Question: What is the difference between a Master of Social Work (MSW) and a Master of Public Health (MPH)?

Answer: The MSW and the MPH both prepare students to improve the welfare of individuals and communities. However, there are differences between these two types of graduate degrees that are reflective of the distinctions between the social work and public health disciplines. In general, MSW programs focus more on supporting vulnerable individuals through a combination of counseling and support, psychological and behavioral assessments, and interventions ranging from clinical therapy to program development. The MPH, on the other hand, is typically grounded in human epidemiology, which has a more medical and disease prevention focus than does the MSW.

The differences between MSW and MPH programs can be best understood by examining the differences between social work and public health. The objective of social work is to promote mental, behavioral, and social well-being of individuals within the context of their communities. Public health has a similar mission to promote health and well-being across members of a community or population. However, while social work focuses on mental and behavioral health and social functioning, the foundation of public health is epidemiology, or the study of health outcomes in populations and their causes and effects. As such, there is a greater emphasis on human medicine, biology, and macro-level population factors in public health, relative to social work. There also tends to be more of an emphasis on mass health communication initiatives in the public health arena, relative to social work.

In particular, public health differs significantly from micro and mezzo social work. Micro (also known as clinical or direct-practice) social work focuses on supporting individuals’ well-being through client assessments, individual and group therapy work, therapeutic interventions, and supporting clients in navigating social services and other resources. Mezzo social work extends social work interventions, assessments, and therapeutic practices to groups and institutions–for example, to larger group therapy contexts or program development for schools, workplaces, and community centers.

In contrast, public health does not typically involve counseling individuals or conducting therapeutic/clinical assessments or interventions. Public health practitioners generally conduct research on health problems affecting certain populations, publishing their findings and developing solutions to these large-scale problems. In the creation of solutions to public health problems, professionals in this field can engage in health communication campaigns, health systems improvement program development, and advocacy to change policies that impact community health. In their work, public health professionals often consult with policymakers, health care practitioners, researchers, social workers and counselors, non-profit organizations, and other public health stakeholders.

With that said, there are branches of social work that do overlap more with public health, such as macro social work. Macro social work focuses on broader-scale assessments and interventions at the community, state, national, and even global levels. This includes examining macro-level social, cultural, political, and economic phenomena and how they impact the mental and behavioral health of communities at large. Macro social workers develop interventions, advocate for policies that fulfill the needs of vulnerable populations, and design programs that address social inequalities and injustices at the community level. Macro social workers who work in community health or medical social work might also engage in health communication research or health promotion campaigns similar to public health professionals.

Master of Social Work vs. Master of Public Programs

The differences and similarities in social work and public health are reflected in the differences between MSW and MPH programs. The MSW program prepares students to support vulnerable populations and address social injustice both at the individual level and the larger community level. As such, the core classes for these programs tend to focus on human behavior and development, foundational social work theories and their relevance in practice, diversity and social justice, and social welfare policy and advocacy. Specializations for the MSW can range from micro-level specializations, which can include Clinical Social Work, Child and Family Social Work, and Adult Mental Health and Wellness, to macro-level specializations such as Community Program Development, Social Justice Leadership, and Human Services Administration.

The MPH program aims to prepare professionals to engage in health advocacy, education, and program development to improve the well-being of individuals within certain communities or target populations. In general, and as mentioned previously, MPH programs tend to focus more on macro-level medical concepts and their impact, using research and statistical analysis as well as interventions that have broad reach. Specializations vary across MPH programs, but may include areas such as population aging and public health, nutrition and food systems, human epidemiology and infectious diseases, humanitarian work, health policy, health care systems, reproductive health, social and behavioral sciences, and public health leadership.

To illustrate the distinctions and potential overlaps between MSW and MPH programs, below is a table with details on the distinguishing features of each type of degree program, including possible specializations, common courses, and culminating experiences.

