public policies and social services deliver the best results. They may 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 reports or academic publications. Common 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 that 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 5% from 2020 to 2030, while the median annual wage for these types of roles stood at $92,910 in May 2021, according to the BLS.
Master’s in Social Work Curriculum
The social work profession has its own distinct values and Code of Ethics — established by the National Association of Social Workers — rooted in human dignity and social justice. With these foundations in mind, master’s in social work programs educate students to:
- Lead others in enacting changes that improve the lives of individuals and their communities
- Analyze research and data to inform policy and practice decisions
- Address social welfare issues that have an impact on diverse populations
- Assess and diagnose issues that can affect individual and community well-being
MSW programs offer classes on topics such as:
- Enacting social work methods
- Working with government agencies and nongovernmental organizations
- Addressing structural oppression
- Assisting groups, individuals and families
- Evaluating social work practices and programs
- Serving as a social work administrator
MSW programs typically include a field placement component as well, offering students the opportunity to put their course lessons to work in a real-world setting. These placements can be with facilities and groups such as:
- Mental health clinics
- Policy organizations
- Child and family service programs
Field placements expose students to a wide range of experiences and opportunities to explore what they can do with a master’s in social work.
What Undergraduate Degree Do I Need to Go into Social Work?
MSW programs require students to have a bachelor’s degree. While many MSW students earn a bachelor’s in social work before beginning a master’s program, there are opportunities to pursue an MSW with an undergraduate degree in a different subject.
Many MSW programs offer two types of programs: one for students with a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW) and one for those with non-BSW degrees. Students whose bachelor’s degree is not in social work are better prepared for the MSW curriculum if they have a solid educational background in public policy and social services, psychology or social science.
For students without a BSW, master’s in social work programs require additional foundational courses that cover the fundamentals of social work as well as entry-level field experience. All students, including those who have a BSW, then take higher-level courses and participate in advanced fieldwork.
Additional Master’s in Social Work Degree Requirements
In addition to having a bachelor’s degree, Master of Social Work degree programs often have other admissions requirements, which may include the following.
- Coursework in statistics and research methods
- Three letters of recommendation
- A resume
- 0 overall GPA or 3.25 overall GPA in last 60 hours of coursework
There may be additional requirements, depending on whether a student holds a bachelor’s degree in social work or another field of study.
Social Work Licensing Requirements
Social workers who hold a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) credential can provide one-on-one psychotherapy as well as other advanced treatments.
In all states, clinical social workers must be licensed. Some states also require nonclinical social workers to hold a license or credential. Specific state licensing requirements for social workers vary, but generally they include the following:
- Earning an advanced social work degree, such as an MSW
- Gaining professional experience
- Passing a national exam
In some states, clinical social workers also must take law and ethics exams.
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 60-credit-hour degree that offers a mix of foundational and specialized learning opportunities.
Discover how an online MSW degree from the University of Nevada, Reno can help you advance your social work career.