MSW vs. MSSW vs. MSSA: What is the difference?

When searching for a graduate-level social work degree, the acronyms MSW, MSSW, and MSSA are all listed as options. What do these acronyms stand for and which is the best degree option? This article reviews and compares the Master of Social Work (MSW), Master of Science in Social Work (MSSW) and the Master of Science in Social Administration (MSSA) degrees, the typical course structure of these programs and career opportunities for graduates.

How are these programs similar? How are they different?

Surprisingly, there are very few differences between the MSW, MSSW and MSSA degrees. All are graduate level degrees in social work. The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) is the only national association representing social work education in the United States. CSWE offers accreditation for both bachelor and masters level social work programs that meet stringent requirements. CSWE recognizes the MSW, MSSW and MSSA as equally valid social work programs. This is important, because graduation from a CSWE-accredited program is often a requirement for gaining licensure as a social worker.

Regardless of which program is selected, if the goal is to become a licensed clinical social worker, any of the aforementioned degrees would be appropriate. Each degree also allows for entry into a Ph.D. or DSW program in Social Work, should a student wish to further their education and expand career opportunities.

What is an MSW degree?

The Master of Social Work (MSW) degree is by far the most common degree offered for graduate level social work education. Most programs take 2-3 years to complete and a number of schools offer advanced standing programs for students with a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree. Advanced standing students can complete their MSW in one year. For non-advanced standing students, the first year of coursework has a generalist focus and subsequent years center around advanced practice skills and/or are concentrated on a particular area of interest.

Accredited Master of Social Work programs include but are not limited to:

What is an MSSW degree?

Less common, but just as valid and respected, is the Master of Science in Social Work (MSSW) degree. Curriculum in this program matches that of an MSW program. Students can complete a MSSW degree in two years attending full time.

Schools that offer an accredited MSSW degree include:

What is an MSSA degree?

Finally, MSSA stands for Master of Science in Social Administration. Again, the MSSA degree is recognized as equal to the MSW or the MSSW degree. Graduates from this type of program are eligible for the same career options as those with an MSW or MSSW degree. The MSSA also takes approximately two years to complete.

The only accredited MSSA program listed in the CSWE Directory of Accredited Programs is Case Western Reserve.

There are likely other MSSA programs available, but since it is most desirable and beneficial to graduate from an accredited program, no others are reviewed here.

Online or in-person classes: What are my options?

The beauty of the MSW, MSSW and MSSA degrees all being so similar and all recognized as properly preparing students for social work practice is that a program can be found to best suit a student's needs. If classes must be taken online to work around full-time employment or other commitments, all degrees offer this as an option. Some schools offer a variety of options within their programs.

For example, the MSW program at Texas A&M University Commerce has both part and full time options available for students. Part time students complete the program in approximately four years. Full time students finish in about two years. Advanced standing placement is available for both part and full time students. Additionally, a fully online MSW program is also available.

The University of Tennessee Knoxville offers an MSSW degree in a number of formats. Students can select whether face to face classes or online only work best for their unique situation. Regardless of the format - traditional or e-learning - advanced standing students complete the MSSW degree in one year attending full time or two years attending part time. The traditional (non-advanced standing) option takes two years full time and three to four years if attending part time.

Case Western Reserve offers a MSSA degree. Students can enroll in in-person classes and complete the degree in four semesters (two years). Advanced standing is also offered. A unique offering to Case Western Reserve is the Intensive Weekend Program, where classes are offered on campus one weekend per month throughout the calendar year. Finally, they offer an online MSSA program where all courses are taken online. Both the Intensive Weekend Program and online programs take students two years to complete for advanced standing students and three years for non-advanced standing students.

Entry requirements to MSW, MSSW and MSSA programs

Successful applicants to MSW, MSSW or MSSA programs meet or exceed the following requirements:

  • A bachelor’s degree in social Work (BSW) or another related field from an accredited university
  • A grade point average of 2.5 – 3.0 on a 4.0 scale. Some programs require that all social work classes taken at the undergraduate level earned a grade of B or higher.
  • Experience – Many programs prefer that an applicant has at least two years of work experience in a human services or related field.
  • Excellent references that attest to the applicant’s ability to succeed in graduate studies and ethically perform the duties of a social worker upon graduation
  • Strongly written essays and/or personal statements. Most programs have applicants write personal statements about their experience, why a degree in social work is desired and career goals. In addition, schools may have applicants write an essay about a social justice issue, its causes and contributors and ways the problem could be addressed.
  • Graduate Record Examination (GRE) score. Check with the program of interest to determine if there are specific score requirements. Many programs are now choosing to forgo the requirement of the GRE as part of the admissions process and instead focusing on other items that may better demonstrate the likelihood of successful completion of the graduate program, such as grades, experience and writing samples.
  • International students may also have additional requirements to meet, including minimum scores on the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and International English Language Testing System (IELTS) exams.

General courses in each degree program

There are few, if any, discernible differences in classes offered in MSW, MSSW and MSSA programs.

Many of these programs weave instruction on how to address problems at the micro, mezzo and macro levels throughout the entire curriculum. Micro level social work deals with individuals and students develop interviewing and counseling skills to help clients manage challenges. Mezzo social work focuses on addressing issues at the local or community level and implementing community-wide interventions. Finally, macro social work focuses on large systems, such as state or nationwide and students learn about research, policy, and advocacy at a national level.

Typical curricula for MSW, MSSW and MSSA programs include general foundation and advanced courses in:

Human Development

Examples of human development courses include Human Behavior and the Social Environment, and Lifespan and Neurophysiologic Development.

Theory

Examples of theory courses include Theories of Oppression and Social Justice and Theories and Perspectives on Trauma.

