Question: What Are the Differences Between an MSW and an MPH Degree Program?

Answer: MSW and MPH are designations for two different types of health and human services master’s degree programs. MSW is short for Master of Social Work; MPH stands for Master of Public Health. MSW programs provide professional training in the field of social work, which typically includes didactic instruction in social service program design and administration and social welfare policy research, as well as practice-based education in clinical counseling for individuals, families, and other social groups. An MPH is a professional degree designed to prepare students for careers in public health research, policy, and administration. There is some overlap in what students learn in MPH and MSW programs, particularly in areas of health and public policy research and program design, which is a primary area of focus in an MSW program with a macro social work concentration. However, many social workers are clinicians and most MSW programs, particularly programs that focus primarily on clinical social work, incorporate clinical training. In contrast, training in an MPH program typically does not include a clinical component.

Social Work and Public Health

Social work and public health are related fields in which trained professionals engage in policy research, conduct population health studies, and administer publically and privately funded programs to assist those in need and address societal problems. However, social workers and public health officials generally have different priorities and play different roles in the health and human services sector. While some social workers specialize in policy research and social welfare program design and administration, it is common for social workers to engage directly with individuals, families, and groups who require social assistance. This front-line work typically includes connecting clients with services and programs that provide low-income housing, nutritional assistance, healthcare services, vocational training, and other forms of poverty relief, as well as with treatment for a range of social and mental health issues. In addition, many social workers are trained clinicians who are qualified to offer clinical counseling services as part of their job.

Professionals in the field of public health may also be concerned with social and behavioral issues, but the focus of their work extends to physical and environmental factors that impact and threaten population health. Some of the prominent issues addressed in public health include chronic and infectious diseases, environmental toxins and pollutants, and access to proper nutrition and preventative healthcare services. Public health professionals conduct population health studies, use the tools of epidemiology and biostatistics to determine correlations and causations, and work to implement policies and programs that raise public awareness about various health problems and that mobilize effective responses to those problems.

Unlike many social workers, public health professionals generally do not intervene directly with those in need and are not trained to provide clinical services. It is, however, important to note that not all social work careers involve clinical counseling or the provision of direct client services. Macro or community practice social work centers around social policy research, social agency administration, and the design and assessment of social work programs. This type of social work is analogous to work in public health and it is not uncommon for macro social workers and public health professionals to study similar problems from somewhat different perspectives.

Training in Social Work and Public Health

One area of differentiation between social work and public health concerns the type of training professionals in these fields receive at the master’s degree level. The core MSW curriculum is fairly standardized. It covers theories of human social development, social science research methodologies, and the design and administration of social welfare programs. MSW programs have three main types of specializations: direct clinical practice, macro social work, and advanced generalist. Students in a clinical program learn about theories and practices of psychotherapy, protocols for mental health assessments and interventions, and the process for conducting counseling sessions with individuals, families, and groups. Students in a macro social work program take advanced courses in the structure of social welfare systems, the management of social policy initiatives, and funding and development for social programs. Finally, advanced generalist programs typically offer coursework in both areas of social work practice, although they may offer fewer courses in clinical social work and macro social work than clinical and macro social work programs, respectively.

There are several areas of further specialization offered by some MSW programs through designated tracks and electives. These include but are not limited to:

  • Child and Family Social Work
  • Military Social Work
  • School Social Work
  • Trauma and Mental Health Counseling

Finally, MSW programs typically require at least 900 hours of field education. This signature pedagogy of social work training takes place outside of the classroom in public agencies, healthcare facilities, and other organizations that provide social services.

