Social Justice

What is an MSW Degree? Increasing your impact as a social worker

what is an msw degree


You think with your heart as much as your head. You’ve always felt a calling to assist those in need, which is why you’re interested in a service-oriented career like social work. And you’re not alone — in fact, there were more than 700,000 U.S. social workers employed in 2019.

You’re probably curious about the education you’ll need in order to pursue this rewarding profession. You should know not all social work degrees provide the same opportunities. Earning a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree is one way to improve your ability to make a difference. But what can you do with an MSW? And what does the degree entail?

To learn more about social work master’s programs and how they can help you positively influence your community, we spoke with Dr. Ellen MacKenzie, Ph.D., LCSW and assistant professor of social work at University of Massachusetts Global. She has a lot to share about this social work degree and the many career paths it can lead to.

What is an MSW degree?

A master’s of social work is a degree that many consider to be the gold standard of the profession. Dr. MacKenzie, who brings 30 years of field experience to her role as an educator, says the biggest benefit of obtaining an MSW degree is that it enables social workers to empower others.

“It’s about working toward your passions for helping people and/or systems,” she explains. “People go into this career to make a difference. They want to see change and see people lifted up.”

Completing a social work master’s program qualifies graduates for clinical work — in many states, it’s even a requirement to obtain your license. An MSW degree magnifies the impact a social worker can make in his or her career. And you don’t need to have industry experience in order to earn a master’s in social work. You just need to be driven to make the world a better place.

What do you learn in MSW programs?

A master’s in social work helps practitioners develop a range of skills. Here are a handful of competencies MSW degree holders acquire:

  • Case management tools
  • Therapeutic intervention experience
  • Critical thinking
  • Grant-writing skills
  • Advocacy approaches
  • Technology literacy
  • Supervisory application know-how
  • Research practices
  • Political savvy
  • Entrepreneurial attitude

The reasons people choose to earn an MSW degree range from the practical, such as increasing their earnings or opportunities, to the less-tangible goal of a calling to create a more just and equitable society. A master’s in social work can help individuals renew their sense of purpose.

Considering becoming a social worker?

Explore more about the field and its different career paths.

What are some common MSW courses to expect?

The curriculum in most social work master’s programs includes a wide variety of subjects to help equip future practitioners with the knowledge and tools they’ll need to succeed. To get a taste of the types of MSW courses you’ll encounter, here’s a look at what the University of Massachusetts Global program offers:

  • Human Behavior and the Social Environment
  • Social Work Practice with Individuals and Families
  • Diversity and Social Justice
  • Social Welfare Policy Analysis
  • Social Work Research
  • Practice Evaluation

Our MSW students also have the opportunity to cater their training to fit their career goals by choosing from a variety of electives, including:

  • Child Welfare
  • Crisis Intervention and Trauma Response
  • Military/Veteran (SMVF) Social Work
  • Death, Loss, and Grief
  • Substance Abuse
  • Sexual Abuse
  • Mental Health and Mental Illness
  • Healthcare Social Work

As you can see, the dynamic training involved in these programs can lead to several MSW degree jobs. It’s just a matter of where you feel called to serve.

What are the benefits of earning an MSW degree?

You need a license to put your education into practice as a clinical social worker in each of the 50 states. In order to obtain proper licensure, you’ll need an MSW degree.

Additional advantages of being licensed include:

  • Qualification for clinical work
  • Eligibility for positions in the military
  • Additional financial security because you’ll have the ability to bill for services
  • Professional security with the ability to purchase liability insurance
  • Ability to earn support from the National Association of Social Workers, a strong lobby and advocate for social workers and their constituents.

A bachelor’s degree in social work can lead to entry-level work in social service agencies and will prepare you to be able to refer clients to organizations that provide services. But if you want to do clinical work, you’ll need a license. 

What does the future hold for social workers?

Social work employment is expected to increase 13 percent from 2019 to 2029, equating to more than 90,000 additional job opportunities for social work hopefuls. Very few professions can boast this type of job security, which is due in part to growing disparities throughout communities.

“In a rapidly changing society, social workers are the human translators of change,” Dr. MacKenzie says. “As disparities accelerate and become greater, social workers will be needed even more.”

While growth in the profession as a whole is promising, job prospects are even greater for MSW degree holders. According to real-time labor market data from the past year, earning a master’s in social work increased job opportunities by 33 percent.*

What can you do with an MSW?

Even though social work is in the title of the degree, your career opportunities aren’t limited to that field alone. As we mentioned above, a master’s of social work can prepare you for a whole host of positions. It’s all about where your passion and interests lie.

“An MSW broadens your possibilities,” Dr. MacKenzie explains. “It can include anything from working with kids and systems, working across the lifespan, working with communities and government, or working with any portion of society.”

MSW degree jobs to consider

To illustrate the breadth and variety of MSW degree jobs, we’ve compiled a non-exhaustive list of potential job titles for social work practitioners:

  • Child and family therapist
  • Child welfare specialist
  • Homeless case manager
  • Grant writer
  • Activist
  • Military social worker
  • Immigration specialist
  • Crisis interventionist
  • Domestic violence court advocate
  • Hospital social worker
  • Bilingual case worker
  • Geriatric social worker
  • Entrepreneur
  • Trauma-informed therapist
  • Foundation and grant executive
  • Program director/director
  • Mental health blogger
  • Substance abuse counselor
  • Lobbyist for mental health policy
  • Mental health app consultant
  • Criminal justice advocate
  • Climate change coordinator
  • HIV/AIDS case manager
  • Food pantry supervisor
  • Foster care specialist
  • Community organizer
  • Coalition builder

Make a difference with an MSW degree

What is an MSW degree? It’s a qualification. It’s a tool of empowerment. And it’s a force of good that can help you support those who need it most.

If you feel drawn to help people move toward constructive solutions and also want to champion rights for all, an MSW degree could just what you need to jump-start your social work career.

Not sure where to start? Explore our robust library of social work resources, or simply jump directly to University of Massachusetts Global MSW degree program to learn how it can prepare you for a rewarding career.


* (analysis of 307,865 social work jobs by education level, Apr. 01, 2020 – Mar. 31, 2021). 


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