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Hello, I'm 30 years old and have been working in human services for the past 9 years; 3 in in-home care, 6 in mental health/suicide prevention. I have reached a point where I need to either get an advanced degree or change fields. I'm very passionate about empowering others and am intrigued by the opportunities that an advanced degree would offer. I was thinking of getting an MSW with the intent to eventually become a LCSW. That said, I've heard every extreme from, "you will never earn anything, get any recognition, and be completely burnt out" to "an LCSW is a great opportunity and the median salary is $65,000; naysayers are thinking of a BSW." Could anyone help me to parce out these variances in opinions? I'm aware of the good, bad, and the ugly of social work in general but not in terms of an advanced degree. I have a heart for both macro and micro social work and am not in it for the money, but I would like to have the ability to one day own a small home, pay basic expenses without sleepless nights, be able to occasionally go out with friends or take a modest vacation, and have an emergency savings. All things that are difficult for me right now. Essentially; to live a very modest middle-class lifestyle. Is this possible? Would I be better to change fields? Is there another degree that would be similar but more suitable for this? (Since I've been working privately for the past 3 years and just moved to a more metropolitan area I feel a bit out of touch in terms of who to ask of my contacts.)

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My first question is, why have you reached a point where you need to get an advanced degree or switch fields?

My second question is, do you want to be a therapist?

My third question is, if you did not choose an MSW what field would you switch to?

 

In my opinion, an MSW is a mixed bag. In general, it is an underappreciated role that comes with low pay, high stress, and poor working conditions.

My first job out of my MSW program was an outpatient therapist at a community mental health center. I was expected to work 40 hours a week MINIMUM, had a tremendous amount of paperwork that was impossible to do, and had to meet productivity goals and when I wasn't, there was a lot of pressure from management. When factoring in the amount of hours I worked, I was barely making more than minimum wage. I burnt out quickly. I moved on to a job at a state prison. The pay is much better and I only have to work 40 hours a week MAXIMUM unless there is a crisis, but as you can imagine the working conditions are poor.

There are micro-level areas that pay better such as prisons, medical social work (hospitals, dialysis clinics, etc.), and hospice, but in general it's still high stress and poor working conditions. You also need to check with your state board to make sure these positions qualify at clinical hours towards LCSW (it varies by state).

Do things get better with an LCSW? They can, but not necessarily. In my area the LCSW only comes with a 10-15% raise and you still continue to do the same job(s) you were doing before with just slightly better pay unless you move into a management role. It also takes 2-3+ years to get enough hours for LCSW.

As for "the median salary is $65,000", I'm assuming this comes from websites like salary.com. In my area, no one I know with LCSW gets paid this much unless they are in an upper management role or are in private practice. Social work is very broad and LCSWs work in a lot of different places/roles so be weary of that figure and assuming it's an LCSW actually in the role of therapist. I'm sure MSWs and LCSWs make this in other areas of the country, but the cost of living is probably higher in those areas. So don't just look at the median salary for your area, but consider cost of living, as well.

Having said all of that, if you want to be a therapist then an MSW to LCSW can be a great route to that and, in my opinion, the most versatile degree offered for it. I do encourage you to look at other options, though, just to be aware of what other programs offer and find the best fit for you. There's licensed psychologists (PhD in psychology), Licensed Professional Counselors (master's in counseling), and Marriage and Family Therapists (master's in marriage and family therapy). There may be others, but these are the ones I see in my area.

If you decide to go the route of an MSW, I would highly suggest you take out minimum amount of student loans possible. I also suggest choosing a dual degree program (MSW/JD, MSW/MPH, MSW/MPA, MSW/MBA, etc.) that suits your interests and career goals. For instance, the MPA could be helpful in macro level roles. The MBA could also be helpful in macro level roles, but also for opening a private practice. They could both allow you to transition to different fields/roles easily if you find social work is not for you or not providing the type of lifestyle you want.

Anyways, I didn't mean to write so much, but hopefully this is somewhat helpful. Good luck! :)

ETA: I would also look at agencies in your area that you are likely to work for right after graduation. Some areas are moving towards contract work (paid only for face-to-face client contact per hour) as opposed to salary positions. A couple of agencies have done this in my area and the social workers are really struggling because if the client no shows then they don't get paid and this includes when social workers drive to the client's house and the client isn't home/won't answer the door. They also don't get paid for phone calls or paperwork. Just something to think about.

Edited by louise86
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On 7/8/2017 at 9:34 AM, louise86 said:

If you decide to go the route of an MSW, I would highly suggest you take out minimum amount of student loans possible. I also suggest choosing a dual degree program (MSW/JD, MSW/MPH, MSW/MPA, MSW/MBA, etc.) that suits your interests and career goals. For instance, the MPA could be helpful in macro level roles. The MBA could also be helpful in macro level roles, but also for opening a private practice. They could both allow you to transition to different fields/roles easily if you find social work is not for you or not providing the type of lifestyle you want.
 

Keep in mind that you're paying for two degrees if you do this, so twice as much debt with the hopes of more skills upon graduation. Besides the MSW/MBA, the MSW/JD route is the one that'll sink anyone into a deep ocean of red. If you can find a university where both degrees are at a relatively cheap price, can be taken jointly. even better if the MBA program has some prestige behind it, the better. I'm not in a joint program, but I might seek out an MBA where I'm getting my MSW because it's offered at such a low price point, granted the program is all online but the online portion has the fortune to carry the prestige of the brick & mortar program it falls under.

 

Edited by UrbanMidwest
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I would also advise against the dual degrees. MSW-macro is quite similar to an MPA, just more focused on the social services field.  Also, with regards to salaries, there are several hospital systems in NC that pay excellent salaries for non-LCSW MSWs, starting in the 50s.  I just finished working at UNC so can vouch for that one, but I imagine Duke and Novant are similar.  

My wife just graduated from UNC with her MSW and got really lucky with a good-paying job with the university in research and program coordinating, and it was based purely on a connection she had made with a researcher for a part-time job while studying.  There are opportunities, but they may not be plentiful.  UNC-Chapel Hill also has a good distance program based out of Winston-Salem (my wife did the distance program out of Raleigh).

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