 Master of Social WorkMaster of Public Health
Possible Specializations
  • Clinical/Direct-Practice Social Work
  • Advanced Generalist
  • Child and Family Welfare
  • Substance Abuse and Addictions
  • Adult Mental Health and Wellness
  • Military Social Work
  • Criminal Justice/Forensic Social Work
  • Macro Social Work
  • Community Program Leadership
  • Human Services Administration
  • Social Justice Leadership
  • Public Health for Aging Populations
  • Health of Children, Adolescents, and Young Adults
  • Women’s Rights and Reproductive Health
  • Environmental Health
  • Global Public Health and Humanitarianism
  • Leadership in Health Care Systems and Policy
  • Mental and Behavioral Sciences in Public Health
Program DetailsTypically requires two years of full-time study and the completion of 40-60 course credits Typically requires two years of full-time study and the completion of 40-60 course credits
Sample Courses:
  • Human Behavior and Development
  • Social Work Theory and Practice
  • Social Work Research
  • Social Work Practice with Individuals and Families
  • Social Welfare Policy Advocacy and Analysis
  • Social Work Practice with Groups and Organizations
  • Diversity, Inequality, and Social Justice
  • Introduction to Psychopathology
  • Military Social Work
  • Gerontological Social Work Practice
  • Entrepreneurship and Social Change Leadership
  • Foundational Concepts in Public Health
  • Data Analysis Principles for Public Health Professionals
  • Human Epidemiology
  • Determinants of Public Health
  • Designing Public Health Interventions
  • Public Health Promotion and Program Development
  • Nutrition and Growth in Children and Adolescents
  • Global Disease Control
  • Organizational Leadership for Health Care Institutions
  • The Biology of Aging
Culminating Experience Requirement900 hours of supervised practicum experience in relevant social work setting(s)Varies by program, but can include a Capstone Project, Thesis, and/or Internship in a setting relevant to student’s interest
Accrediting OrganizationThe Council on Social Work Education (CSWE)*Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH)**

MSW vs. MPH Programs: Culminating Experiences

In addition to the differences between their specializations and course selections, MSW and MPH programs differ in terms of the culminating experiences they require students to complete. MPH programs vary in terms of how they require students to integrate the knowledge and skills they have learned in their program into a final culminating project. While the national accrediting organization for MPH programs, CEPH, does require that MPH programs include applied practice experiences in their curriculum, these experiences can be in the form of a project, thesis, course-based activities, or an internship/volunteer opportunity.

As a result, some MPH programs require students to complete an intensive research project on a public health issue, while other programs may ask students to work with one or more organizations to help them design and implement a public health program. Still other MPH programs require students to fulfill a certain number of internship or practicum hours at a health care organization, health advocacy agency, or similar setting that enables them to practice planning, creating, and implementing programs that provide health education, community health services, or health care advocacy for populations.

In contrast, as field education is the signature pedagogy of the social work discipline, all CSWE-accredited MSW programs require students to complete at least 900 hours of supervised practicum in a setting that is relevant to their course of study. Field education is MSW students’ opportunity to apply all of the knowledge, methods, and skills they have learned in their program to real work in human services, social welfare, and social justice. Field practicum sites tend to vary depending on an MSW student’s chosen concentration. For example, a student specializing in military social work might want to complete his or her practicum at a VA hospital or a military training base, while a student focusing on clinical social work might want to seek practicum settings such as outpatient behavioral health care centers, hospitals, or family welfare agencies.

Macro-level social work students might have practicums that, relative to clinical social work field practicums, are similar to those that MPH students might complete as part of their program. As mentioned previously, internships and practicums that are included in some MPH programs tend to focus on research, program development and evaluation, and learning how to design and implement public health interventions on a broad scale. MSW students specializing in macro social work might similarly have practicums that involve research, social welfare program design and assessment, and interventions that apply to one or more communities, rather than individuals or small groups.

*Note: The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) is the sole accrediting body for MSW programs in the United States. It is important to note that in order to earn licensure in clinical social work from their state’s Social Work Licensing Board, social workers are expected to have earned their MSW from a program that has earned CSWE accreditation.

**Note: The Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH) is an independent organization that has been approved by the U.S. Department of Education to accredit schools of public health, as well as undergraduate and graduate programs in public health that are offered outside of formal schools of public health. CEPH accreditation is not required for Master’s in Public Health programs, though many schools of public health have sought CEPH accreditation in order to illustrate that they have met important standards for public health education.