Social Work or Human Services: Which Master’s Degree is for You?

Pursuing a master’s degree can help individuals advance their careers and take advantage of new opportunities. However, finding the right degree can be difficult for those who want to work directly in industries that promote social justice. The challenge comes in identifying the right fit between two primary options in the sector: a master’s in social work and a master’s in human services.

The similarities between the degrees

If you’re considering an online degree in either human services or social work, the choice can seem unclear. In many cases, the programs will cover fairly similar materials. For example, a U.S. News & World Report article described the master’s in human services degree thusly:

  • It enables students to pursue work in a diverse range of fields where population groups need assistance accessing key social services.
  • It is in high demand as the aging population creates a need for such positions as health service managers.
  • It requires students to have a bachelor’s degree, but in almost any subject.
  • It is heavily constructed around preparing students for leadership roles and direct work with client populations.

All of these attributes extend to most MSW programs, which can create some confusion. If you want to be a social worker or advance your degree in social work, a master’s in human services may seem attractive. After all, the degree will allow you to take on management positions, lead community advocacy, and serve in many other prominent roles across the sector.

Furthermore, a master’s in human services focuses heavily on in-class coursework. Students don’t have to complete any form of practicum in most programs. That’s the major distinguishing point between the master’s in human services and the one in social work. The human services degree can seem easier because you won’t have to do clinical work. However, this is why an MSW can be much more valuable than the human services alternative. The practical work under the guidance of experienced professionals provides students with a key opportunity to develop real-world clinical skills that wouldn’t necessarily be easy to gain in a classroom.

Considering the advantages of an online MSW

Obtaining a clinical social work license requires an MSW degree from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education. A human services degree is not sufficient for licensure. The vast majority of counseling and clinical social work positions require licensure, and states are increasingly demanding that any professionals working in human services be licensed. MSW programs prepare students for these processes in a few key ways:

  • Clinical coursework that offers insights into how to handle the more sophisticated tasks social workers handle, including counseling
  • Practical requirements that allow students to gain experience in clinical work under the supervision of trained professionals
  • Advanced leadership studies that aim to prepare students for some of the most demanding management roles in the sector

An MSW degree is increasingly necessary for the most prominent and lucrative positions in the human services sector, including social work and counseling. What’s more, job opportunities in such settings are developing quickly.

The growing social work job market

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the general social work sector to experience job growth at an above-average 16 percent rate from 2016 to 2026. That figure remains the same when considering counselors, social workers, and other community and social service specialists as a single group.

With social work job opportunities being created more quickly than jobs in other sectors, the benefits of a degree can be significant. However, expansion isn’t the same across all phases of the industry. The BLS predicts new job creation at a 20 percent rate for health care social workers, 19 percent for mental health and substance abuse social workers, and 14 percent for child, family, and school social workers. These more specialized areas of practice are often the industry segments that require certifications as job responsibilities extend to clinical and counseling work more frequently.

While these more sophisticated industry segments are experiencing particularly rapid expansion, that isn’t the case across the entire industry. The BLS split social workers into four segments: the three we just mentioned and then one general “other” designation. Job growth for that “other” section of social work is predicted at 8 percent. This is slightly higher than the national average for all occupations, but well below the rest of the social work industry.

These statistics point to the rapidly rising demand for the kind of clinical, specialized skills developed in an MSW program and a potential diminishing demand for generalized human services capabilities.

Pursuing an online MSW

Whether you are a social worker looking to move forward in the field or a career-changer hoping to get involved in social work, an MSW can serve as an ideal starting point. The online MSW at Regis College offers a flexible, accredited program that allows working professionals to develop new skills in a convenient, accessible way. Our program emphasizes a few key areas of study, with a particular focus on clinical studies. We empower students to focus on counseling and similar practical skills development as they pursue their MSW.

Online programs have matured, and digital learning is now widely accepted across a variety of sectors. Pursuing a degree online does not limit a student’s experience in terms of quality or rigor. Instead of making sacrifices, students taking courses online can collaborate with peers, interact with faculty, and participate in clinical studies through internships or practicum.

When it comes to choosing between a master’s in social work or one in human services, it’s really about your career goals. If you just want to advance in the social work sector at large, a human services degree may be what you need. However, if you hope to get involved in clinical work, you’ll want the MSW.

At Regis College, we offer students the resources and support they need to get the most out of their online learning experiences. Contact us today if you want to learn more about the kind of career outcomes you can work toward by pursuing an MSW.


U.S. News & World Report
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Regis College