An online master's degree in social work may be a great option for people who are committed to social justice, family welfare and caring for others. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job outlook from 2014-2024 is projected to increase 12 percent, about double the national average. The social work field can include careers like school social workers, substance abuse counselors, professors and policy makers. Find programs, discover what a typical timeline for an online master's degree in social work looks like and learn how a master's degree in social work can help professionals advance their careers and expand their ability to impact others.
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Best Online Master's in Social Work Degrees
To be considered for this ranking, schools were required to meet the following criteria:
- Accredited at the institutional level
- Private nonprofit or public school
- Minimum of 1 online master's degree in subject area
Schools were then scored on factors such as:
- Cost & Financial Aid
- Number and variety of online program offerings
- Student-teacher ratios
- Graduation rates
- Placement and support services offered
- Academic/Career counseling services
- Employment services
- Loan default rates
These factors were assembled for each school and rated using a peer-based-value (PBV) calculation. PBV compares the cost of a program to the cost of other programs with the same (or similar) qualitative score and cost. PBV denotes the overall value or "bang for your buck" of a college or degree program.
The flexibility of online programs offers prospective master's in social work students the ability to continue to work in the field and maintain family commitments while obtaining an advanced degree. Because a prolific number of online programs exist, students may be overwhelmed when looking for an online master's in social work program. Take a look at the rankings list below to help aid your decision-making. The list is based on a number of criteria, including public and not-for-profit status, graduate tuition and fees, student support services, job placement rates and peer-based value.
Timeline to an Online Social Work Master's Degree
Applicants for online master's programs in social work should typically have a bachelor's degree from an accredited institution. In some cases, master's programs will accelerate the curriculum for bachelor's degree holders if they graduated in the field of social work with a high enough GPA. By itself, an online master's degree in the field may take 18 months to three years to complete. All accredited master's programs, online and traditional, will likely have a mandatory clinical practicum or fieldwork to complete.
Online master's programs in social work may take less time than traditional, on-campus programs. Online programs, however, will likely have the same coursework and degree outcome. Because the social work field has varying concentrations, students should have an idea of their specific preferences and interests when applying.
Bachelor's in Social Work
Applicants who have a bachelor's degree in social work typically already have background in social work history, policy and general theory, and if they've been able to maintain a 3.0 GPA or higher, the time to complete a master's program may be greatly reduced.
GRE and MAT scores
Most programs accept test scores for the GRE or MAT up to five years after completion of the exams. Sometimes, programs only accept one and not both, so students should be sure to take the test requested by their desired program.
References and Resume
Applicants should consider asking their current supervisors, professors or community leaders for a reference. References are generally required for online master's in social work programs, and they can offer an inside look into an applicant's character, personality and work ethic. Applicants should also take great care in preparing a résumé that highlights social work qualities. Admissions officers typically want to know about an applicant's work experience, current skill set and passion for the field.
It can be difficult to get an idea of a person's personality or suitability from just an application alone. For online master's in social work programs that request an essay or a personal statement, students should seize the opportunity to describe who they are, what about a master's in social work is interesting to them and how they plan to contribute to their community and to the field upon completion.
Most online master's programs in social work will require transcripts from a previous institution. Students should review their transcripts for errors and should pay close attention to their GPA. Accelerated online master's programs are often offered to students who have a bachelor's in social work; however, they often require the student to have completed the degree with a 3.0 GPA or higher.
Be Interview Ready
Some programs may accept students who do not have great test scores or GPAs. Online master's in social work programs typically take a personal approach to admissions and consider life experience as much as numbers on paper. If a candidate falls into this category, it is possible an admissions officer will request on online or in-person interview. Candidates should let their passion shine through, be genuine and express their excitement at the possibility of entering into the field.
Financial Aid Application
Online master's in social work programs can be expensive. Students should explore all available financial aid possibilities, including those inside and outside their specific program. Individual programs and departments may have scholarship applications, and some accept aid programs like the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) or federal grants.
Year One Milestones
Once a student is accepted into an online master's degree program in social work, there are a few milestones and objectives that one typically reaches in their first year of school.
Create a Network
Students should take advantage of networking opportunities that schools offer. Building a network is a critical part of taking a professional role in social work; students will find jobs, internships and lifelong colleagues from these first connections.
Specific master's degree in social work programs that students choose will likely already have a concentration. For instance, students might apply to a clinical track or a family welfare track. But after completing the basic level of courses, students will often specialize even further within those concentrations. It will be helpful for applicants to have an idea of these specific areas within their program of study.
Future employers in the social work field often consider volunteer experience among applicants. Students should search for different opportunities that may be available to them in their community, and often times, volunteer opportunities are posted or available within the social work department.
Year Two Milestones and Graduation Requirements
Typically, a student will complete a master's in social work program after the second year. The final year in the program will typically be focused on finishing fieldwork hours and specialized coursework.
