MSW Programs For those looking to become a social worker, an advanced degree is an important part of advancing your career and establishing yourself as a trusted, qualified provider of social services. While each state sets its own requirements for licensure, most require a Master of Social Work degree. While some social work jobs are open to candidates with a bachelor’s degree, a Master of Social Work can provide job seekers a wider and richer array of opportunities. Furthermore, the depth of clinical experience and of knowledge gained in an MSW program is invaluable preparation for a career in social work.  

MSW Degree

Students who know which area of social work they would like to practice in may choose to pursue a particular program within the MSW degree. Social work graduate programs allow students to focus their study and take more courses in these specific areas, allowing them to gain a specialized knowledge base and skill set that will best prepare them for their social work careers. A student hoping to pursue a career as a child and family social worker may benefit from enrolling in an MSW program with a family social work concentration. When researching MSW programs, be sure to inquire whether the school has the concentration you are looking for. Common social work graduate programs include:

MSW Accreditation

The accrediting institution for MSW programs is the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). The CSWE’s Commission on Accreditation develops certain criteria and standards, as well as methods and policies for the implementation of these standards, to which its board of directors refers when evaluating schools and determining accreditation status. Currently, 231 Master of Social Work programs and 13 MSWs in candidacy are accredited by the CSWE.

MSW Admissions

Candidates for Master of Social Work programs must hold a bachelor’s degree from a nationally- or regionally-accredited college or university. Though this bachelor’s degree does not have to be in social work, candidates who have obtained a BSW within five years of applying may have the option of pursuing an Advanced Standing MSW program, which eliminates many of the foundational requirements for the degree. MSW programs look for applicants who have a well-rounded academic background that spans the liberal arts, biological sciences and social sciences. Experience in human services fields, whether volunteer or professional, is viewed especially favorably. Admissions committees search for evidence that speaks to an applicant’s commitment to the foundational values of the social work profession, such as social justice, social change and diversity, as well as his or her possession of certain personal qualities, including empathy, sensitivity, communication skills, reasoning ability and care for others. MSW programs generally require the following application materials:
  • Application form
  • Application fee
  • Official academic transcripts from all attended colleges or universities
  • Resume
  • Statement of purpose
  • Letters of recommendation from academic and professional references
Graduate schools of social work may not have a specific GPA cutoff, but they usually prefer a GPA over 3.0 on a 4-point scale as proof of the applicant’s ability to handle the academic rigor of a graduate program. The GRE may or may not be required by MSW programs, depending on certain schools’ entrance standards. Check individual program websites to determine whether you need to take the test for admission and for exact application due dates.

MSW Curriculum

Social work encompasses the study of human society, through both the very broad (called macro) and the very intimate (called clinical) lenses. Macro social work studies the broader social systems that shape the individual, such as the environment, cultures, communities and groups, while clinical social work narrows the scope of study to working with individuals and family units. As such, the curriculum of MSW programs often falls into these two general categories: macro social work and clinical social work. Students may study both macro and clinical social work equally or focus their study depending on individual career aspirations. An aspiring community social worker, for instance, may benefit from studying macro social work, while an aspiring mental health social work practitioner might choose to specialize in clinical social work. As per the interdisciplinary nature of social work, MSW programs offer a variety of courses, some of which are required as foundational courses and others that students can tailor to their individual needs. These courses usually cover human behavior, social policy, family units, welfare, social justice and social change, as well as interventions, practitioner ethics, research methods, design and analysis. Sample courses include:
  • Human Behavior and the Social Environment
  • Social Work Practice with Individuals
  • Social Work Practice with Families and Groups
  • Social Welfare
  • Social Policy Analysis
  • Social Policy in Organizations
  • Social Work Research Methods
  • Fieldwork Practicum
In a human-oriented field like social work, it’s especially important that education extends beyond the classroom. MSW programs include a significant field education component, such as a clinical internship or field placement, and often require students to complete a certain number of hours of fieldwork to supplement their academic study. Students may be placed with schools, hospitals, businesses, social service agencies, and government and community organizations in order to gain practical, real-world experience and hone their professional skills in areas such as clinical case management, practitioner ethics, risk assessment, DSM diagnoses and evidence-based interventions. An MSW degree typically takes two years to complete if the student is full time. However, if a student is part time, completion of the degree can take three to four years depending on each semester’s course load. The first year is called the foundation year, during which students take required courses, and the second year is called the advanced year, during which students may wish to take specialized coursework by pursuing a concentration.

Class Structures and Instruction Methods for Online MSW Programs

When selecting an online degree program, it is important for students to consider different types of class structures and instructional methods. Students should always consider their career goals and what they think will be the most valuable educational experience when choosing a degree program. One of the first decisions students need to make when comparing programs is whether they want a program that uses the cohort model or a flexible course schedule.

