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To begin in the field of social work, you normally need to have a bachelor’s degree. However, if you wish to move into roles with more responsibility and higher pay, you will need to earn your master’s degree in social work (MSW).This advanced degree will allow you to develop highly specialized skills in social work that can result in many exciting career opportunities.

By spending the time and financial resources on an MSW, you will be able to enjoy a long and prosperous career in social work, one of the fastest growing in the country today.

Why Earn a Master’s in Social Work

Is the time and financial investment for an MSW degree worth it? It is important to address that question completely before you start on this two or three year process to get an advanced degree.

Some of the benefits of earning master’s degree in social work include:

  • Better salaries. Over your lifetime, it has been shown conclusively that earning your master’s degree is worth it from a financial perspective in social work and most career fields.
  • Superior job security. The Bureau of Labor Statistics or BLS reports that there is a lower rate of unemployment for people with a master’s degree, compared to a bachelor’s degree.
  • More advancement opportunities. Having a master’s degree in social work means better chances for promotions, leadership opportunities, professional development and even the chance to open a private social work practice on your own.

Earning an MSW also will give you the chance to focus on a specialty in social work that is your passion. For example, you could focus on the following areas of social work:

  • Addiction and substance abuse
  • Family and child social work
  • Medical and mental health
  • Counseling and human services
  • Clinical social work

There are other benefits: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the employment of social workers is expected to climb by 25% by 2020, which is faster than average when compared with other fields. BLS believes that the growth in the social work field will be due to great increases in the demand for health care and social services.

Also, the employment of child, family and school social workers is expected to grow 20% by 2020. This will occur because of the increased need to investigate instances of child abuse, and to also place needy children in foster care.

Another major area of growth in the social work field will be health care. BLS anticipates that the growth of employment for health care social workers will be a staggering 34%. Also, the employment of social workers in mental health and substance abuse is going to increase by 31%, which is much faster than average.

When it comes to pay, you are definitely going to be better served in your career by earning your master’s degree in social work. According to BLS, the median pay for social workers was $42,000 in 2010. The highest paid social workers are the ones with advanced degrees. Social workers at the higher end of the pay scale earn over $70,000 per year.

Note that the degree requirements will vary depending on whether or not you hold a bachelor’s degree in social work. If you have a bachelor’s degree in the field, you can expect to take 35-40 credit hours in two years. If not, expect to take up to 60 credit hours in three years.

Featured Online Master’s in Social Work

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By earning your MSW, you will have the best prospects in terms of job demand and salary. The recommended online programs to earn your MSW include these:

  • Master of Science in Social Work: With its reputation for educational excellence, cultural diversity and research funding, the USC School of Social Work prepares students for leadership roles in public and private organizations that serve individuals, families and communities in need. A pioneer in innovative programs of interdisciplinary study, the school is the highest ranked school of social work in Southern California and among the top 10 in the nation. USC is featured in our 100+ Online Masters Programs report for this year.
  • Master of Science in Social Work: The University of Missouri offers an online MSW program that requires you to come to campus only one time per semester. In this accredited master’s program, you can focus your social work studies on policy, planning and administration. In this specialty, you will be prepared for policy making, management and advocacy practice in many social service settings. The second specialization is in clinical practice, where you will work directly with people in need.
  • Master of Science in Social Work: At the University of New England, you can earn your Master of Science in Social Work in either Clinical Practice or Community Practice. The clinical practice component is for those who are interested in the most advanced skills in health and mental health, substance abuse and trauma. The community practice portion is for students who are interested in program management, advocacy and policy analysis.
  • Master of Science in Social WorkFordham University recently announced an online MSW that consists of 66 credit hours and 20 courses. The program is promised to provide the same foundation and advanced coursework that is available in the onsite MSW program. The program is open to anyone who lives outside a radius of 50 miles of the Fordham campus. All students in the online program are required to complete a social work theory and fieldwork curriculum, the same as students on campus.
  • Master of Science in Social Work: At Humboldt State University, you can earn your online MSW in 3.5 years. Both the online and the campus version of the program are accredited by the Council on Social Work Education. You will complete the same coursework online as the regular campus students do, and you also will need to complete the summer coursework potion.
  • Master of Science in Social Work: At the University of Texas-Arlington, you can now enjoy a full time, online MSW degree program that will allow you to graduate in about three years. Some of the classes that you will take in this accredited program include Poverty, Inequality and Social Policy, Advanced Micro Practice, Research and Evaluation II, Social Work Supervision, Advocacy and Social Policy, Stress, Crisis and Coping, and Family Theory and Practice.

