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The Masters in Social Work (MSW) Degree – A Guide

Are you looking to begin a career in social work? A Master of Social Work (MSW) will prepare you for life as a social worker, combining elements of a taught degree with practical work placements.

If you’re unsure about what an MSW degree involves or whether one would be right for you, this page contains all the essential information you could need, including entry requirements and what it’s actually like to study one of these Masters. We’ve also written on how you can get NHS funding for your Masters in Social Work.

You can also take a look at the Social Work Masters programmes listed on our website.

What is a Masters in Social Work?

A Masters in Social Work qualifies you to become a registered social worker in the UK. Following standards set by the Health and Care Professionals Council (HCPC), these courses equip you with the skills and experience you need as a social worker.

Practical placements are an important part of each programme, and you can expect to complete two placements totalling 200 days over the course of your degree. There are several academic modules alongside the vocational elements of the programme, typically encompassing social work theory, legal frameworks and research skills.

Masters degrees in Social Work usually take place over two years of full-time study, although some courses offer a part-time option.


Master of Social Work (MSW)
Type Taught / Professional
Subjects Social Work
Qualification Level 7 (NQF)
Length 2 years
Credits Value 180 CATS / 90 ECTS
Availability Worldwide

What is the difference between an MA and an MSc in Social Work?

There may be slight differences in the course syllabus from university to university, but all UK Masters in Social Work follow the same standards set by the HCPC. As such, whether you choose to study an MA or an MSc, you’ll still be able to register as a social worker when you finish your course.

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Which countries award Masters in Social Work?

Universities across the world offer Masters in Social Work courses, although you might find that the names of these programmes differ from country to country. For example, the Master of Social Work (MSW) is a popular course title in North America, whereas UK universities often label these programmes as MA or MSc Social Work qualifications.

If you complete your Social Work Masters degree abroad and want to practise in the UK, you’ll need to register with the HCPC before starting work. 

How much does a Masters in Social Work cost?

Masters in Social Work typically cost between £6,000 and £9,000 per year for UK/EU students, differing from university to university. Make sure you do your research to find the best option for you – use our website to look at the courses on offer.

What’s it like to study a Masters in Social Work?

A Masters in Social Work will give you an excellent grounding in the skills you’ll need as a qualified social worker. Combining academic modules with practical experience, these courses encourage you to apply your knowledge in a variety of social work-related situations.

Because social work is a regulated profession in most countries, Masters courses in this subject tend to follow a set structure. In the UK, this is set by the HCPC.

The first year of the programme introduces you to key concepts around policy, the law and human development, as well as preparing you for your first placement.

The second year builds on the skills you’ve already gained, tackling topics in greater depth and giving you the opportunity to complete another practice placement in a different area to your previous one. You’ll also write a dissertation on a subject of your choice during the second year.

The two work placements are perhaps the most important part of a Masters in Social Work, giving you the first-hand experience you need to become a qualified social worker. Most institutions cooperate with their local authorities to provide these placements, offering them in a range of different roles.

On your placement, you could work with:

  • Older people
  • People with mental health issues
  • People with substance misuse problems
  • Refugees and asylum seekers
  • Victims of domestic violence
  • Young offenders

Each of your placements must be with a different group of people.

How is a Masters in Social Work assessed?

During your Masters in Social Work, you’ll be assessed via a number of methods:

  • Group projects
  • Essays
  • Exams
  • Portfolios

A dissertation of around 16,000 words is a compulsory part of a Masters in Social Work. This is written on a topic of your choice and, depending on the university you’re studying at, can be literature- or research-based.

In some cases, you may be able to forego writing a dissertation and instead qualify for a Postgraduate Diploma in Social Work, with which you can still register with the HCPC.

Check out our page on writing a Masters dissertation for more information.

Who is a Masters in Social Work for?

A Masters in Social Work is primarily for people who hold an undergraduate degree in an unrelated discipline, and want to begin a career in social work. It’s not normally aimed at people who have an undergraduate degree in social work – these students are already eligible to register as a social worker with the HCPC.

Even if you don’t necessarily want to become a social worker, a Masters in Social Work can equip you with valuable transferrable skills to work in a related industry. For example, you could become a counsellor or a charity officer.

What are the entry requirements for a Masters in Social Work?

Course providers will usually ask that you hold an undergraduate degree (in any discipline), as well as having a demonstrable interest in social work. This means that you must already have some experience (professional or personal) of the issues relating to social work.

The amount of required experience differs from institution to institution, but universities will generally require a minimum of one to six months of social work experience. Examples of relevant experience include:

  • A personal background in caring for someone with social support needs
  • Community groups
  • Mentoring schemes
  • Volunteering work

Importantly, you’ll need to apply for your Masters in Social Work through the UCAS website, not the university themselves.

How can I get funding for a Masters in Social Work?

As well as the usual routes for postgraduate funding, you can also apply for a bursary through the NHS Business Services Authority (NHSBSA). These bursaries don’t have to be paid back and comprise a number of different elements, depending on your circumstances:

  • a basic grant (non-means tested)
  • a contribution towards your tuition fees
  • a maintenance grant (means tested)
  • Adult Dependants Allowance
  • Placement Travel Allowance (PTA)
  • Parents’ Learning Allowance
  • Childcare Allowance
  • Disabled Students Allowances (DSAs)

There are certain criteria you’ll need to satisfy in order to be eligible for the basic grant and the tuition fee contribution, however. You must be:

  • Living in England on the day your course starts (as well as living in the UK for three years beforehand)
  • Studying an approved course

You can’t apply if you already have a higher education qualification in social work. Please also note that if you receive a social work bursary, you won’t be able to get a government-backed postgraduate loan (unless you’re only receiving a PTA).

The number of NHS bursaries for social work courses is capped each year, so there’s no guarantee that you’ll receive funding. Universities nominate students for this shortlist (also known as a capping list) based on their own selection criteria.

For more information on NHS bursaries, please visit the NHSBSA website.

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Last updated - 14/12/2017

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