You can become a social worker with a bachelor’s degree, but your earning potential will be limited. The jobs you’ll qualify for with a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) will mainly be entry-level and non-clinical positions, which are some of the lowest-paid in the field. When you get a master’s degree in social work, on the other hand, you’ll be qualified to handle some of the best-paying jobs in the profession.
That doesn’t mean you’ll want to. Most people don’t enter social work for the money, after all. When the University of Iowa School of Social Work polled students, alumni, and community leaders about their reasons for becoming social workers, they received responses like:
- “I don’t have to wonder if my efforts have made a difference. I get to see them every day in the lives of the people that I work with.”
- “In this field, I get to be a voice for all who cannot advocate for themselves.”
- “I want to have a positive impact on someone who needs help and I want to be the one who gives them that help.”
- “Social work privileges me to serve humanity with humility, dignity, and respect!”
The only respondents who mentioned “pay” did so only in the context of “paying it forward.”
Like these Iowa students, you are likely considering a Master of Social Work (MSW) because you want to help others. That said, getting an MSW could lead to salary gains, and it’s never a bad idea to take a look at your future earning potential before enrolling in a degree program. Knowing how much money you will likely make going forward can help you choose the right master’s degree program, budget for your future, and map out a sensible career trajectory.
Whether you’re dreaming of becoming a child welfare social worker, interested in working outside traditional social work settings, or even curious about opportunities in the corporate world, it pays to understand social work salary trends.
How a master’s degree affects salaries in the social work field
Chances are good that earning a master’s degree in social work will increase your earnings. Maybe not right away, but eventually. That’s because MSW holders are eligible to obtain a higher-level license. They can also step into more roles in the social work world, including many of the better-paying ones. According to the National Association of Social Worker’s Compensation and Benefits Study, social workers working with a BSW typically earn $15,000 less than those with a master’s in social work.
That said, having an MSW isn’t exactly a fast track to riches. According to a 2017 study sponsored by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), freshly minted MSWs earn an average annual income of $44,418, about $13,000 more than the $31,327 earned by recently graduated BSWs. The median annual wage for all social workers—including long-term social workers with all degrees (BSW, MSW, PhD, DSW)—is just $49,470 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And the highest-paid 10 percent of social workers earn only about $81,000 per year. Have we mentioned yet that this is not a lucrative profession?
Every employer is different, however. To get a feel for what jobs require (or prefer) a Master of Social Work pay, poke around sites like Indeed, Glassdoor, and Salary.com. It’s good to know what MSW salaries look like before you decide to enroll in a master’s program because, ideally, the salary you’ll look forward to after graduation will make it possible to pay off your student loans relatively quickly.
What are the highest-paying specialties in the field of social work?
The BLS reports that hospitals offer some of the highest salaries for social workers; social workers working in residential or long-term care facilities and government agencies make quite a bit less. Unsurprisingly, social workers who’ve reached the highest level of management make a lot more than the median, as do social workers employed by large corporations and law firms.
Some of the highest paying specialties in social work are:
- Clinical social work
- Academics (at the higher education level)
- Social work administration
- Military social work (depending on rank)
- Social policy analysis
- Nonprofit administration
Micro-level positions are relatively rare among the higher-paying jobs. If your goal is to become one of the highest earners in social work—making $70,000 or above—your best bet is to set your sights on macro-level roles. Social workers who specialize in macro-level work often gravitate toward MSW programs focused on administration, advocacy, social entrepreneurship, or government policy.
Factors that affect MSW salaries
Salaries in social work tend to trend up and down with the economy, just as in other industries. The NASW’s National Social Work Workforce Study identifies some clear trends:
- MSW salaries tend to be $13,000+ higher than BSW salaries
- Men with Master of Social Work degrees tend to earn $1,200 more than women (though women with a PhD in Social Work earn $7,000 more than men)
- Social workers with MSWs tend to earn the most working in research organizations and hospitals
- MSW holders in big cities and metro areas tend to earn more than those in small towns and rural areas
Your location will probably have the biggest impact on your salary. Social workers in DC, Hawaii, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Nevada earn the most, according to the BLS. Salaries vary from city to city, too; the number of available jobs can play a part in that. You may see lower salaries in large metro areas with very few social worker jobs or higher ones in areas with more openings than social workers. Again, Indeed, Glassdoor, and Salary.com can be a great resource when you’re looking for geographical salary trends.
