What is an MSW and What Can I Do with It?

View all blog posts under Articles | View all blog posts under Master of Social Work

A social worker meets with their client.

A Master of Social Work degree (MSW) can give individuals an opportunity to pursue high-level positions in the social work field. Social work is often described as a “helping” profession. Much of the work concentrates on positioning clients to overcome life challenges and gain access to the resources they need to achieve their goals. This can be accomplished by providing counseling, which focuses on helping individuals cope with mental disorders or trauma. Alternatively, it can involve practices such as community advocacy — working with special interest groups to promote social justice. An MSW program provides students with the depth and breadth of knowledge to work in such roles.

What Is an MSW?

An MSW prepares students to advance their careers in social work by providing them with the training and specialization to practice professionally. Considered the terminal practice degree in the field, an MSW is required for those interested in becoming clinical social workers. MSW students gain hands-on work experience through internships, where they can apply their in-class lessons to real-world scenarios.

Many MSW programs do not require students to have a Bachelor of Social Work. This means students from a range of educational backgrounds can pursue an MSW to build their foundational and advanced social work skills through a single program.

Areas of Study Covered in an MSW Curriculum

MSW degree programs cover key topics in the social work industry, positioning individuals for vital roles in the sector. Some of the most common areas that are studied in most MSW curricula include the following.

  • Human behavior and the social environment
  • Diversity and cross-cultural issues in social work
  • Clinical assessments, diagnoses, practices, and policies
  • Trauma in children, adolescents, and adults
  • Advanced social work with individuals, families, and groups

While most MSW programs do not require a graduate thesis, they do frequently include a capstone project. This provides students an opportunity to engage in some high-level work on a project they are passionate about. Capstones typically incorporate some sort of practical work, such as clinical research.

The final key elements of an MSW include field education and internship opportunities. These exist at every tier of most MSW programs, beginning early in the curriculum when students are in their initial courses and continuing through to graduation. The specifics of the work vary depending on the concentration that students pursue. For example, students may gain real-world experience working in clinical practice under the direct supervision of a licensed clinical social worker.

MSW Program Accreditation

Before enrolling, prospective MSW students should verify that a program is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). The CSWE conducts a thorough evaluation process that includes campus visits, student learning outcomes, and compliance reviews. This accreditation signifies that a program meets the high-quality standards set by the CSWE and is equipped with best practices for student success. Only graduates of accredited programs can apply for a state license and work as licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs).

Specialized Skills Gained from an MSW Degree

An MSW can provide students with specialized skills that are key to a rewarding career in social work.

  • Clinical skills: Prospective clinical social workers will learn how to perform assessments and diagnoses, as well as build treatment and services plans for individuals, families, and groups.
  • Leadership: An MSW can prepare students to become leaders in their field, whether managing teams of social workers, coordinating community outreach, or creating new social work programming.
  • Problem solving: Social workers help different kinds of people manage unique issues. MSW programs teach the use of critical thinking to develop a range of solutions.
  • Communication: Social work students learn to be good listeners and speakers who can meet the needs of their clients and clearly convey the value of their services.

What Can You Do with an MSW Degree?

Completing a master’s-level social work program can position students for a variety of careers. Listed below are some popular options

Social Work Supervisor

Social work supervisors lead and manage social workers by organizing their schedules, reviewing their progress, and guiding them through their casework. Professionals in this role may also handle cases of their own, are prepared to respond to crisis situations, advocate on behalf of communities in need, and develop new programs to improve their client services.

According to the compensation website PayScale, the median annual salary for social work supervisors was about $58,000 as of December 2020.

Licensed Clinical Social Worker

Licensed clinical social workers are licensed to diagnose patients, devise treatment plans, and perform clinical assessments of their clients’ progress. Depending on their educational background and interests, clinical social workers may specialize in certain areas, such as child and family practice, health care, or mental health.

According to PayScale, the median salary of LCSWs as of January 2021 was approximately $59,000.

Hospice Social Worker

Hospice social workers provide care for people who are at the end of their lives. This often includes providing emotional support, helping file paperwork for insurance, and assisting families with access to necessary resources and services.

According to PayScale, the median salary of hospice social workers as of January 2021 was about $52,000.

Want to Learn More?

Answering the question, “What is an MSW?” can be fairly straightforward. But determining whether the degree is a good fit for your goals can be more complicated. Whether you are looking to become a clinical social worker, or begin building your knowledge in the field, an MSW can prepare you to make a real impact in people’s lives.

Learn more today about how the Regis College online MSW program can help you meet your career goals.

Recommended Readings

How the MSW Prepares You for Clinical Social Work

MPH vs. MSW: Which Career Is Right for Me?

The Fascinating History of Social Work in the U.S.


Council on Social Work Education, Accreditation

PayScale, Average Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) Salary

PayScale, Average Social Worker, Hospice Salary

PayScale, Average Social Work Supervisor Salary

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Social Workers