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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 DegreeStudents 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:
- Child and Family and School Social Work
- Health Social Work
- Mental Health Social Work
- Military Social Work
- Community Organization
MSW AccreditationThe 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 AdmissionsCandidates 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
- Statement of purpose
- Letters of recommendation from academic and professional references
MSW CurriculumSocial 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
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.
Part-Time Versus Full-Time MSW ProgramsWhen 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 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.
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.