Many social workers enter the field based on their deep-seated passion for helping others. With an advanced social work degree and the drive to provide care for those who need it, pursuing a career as a social worker can be as rewarding financially as it is rich in purpose.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the social worker career outlook at a projected 12 percent growth over the next decade – well above the national average of 7 percent – which means there is plenty of opportunity in social work and a range of highly competitive (you’ll be working hard for that interview!) career paths, with some providing a very comfortable income.
Here are five high-paying jobs in social work:
1. Social Work Professor
Median salary: $102,229* (overall for tenured/tenure-track professors)
Nelson Mandela once said: “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.” A professor of social work prepares coursework, instructs students and holds office hours, all while working toward getting their own papers published. After a number of years in academia, a professor can become a dean, as did Gail Steketee, dean of Boston University’s School of Social Work. Steketee, retiring this year after 31 years, got her start in social work as a clinical social worker and researcher in cognitive and behavioral treatments before turning to academia.
Advanced degrees in social work, including an MSW and a Doctorate in Social Work (DSW) are necessary to become a tenure-track professor. Some colleges do not require a doctorate degree for adjunct professors.
2. Nonprofit Executive (C-Level)
Median salary: $106,331*
Social workers can start off nonprofit careers at the entry level and work their way up, like Danni Askini, executive director of a civil rights organization, who has dedicated her career to fighting for social justice. Nonprofit CEOs oversee the entire company’s budget, advocacy and marketing strategies, and serve as the face of the organization.
To become a nonprofit CEO, social workers need an MSW and should consider obtaining a Master’s in Business Administration (MBA) degree. Some schools offer a dual master’s program combining an MSW and MBA or applicable concentrations.
3. Social Work Policymaker
Salary structures and amounts vary widely, from $60,000 to $200,000+
Being a politician involves shaping the laws in one’s local community, county, state and even nation. A large discrepancy in pay exists between state legislative salaries, and pay starts at $174,000 for members of Congress. Before becoming a congresswoman 43 years ago, Debbie Stabenow earned an MSW and worked in a public school as a social worker. As a legislator, she is now a champion for national health care reform and agricultural issues.
Advanced degrees in social work can pave the way towards a future in policymaking, especially if the degree offers a concentration in areas such as community or administrative leadership.
4. Health care/Medical Social Worker
Median salary: $51,432*
From promoting accessible and quality health care services for their populations to supplying educational materials, a health care social worker can wear many hats. This social worker often becomes a patient advocate, interacting and collaborating with doctors and other health care professionals as well as policymakers. Anthony Wright, executive director at Health Access California, made access to health care social workers easier by leading California’s coalition to pass the Affordable Care Act.
A Master’s in Social Work (MSW) and a state license to practice as a social worker are required. The National Association of Social Workers also offers a health care certification for those with an MSW and 20 hours of practice in the field.
5. Clinical Social Worker
Median salary: $54,620*
Whereas health care social workers help their clients gain access to health services, clinical social workers usually focus on the mentally ill. These social workers are found in private practices, hospitals, rehabilitation centers and government agencies that prevent, assess, diagnose and treat mentally ill clients. Thomas “Tommy” Blackwell, an outspoken advocate for mental health, started as a licensed clinical social worker after his time in the military. He advanced to become the owner of Blackwell Counseling Services, a private counseling practice in the northeast.
Clinical social workers must have an MSW and pass a state license exam to become a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW). Additionally, social workers need two to three years of supervised clinical experience. Licensing and certification requirements vary by state.
Despite These Competitive Roles… The Average Pay for An MSW is Still $46,968
Armed with a passion to serve and advocate on behalf of others, coupled with the pressures of earning a decent living, finding a sustainable wage in your dream geographic location is challenging. Although the national average pay for an MSW is $46,968, the pay varies significantly across the nation, based on your area of specialization.
Making a Difference For The Social Work Industry
The Social Work Reinvestment Act would support Social Work in the following ways:
- Competitive and fair wages
- Tuition assistance/loan forgiveness
- Recruitment and retention
- Continuing education and research
- National licensing/ title protection
That said, those who obtain an advanced social worker degree have ample opportunities to expand that take-home pay into a much more comfortable salary, while keeping the sense of fulfillment that comes from having changed people’s lives for the better.
Learn more about social work fields of practice in our careers section.
*Note: All salary data collected August 2018.