What is a Social Work Degree?

Students who pursue a degree in social work gain the knowledge and skills, as well as the ethics and values, to work as social workers and to advocate for social justice for individuals, families, organizations, and communities. The typical curriculum covers:

  • Inequity and injustice through history to current day
  • How social work practice, policy, and research can impact the building of a just society
  • The political and ethical contexts of social work
  • The theoretical foundations of social work policies, programs, and practices
  • How to engage with service users in various kinds of practice
  • How to use experiences in the profession to learn and improve (known as ‘critical reflection and analysis’)

These curriculum components are considered from the perspective of various social groups, social programs, and human experiences including the following:

  • Child welfare
  • Health, mental health, and disability
  • Poverty
  • Aging
  • First Peoples
  • Marginalized groups (immigrants and refugees, war affected populations, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people)
  • Loss and bereavement
  • Domestic violence

Program Options

Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work - Four Year Duration
The four-year Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) Degree is generally accepted as the base requirement to work in the field. The School of Social Work at Arizona State University lists these as its core courses at the bachelor’s level:

  • Social Service Systems – federal, state, not-for-profit, for-profit
  • Theoretical Foundations of Social Work Practice
  • Human Behavior in the Social Environment – individuals, groups, organizations, communities
  • Social Work Practice – building relationships, interviewing
  • Research Methods in Social Work
  • Statistics for Social Workers – interpreting statistics
  • Diversity and Oppression in a Social Work Context – issues of social inequality related to race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and disability

This degree level qualifies graduates to work in these capacities:

  • Case consultant, evaluating cases and meeting with individuals in need of services
  • Child life specialist, advocating for children in the health care system and alleviating the stress of hospitalization for children and their families
  • Child protective services worker, investigating claims of child abuse, neglect and juvenile delinquency
  • Court-appointed special advocate, working on behalf of children brought before the court
  • Gerontology social worker, offering emotional support and helping the elderly with housing, transportation, and long-term care
  • Criminal justice social worker, providing services to inmates and their families

Master’s Degree in Social Work - Two Year Duration
The Master of Social Work (MSW) has become a standard requirement for specialized positions in the field of social work, including clinical, psychiatric, policy, and administration roles.

Doctoral Degree in Social Work - Two to Four Year Duration
This degree program, which takes between two and four years to complete, focuses heavily on research techniques and analysis methods. Holders of a social work doctorate work as social work professors, heads of social work practices, and policy advisors.

Degrees Similar to Social Work

Criminal Justice
Criminal justice is concerned with society’s response to crime. It explores every aspect of crime, the law, and the justice system.

School Counseling
A degree program in school counseling addresses child development, assessment, and consultation. Counseling at the elementary and secondary school levels, however, goes beyond these childhood-focused mandates. It includes student and family counseling, specific adolescent counseling, gender identification and cross-cultural counseling; as well as career planning and decision making.

Educational Psychology
The principal similarity between a degree in social work and one in educational psychology is that they are both focused on mental and emotional health and social integration. Individuals who wish to pursue a career in educational psychology earn at least a master’s degree and often a doctorate in the discipline.

Counseling Psychology
Like the field of educational psychology, counseling psychology is aligned with social work in that it, too, is part of the counseling, teaching, and mental/emotional/social support sector. Counseling psychologists treat all segments of society and may specialize in areas such as family and marriage issues, substance abuse, or behavioral disorders. They also typically hold a doctorate degree.

Whereas social work is focused on helping people function and support themselves in society, sociology is a wider study of society that looks at social institutions like religion and law, and the ways in which people live and work together.

Social work has a natural connection to law and the justice system. Social workers routinely collaborate with public defenders and lawyers in general.

Legal Studies
Students who pursue a Legal Studies Degree are interested in examining the law and legal issues from the perspectives of the social sciences and humanities. They are intrigued by questions like, ‘How do we maintain civil rights while increasing protection against terrorism?’

Skills You’ll Learn

Communication and Interpersonal Skills
Perhaps one of the most challenging demands of working in social work is that it asks its practitioners to constantly and consistently interact, to listen, to understand, and to present possible solutions to the issues their clients face.

Trust Building
Counseling people with various backgrounds and problems requires building trust. Clients have to feel safe and supported if they are to share their burdens and accept help.

Patience and a Sense of Humor
The work of helping people cope with social and psychological problems is not easy work. And it is not fast work. The role calls for patience, for an appreciation of small victories, and sometimes, even for a sense of humor.

An Appreciation for Diversity
Social workers are exposed to people from different backgrounds and home environments. They are called upon to cultivate an understanding of and a capacity to work effectively with people from diverse racial, ethnic, cultural, and gender backgrounds.

Assessment and Report Writing
Social work involves tracking, assessing, and recording client progress. These are skills that are transferrable to many professional sectors.

Understanding of Human / Social Behaviors
Through their course of study, social work students naturally develop a certain competency in interpreting how and why humans conduct themselves as they do.

Throughout the process of earning a degree in social work, students are frequently reminded of the concept of right versus wrong and the fundamental standards of society. It follows, therefore, that they cultivate a strong ethical sense and respect for the law.

What Can You Do with a Social Work Degree?

Hospitals, medical clinics, nursing homes

Community Mental Health / Community Outreach
Agencies and substance abuse clinics

Schools and other organizations that serve children and youth

State and local government departments and agencies dedicated to child welfare, public health, and human services

Military bases and veterans’ affairs clinics

Criminal Justice / Corrections / Probation
Helping parolees returning to life outside prison

Private Practice


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