Earning a Masters in Social Work degree prepares you for leadership roles in developing and providing services to individuals, families, groups, communities and organizations. If you recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree and are considering a career that offers you the chance to make a difference in the lives of people in need, a Masters in Social Work (MSW) might be the next step on your career path. Social workers play a crucial role in assisting disadvantaged individuals, families and communities with problems related to mental illness, poor health, unemployment, homelessness, substance abuse, child neglect and other complex social issues.
MSW programs are designed to prepare graduates for advanced social work practice in clinical settings and social service agencies. Students in MSW programs develop the advanced skills needed to perform clinical assessments, manage large caseloads, understand the importance and requirements of a supervisory role, and draw upon social services to better serve the needs of their clients. They also learn strategies to develop and administer programs and develop social policy.
A bachelor’s degree in social work is not required for entry into an MSW program, but a background in psychology, biology, sociology, political science or a foundation in the liberal arts is recommended. And while a bachelor's degree is sufficient for some direct-service, licensed clinical social workers and other advanced positions require a master's degree.
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Master of Social Work Degree Admission Requirements
Prior to gaining admission to a MSW program, students need to complete an undergraduate degree. This needs to be earned at a college or university that’s been accredited, preferably by the CSWE. Most schools require a minimum undergraduate GPA that must be met in order to qualify for admission eligibility.
Each school may differ in the documentation they require, but prospective graduate students should be prepared to send in a number of supplemental items with their applications. For example, students may have to submit proof that they’ve completed a predetermined number of required liberal arts credits before they’re admitted into a MSW program, as well as the submission of references and a written personal essay.
Students may also have to submit Graduate Records Examination (GRE) scores prior to being accepted. Speaking to an admissions officer will help you get a feel for what might be expected during the admissions process.
Types of Master’s Degrees in Social Work
Depending on individual preferences, students may have several options when it comes to the specific degree program they’ll be following. Most schools offer both a clinical and non-clinical MSW focus, so students can choose which path is right for their career.
Non-clinical social workers, also called macro level social workers, use their knowledge and training to affect change at a policy level. They can identify issues and trends within communities, and advocate changes that may iron out the social issues faced by those who may need extra support. Non-clinical work may include some degree of counseling along with their regular duties, but it’s less likely to be a primary part of the job in comparison to individuals with clinical social work training.
Clinical social workers work with clients to affect change on a personal level. They’re the ones on the ground level, helping vulnerable members of their community with issues that may be hampering their quality of life. They work directly with clients, and may function as advocates for those who lack access to the resources that can help them to meet their basic needs.
What Can I Do With a MSW?
A master’s degree in social work can open the door to many different careers in a wide variety of settings. Here are a few of the most popular career paths chosen by individuals with a master’s degree in social work.
Public Health Social Work
For social workers who want to work with many different types of people, a career in public health social work may be a good fit.
These social workers are often employed by organizations like hospitals, community health centers, rehab facilities, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and similar organizations. They fill a major need when clients are often at their most vulnerable. Public health social workers may frequently act as a liaison between social services and the people who need them.
Child and Family Social Work
Social workers who want to make a difference to families or children in need may opt for a specialization in child and family social work.
Individuals with this focus can choose to use it a several different ways. They may work with children in a therapeutic setting. They may offer family therapy groups and sessions, and they can help families find the social services they need.
A MSW in child and family social work can also lead to a career as a child welfare worker with a government or local agency. Many hospitals also employ welfare workers on staff.
Geriatric Social Work
Geriatric social workers cater to the elderly population and their needs.
They may work with families to provide assessments pertaining to the care of aging members of the community. They can set clients up with the assistance they may need as their independence fades with age, while making sure all medical needs are met. Geriatric social workers may also work directly with elderly clients as counselors or therapists.
There is no fixed, standard curriculum across all MSW programs, though the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), which provides the accreditation for more than 200 U.S. schools of social work, defines core competencies that must be covered by an MSW curriculum. These competencies include critical thinking, ethical decision making, human behavior, research methods and public policy. The CSWE also recognizes the need for MSW graduates to know how to engage, assess, intervene and evaluate individuals, families and populations, and requires coursework that fosters these skills.
MSW programs are most often completed in two years, but programs also may offer an advanced standing program so you can complete this degree in less than one year. In the first year of a traditional two-year program, social work students are provided with a solid foundation in social work education, taking a range of classes that generally reflect the core competencies set forth by the CSWE. Once they are exposed to the foundations of social work, students are then ready to focus their study through a concentration area that will prepare them for working with a specific population or on an area of interest. Study areas for this concentration usually focus on topics such as mental health, substance abuse or child services.
Students accepted into an advanced standing program hold a bachelor of social work degree and can earn their MSW degree in one year. They skip the foundation year of study and start their program with the concentration year curriculum. Admissions criteria for this type of program vary by school.
