Earning a Master's in Social Work Online

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects employment for social workers to increase 16% between 2016 and 2026, which is more than double the projected growth rate for all other occupations. Graduates of accredited bachelor's programs in social work qualify for most entry-level jobs in the field. However, many advanced positions require a master's in social work (MSW).

Many colleges and universities offer MSW programs online and on campus. As demand for social workers increases, graduates of MSW online programs have plenty of job opportunities. This guide covers requirements to earn an MSW online, potential funding sources, and job and salary potential for master's degree holders.

Student Profile: Who Earns an Online Master's Degree in Social Work?

Students who pursue a master's in social work online can maintain full-time employment while earning their degree. In addition, master's programs allow students to specialize in certain areas of the field to prepare for specific careers. A master's degree demonstrates advanced skills and knowledge, which can lead to increased employment opportunities and earning potential.

Why Get a Master's Degree in Social Work?

Pursuing Specialization

Students pursuing an MSW can focus their studies on a certain population, such as mental health patients, children, or families. By focusing on a specific group of people, professionals can better help clients access services such as healthcare, housing, and job training. Other MSW students specialize in a certain field, such as healthcare.

Career Advancement Opportunities

Since social work is a broad field, a specialization can help job seekers qualify for certain positions. For example, a social worker with a master's degree in school social work can coordinate services for a school district or pursue administrative roles in areas such as program design, funding source and allocations, and federal compliance.

Online Learning Technology

Many social workers maintain heavy caseloads, and their clients depend on them for vital services. Social workers can use communication technology to provide services to current clients while earning a master's degree. Additionally, students in accredited MSW programs learn about the latest developments and resources in the field; current social workers can apply this knowledge immediately.

Prerequisites for Online Social Work Programs

Requirements for MSW online programs vary. Each school sets unique academic standards and educational objectives. However, the list below includes common requirements for applicants to accredited online MSW programs.

  • Work Experience: Many schools require MSW applicants to hold previous relevant work experience. However, some institutions offer combined programs that enable students to earn a bachelor's and master's degree in social work in less time than it would take to earn the degrees separately. These types of programs often require no work experience.
  • Exams and Test Scores: Most master's programs require applicants to submit standardized test scores. The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is a commonly required test for graduate school applicants in the United States. GRE scores of 150 on the verbal portion, 153 on the quantitative section, and 3.5 on the analytical writing portion are considered average. GRE scores are valid for five years.
  • Coursework: Each MSW program sets its own curriculum, and required coursework varies widely. However, most programs require students to have completed an undergraduate statistics course. On-campus and online MSW programs typically require applicants to hold at least a 3.0 GPA, but programs may consider applicants with lower GPAs if their GRE scores are above average.
  • Recommendations: Applicants to master's in social work online programs must typically submit at least one letter of recommendation. Recommenders should be able to speak to the applicant's performance in an academic or professional setting. Ideal recommenders include teachers, counselors, and supervisors who understand the rigors and demands of master's programs.
  • Essays: Graduate school application essays typically range from 250-750 words. An application essay should focus on the applicant's professional and educational objectives and should describe how graduate studies can help them achieve those goals. Some schools provide a prompt to direct the essay's focus.
  • Interviews: Few schools that offer MSW programs online require applicants to undergo in-person interviews. Online MSW programs that require interviews typically conduct them remotely. Applicants should prepare as thoroughly for a phone or video interview as they would for an in-person interview.
  • International Students International students must generally meet the same requirements as U.S. applicants, along with demonstrating English proficiency. Most U.S. colleges and universities accept IELTS or TOEFL scores, with each school setting required scores.

How Much Can I Make With a Master's Degree in Social Work?

Several factors influence the potential salary of a social worker, including experience, education, geographic location, and specialization area. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, social workers earned a median annual salary of $47,980 in 2017. The lowest 10% of earners made less than $29,560, while the highest 10% earned more than $79,740. A social worker's place of employment also impacts their earning potential, with state, local, and private hospitals providing the highest salaries. Social workers often find employment at hospitals, social service agencies, and nonprofit organizations.

Traditional Careers for Master's in Social Work Graduates

Careers Stats Description

Social Workers

Median Pay: $47,980

Job Growth: 16%

Social workers assess clients' needs, help clients access services, and advocate for them on the local, state, and federal levels. They also maintain clients' records and case files, develop and evaluate programs, and often intervene in emergency situations.

Social and Community Service Managers

Median Pay: $64,100

Job Growth: 18%

Social and community service managers work with stakeholders, including clients, goods and service providers, program sponsors, and government agencies. These professionals assist in the delivery of services to the community or communities they serve. They also evaluate current programs' effectiveness and help develop, implement, and monitor new programs. They often manage fundraising efforts.