Potential MSW career path options in 2020
There’s no doubt that a master’s degree in social work can open a lot of doors, but salaries in MSW careers vary considerably. Some of the roles you’ll see on lists of the highest MSW salaries actually pay $50,000 or less, such as:
- School counselor (Average salary: $49,939)
- Substance abuse counselor ($39,924)
- Group social worker ($46,455)
- Mental health counselor ($41,335)
- School social worker ($48,547)
- Social work planner ($43,165)
There are, however, plenty of higher-paying jobs in social work. If you’re hoping to land one of the jobs with the highest MSW salaries, look into the following career paths:
Therapist in a Private Practice (Average salary: $100,000+)
When you work in private practice, you can set your own rates. You’ll have much more autonomy and flexibility than social workers who are employed in most other settings.
Professor of Social Work ($96,169)
You don’t necessarily have to earn a PhD in Social Work to become a professor of social work. With an MSW, you’ll be able to work as an adjunct at many colleges and universities.
Social Work Administrator ($90,167)
To become a social work administrator, look for MSW programs focused on macro social work and management.
Employee Assistance Program Counselor ($72,643)
Opportunities for social workers in the corporate world are growing. Social workers employed by big companies earn some of the top salaries.
Veteran’s Affairs Social Worker ($78,228)
When you become a military social worker, you’ll be a commissioned officer in the service’s Medical Service Corps. Your earning potential will be limited only by your rank.
Social Work Policy Analyst ($74,757)
Some social workers work behind the scenes to create, advocate for, and implement policies related to social welfare, social justice, and even criminal justice at the local, state, and federal levels.
Social Science Researcher ($72,200)
Social science researchers dive deep into topics like healthcare, population structures, education, human behavior, social welfare, jobs and unemployment, the environment, gender, and families. Their findings influence the entire field of social work.
Executive Director of a Nonprofit Organization ($72,210)
You may be able to make a lot more in this role; your salary will largely depend on the size and financial stability of your organization. The bigger the org, the larger the paycheck.
Community Service Manager ($64,100)
Community service managers organize and oversee social services programs operating in a specific community. The highest-paid 10 percent earn more than $111,150.
Medical Social Worker ($63,270)</a
The top earners in medical social work make more than $70,000. You can boost your earning potential in this role by looking for work in major metro areas.
Employment outlook for MSW holders
The most recent information released by the BLS suggests that the employment outlook for social workers at every level is good. The bureau predicts jobs in social work will grow by 11 percent between now and 2028, which is much faster than the average for the entire job market. That number won’t necessarily reflect the reality in your local job market or in every social work specialty. Still, some researchers have predicted a total shortfall of over 195,000 social workers by 2030, with the worst shortages in the western and southern regions of the country. That may drive salaries up in rural areas that are chronically underserved.
How to keep track of MSW salary trends in 2020
As noted above, MSW salary trends vary by location, specialty, employer, experience, and other factors, but keeping track of where salaries for social workers with master’s degrees are headed is actually pretty easy. The three best resources for social workers who want to track salary trends are:
- US News and World Report
- The US Bureau of Labor Statistics
- The National Association of Social Workers
You can also look directly at job listings on sites like Indeed, Monster, and Glassdoor. Remember that most resources (including this article) will only show you the median salary for any given social work role. That information can be useful when you’re trying to decide whether a master’s degree is worth it, but how much you’ll actually make in any job will always depend on how much employers in your area are willing to pay.
What you should know before getting an MSW degree in 2020
It’s probably obvious, but it bears repeating: don’t get into this field or enroll in an advanced social work degree program for the money. There are some well-paying positions in social work, and salaries seem to be trending up, but getting a social work master’s degree doesn’t guarantee you’ll land one of those higher-paying jobs. Social work is hard, full of frustrating red tape and shocking need. The hours are often long, and you may feel like you have to work well into the night when you’re trying to help the neediest or most vulnerable people. You might get paid more in social work administration or as a policy analyst, but you’ll likely spend even more time working for the populations you serve.
In other words, if your goal is to make a lot of money, get an MBA. If your goal, like the social workers quoted at the top of this article, is to help people, get an MSW. Your earning potential may never catch up to your passion for social work, but if you love what you do and can’t imagine doing anything else, that won’t matter.