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Is a master's in social work the new law degree? Surprising insights you should know

Jess Scherman By  Jess Scherman  |  @jescherman  | 

Is a master's in social work the new law degree?

In a recent article written for Inside Higher Ed, John L. Jackson Jr., dean of the School of Social Policy & Practice at the University of Pennsylvania, asserted that a master's in social work (MSW) is on its way to becoming the 21st century's juris doctor (JD).

College graduates have long considered law school to be a natural next step, based on the assumption that - despite not knowing the specific career path they may want to take — the preparation of earning a law degree would equip them with skills that can be used in a variety of potential jobs.

This view, Jackson argues, is changing quite significantly. With younger generations' profound interest in social activism and social justice, an MSW "is quickly becoming the 21st century's law degree, especially for young people interested in making the world a better place," he says.

Intrigued by this assertion, we dug into the roots of social work and its progression into the 21st Century to uncover an answer to this up-and-coming question: Is an MSW the new law degree?

Take a look at what we found.

The evolving social work mission

Since the social work field emerged in the late 19th century, it has always been in tune with  issues of social justice, wrestling with the complex relationship between "case" and "cause," according to Social Work Today. In fact, the National Association of Social Workers' (NASW) Code of Ethics urges social workers to engage in social and political action in an effort to ensure that all people have equal access to the resources, services and opportunities required to meet their basic human needs.

The NASW goes on to state that one of the defining features of social work is the profession's focus on an individual's well-being within a larger social context, tuning into the well-being of society. "Fundamental to social work is attention to the environmental forces that create, contribute to and address the problems in living," cites the NASW Code of Ethics' preamble.

Social workers often serve as catalysts for bringing social justice concepts into the wider social and political arena. Their long-term goal is to empower their clients with knowledge of existing legal principles and organizational structure, according to NASW.

In fact, there's an entire sector of social work — macro social work — that focuses on inequality on a much larger scale. This includes tackling laws, policies, and societal constructs as they relate to housing, education, infrastructure and poverty. Social workers operating from this larger, more public platform participate in the field not in a case-by-case basis, but in community-wide efforts to alleviate issues at their structural roots.

While the mission that drives the social work profession has not changed, the scope of work and the way the field is viewed by new generations is shifting. For example, there was a time when choosing a career in social work most often meant becoming a caseworker or working with Child Protective Services. While those paths are still applicable — and wholly important — today, we are seeing colleges and universities adapt their social work programs to infuse this renewed focus on social justice.

And today's young people are increasingly drawn to this shift.

The conscientious interests of Generation Z

Colleges and universities have begun to set their sights on Generation Z — our newest crop of young people born after Millennials. While this generation is still budding, we are learning more about the young influencers of tomorrow each day. It is believed that while Millennials were shaken by terror attacks and economic turmoil in the 2000s, Generation Z has experienced these tough realities their whole lives.

As a result, Generation Z is thought to be conscientious, socially aware, hardworking and mindful of the future. The young people of this generation are digital natives coming of age in the midst of social media activism and nationwide discussion via social media platforms. Civil rights breakthroughs — such as the nation's first African-American president and the Supreme Court's recognition of same-sex marriage — are the historical milestones that molded this generation and their outlook on the world.  

Hand-in-hand with this new era of social awareness and civic-mindedness comes a generation of young people equipped and eager to become activists for social justice. Generation Z is growing up believing that they will have the collective power needed to lead change at the community, state and national levels.

With all of this in mind, Jackson's assertion that social work will become the new go-to field for young people looking to change the world seems entirely viable.

The future of social work

The shift in pursuit of MSWs could not come at a better time, as the future of the social work field is extremely promising. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the overall employment of social workers will grow approximately 12 percent through 2024.

While many social workers land positions in the field after earning a bachelor's degree, an increasing number of jobs require an MSW, such as a clinical social worker.

Social work is a unique career path in that there is a wide variety of positions you can hold after earning your degree, from specific types of social workers — such as health care, mental health and child, family and school social workers — to the more macro roles discussed above. Increasingly, social work graduates are able to combine these multiple roles into one flexible career. Many of these positions require an MSW.

Could an MSW help you make a difference?

With the focus of our newest generation shifting more prominently to social justice, systematic inequality, civic responsibility and activism, a push for more degrees in social work seems fitting. And for those graduating from college and looking for the next step that will best enable them to instill change in their corner of the world, a master's in social work could be the perfect fit.

It is true, after all, that the field of social work would not exist today without its deep-seated commitment to issues of social justice.

Are you hoping to use your career to make a positive impact within your community? Whether you have an undergraduate degree in the field or not, you can learn more about how an MSW can equip you to make a difference by visiting the Master of Social Work information page.

Jess Scherman


Jess is a higher education content creator who writes on behalf of The College of St. Scholastica. She researches and writes content to help current and prospective students on their path to educational success. As a published poet with a passion for the transformative nature of higher education, she loves discovering new ways to use her writing as a tool to help others.

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