The core MPH curriculum covers knowledge and proficiencies applicable across a broad range of careers in public health. Students learn how public health policies and programs are designed and administrated; how research is conducted and analyzed in the field of public health; the social, behavioral, and biological determinants of human health; and the communication skills used by public health professionals to educate the public and manage public health projects. This typically means taking courses in epidemiology, biostatistics, environmental health, population health, and public policy program design, implementation, and evaluation. There are numerous areas of specialization in the field of public health, many of which are addressed though tracks or concentration in MPH programs. These include but are not limited to:

  • Chronic and Non-Communicable Diseases
  • Community Health
  • Emergency Preparedness/Disaster Management
  • Food and Nutrition
  • Health Education
  • Gerontology and Aging
  • Global Health
  • Infectious Disease
  • Maternal and Child Health
  • Mental Health and Substance Use
  • Pharmaceuticals
  • Public Health Services Administration
  • Sex, Sexuality, and Gender
  • Social Justice and Human Rights

While field education is not as central in public health training as it in social work, many MPH programs incorporate a practicum during which students gain supervised experience working in public health. Practicum requirements vary by program, but typically include 100 or more hours of fieldwork.

The table below offers a comparative overview of typical coursework and other requirements in MSW and MPH programs.

Curriculum ComponentMSW ProgramMPH Program
Core CourseHuman Behavior in the Social EnvironmentSocial Determinants of Health
Core CourseSocial Work ResearchExperimental Design in Public Health
Core CourseSocial Work Practice with Individuals, Families, & GroupsInfectious Disease Epidemiology
Specialization CourseTrauma & Abuse in AdulthoodFood- & Water-borne Diseases
Specialization CourseMental Health Disorders in ChildhoodOccupational Health & Safety
Clinical Training900 hours of field education100 to 300 hours of practicum experience

Accreditation for MSW and MPH Programs

Programmatic accreditation generally serves to assure students that a degree program meets certain standards for academic and/or professional training in a particular field or discipline. In social work, accreditation from the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) can have important career ramifications, particularly for clinical social workers. The CSWE is the only recognized body that accredits MSW programs, and graduating from a CSWE-accredited master’s program is a requirement for clinical social work licensure in most states. As part of its accreditation process, the CSWE maintains curriculum standards for MSW programs, which include a requirement for a minimum of 900 hours of field education. In addition, the CSWE’s Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards for Baccalaureate and Master’s Social Work Programs outlines nine general competencies for training in social work:

  • Demonstrate ethical and professional behavior
  • Engage diversity and difference in practice
  • Advance human rights and social, economic, and environmental justice
  • Engage in practice-informed research and research-informed practice
  • Engage in policy practice
  • Engage with individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities
  • Assess individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities
  • Intervene with individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities
  • Evaluate practice with individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities

MPH programs may seek accreditation from the Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH), which maintains curricular guidelines and standards for baccalaureate, master’s, and doctoral degree programs in public health. The CEPH’s Accreditation Criteria for Schools and Programs delineates eight core competency areas for master’s training in public health:

  • Evidence-based Approaches to Public Health
  • Public Health & Health Care Systems
  • Planning & Management to Promote Health
  • Policy in Public Health
  • Leadership
  • Communication
  • Interprofessional Practice
  • Systems Thinking

Licensure and Certification in Social Work and Public Health

Formal licensure or certification is not a requirement to work in the fields of social work or public health. However, attaining licensure in social work and certification in public health can lead to career advancement and may be required by certain employers for specific jobs. For example, state licensure is a requirement for clinical social workers that provide counseling services autonomously in their own private practice. In order to become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) applicants must meet criteria set by the state in which they practice and then pass the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) exam. Most states require applicants to have an MSW degree from a CSWE-accredited program and at least two years of post-graduate experience in clinical social work.

There are no licensure requirements in public health. However, the National Board of Public Health Examiners (NBPHE) administers the Certified in Public Health (CPH) credentialing program, which can help establish an individual’s knowledge and skills in the field of public health. The NBPHE extends eligibility for CPH certification to graduates from CEPH-accredited public health degree programs and individuals who hold a bachelor’s degree plus five subsequent years of qualifying work experience in the field of public health. Candidates must then pass a four-hour, 200-question CPH exam, after which they receive the CPH credential.


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