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Master's in Social Work Salary: Exploring Key Differences

November 04, 2020

A Master of Social Work is the key to maximizing your earning potential as you develop your career. In fact, the demand for social worker jobs is expected to rise between 17% and 18% by 2028,1 so the difference in a master’s in social work salary for candidates with an MSW compared to those with a Bachelor of Social Work is likely to be significant. According to experts, the median pay for Master of Social Work graduates may increase by as much as $9,000 per year,2 with those at the top of their profession enjoying annual salaries as high as $82,540.3

Even after earning a master's, there are several factors to consider when exploring a social work salary. The specialty in which a worker is trained can influence starting salary, as can location, industry, management level and the economic climate.4 However, the experience and skills from a Master of Social Work creates valuable opportunities to advance in the field.

How does an MSW impact your salary?

The biggest influencing factor in the remuneration offered within the field of social work is the level of specialty and expertise an individual can demonstrate.4 Higher levels of expertise and specialty are in greater demand, and an MSW can enhance your chances in landing social worker jobs. In some states, an MSW is also required for advancement. In many cases a graduate degree is the prerequisite for becoming a Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW), Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) or other certifications.5

Obtaining a master's in social work is a way to develop a higher level of knowledge and skills. Many master’s programs offer tracks in specialties such as medical social work, mental health social work and social work in education.6 MSW students also undertake greater levels of training in theory and research, as well as undergoing extensive fieldwork;7 This latter experience is especially important as it prepares graduates for future advancement to the higher paying management-level and leadership roles.

Social Work Salary by Specialty

There are different social work specializations practitioners can pursue. Social workers can choose specialties based on demographics (e.g. children and families, elderly, veterans) and essential functions (e.g. substance abuse disorders, community organization, school counseling). Within these specialties, there is an opportunity to make an impact in administration, healthcare, child welfare and many others.8

The experience you gain from an MSW helps you earn a higher paying position with more responsibilities to advance in your career. The following are a few examples of social work specializations with widely varying salaries:

  • School Social Worker: School social workers help children work through the social and emotional issues that might prevent them from thriving in school. Median salaries for school social workers fall in the range of $32,080 to $62,200, varying according to both state and school district.2
  • Clinical Social Worker: Clinical social workers diagnose and treat mental illness, in addition to helping clients prevent and address the psychological, behavioral, emotional and social contributors to mental illness. Clinical social workers are usually required both to hold an MSW and to complete other licensing requirements. Depending on the clients they work with, they can demand higher salaries in the range of $44,840–$63,140.4
  • Medical Social Worker: Medical social workers work in hospitals or clinical settings assist patients and their family members with the mental, emotional, family and financial stressors that accompany medical treatment. The average salary for an MSW-qualified medical social worker is $56,810.4
  • Mental Health Social Worker: Mental health social workers work with patients experiencing mental health disorders, including anxiety and depression. Some choose to specialize in treating substance abuse as well, a type of practice that benefits from also earning an addictions credential. Mental health social workers earn an average annual salary of $49,630.4
  • Gerontology and Palliative Care Social Worker: Certified hospice and palliative care social workers offer counseling and emotional support to terminally ill people and their families, helping them through the grieving process. This type of social worker requires advanced certification as well as an MSW, so they can command a median salary in the range of $40,740 and $70,600, depending on both location and employer.2

Other Factors Influencing a Social Worker Salary

In addition to location and specialty, a number of other factors can influence the salary range for MSW holders. The salary for a typical MSW graduate can vary by location. In the United States, salaries can vary from state to state as well as according to specialty.6 According to research published in 2020, for example, the average annual salary for a healthcare social worker is $46,310 in Arkansas but as high as $72,640 in Connecticut.6

Social work candidates with more experience and credentials have more opportunities to earn higher salaries. For example, MSW graduates with 1-2 years of experience can expect an average annual salary of $63,231 while those with a BSW and 5-6 years of experience can expect an average annual salary of $67,163—nearly $4,000 more per year.9

Social Work Career Progression

Finally, it is worth noting that earning an MSW provides an opportunity to advance in your career, achieve your professional goals and attain higher roles opening a path to macro-level leadership and management positions. An advanced degree allows you to obtain credentials that give you the ability to provide better support and services to improve the lives of those you serve.

A graduate degree is not just a significant influence on the positions and salary range you can expect to earn. It’s a path to a rewarding and fulfilling career. Learn how earning your CSWE-Accredited Online MSW can set you up for success in your career and life.

1. Retrieved on September 10, 2020 from socialworkguide.org/salaries/
2. Retrieved on September 10, 2020 from humanservicesedu.org/msw-salary/
3. Retrieved on September 10, 2020 from bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/social-workers.htm#tab-5
4. Retrieved on September 10, 2020 from socialworklicensemap.com/social-work-careers/social-work-salary/
5. Retrieved on September 10, 2020 from socialworklicensemap.com/become-a-social-worker/lmsw-vs-lcsw/
6. Retrieved on September 10, 2020 from socialworkguide.org/degrees/masters/
7. Retrieved on September 10, 2020 from wurzweiler-online.yu.edu/academics/msw-field-work
8. Retrieved on September 10, 2020 from salary.com/tools/salary-calculator/social-worker-msw?yrs=5.5
9. Retrieved on September 10, 2020 from salary.com/tools/salary-calculator/social-worker-msw?yrs=5.5