Should you pursue an advanced degree in social work?

As a social worker, you already know how demanding your job is. You may be on the front lines, working to support those who need it most. Or you may oversee multifaceted operations that need your full attention. It can be incredibly fulfilling to help others lift themselves up and make significant changes in their lives.

Sometimes, however, it may feel like the techniques and skills you’ve developed just aren’t working, or that clients have become unreceptive. One way to help ensure that you’re doing the most you can for people who need it is to further your career as a social worker. While there are no guarantees that a particular method may work, developing your repertoire increases the chances that it might.

That’s because getting a degree in social work will push you to increase your mastery of the field. A degree will help you smooth out the rough edges of your abilities and help you connect with your clients more effectively. This article will explore some of the pros and cons of pursuing a degree, both in person and online.

In demand

In terms of the industry, this is one of the best times to further your social work career by pursuing a degree. Demand for social workers is increasing, with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projecting 9% growth over the next decade. This well exceeds the average total projected growth for all jobs, which sits at 5%. The demand that these statistics indicate comes with two implications.

Firstly, it’s likely that wages for social workers will increase. As demand increases for a particular job, often corresponding wages do, too. Social work is typically not the highest-paid job, especially relative to its difficulty. However, more and more people are seeking help to improve the quality of their lives. As such, prices will reflect that increasing demand.

Secondly, the projected growth rate of social work signals the need that exists in the world. People are struggling, need help and are increasingly seeking out that help. Your field is one that can create lasting, tangible improvements in people’s lives. If you’re someone who’s passionate about helping others, this is one of the best items to sharpen your skills. That way you can make sure you’re prepared to help as many people as much as you possibly can.

You already know how necessary your job is. The world is now starting to reflect and actualize that necessity in its increasing demand for social workers. So, now is one of the best times to develop your expertise in the field even further. 

Types of degrees

Similar to many degrees out there, those in social work have four main levels that you can pursue: associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate. But, which one you pursue depends on a variety of factors: what kind of help you want to offer or how many years you can afford to study will affect your choice. Here’s a quick brief of the four kinds of social work degrees and what sort of job you can expect to get with them.

If you choose to pursue an associate degree in social work, you’ll spend, on average, two years getting it. It’s a good start, but most high-level social work positions also require a more advanced degree. Those who put in another two years of studying, for a total of four, can receive their bachelor’s degree. This will expand your career prospects even further.

With a master’s degree, you’ll put yourself ahead of many other candidates looking for work. A master’s program typically runs from 12 to 15 months and requires a bachelor’s degree as a prerequisite. There are also some three-year master’s programs that do exist. Pursuing a master’s also opens you to then going for a Ph.D., the final and highest degree level you can achieve in social work. As with most other Ph.D. programs, you will focus on research. 

One of the biggest considerations you must make when choosing which degree you want to pursue is where you’ll get it. The quality of education can vary by institution, so you want to make sure you find somewhere that’s right for you. These days, more and more institutions are offering online degrees, with some institutions operating completely digitally. There are benefits and detriments to both, which can affect where you choose to go.

The benefits of pursuing a degree in social work

The most immediate and major benefit of pursuing an advanced degree in social work is that it increases the prospects of advancing your career. Engaging in more meaningful work could also increase your career’s longevity. A career in social work is deeply rewarding, as you often work directly with those you want to help. You can help them through their struggles and celebrate their victories. The kind of work you do will also vary depending on what degree you’ve achieved.

Many jobs available for those with an associate’s degree are aide or assistant positions, such as for a counselor or rehabilitator. You can also become a preschool teacher, case manager or intake coordinator with this degree. The positions available to you with an associate’s will still be very “front-line” and direct.

Though the field of social work is projected to grow, you’ll likely still face significant competition from others with this degree when looking for work.

A bachelor’s degree gives you a wider range of career tracks than an associates. You could become a probation officer, substance abuse counselor or mental health technician, for example. You’ll assume roles of increased responsibility, while still not able to perform the most sensitive or demanding of tasks. The number of people’s lives you’ll have a direct effect on will increase. You’ll also likely still face some competition from others when looking for work with this degree.

Master’s programs provide you with increasingly diversified training and technical skills. With a master’s, you could work as a mental health case manager, child welfare specialist, school counselor or even open your own homecare agency. You can help existing institutions survive well into the future and even help establish new ones.

With a Ph.D., you can go on to do research that will inform policy change and advocacy or teach classes at the college level. You’ll be able to proliferate the knowledge and experience you’ve acquired by passing it onto others. Considering your level of expertise, you’ll also be a candidate for administrative leadership positions. This is the kind of degree that the most dedicated will want to consider.

