The social work field is poised for strong employment growth in the next decade: The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that employment in the social work profession will grow by 12% by 2024. As demand for social services and healthcare increases with our aging population, there will be a need for more social workers.
Professionals who are considering the social work field for their career will note that there are two major graduate degrees available: the Master of Social Work (MSW) and the Doctor of Social Work (DSW). What is the difference and which is the best degree to earn? It depends upon your specific career goals and related factors. Learn more about your educational options in social work below.
The Master of Social Work is a two year graduate degree that is the minimum requirement to work as a clinical or healthcare social worker. These are two of the higher-paying positions in the social work profession.
The MSW is the most common choice for experienced social workers with a bachelor’s in social work (BSW) who want to obtain higher-level social work skills so they can earn a higher salary. It is a practice-focused degree for the social worker who wants to continue to practice hands-on in the field, but in a higher level position.
Most MSW programs can be completed in two years full time, and feature advanced coursework in social research, human growth and development, and social policies and programs.
All MSW programs that are accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) require the student to have a minimum of 900 hours of supervised field work in an established social services or social work agency.
After completing foundational courses in advanced clinical and healthcare social work, students usually can choose between working with individual clients, families and groups, or focusing more on social work policy and planning. Most MSW students also are required to specialize in a specific problem area of social policy and welfare, such as aging, child welfare, clinical care or mental health.
Depending upon the school, the MSW program may prepare the student for working in private practice as a clinical social worker, or prepare the student for working in social services agencies at the local or state level.
The DSW is a doctoral degree that one earns after first obtaining their MSW. Some universities may refer to the DSW as a Ph.D.; there usually is little difference between the degrees.
A DSW is designed for a highly experienced social worker with an MSW who wants to move beyond clinical practice in many cases. He or she usually wants to obtain further social work research and policy analysis training. Their career goal is often to attain leadership positions in research, academia and education.
For these professionals, earning a DSW means transitioning from active social work practice into teaching, academia and research work. Many who earn their DSW become professors of social work at universities, where teaching, research and publishing scholarly work is the major focus. Still others may strive for upper management and director roles in social service agencies and social work offices. They may continue to teach on a part time basis at a local university.
In terms of coursework, DSW programs focus on teaching students both quantitative and qualitative analysis techniques. As with most doctoral programs, students are required to write dissertations. These usually are long research projects in a social work topic that take more than a year to finish.
A DSW degree is the best choice for the highly experienced social worker with an MSW who desires a career in academia, research, teaching, and/or in upper level management for social service-related organizations. Jump to Online DSW Degree with No GRE options.
Online Degree Options
Social workers interested in either their MSW or DSW are fortunate because there are many high quality, online degree options today. Many students have the opportunity to earn their advanced degree online and continue to work at least part time. Strong online universities that offer MSW and DSW programs include these:
Capella University is an accredited, online university that offers both a MSW and DSW.
The MSW will provide you with the social work skills to help the most vulnerable people in our society to overcome a variety of personal and economic challenges. Learning outcomes in this two year, online program are:
- Learn how to engage, assess, intervene and evaluate your clients, who may include families, individuals, groups and communities.
- Discover how to engage in social work policy practice that advances social and economic well being
- Apply critical thinking to both communicate and inform professional judgments
- Apply ethical principles of social work to better guide practice
Required MSW courses include:
- Research in Social Work Practice
- Social Welfare History, Policy, and Practice
- Human Behavior and the Social Environment 1
- Micro Social Work
- Human Behavior and the Social Environment 2
- Social Policy and Planning in Human Services
- Mezzo Social Work Practice
- Macro Social Work Practice with Groups, Organizations, and Communities
The DSW program at Capella University has a strong reputation for preparing social workers to be advanced practitioners and knowledge leaders in the field. The program has been designed around national social work education guidelines, and is one of the few DSW programs that can be earned online.
The curriculum in this five-year program stresses critical thinking, academic research in social policy, and integrating theoretical knowledge with practical social work experience. There also is a strong emphasis upon social work leadership, and how to leverage new technology to expand the effectiveness and research of existing social services programs.
University of Southern California
The MSW curriculum at USC is a strong reflection of the evolution and innovations that have occurred in social work in the last several decades. The courses explore the emerging, critical needs in the social services field, so that a new form of social workers can be developed to meet the needs of vulnerable citizens in the 21st century.
This two year, online program has a highly rigorous curriculum that is taught by the internationally-renowned social work professors at USC. This program has a traditional track that is suitable for students with a bachelor’s in another field. But if you have a BSW, you may apply for the advanced standing program, which can in some cases be completed in under two years.
The online DSW program at USC prepares the experienced social worker who wants to attain a leadership or management role. You will learn how to develop innovative social policy solutions to serious social issues. This program receives applications from social innovators from many backgrounds, including those in public policy, public administration, business, nursing and counseling.
Students in this accredited program will study concepts that concern innovation, leadership and advanced social work management practice. These topics are covered in weekly online classes, and there are also two in person residencies required in the five-year program.
Topics explored in this DSW program are:
- Leading public discourse
- Organizational leadership
- Technological fluency
- Data driven decision making
- Innovation and change
Arizona State University
The MSW program at Arizona State University will provide you with the social work and social policy skills that are needed to work effectively with individuals, families and communities around the country and the world.
The program consists of 20 classes that take 7.5 weeks each, for a total of 60 credit hours. The program is fully accredited by the CSWE, so you are ensured that the degree program has met the highest standards of social work education.
This MSW program features coursework that are organized around a variety of serious social concerns, and two professional seminars are included. Students also are required to complete 960 hours of field education their local area.
Required courses include the following:
- Human Practice I
- Social Policy and Services
- Field Practicum I
- Diversity and Oppression in a Social Work Context
- Human Behavior and Social Environment
Both the MSW and DSW degrees are excellent career options to increase your employment prospects and knowledge of social work. If you think that you want to eventually work in research, academia and upper level, director positions in social services, a DSW could be a good fit. If you want to work at a high level in the clinical field for most of your career, an MSW could be best.
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- Social Workers. (2015, Dec. 17). Retrieved from https://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/social-workers.htm#tab-6
- Capella University. Difference Between DSW and PhD. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.capella.edu/blogs/cublog/difference-between-dsw-and-phd-in-social-work/