Master of Social Work
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.
MSW Practical Experience
MSW degree programs integrate theory and practical experience by combining coursework with field education. Applying theories and concepts learned in the classroom in a practice setting is integral to a well-rounded social work education and should be a basic precept of any social work program. CSWE supports this precept by requiring schools to mandate a minimum of 900 hours of field education to become accredited and for students to graduate.
Prospective students should look for MSW programs that support field education and help find and secure social work internships. In addition, MSW programs normally provide ongoing support by maintaining contact with field supervisors and evaluating student learning during the course of internships.
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.