Social Worker Salary: How to Advance in Your Career

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A social worker holding a clipboard sitting on a couch with a client.“Social work is the helping profession.”

This statement, from the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), encapsulates the role of social workers as professionals with a commitment to addressing individual well-being and societal problems that affect the world’s most vulnerable populations. Social workers play a pivotal role in helping people meet their own basic needs and empowering those who are oppressed, at risk for harm, or living in poverty.

And, while many think of social work as concentrating only on poverty and child welfare issues, those in the profession assist individuals and communities in a variety of other areas as well. Drug and alcohol rehabilitation, prisoner reentry, and military and veteran support, as well as assistance for those coping with injury and illness, are just some of the focus areas for social workers. They also hold roles as nonprofit and corporate leaders, instructors, and even members of Congress.

This broad range of focus areas for social work professionals means there also is a wide variation in social worker salaries. A Master of Social Work (MSW) degree can help professionals in this field advance in their careers and increase their salaries.

What Is a Social Worker’s Salary?

While the breadth of the social work profession means salaries vary, other factors contribute to differences in pay. Years of experience, job location, and education level can influence actual salary amounts.

The median annual social worker salary in May 2020 was $51,760, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Salaries were higher than $85,820 for the top 10% of earners among social workers. Social workers’ median annual salary outpaces the $41,950 median annual pay for all occupations the BLS tracks.

The BLS also reports the following median social worker salaries by industry:

  • Local government — $57,660
  • Outpatient healthcare — $52,850
  • State government — $49,860
  • Individual and family services — $43,820

Earning an Advanced Education in Social Work

Entry-level social worker positions typically require a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree. However, advanced roles — and the higher salaries that often accompany them — generally require a graduate degree.

An MSW degree is the minimum educational requirement for clinical social workers, who focus primarily on mental health issues and are in high demand, according to the BLS. A state license also is a requirement for clinical social workers.

While social worker licensing requirements vary by state, they typically include completing two years of supervised clinical experience and passing a clinical exam, in addition to an MSW degree. Additional certifications in specializations ranging from case management to serving populations like veterans or older adults are available through NASW — and most of those certifications require an MSW.

Components of an MSW Program

MSW programs prepare students with the skills needed for advanced social work roles; for example, those handling mental health interventions and those working with underserved populations such as rural communities. They cover topics such as:

  • Clinical practice
  • Human behavior
  • Social work policy
  • Social work research

While MSW programs typically require two years of full-time study, some programs — particularly those online — offer the flexibility to complete the work in a shorter or longer period of time to accommodate work schedules and other obligations.

The Different Types of Social Work Careers

Social workers can pursue a wide variety of career fields. The BLS projects that social workers’ jobs will grow by 12% between 2020 and 2030, faster than the 8% growth projected for all professions it tracks. Social workers in some specialty areas are projected to see even higher job growth between 2020 and 2030, such as those in:

  • Mental health and substance abuse — 15%
  • Healthcare — 13%
  • Child, family, and school — 13%

Social work career options also include those tied to other professions. These roles in other fields may have a broader job scope and responsibility that can lead to higher salaries for social workers. Following are descriptions of some key potential career opportunities for social workers.

Clinical Social Work: Mental Health

Clinical social workers are among the largest groups of professionals addressing mental health, according to NASW. In rural areas, clinical social workers are often the only licensed mental health professionals. They assist individuals, families, and groups in coping with concerns such as anxiety, depression, and relationship issues.

Clinical Social Work: Substance Abuse

Clinical social workers who specialize in substance abuse work with individuals, families, and communities to determine ways to end abuse issues. They focus on the effects of the person’s family and neighborhood environment, cultural attitudes, and community policies and support.


Social workers in healthcare assist individuals with the personal and social concerns that can affect their health and well-being. Some professionals in these careers work directly with individuals, families, and small groups. Other healthcare social workers hold planning, administration, and policy roles.

Child Welfare

Child welfare social workers assist vulnerable children and families. They work to enhance the strengths of families to ensure a safe and nurturing environment for children, intervening with services to protect children from harm when the family cannot provide this environment.

School Social Work

School social workers help students address problems that could interfere with their learning and development. They coordinate efforts between the school, students’ families, and the community to guide assistance with issues ranging from truancy and dropping out to teen pregnancy and homelessness.

Public Welfare

Social workers in public welfare facilitate support services for individuals from vulnerable populations such as children, older adults, and those with chronic medical issues. These social workers help ensure public welfare efforts meet people’s basic needs by working directly with social service agencies or managing and evaluating the initiatives.

Social Work Policy

Social work professionals who work to influence policy and planning lead efforts to solve social problems. Through analyzing policies, proposing legislation, and collaborating with organizations, these social workers address issues such as child abuse, racism, poverty, and homelessness.

Justice and Corrections

Justice and corrections roles for social workers can focus on a broad range of concerns, such as helping ex-offenders transition back into the community, providing victim assistance services, serving as probation or parole officers, or offering therapy or substance abuse treatment. These professionals may work for courts, police departments, rape crisis centers, or prisons.

Administration and Management

Social workers in administration and management often lead the government and non-governmental organizations in providing services to people in need. They draw on expertise in business and management to direct the activities of an entire organization or some facet of that entity.

Social workers also may pursue a host of other careers, including those targeting services for aging populations or those with developmental disabilities, providing on-the-job social work services, or serving in politics.

Many Paths, One Goal

Those who are interested in pursuing a higher social worker salary, as well as career advancement, should explore Ohio University’s online Master of Social Work program. The program focuses on how individuals working in what the NASW calls “the helping profession” support those facing obstacles in life, particularly vulnerable populations and people living in underserved communities. With courses including Human Behavior in the Social Environment and Advanced Social Work Assessment, you can learn the skills to assist individuals in need while enjoying the convenience and flexibility of online education.

Discover how Ohio University’s online MSW program can help you advance toward a meaningful career in social work.

Recommended Reading

4 Types of Therapist Roles to Pursue with an MSW

Understanding and Coping with Compassion Fatigue in Social Work

Working as a School Social Worker


Houston Chronicle, “Teachers vs. Social Workers”

Houston Chronicle, “What Is a Certified Social Worker?”

National Association of Social Workers, Apply for NASW Social Work Credentials

National Association of Social Workers, Types of Social Work

National Association of Social Workers, Why Choose the Social Work Profession?

Social Work Today, “Why Our World Needs Social Work”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Social Workers