The Cohort Model

The cohort model is a type of curriculum that uses a set structure. A cohort is a group of students who begin a program at the same time and are together until the very end of the program. The students in a cohort take the same courses in the same order for the duration of the degree program. There is little flexibility in the classes students take, the order in which they take them, and how many classes students complete in a semester. However, because students move through the program with a set group of classmates, they form a strong sense of community. This community provides support during enrollment and a networking system after graduation.

Students in a cohort model are comfortable with the set pace of the program. Courses are preselected for the students, and students are likely to be auto-enrolled and guaranteed a spot in classes. This means reduced stress when creating a schedule.

Flexible Course Schedule

The other program structure is a flexible course schedule. These types of programs allow students to select classes and move at an individual pace. Students take elective classes related to their particular interests and career goals. Students with a flexible course schedule have more options in the order and subject matter of the courses they take. Students have the option to move at a faster or slower pace than other students, since they are not all moving through the program together. The other notable difference is that students will take classes with a diverse group of peers as they move through the program.

Synchronous and Asynchronous Content

Once students decide on a cohort or flexible model, they will want to look into the method of instruction. There are two types of online class content — synchronous and asynchronous. Synchronous classes require the students to be online at a set time. This is similar to a traditional class in that there is a certain time during the week that students set aside to be online and participate. The benefit to this is that it offers instant feedback from the professor and other students. These classes might take the form of a chat session, conference call or video session, but students communicate in real time.

The other type of online class is asynchronous, which means that there is no set time for the entire class to meet. Generally there are weekly deadlines for students, and the professor can post video lectures, podcasts or notes for students to review. Students can expect to have all the regular aspects of a class like tests and papers, but with limited real-time feedback. The benefit to this is flexibility. Students don’t have to set aside the same time every week to meet with the class as long as they are completing assignments on time. In this setting, students still communicate with classmates and professors via email.

Some online programs combine synchronous and asynchronous content to create a hybrid learning experience. It’s important to note that there is no right type of program. The key is for students to do their research and select the program that fits them best.

Part-Time Versus Full-Time MSW Programs

When planning to pursue a master’s degree, students need to consider how much time they have to commit to a program. Some students may have a full-time job requiring a slower pace of study, while other students may prefer to be immersed in a master’s program full time. As a result of new technology and teaching methods, prospective students can tailor their academic schedule to their lifestyles. Most universities offer students part-time and full-time program options to pursue their degrees, and students should research what options are available. When making the decision between a part-time and a full-time program, students have a few different factors to consider.

Full-Time Programs

Full-time degree programs allow students to be immersed in the program and to earn their degrees faster. This option is ideal for students who are taking a career break or are in-between jobs. Full-time students generally earn their degrees in two years, on a two semester per year schedule.

A sample full-time class schedule to earn a Master of Social Work includes 17 credits in the fall semester (five three-credit classes and one two-credit class) and 14 credits in the spring semester (four three-credit classes and one two-credit class). In this example, after a second year with a similar schedule, a student would earn their degree after taking a minimum of 60 credits.

A full-time program is ideal for students who want to enter the workforce as quickly as possible and have the time to devote to a full course load. The cons of full-time study include the intense course schedule and a potential conflict between working and studying. In order for students to earn a degree in a short period of time, they have to make school a priority.

Part-Time Programs

Many universities offer flexible scheduling methods for earning a master’s degree through part-time programs, including hybrid programs consisting of part-time and full-time schedules. Determining the right fit depends on the student. If a student has a job that requires weekday work but has completely free weekends, many schools offer weekend classes and distance learning options. A part-time and full-time hybrid program usually means students earn a degree in three years; a purely part-time program means students earn a degree in four years.

The time frame depends on how much time a student can devote to a program. Part-time programs allow students earning a Master of Social Work to take foundational classes for the first two years before transitioning into a specific concentration. Part-time programs are ideal for students who have families or are currently working and need to continue working in order to maintain their quality of life.

Part-time and full-time graduate programs offer a variety of options for prospective students and allow students to tailor their degree experience. When deciding on a program, the primary consideration for students is how much time they have to devote to their education. Every student is different, and degree programs account for this by making a variety of scheduling options available.

MSW Tuition

Tuition for MSW programs generally falls within the range of $30,000–$40,000 per academic year. As with any academic program, prospective students should factor in additional costs such as books, registration fees, health insurance and technology fees. However, social work scholarships are available to offset these costs. Additionally, residential costs can be eliminated for students considering online MSW programs.

Further Reading