Question: What is an MSW Degree?

Answer: An MSW is a master’s-level degree that provides advanced training and instruction in the professional practice of social work. There are MSW programs that prepare students for careers in specific areas of the profession, including but not limited to clinical social work, macro social work, school social work, and military social work. There are also advanced generalist MSW programs that offer training in clinical and macro practice. And there are Advanced Standing MSW programs, which are designed for students who hold a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree from an accredited program.

Master of Social Work Programs

MSW is the abbreviation for Master of Social Work, which is a formal designation for a graduate program that provides advanced didactic and practice-based training in the field of social work. Master’s in social work programs may also be designated as Master of Science in Social Work (MSSW) and Master of Science in Social Administration (MSSA) programs. These programs are accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), the sole accrediting body for baccalaureate and master’s in social work programs.

General MSW Training

Students in an MSW program prepare for careers in the field by learning theories of social and behavioral science, communication skills, and professional ethics. They study social policy and social welfare programs and receive training in the scientific application of social and behavioral theories to the practice of social work with individuals, families, and groups. And they engage in field education, a signature pedagogy of social work training that provides students with hands-on experience and real-world training in the practice of social work.

The CSWE provides training guidelines in its Education Policy and Accreditation Standards. In order to meet accreditation standards, MSW programs must offer at least 900 hours of field education, as well as instruction in nine competencies:

  • Ethical and professional behavior
  • Recognizing and respecting diversity and difference
  • Advancing human rights and social, economic, and environmental justice
  • Practice-informed research and research-informed practice
  • Understanding social policy
  • Engaging with individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities
  • Assessing individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities
  • Intervening with individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities
  • Evaluating practice with individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities

MSW Specializations and Program Types

In addition to core instruction in the general practice of social work, many MSW programs are designed to provide additional training in clinical and/or macro social work practice. There are three main categories of MSW programs:

  • Clinical Social Work MSW Programs: An MSW program with a clinical social work specialization prepares students to work directly with clients, providing counseling services as well as general social services. In addition, these programs typically provide the necessary training to qualify for licensure as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW).
  • Macro Social Work MSW Programs: An MSW program with a macro social work specialization prepares students to work as organizers, coordinators, administrators, and policy experts in community organizations, governmental agencies, and other health and human services programs. These programs typically do not provide the clinical training necessary for LCSW licensure.
  • Advanced Generalist MSW Programs: An advanced generalist MSW program typically provides instruction in both clinical and macro social work. It is important for students in these programs to complete their field education requirements in their desired area of practice so that they gain the experience needed for career advancement post-graduation. These programs may provide sufficient instruction in clinical practice for licensure as a LCSW, depending on the curriculum of the program and the student’s state of residence.

There are also MSW programs that offer coursework in other social work specialization. These include:

  • Adulthood and Aging
  • Child and Family Practice
  • Mental Health and Substance Abuse
  • Military and Veterans Services
  • School Counseling
  • Trauma and Grief Counseling

Finally, graduates from CSWE-accredited Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) programs may be eligible for admission to an Advanced Standing MSW program. These programs provide a shorter pathway to earning an MSW to qualified candidates who have already received undergraduate training in social work.

Eligibility for Admissions to MSW Programs

Graduates from regionally accredited bachelor’s degree programs are generally eligible to apply to most MSW programs. The exceptions are Advanced Standing MSW programs, which require applicants to hold a BSW degree. While some MSW programs require students to submit GRE test scores, many do not. Programs that do request standardized test scores may allow applicants to submit scores from either the GRE or the MAT exam.

In addition to test scores, admissions boards may take into account an applicant’s undergraduate GPA, relevant work or volunteer experience, two or more letters of recommendation, and/or a written personal goals statement. Some programs may have a minimum GPA that applicants must meet or exceed for admissions, and some programs have several undergraduate prerequisites (often a behavior science and/or statistics course) which applicants must demonstrate they have completed. The admissions standards and criteria for MSW programs vary by program; potential applicants should research admissions requirements before applying.


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