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.
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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