Social Work Practice Methods

Examples of social work practice methods courses include Introduction to Direct Social Work Practice, Culturally Relevant Practice with Diverse Populations, and Social Casework.

Social Policy

Examples of social policy courses include Social Welfare Institutions, Policies and Services, and Social Justice Policy.

Research Methods

Examples of research methods courses include Research Methodology and Design, Program Evaluation in Social Work, Qualitative Inquiry in Social Work Practice and Statistics for the Social Sciences .

Field Education/Practicum

Field education placements range from 400-1000+ hours, but the variation is between advanced standing and non-advanced standing programs, not the type of degree conferred. That means there isn’t one degree that is better than another in terms of providing more practicum hours.

Specialty tracks within each degree

Students can sometimes choose specializations within graduate-level social work programs. Completing courses and electives within these specializations provide focused education and experiences within a certain area or population of interest. Oftentimes, the field education practicum will provide direct practice experience in that area. Examples of these specialty tracks include:

Aging/Gerontology

Examples of aging or gerontology courses include Social Work Practice with Older Adults, Death and Grief, Social and Cultural Aspects of Aging and Aging Policy and Service Delivery.

Addictions

Examples of addiction courses include Substance Use Disorder, Motivation and Change and Social Work Interventions in Co-occurring Mental and Substance Abuse Disorders.

Children, Youth and Families including Child Welfare

Examples of child welfare courses include Child Abuse and Maltreatment, Trauma Informed Social Work Practice with Children and Families, Problem Identification, Screening and Assessment/Diagnosis, and Family Systems Interventions.

Clinical Practice

Examples of clinical practice courses include Dialectical Behavior Therapy, Couples Therapy, Familty Therapy Assessments,Principles and Techniques of Mediation, and Professional Issues and Ethics in Social Work.

Corrections/Criminal Justice

Examples of criminal justice courses include Social Work and the Law, Social Work and Incarceration, Special Populations in the Criminal Justice System and Forensic Social Work.

Mental Health

Examples of mental health courses include Psychopathology. Group Methods, Crisis Interventions, Suicide and Self-Injury and DSM-V.

Trauma and Interpersonal Violence

Examples of trauma focused courses include Social Work with Child Abuse and Family Violence, Trauma Treatment with Adults, Domestic Violence, Trauma Theory and Neurophysiology for Social Work Practice.

Health/Medical Social Work

Examples of medical social work courses include Ethics of Caring, Advanced Social Work Practice in Integrated Healthcare, Pharmacology for Social Workers and Health Care Policy and Advocacy.

School Social Work

Examples of school social work courses include Children and Families in the School Setting, Applied Behavior Analysis, and School Social Worker Assessments and Interventions.

Community Development

Examples of community development courses include Strategic Power Building with Communities, Planning and Implementing Social Change, and Organizing, Coalition Building and Lobbying.

LGBTQIA Social Work

Examples of LGBTQIA courses include Social Work and Human Sexuality, LGBT Issues and Social Welfare, and Gender and Social Policy.

Military Social Work

Examples of military social work courses include Military Social Work and Beyond Combat: Social Work Practice with Service Members, Veterans and their Families.

Oncology Social Work

Examples of oncology social work courses include Psychosocial Practice in Oncology, Community Approaches to Promote Health Equity and Palliative Care.

Administration / Management / Leadership

Examples of administration or management courses include Intro to Social Work Leadership/Management, Social Work Quality Supervision: The Work, The People and The Contexts, Nonprofit Management, and Grants and Fundraising.

International Social and Economic Development

Examples of international social and economic development courses include International Social Development: Global Context, Development Practice in International Settings and Asset Building: Theory, Innovation, Research, Policy and Practice.

If a student wants to focus on a specific population or area of concentration, it is important to research individual programs to see if that particular area of interest is offered as a specialization or concentration within the degree program before applying.

Graduation requirements

Each school may have slightly different requirements, but typically in order to graduate with an MSW, MSSW or MSSA degree, students must complete all coursework, sometimes with grades of C or above. Students must also successfully complete all field education/practicum hours. Some programs also require a master’s thesis project, which is an independently conducted research project and formal write up.

What can you do with each type of degree?

Graduates of MSW, MSSW and MSSA programs are eligible for any number of positions. For those wanting to work directly with clients, job prospects include:

  • School social worker
  • Addictions counselor
  • Medical social worker
  • Private practice therapist

If community based (mezzo) social work is of interest, the following careers are excellent options:

  • Community based organizer
  • Group therapist
  • Parenting educator

For those most interested in macro social work and affecting change at a larger level, these careers or job settings may be a great fit:

  • Non-governmental organization or think tank
  • Consultant
  • Administrator for a national social services organization
  • Foundation officer
  • Researcher

As previously mentioned, for those wanting to further their education and earn a Ph.D. in Social Work or a Doctorate of Social Work (DSW), the MSW, MSSW and MSSA degrees all prepare students for this next step. At that level, careers in teaching, research and university administration are available.

Social Work Licensure

Graduates from all three types of accredited programs – MSW, MSSW and MSSA are eligible to begin the application process to obtain state licensure. Requirements vary from state to state, but include up to 3,500 clinical practice hours of which up to 500 of those hours must be supervised by a licensced clinical social worker. In addition, applicants must successfully pass the state licensing board examination, complete an application that documents their clinical practice experience and pay a licensing fee. Licenses are valid for a few years and then must be renewed by paying a fee.

Conclusion

Despite different titles, the MSW, MSSW and MSSA degrees are basically the same and each adequately prepares graduates for social work practice. Rather than searching for a program that offers a specific degree, finding a CSWE-accredited program that offers courses and specializations of most interest and in a format (online or in-person) to best mesh with one’s schedule will likely be most beneficial.