Social Work Field Education
Field Education is one of the most important components of earning a Master of Social Work (MSW). While classroom learning is a vital part of social work education, having the opportunity to work in real life situations allows students to develop skills sets and gain experience that helps them during their careers. Through field education, students have the opportunity to observe and learn from situations that they will encounter once they begin their careers. Students also get the chance to practice what they have learned under the supervision of an experienced social worker. In addition to using skills they learn in the classroom, students gain confidence in their abilities and hopefully narrow down their career goals.
The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), the primary accrediting body for social work programs, has defined social work field education as an integral part of social work education. The CSWE gives equal weight to classroom and field experience in the social work curriculum, recognizing each as contributing to the development of the competencies required for professional practice.
Field Education Requirements
Requirements may vary by program, but in order to fulfill CSWE field education requirements, MSW students must complete at least 900 hours of field education under the supervision of a professional social worker who holds an MSW. For distance learners pursuing their degree virtually, accredited online MSW programs work to place students with local agencies.
As an example of what to expect, in one eminent online MSW program, students are required to complete two field education experiences for a total of 1,000 hours, which involve a steady workload of about 16 to 20 hours per week for three semesters. In their field experiences, students work with local organizations, services or government entities. Field experiences are designed to introduce students to the field of social work and potential postgraduate career paths.
Types of Field Education
MSW programs require two types of field education. The first type, known as foundation placement, takes place during the first year of the program. In foundation experiences, students develop core skills in psychosocial assessment, clinical interviewing and evaluation. Students learn how to work with people of all ages, backgrounds, socioeconomic statuses and cultures. During a foundation placement, students spend as much as 50 percent of their time interacting directly with clients. Students are assigned to a specific foundation experience by faculty based on previous experience, education and future goals. The objective is to expose students to things they haven’t experienced so that they can expand their horizons.
The second type of field education, known as concentration placement, gives students the opportunity to use their advanced skill sets in a more focused area. While the foundation placement introduces students to the general idea of social work, a concentration placement allows students to pursue a field experience unique to their specific goals. Students have more influence on where they are placed during a concentration placement.
Field education placements take place in a variety of settings—many businesses, organizations and schools offer placement opportunities. Overall, each experience allows students to interact with and further the mission of a local group while building skills that are vital to their careers. The field experience aspect of an MSW is where students gain the hands-on experience that allows them to make a difference in the world after graduation.
Many MSW programs require students to complete a capstone component during their second year. Capstone projects allow students to demonstrate the application of academic and field education through the implementation of a project. This project, which is often completed through a field education agency, provides students with the opportunity to put the knowledge, skills and values they have acquired into practice. Students can enhance their communication skills by consulting with their academic advisor, field supervisor and agency clients and by creating and delivering a summary of the project. The project also allows students to contribute to the knowledge base of the social work field.
Next Steps Toward an MSW
If you are interested in a meaningful social work career that improves the lives of people in need, a Master of Social Work could be the key to your future as a leader in social service delivery. Learn more about this exciting degree and discover which MSW program can best help you meet your goals.
Social Work License Map is your guide to social work licensure that lists the requirements to become a social worker in your state. Masters of social work programs offer graduates the opportunity to play an active role in society. Master of social work online programs emphasize knowledge, values and practical skills with a focus on socio-economic justice and cultural diversity. We invite you to explore what students and alumni have to say about their experiences in the Masters of social work programs online.
We offer the latest information on becoming a social worker including Masters in social work online programs, certification, and careers. Many professionals such as psychologists, public health workers and counselors have entered this rewarding career with online MSW programs.
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Master’s of Social Work FAQ
Q: Should I practice clinical or non-clinical social work? How do I know what’s right for me?
A: Like most major career choices, the decision whether to focus on clinical or macro social work is a very personal one that depends greatly on your personal preferences. Do you have any prior work experience in either one of these fields? If so, consider whether you would be happy with a similar long-term career. If not, you may want to strongly consider volunteering or shadowing in both clinical and macro social work settings.
If you have strong interpersonal skills and find it rewarding to help individuals through difficult times, you may be well suited to a career in clinical social work. If you’re more interested in policy and larger picture issues that affect the most vulnerable members of society, a non-clinical MSW may be a good fit. Ultimately, it’s up to you which career path you opt to follow.
Q: Can I complete a Master’s in Social Work online?
A: Yes! Online degree programs are growing in popularity, and for good reason; they offer a great deal of flexibility without sacrificing quality of education. Most major colleges and universities offer a comprehensive list of online degree options.
Though any practicum or field work will need to be done in real life, the brunt of most programs’ course requirements can be completed online. Look for an accredited program that offers the same courses online as in their traditional campus setting.
Q: I already have experience in a social work setting. Can I use that toward the experience portion of my degree?
A: Unfortunately, the CSWE does not allow for experience gained outside of the degree program to count toward the experience requirement. However, your experience may be taken into account by the admissions department when going over your application, so don’t hesitate to include it anyway!