Popular Career Paths for Master’s in Social Work

Some of the most popular and in demand professions for professionals with an MSW include these:

Clinical Social Worker

The major advantage of getting your MSW degree is that you can become a clinical social worker. With a master’s degree and licensure, you may diagnose and treatment mental illnesses and emotional disorders. The most common illnesses you will confront are anxiety and depression.

Clinical social workers are some of the most helpful and in demand mental health professionals in the country. They provide much needed therapy for individuals, couples, groups and families. They also work closely with clients to devise strategies to alter behavior and to deal with challenging situations.

Clinical social workers have the expertise and training to devise innovative treatment plans with doctors, clients and other healthcare professionals. They can adjust the plan of treatment if it is needed based upon progress. Clinical social workers also can offer mental health services to assist children and families to deal with problems and changes in their lives.

After you have graduated from your MSW program, you must attain licensure or certification in your state if you do not have it already. This is the case for clinical social workers too; however, there are some states that offer exemptions for clinical social workers who are employed by government agencies.

To earn licensure as a clinical social worker, you need to have your MSW and at least two years of supervised clinical experience after you graduate. After your clinical experience, you still need to pass a clinical examination to be licensed to practice.

The demand for clinical social workers is growing very quickly, with 19% increase in demand expected by 2024. Mental health and substance abuse social workers also will experience demand in excess of 19%.

The top 10% of all social workers earn more than $76,000 per year. To earn the highest salaries, it is required to have either your master’s or doctoral degree in social work. You also will want to work in clinical or healthcare social work.

Social workers held 650,000 jobs in 2014 in the United States. Local and state governments tend to employ the most social workers, at about 29%. Individual and family services employ approximately 18%, and ambulatory health services employ 13%.

Health Educator

A social worker with an MSW can work as a health educator for state or local government, or even a nonprofit group. A health educator provides people with education about ways of living that keep them well. A health educator will develop strategies that will improve the overall health of people and communities. Some of their common duties to promote health and wellness in communities include:

  • Assessing the many health needs of communities and people they serve
  • Devise new programs to educate people about important health topics, such as avoiding excessive consumption of sugar or alcohol
  • Evaluate how effective educational materials and programs are
  • Assist people in finding community resources that they need, such as food stamps or utility payment assistance
  • Collect and analyze information to learn more about the health problems of a community
  • Advocate with the local government to improve health resources and to encourage policies that encourage better health

Health educators with a background in social work could also be known as health education specialists. They will generally work in healthcare facilities, public health departments, nonprofits and public health centers.

In a healthcare center such as a hospital, health educators often work on a one on one basis with patients and families. They educate families and patients about their diagnoses. These workers can be called patient navigators because they assist consumers in finding out about how to get treatments covered, and how to find resources to help them. A social worker background in this area can be especially helpful to uncover community financial resources.

In a public health department, a health educator is responsible for handling many public health campaigns including proper nutrition, immunizations and reducing stress.

Health educators will experience a 13% increase in job demand in the next several years. It is thought that there will be growth in this field because healthcare organizations and governments wish to cut healthcare costs as much as possible. Teaching people how to live a more healthy lifestyle can reduce long term health care costs to government entities.

The median salary in this field is $51,950.

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