How Long Does It Take to Become a Social Worker?

Social work is rooted in social change and the empowerment of vulnerable populations. There are a variety of areas within the field that you can explore and eventually work in, but most of them start with an education in social work. Your social work journey greatly depends on your desired end-state goals. If you're looking to work in a social work setting as an admin, clerical work or performing basic social work duties, then a BSW may be enough. However, if you plan taking on more responsibility and working directly with clients, then you'll likely need to obtain a license which requires a master's level degree or higher

The amount of time it takes you to become a social worker depends on a range of factors, including individual goals, whether or not you choose to pursue an advanced degree and whether you choose to enroll as a full-time or part-time student.

So generally, how long does it take to become a social worker?

  • A Bachelor of Social Work typically takes four years to complete. Once you’re done, then seek out jobs open to BSW graduates.
  • A Master of Social Work can take anywhere from one year to four years to complete—it all depends on the school and your enrollment status. If you are eligible for an advanced standing program, it could take up to one year. The advanced standing track is for people who have completed a BSW program.

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Entry-Level Social Worker

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), you need a BSW to become a social worker. You can choose to pursue an online BSW degree or go for an in-person option—it all depends on your personal preferences. Entry-level social workers with a BSW degree can take an exam, get licensed as a BSW, then start their careers with a few options, such as a case management aide, probation officer, human services specialist, or community outreach worker. If you’re unsure about becoming a social worker but still have an interest in the social services field, you may want to consider completing an undergraduate degree program in a related discipline like psychology or sociology.

Licensed Social Worker

Not all social work career paths require licensure. However, if you want to become a licenced social worker, you must obtain licensure. The Association of Social Work Boards sets the standards for licensure and administers an exam. There is a bachelor’s and a master’s exam, as well as the advanced generalist or clinical exam. It’s important to check with your state’s individual boards to find out which exam you’ll need to take to gain the appropriate license, because licensure varies by state. Each ASWB exam has 170 questions and a four-hour time frame allotted for completion.

There is a difference between a licensed social worker (also known as Licensed Master Social Worker) and a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW). There are many career outcomes for both types of social workers. An LSW must earn an MSW and take the ASWB social work licensure exam, but they don’t need post-graduate supervised fieldwork and can practice in a non-clinical setting, such as a correctional facility or employment center. An LCSW usually requires several hours (translating to two to four years) of supervised experience. LCSWs work in clinical settings such as a hospital, inpatient facility, or hospice care center.

Traditional MSW

A traditional MSW prepares graduates to manage large caseloads, take on supervisory roles, and engage in advocacy on the policy level. Programs with a clinical focus will teach you how to perform clinical assessments. While traditional MSW programs can take up to four years to complete, many tend to last two years and have a minimum of 900 hours of supervised field instruction, although additional hours may vary depending on the state. It’s important to note that your scope of practice may be limited without a license.

When selecting a program, remember that you’re not limited to in-person options. There are online traditional MSW degrees from schools accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), as well as part-time programs that help you to balance your studies with your full-time job and other personal obligations.

In its 2018 report Statistics on Social Work Education in the United States [PDF,1.7 MB], the CSWE reports that almost 65% of MSW students were enrolled full-time. Roughly 23% of MSW programs were entirely available online and 42% were partially available online. Many MSW graduates end up specializing in clinical or direct practice, advanced generalist, community development, administration, and policy practice. They may work with schoolchildren, youth, and families, mental health patients, and the elderly.

Fast-Track / Accelerated MSW

There is also an option to complete an accelerated or fast-track MSW program. This allows for students with diverse academic backgrounds and interests to earn their degree faster than they would in a traditional MSW program and start their careers after graduation. Within 12 to 16 months, students typically complete the required number of credits.

Advanced Standing MSW

Advanced standing MSW programs are designed for people who have already earned a BSW degree from a CSWE-accredited program, building on undergraduate work.

Many programs look for prospective students with supervised fieldwork and practical application hours or internships. According to the CSWE, advanced standing programs take about a single year total to complete. Similar to a normal MSW, advanced standing can be done full-time or part-time.

Doctor of Social Work (DSW, Ph.D.)

If you seek to continue your education past the master’s-level, you have the option to pursue a Doctor of Social Work (DSW) or Ph.D. in Social Work.

Through advanced practice knowledge, enhanced practice competency in evaluation skills, a deep emphasis on theoretical approaches to social problems, and scholarly dissemination, the DSW prepares graduates to pursue a variety of roles. According to the Group for the Advancement of Doctoral Education in Social Work, DSW graduates can continue on the academic track working in clinical settings or research-intensive universities, or become professional social workers providing advanced clinical services. Ph.D. graduates can go on to work in academic or professional research settings, such as government agencies, independent research centers, and the military.

On average, the DSW takes two full-time years to complete. If you’re a part-time student, it could take three to five years. The same goes for Ph.D. students. Of course, this varies by school and student. Many who choose to pursue this degree are full-time professionals, making part-time enrollment a viable option. According to CSWE’s Statistics on Social Work Education in the United States (PDF, 1.7 MB) report, almost half of all enrolled practice doctorate (DSW) students are enrolled part-time.

While there are DSW and Ph.D. programs available online, the selection is slimmer compared to online MSW programs. The same CSWE report shows that 22.4% of practice doctorate (DSW) programs can be completed entirely online. Approximately 15% of Ph.D. programs have some online courses, and less than 5% of them are entirely online.

Summing It All Up

How long it takes to become a social worker depends on the goals you have. If you know exactly what you want to do and have earned a bachelor’s in social work, then you can opt for an advanced standing or accelerated program. If you still need more time to decide what you want your future career to look like, that’s perfectly fine too. It’s important to explore all career options and opportunities associated with the degree you choose to pursue. If you are looking for a starting point, you can refer to our guide to online social work degrees.

Last updated: August 2020