If so, a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree is an excellent choice for your future. As you research graduate programs in the field of social work, you’ll want to learn more about the professional requirements for becoming a licensed social worker, and what’s involved in earning the degree. But if you completed your bachelor’s degree long ago, and are returning to school as an older student, navigating all of this can seem pretty intimidating.

If you have been out of college for a decade or more, you might have some questions about going back to earn your MSW. Will you feel out of place? What might it feel like to go to school with students who are much younger? Are you too old to return to school? Well, we’ve got good news. With changing demographics about who goes to school and when, and the increasing popularity of online options, age may no longer be a factor. The landscape for graduate students has changed dramatically over the past several years.

You may believe that most graduate students heading into a graduate program are straight out of college, but the reality proves otherwise. In fact, the average age of graduate students in the United States is 33 years old! Many aspiring graduate school candidates have been out of school for several years before heading back for their master’s. And according to a report from the Council of Graduate Schools, 22% of enrolled graduate students are over 40 years of age.

Although the majority of graduate students across all subject areas are in their 30s, MSW programs have an even higher proportion of older students. This is because the social work degree attracts individuals who may be pursuing a second career, or just feel a strong need to give back. Additionally, social work is a high-need profession, meaning that it takes a certain kind of person to do the job. According to the US Bureaus of Labor Statistics, there will be a shortage of qualified social workers in the coming years. So regardless of age, MSWs find numerous opportunities for employment upon graduation. Social workers — of any generation — are in high demand.

Social work plays out in a wide range of settings, and with lots of different populations. Oftentimes, social workers are employed in healthcare-related capacities. The field of healthcare employs a multi-disciplinary team of professionals. This looks less like the corporate world, where one’s career track is typically in line with one’s age. Hospitals, clinics, and rehab facilities are highly diverse. An "older" social worker would hardly stand-out; in fact, that professional would fit right in.

One more thought: There is something about the nature of MSW study, and the nature of the social work profession, that makes life experience and maturity of particular value. For this reason, there has never been a stigma about age in this career. Older students easily mix with younger classmates in MSW programs. Perhaps it is a shared sense of purpose that unites these students and makes age less of an issue for aspiring MSWs. Because the path to becoming a licensed social worker is so short — only two years — the investment at almost any age is worthwhile.

Returning to School as an MSW

Getting your MSW requires careful decision making. You may question how successful you will be as a returning student. This is a good thing to take into consideration as you review programs for potential fit.

As discussed, your age is unlikely to limit you as a student, nor as a new hire upon graduation. The social work profession is licensed; having a license to practice adds an additional layer of legitimacy to your qualifications, whether you are in your 20s or in your 60s.

In addition, with numerous online MSW graduate degree options for MSWs as well as options for evening classes, older students can continue to work while pursuing their degrees.

It is not unusual for MSW students to pursue this degree in their 30s, 40s, or even 50s. Being a student later in life can be rewarding and meaningful. And as with many industries, a graduate degree is becoming the professional standard. MSW programs give students — of any age — the opportunity to become licensed professionals, switch careers, and increase their incomes.

Nedda
Nedda Gilbert

Ms. Gilbert is a certified social worker and 30 year educational consultant with an interest in helping college-bound and graduate school students manage the process and stress of admissions effectively. She is one of the senior founding managers of the Princeton Review Test Preparation Company, and the author of The Princeton Review Guide to the Best Business Schools and another book, Business School Essays that Made a Difference (Random House). She is a guest contributor to Forbes Magazine on college and college life. Ms. Gilbert is also certified as a collaborative family law professional in New Jersey. She received her BA from the University of Pennsylvania and MS from Columbia University.