Median Pay: $77,030

Job Growth: 14%

Psychologists identify clients' underlying emotional, cognitive, and psychological issues, design individual treatment plans, and administer diagnostic tests. Psychologists who work for corporations may be human resources managers, or they may assist in personnel training and development. Professionals with an MSW must typically complete a doctoral psychology program to pursue this career.

Rehabilitation Counselors

Median Pay: $34,860

Job Growth: 13%

Rehabilitation counselors assist people with developmental, emotional, mental, and physical disabilities. These counselors help clients identify and develop their strengths while learning to live with their limitations. They help clients secure meaningful employment and live as independently as possible. They also advocate for clients in their workplaces and communities.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Nontraditional Careers for Social Work Graduates

MSW holders who pursue jobs outside the field often earn salaries that are comparable to or higher than those of professionals in traditional social work positions. The skills students gain while earning an on-campus or online social work master's degree transfer to a variety of occupations, including those listed below.

Career Stats Description

Health Educators and Community Health Workers

Median Pay: $45,360

Job Growth: 16%

Health educators teach clients how to make choices that promote their health and well-being. These professionals identify programs and services that support clients' overall health. Community health workers often conduct outreach programs and information campaigns that educate vulnerable communities about health threats. They also help specific populations, including veterans, senior citizens, and children, access healthcare services.

Skills Overlapped: Knowledge of and ability to access relevant community resources, familiarity with pertinent federal and state health-related assistance programs

Marriage and Family Therapists

Median Pay: $48,790

Job Growth: 23%

Marriage and family therapists help individuals, couples, and families identify and resolve relationship problems in positive and affirming ways. They also help families cope with issues such as job loss, death, long-term medical conditions, mental health problems, and addiction.

Skills Overlapped: Active listening, knowledge of effective counseling techniques


Median Pay: $79,650

Job Growth: 1%

Using qualitative and quantitative methods, sociologists conduct research that can help shape social and public policies. Their research often helps lawmakers, religious leaders, and educators address a variety of modern societal problems. These professionals study social issues, such as crime and poverty, education, healthcare, and ethnic, gender, and racial relations.

Skills Overlapped: Analytical, critical thinking, and research skills; understanding of modern social issues

School and Career Counselors

Median Pay: $55,410

Job Growth: 13%

School counselors work with students to identify factors that affect their academic performance. They help students focus on individual characteristics and abilities that can help them succeed. They also work with teachers and administrators to help create safe learning environments. Career counselors often help college students choose careers that match their skills and interests. They may also work with adults who are changing careers.

Skills Overlapped: Match client skills with job opportunities, oversee skills training

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Paying for an Online Master's in Social Work

Scholarships and grants can help reduce the cost of a master's in social work program. Students who pursue an online MSW degree often save on transportation and housing costs. Additionally, enrolling part time can reduce per-semester costs. Below are grant and scholarship options to help fund an online master's in social work.

Scholarships for Online Social Work Master's Students

Many students fund their undergraduate education with scholarships. Scholarship opportunities also exist for online and on-campus master's programs. The scholarships below are available to learners pursuing an MSW.

What to Expect from a Master's-Level Online Social Work Program

Students with a bachelor's degree in a field other than social work can typically complete an on-campus or online MSW program in two years. Students who completed an accredited undergraduate social work program can often earn their MSW in one year. Students can accelerate a two-year, online MSW program by enrolling in asynchronous courses. Although curricula vary by program, most MSW programs include the elements below.

Major Milestones

  1. Field Placement

    During the entire program

    Most MSW programs require students to undertake a field placement while completing coursework. Some schools allow current social workers to complete this requirement at their place of employment, outside their typical work hours.

  2. Thesis Preparation

    During the final two semesters

    Students typically enroll in thesis courses during their final two semesters. During these courses, students select a thesis topic, submit a proposal, conduct research, and write their thesis.

  3. Capstone Coursework

    Final semester of the program

    Students enrolled in an MSW program with a capstone requirement begin capstone coursework after completing all the other required courses. Students typically begin capstone coursework at least one semester before they graduate.

  4. Licensure Examination

    During the final semester

    In many states, MSW students are eligible to take the licensure exam during their final semester. However, exam requirements vary between states.

  5. Thesis Defense or Capstone Presentation

    End of the last semester

    This is often the culminating experience of an MSW program. Students defend their thesis or present their capstone project as a final step before graduation.

  6. Completion Confirmation

    Directly prior to graduation

    After a student has completed all departmental requirements for graduation, the department chair informs the college or university that the student is a candidate for graduation.


Curricula among accredited MSW programs vary. Many programs offer unique curricula designed to meet specific educational objectives. However, most MSW programs include the fundamental courses below.

