What Is the Difference Between a Master's and a Bachelor's Degree in Social Work?

Social work can be rewarding and doesn't require a master's degree.
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Being a social worker isn’t necessarily glamorous, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t rewarding. Social workers have the chance to do what few people have the chance to do: assist families when they're at their most vulnerable. Both a bachelor's degree in social work or a master's degree in social work can train prospective social workers to be the most supportive advocates of families that they can be.

1 Bachelor's in Social Work

A bachelor's degree in social work is many people’s first foray into the field. A bachelor’s program is intended to introduce students to the field by providing them with the basic theoretical principles behind social work, as well as a platform to begin social work practice. Most social work students will explore social, political and economic issues related to racial diversity, immigration, gender and poverty, which often require humanities courses. In addition to completing a course-work component, students complete a practicum component before graduating.

2 Master's of Social Work

A master's program in social work is typically shorter than a bachelor's program in social work. It also offers more opportunities for students to specialize in a more narrow area of social work that interests them, but it’s not necessary that students have a bachelor’s degree in social work in order to get their master's in the same subject -- though you do need an undergraduate degree in some major to pursue your master's. Students come from many different educational backgrounds, including women’s studies, psychology and sociology. There is a strong emphasis on fieldwork, though students also attend classes.

3 Jobs in Social Work

Either a bachelor's degree or a master’s degree in social work can lead to a variety of career paths. Social workers work for a range of institution types and in different areas. Some work for advocacy organizations that assist women, immigrants, children, different ethnic groups, people who are struggling financially and people who are struggling with addiction. Others work for schools or for the government. The organizations they work for often determine the work they will conduct. A social worker employed by the government will probably spend more time in a family’s home, for instance, than one who is employed by an advocacy organization or other nonprofit.

4 Challenges of Social Work

Social workers experience an extremely high level of burnout. This is partly because their caseloads are so high -- a lot of families need assistance, and there aren’t always enough social workers to assist them. Another factor in burnout among social workers is the difficult nature of their work. They work with families who have very high emotional needs, and some social workers report feeling vicariously traumatized -- that is, traumatized by trying to assist people who have been traumatized. Despite this -- or perhaps because of it -- social work can be a very rewarding career, one that offers workers the opportunity to give families the tools they need to navigate difficult stages in their lives.

Living in Canada, Andrew Aarons has been writing professionally since 2003. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in English literature from the University of Ottawa, where he served as a writer and editor for the university newspaper. Aarons is also a certified computer-support technician.