Question: Is a bachelor’s degree in social work required to earn a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree?

Updated: December 21, 2022

Answer: No – A bachelor’s in social work is not required to earn a Master of Social Work (MSW). In addition, some MSW programs will accept applicants with diverse undergraduate degrees as long as they can demonstrate why they would like to enter the field of social work. However, some MSW programs may give preference to applicants who earned their undergraduate degree in a social scientific field or who have experience working in social services.

Most MSW programs offer applicants two distinct tracks that vary in terms of their admissions requirements. “Traditional” MSW programs do not require a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree for admission and typically accept applicants with a broad range of undergraduate degrees. There are also “Advanced Standing” MSW programs or program tracks that specifically require a BSW degree from an undergraduate program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). Advanced standing MSW programs often have higher admissions standards compared to traditional MSW programs and BSW graduates who do not meet the admissions criteria for an advanced standing program can still earn their MSW degree through a traditional program.

Traditional Standing or Full Length MSW Programs

For individuals who do not hold a bachelor’s in social work degree, traditional standing MSW programs are full length master’s programs that provide a pathway to earning an MSW in approximately two years of full-time study or three or more years of part-time study. These programs generally consist of between 60 and 70 course credits, divided between 30-35 credits of foundational coursework, and 30-35 credits of advanced or specialization coursework. Students can pursue an MSW degree through campus-based programs, online programs, and hybrid programs that combine on-campus and online instruction.

Due to the broad and diverse nature of social work, there are a wide variety of specializations and sub-specializations that traditional standing MSW students can choose from. In general, MSW specializations can be divided into three main categories: clinical or direct practice social work (which may also be referred to as micro social work), macro social work, and advanced generalist social work. Within these three categories, there are several sub-specializations that allow MSW students and social workers to further hone their scope of practice. Sub-specializations include, but are not limited to, addictions, child and family services, child welfare, forensic social work, gerontological social work, military social work, palliative care social work, rural social work, school social work, and more.

For students interested in becoming licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs), it is important to attend a program that will provide the curriculum and training required to pass the licensing requirements in their state of residence. While clinical social work programs often provide this training, advanced generalist MSW programs may provide this training as well. Conversely, macro MSW programs often match students to field placements that are focused on administration and planning and not clinical social work practice. Therefore, macro MSW programs may not provide the training necessary to pursue licensure in clinical social work post-graduation.

Note: Licensing requirements for clinical social workers vary by state. Therefore, students should review state licensing requirements carefully before applying to an out-of-state program or an online program offered by an out-of-state school to ensure that the program they select will provide the training necessary for licensure in their state of residence.

Field Education for Traditional Standing MSW Programs

CSWE accredited traditional standing MSW programs require students to complete a minimum of 900 hours of field education (most programs require between 900 and 1200 hours). Field education is the signature pedagogy of social work, as it is how students learn to apply the theories, principles, concepts, and skills they learn in the classroom to direct work with real clients, communities, and organizations in the social services and human services fields. Traditional standing programs typically divide their total required field education hours into one foundational field placement, and one advanced or specialized field placement.

During the foundational field placement, MSW students apply the core theories of social work that they learn in their first year of didactic coursework to work with clients. During their advanced placement in their second year, students generally fulfill more advanced social work responsibilities, and also work with their target client population(s) so that they can get direct experience in their desired specialization area.

MSW programs vary in how they approach the field placement process. While some programs actively match students with social work agencies, health care centers, human services or political advocacy organizations, and research institutions in their area, others may require students to locate their own field practicum sites and supervisors (also known as preceptors). As field education is such a crucial part of the MSW experience, prospective students should reach out to the admissions office of their programs of interest to determine how each program handles field education placements, to ensure that they will receive the support and applied experience necessary to succeed in their desired social work career.

Admissions Requirements for Traditional Standing MSW Programs

Admissions requirements for traditional standing MSW programs vary depending on the school of social work, but in general, candidates must have earned a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution, and demonstrate interest in social work practice and/or research through their personal statement, resume, letters of recommendation, work experience, and extracurriculars. Most, if not all, MSW programs have selective admissions, which means even if applicants meet all the criteria for admission, they are not guaranteed to be accepted to the program.

While traditional standing MSW programs do not require that students have earned a BSW, they do have rigorous admissions requirements and generally expect applicants to have demonstrated a longstanding interest in social service work through their extracurricular activities, internships, volunteering, and other pursuits. This is especially true for applicants whose undergraduate degree is in a non-social scientific field like business or biology. Furthermore, traditional standing MSW programs may have minimum overall GPA requirements for applicants’ undergraduate coursework.

In general, traditional standing MSW programs require students to submit the following:

  • Proof of completion of a bachelor’s degree in any field from an accredited institution (Note: students who are currently completing their bachelor’s degree may still be able to apply to an MSW program while they finish their bachelor’s program.)
  • Transcripts of all undergraduate work
  • Resume outlining all past professional experience
  • An application essay, personal statement, and/or answers to application specific questions
  • Two or more letters of recommendation

To learn more about traditional standing MSW programs, be sure to check out our FAQ on Traditional versus Advanced Standing MSW Programs.