Start and Complete Fieldwork
Many programs may require students to fulfill a fieldwork or practicum program. Hours may be completed in fields like hospitals, clinics, offices or schools. Hour requirements can be as high as 1,200, so students should be prepared to make this part of the program a big priority.
Complete Specialty Coursework
Students typically will need to register for and complete advanced electives within the degree program's concentration.
Plan Your On-Site Time
Some programs require students to work on-site for a part of the degree program, even though the majority of course and fieldwork may be completed off campus. Students should try to plan work and family life around this time in order to take full opportunity of it. The chances to meet professors face-to-face, to interact with fellow students and to make real-life connections will often times help participants expand their network.
In addition to the basic graduation standards, graduates of an online master's program in social work usually have a few more requirements to fulfill before they can start practicing.
States may have differing licensure requirements, so graduates should be aware of specifics. In many areas, recent graduates may be able to work under supervision before receiving any higher licensing.
In most states, professionals are often required to pass the master's exam at the onset of practicing and before completion of supervised work. Some states may require social workers to pass an additional clinical examination at the completion of their supervision requirements. Graduates should be familiar with the requirements of states in which they may eventually work.
Professional fitness is usually determined to get an idea of a social worker's mental and emotional ability to work within the field. Regulations may vary among different states. Some states require an interview, background check and fingerprints, while others only require one or two of those items.
After Your Degree: What to do with a Master's in Social Work
Graduates of a master's in social work program typically have a diverse field from which to choose a career. Students who enjoy the classroom and research may follow a path to teaching social work. Those who enjoy working with children may want to work in schools, while others may choose to help people overcome addiction. Below are a few potential career options and their statistics.
Browse Master's in Social Work Careers
School Social Worker
School and family social workers typically work to provide social services and help to ensure high social and emotional functioning of children and their families. A primary goal of professionals in this field is to help children function at a high level at school and in academics. Professionals may deal with children in abusive settings, may arrange adoptions and may find foster homes. In schools, they are often helping teenagers who face issues like drugs and alcohol, pregnancy and truancy.
Mean Annual Wage: $46,610
Growth Potential: 6%
Substance Abuse Social Worker
Professionals in this niche of the field are usually tasked with treating people with mental, emotional and substance abuse problems. This includes alcohol, tobacco and illegal substances. Social workers in this area will likely use tools like group therapy, intervention, prevention and education as means to help their patients.
Mean Annual Wage: $47,190
Growth Potential: 19%
Social Work Teacher
Social workers may opt to teach students who are heading into the field. Instructors will often work at the post-secondary level in the university or college environment. Teachers are usually responsible for passing on information for the next wave of professionals as well as continuing research to further develop the field.
Mean Annual Wage: $69,030
Growth Potential: 14%
Core Principles and Skills Learned in an Online Social Work Program
Courses students take during an online master's in social work program will often differ depending on the concentration. However, there are a few principles and theories that are typically common to all degree programs.
Master's in Social Work
- Introduction to Social Work: Students are usually introduced to the history of the field and the profession, theory of practice, and professional values and ethics. Other topics may include current issues facing the field and requirements and challenges that practicing social workers face.
- Communication Skills: Social workers are often required to communicate with others. In their master's courses, students typically learn to engage with patients, listen actively and interview constructively. They are usually expected to understand how to engage with people while maintaining boundaries and a professional demeanor.
- Social Policy, Welfare and Change: Students typically explore the role of social workers in development and implementation of social welfare policies. Other topics may include history of social welfare and programs and policies that address poverty, healthcare and child welfare.
- Psychopathology: Students typically gain an understanding of how to best help their patients. To do this well, they usually learn how patients view and represent themselves and how race, gender, socioeconomic status and other factors influence that representation. With this knowledge, students can design interventions, therapies and solutions for their patients.
Masters students of social work can utilize additional resources that will help during their time as students and as they transition into the professional arena. Many member-based organizations may offer internship and volunteer opportunities, financial aid and professional development. Some resources often help students determine insurance needs and give policy updates, and many offer discounts for educational materials and national conferences.
The organization is membership-based and offers regional and national conferences, outreach to new professionals and discounts on industry books and journals.
This association works to provide services, products, support and a national identity for professionals in the field of clinical social work. This is a membership-based organization that is dedicated to protecting the interests of licensed professionals. It provides advocacy, representation and free consultative services for legal questions, and discounted comprehensive liability insurance.
This non-profit organization offers professional education to its members and is major accrediting agency for social work education.
The largest member-based organization, with 132,000 members in the field, this association focuses on professional development, policy and ethics and has a student center that is committed to financial aid, internships and education.
This state-by-state guide updates students on licensure requirements for their area as well as provides information about master's degrees in social work and ways to further careers after graduation.