Generalist Social Work Research

This course introduces the basic concepts used in the research and investigation of problems and challenges that commonly occur in modern social work practice, including formulating research questions, research design and implementation, and data collection and analysis.

Global Perspectives in Social Work

In this course, students explore the human condition within a global context. They study how other countries use social development as a grounding principle of social work practice.

Intervention Models

In this foundational course in clinical practice, students examine various models of intervention based on psychosocial, cognitive, and behavioral theories and how to effectively implement them in clinical social work practice.

Psychopharmacology and Social Work Practice

This course familiarizes students with the terminology and concepts of pharmacokinetics and provides them with a broad understanding of neurochemistry as it relates to their role as social workers dealing with clients with mental health or addiction challenges.

U.S. Social Welfare System

Students examine the history of the social welfare system in the U.S. and study the different political factors and policies that gave rise to populations that have been negatively affected by social change.

Degree Timelines

An online master's in social work offers more flexibility than on-campus programs. Online learners typically have more control over the number of credits they take per semester and the total time necessary to earn their online MSW degree.

Enrollment Status Time to Complete Description


3-4 Years

Students enrolled in part-time online MSW programs often complete six credits per semester. Part-time enrollment is ideal for students who are changing career fields and those balancing school with professional or personal obligations.


2 Years

Full-time students generally take 12-15 credits per semester, plus six credits during a summer term, usually completing a MSW program in two years. Full-time students completing an online MSW program in a primarily asynchronous format often maintain employment while earning their degree.


4 Semesters
(16-18 Months)

Students in accelerated programs typically enroll in more than six credits during the summer term. Some accelerated online programs offer courses designed to be completed in 11 weeks, rather than 15 weeks, which allows learners to graduate more quickly.

Licenses and Certifications

Most states require social work graduates earn licensure before they can practice. Although licensure requirements vary, most states require applicants to hold a degree from an accredited college or university. The Council on Social Work Education accredits undergraduate and graduate social work programs in the United States.

Some social workers pursue certification to gain knowledge and skills in a specialized area, such as mental health or school social work. While licensure is required to practice as a social worker, certification is often voluntary.

  • Certified School Social Work Specialist: This credential demonstrates expertise in the field of school social work. Candidates must have at least two years of supervised post-MSW field experience and a current state social work license.
  • Licensed Master Social Worker: In addition to an MSW, applicants for this license must pass the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) examination specific to the professional level at which they plan to practice. This license qualifies holders to practice independently in a nonclinical setting. Holders can also practice in a clinical setting under the supervision of a social work professional with a clinical license.
  • Licensed Clinical Social Worker: Most states require applicants for this license to have 2-3 years of supervised clinical social work experience. Additionally, applicants must hold an MSW degree and must pass the ASWB clinical examination. This license qualifies holders to practice as clinical social workers in private settings.

Professional Organizations & Resources

Members of social work professional organizations often receive access to networking opportunities, online job boards, career training centers, and digital libraries. Many professional organizations also provide access to continuing education opportunities, which help members expand their knowledge while fulfilling licensure requirements. Below are professional organizations and resources for social work students and professionals.

  • Clinical Social Work Association: In addition to a members-only job board, CSWA members receive information relevant to clinical social work practice, free legal consultations, and discounted professional liability insurance.
  • Council on Social Work Education: The CSWE website provides members with access to various educational resources and a career center. Members also receive monthly email newsletters and a subscription to the Journal of Social Work Education.
  • National Association of Social Workers: NASW comprises more than 132,000 social workers throughout the United States. Membership benefits include access to several professional development programs, discounts on liability insurance, and advocacy opportunities.
  • School Social Work Association of America: SSWAA members gain access to $250,000 of professional liability insurance and optional health insurance plans. The organization's website includes free practice tools, the latest research in school social work, and a variety of discounted promotional products.
  • Society for Social Work and Research: Members receive reduced subscription rates to several social work journals, which provide the latest industry news, developments, trends, and research. SSWR also includes members in an exclusive online directory.
  • Child Welfare League of America: This organization supports social workers who work directly with children, in clinical or nonclinical settings. CWLA provides recent news and public policy changes that affect children's social welfare, education, and safety.
  • Nonprofit Career Network: This website lists employment opportunities in several fields, including jobs for social workers at various career stages.
  • Social Work Helper: This digital magazine provides up-to-date coverage on topics related to social work practice in the United States. The publication covers areas including mental health, aging, and poverty.
  • Social Work Podcast: In this podcast collection, clinical practitioners and social workers in various specialization areas discuss topics relevant to modern social work practice, including drug abuse, adoption, mental health, and education.
  • Social Work Policy Institute: SWPI is a think tank that delivers the latest news and developments impacting social work practice, including policy changes, shifting political landscapes and priorities, and social work education.