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College 101: Social Work: The Difference in a Doctorate

I’m considering a career in social work. I know that you can become a social worker with an undergraduate degree, but I also know that there are graduate degrees available in the discipline. I could even get a doctorate!

What I’m curious about is this: what’s the real difference between an undergraduate degree and a doctorate when it comes to career opportunities and consequences? I want to make sure that I can do all the things I want to with my career, but I don’t want to waste earning years or spend money on a degree that isn’t necessary. Experts, what can you tell me?

Social work offers some incredibly rewarding career paths, and there are plenty of things that you can do within the discipline with either an undergraduate degree or a graduate-level degree. But there are some key differences between degrees when it comes to careers in social work.

There are entry-level positions in social work that will accept applicants without social work graduate degrees. In these cases, a bachelor’s degree in social work or in psychology will do. In general, these are positions in what is called direct-service social work--the type of social work that focuses on helping people during difficult times in their lives. Such social workers may work with students, people in need, or refugees, among many others.

But it never hurts to have a graduate degree, and higher-level degrees will make you a more attractive candidate for jobs, particularly those above entry-level. And for positions in clinical social work--the area of social work that works with mental health, behavioral issues, and emotional problems--a higher-level degree is essential. Getting a master’s or doctorate in social work will open doors to this type of work, which can include private practice--a more lucrative option than many others in social work--as well as work through clinics, hospitals, and other institutions.

Getting a higher-level degree in social work doesn’t have to be incompatible with your finances or schedule, though. You can find ways to earn your doctorate in social work online through respected programs, including brick-and-mortar universities with online programs as well as all-online institutions.

What you choose to do academically will depend to a large extent on what you hope to do with your career once you graduate. We suggest you speak with social workers in various positions and try to get an idea of what you would most enjoy doing yourself once you’re in the working world. Ask them about their day-to-day lives and about what sorts of qualifications they and others in their discipline have. From there, you should be able to get a pretty good idea of what kind of academic background you’ll need to reach the positions you’re most interested in. Good luck!

“The happiest people I know are those who lose themselves in the service of others.” -- Gordon B. Hinckley

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