Traditional degrees

A traditional social work degree is one pursued in a brick-and-mortar, classic institution. It’s college as it’s often imagined: attending classes and lectures in classrooms on a physical campus with peers. There are two main benefits of having a traditional education experience that involves being able to connect with others around you. There are two groups of people you’ll want to connect with primarily in any college environment. And it’s much easier to meet to network with others in person than it is to try and connect online.

First, it can be easier to connect with professors and other potential mentors at a traditional institution. You’ll be attending classes in person, instead of just being a face or a name on a screen. Getting coffee or lunch with an educator is a great way to connect with them more deeply that just isn’t possible in the same way online. Having a mentor can greatly improve the trajectory of your career. They can act as a mirror and a guide: showing you your strengths and weaknesses while suggesting targeted ways to improve yourself.

Similarly, you’ll have a much easier time interacting and connecting with peers in person. Studying with others is a great way to improve your own understanding of the material you’re learning. You’ll also have more access to networking opportunities at alumni events in addition to other local events. You’ll be attending an institution full of people who are interested in the same things, bettering their ability to help others.

The downside of traditional degrees is that they’re often much more expensive. Part of what you pay for is the fact that the institution has greater expenses that they need to cover. Building maintenance, events, guest speakers, salaries and so much more are just part of the reason college tuition has been rising at ludicrous rates. While financial aid can abate the pain somewhat, nonetheless, college can be prohibitively expensive.

Online degrees

On the other hand, online degrees are usually much more affordable. That’s because, unlike traditional education, well, it’s entirely online! An online degree is becoming an increasingly attractive option for many people. Just like traditional institutions, there are two main reasons why. Where traditional institutions may be more attractive in terms of their social offerings, online degrees offer unparalleled agility and convenience.

Some online degrees offer accelerated programs that can shave off months. If you’re in a position where you simply can’t afford to attend classes for too long, consider getting an accelerated degree. They’re also great options if you’re interested in changing your career. For example, pursuing a degree from Keuka social work online tracks would empower you to address the growing need in society for mental health services by fully preparing you to pursue licensure as a clinical social worker.

As mentioned previously, the other great benefit of online degrees is that they’re almost universally more affordable than traditional degrees. This is very true, as college tuition has increased by 747.8% since 1963. While they’re still relatively expensive, as any degree is a large investment, an online degree won’t cripple you in debt.

The large downside is the social element, or the lack thereof. It may be harder for you to connect with professors and peers, although not downright impossible. It will likely take more work but can still be quite worth it in the long run. In this world, connections and credentials are both important.

Is college right for you?

There are quite literally hundreds of colleges that offer both traditional and online degrees. It can be difficult to determine which one is right for you, or if there is one that’s right for you in the first place. Getting a degree is a great way to further your career, but it’s not the only way. Traditional degrees offer great social connections, and online degrees offer expediency and relative affordability, but both come with a price. That price is both the tuition and other fees you’ll pay, but also the time, energy and dedication you devote.

Ask yourself if that devotion of time and energy will advance you further. What if you just keep working? Perhaps there’s someone in your current company who could serve as a mentor to help guide you forward. Depending on your individual circumstances, the answer could be an emphatic yes, no or an uncertain maybe. In any case, reach out to someone in your field who has an advanced degree and ask them about their experience. They can give you a better idea if taking the leap into college is right for you, but ultimately, it’s your decision.

Finally, if you do decide to go after a college degree, keep in mind that the “sticker price” isn’t always what you’ll pay. The sticker price is the tuition fee that most colleges will list on their website. 83% of students in the United States are on some form of financial aid. Needing financial help to advance your career is nothing to be ashamed of. Especially since your career is essential to helping thousands of others transform their lives for the better.

The power of social work

Social work is a deeply challenging, rewarding and increasingly in-demand career. Growth projections indicate a developing need for specialized social workers. Some of the best and most influential positions of responsibility, however, are often gated behind years of experience and education. Pursuing a degree in social work can be worth the cost of time and money if it makes sense for your particular circumstance. If you believe the time is right for you to pursue an advanced degree, there are numerous options to choose from.

Traditional colleges offer the benefit of more easily connecting with professors and networking opportunities. And it’s true that these benefits are still accessible when pursuing an online degree. However, the real benefit of an online degree is its speed and relative affordability. Some colleges even offer half in-person and half online degrees for those who want the benefits of both. Either way, there are many places to get an advanced education in social work. Such an education will help you transform the lives of thousands of people for the better over the course of your career.

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