Master of Social Work (MSW) Programs

Master of Social Work Curriculum

There is no fixed, standard curriculum across all MSW programs, though the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), defines core competencies that must be covered by a CSWE-approved MSW curriculum. These competencies include ethical and professional behavior, diversity and difference in practice, human rights and social, economic, and environmental justice, practice-informed research and research-informed practice, policy practice and more.

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.

MSW Capstone Project

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 may be able to 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. This final project also allows students to contribute to the knowledge base of the social work field.

Field Education and Internship Requirements for Social Work

Majority of MSW programs include a significant field education component, such as a social work internship or field placement.

The first type, known as foundation placement, takes place during the first year of the program where students spend as much as 50 percent of their time interacting directly with clients. In foundation experiences, students may develop core skills in psychosocial assessment, clinical interviewing and evaluation, working with people of all ages, backgrounds, socioeconomic statuses and cultures.

The second type of field education, known as concentration placement, provides 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.

Social work field education placements take place in a variety of settings. 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 a master of social work program is where students gain the hands-on experience that allows them to make a difference in the world after graduation.

Types of MSW Degree Programs

Students may have several options when it comes to the specific social work degree program they’ll be following so it’s important to find the best MSW program that fits your needs. Online degree programs are growing in popularity, and for good reason, many online MSW programs may be completed in about two years.

Full-Time MSW Programs

For full-time MSW programs, students may expect a full course load year-round. Beginning with introductory social work courses and easing into field education, full-time MSW programs are ideal for students who are able to balance their time and responsibilities to reach their educational goals. A full-time MSW program is likely to cover a foundational year and a specialized year with the former focusing on introductory coursework and the latter more practice specific classes.

Part-Time MSW Programs

Many universities offer flexible scheduling methods for earning a master’s degree in social work through part-time programs. Part-time MSW programs will meet the same course load requirement as full-time programs, just at a slower rate – less courses per semester for example. With this flexibility, future social workers can work towards earning their MSW within two to four years. 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.

Traditional Standing vs Advanced Standing MSW Programs

Traditional standing MSW programs offer opportunities for any students from mostly any undergraduate background to earn an MSW. However, students who have earned a CSWE-accredited bachelor of social work (BSW) can pursue an advanced standing program.

A traditional MSW program will require more credits as the foundation of social work courses are required. In an advanced standing MSW program, BSW students can begin their specialized courses almost right away – considering they already have an introduction to social work. Traditional MSW programs will require more credits to complete while advanced standing students may expect to complete almost half.

Hybrid MSW Programs

Combining both on-campus and online courses, hybrid MSW programs offer students flexibility to meet their course work standards in a virtual or real classroom. Students in hybrid MSW programs may have the option to attend on-campus classes during the weekends or in the evening times during the week while maintaining classwork virtually.

Online MSW Programs

Some major colleges and universities offer online msw program options. An online education offers a great deal of flexibility without sacrificing quality of education. 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 a CSWE-accredited program that offers the same courses online as in their traditional campus setting.

Master of Social Work Admissions Requirements

Prior to gaining admission to a MSW program, students must meet certain education requirements, such as completing an undergraduate degree. This should be earned at a college or university that’s been accredited. If you are considering an advanced standing program, your undergraduate degree may need to be a BSW from a CSWE-accredited program. Most schools may also require a minimum undergraduate GPA that must be met in order to qualify for admission eligibility.

MSW application requirements may differ in documentation depending on the school, 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 the MSW program, as well as the submission of references and a written personal essay.

Admissions requirements for MSW programs may also include submitting 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.

MSW Scholarships and Grants

Paying for a masters program may be challenging, but it shouldn’t be a deterrent. Social work scholarships and social work grants are available to offset the cost. The amount you receive depends on the scholarship or grant, but some scholarships offer students up to $10,000.

Do I need a master’s degree to become a licensed social worker?

It is possible in some jurisdictions to become a social worker without having a master’s degree in social work, but in many states, a master’s degree in social work (MSW) is required for a social work license, especially to practice clinical social work. See our state by state guide on social work licensure to learn more about your state’s requirements.

What Can I Do With a Master’s in Social Work?

Clinical Social Work Jobs

Social work encompasses the study of human society, through both the very broad (called macro) and the very intimate (called clinical) lenses. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) shares that clinical social work focuses on assessment, diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental, emotional, or behavioral illnesses.

Social workers in clinical practice are likely to work in private practice, hospitals, community mental health or primary care. State requirements for clinical social work licensure vary, so be sure to check with your state’s board for social work licensure before pursuing an MSW program. Depending on where clinical social workers are employed, social workers may earn about $49,000 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of September 2019.

Non-Clinical Social Work Jobs

Social workers that impact individuals and their families through programs and services often work at non-clinical or macro social work levels. Macro social work studies the broader social systems that shape the individual, such as the environment, cultures, communities and groups. Non-clinical social workers operate at the policy level to impact changes to programs and services that help communities and individuals such as those addressing racial inequalities, gaps in wages, access to resources, and removing barriers from systemic or structural oppressions.

MSW Careers

A master’s degree in social work may open the door to many different careers in a wide variety of settings. Here are a few social work career paths chosen by individuals with a master’s degree in social work. The growing social work careers can be found in mental health and substance abuse and health care, according to the BLS projected social work employment growth between 2018-2028.

  • Military Social Worker – Veterans Affairs: According to U.S. Code 38 USC Sec. 7402, social workers working within the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) must have a master’s degree and be licensed to practice independently. According to the VA, the department states that it is the largest employer of master’s level social workers in the United States. As a VA social worker, you may provide services in acute or psychiatric units, community living centers, provide crisis intervention or assist with benefits navigation.
  • School Social Worker: School social workers must be educated at the graduate level as well, according to U.S. Code 20 USC Sec. 7245. Social workers in education settings are trained mental health professionals who assist with mental and behavioral concerns of students as well as providing consultation and support to teachers, parents, and administrators on overall student well-being.
  • Healthcare Social Worker: Some positions in healthcare social work will require a master’s level degree in order to become licensed. Healthcare social workers will provide support to individuals, families and groups to cope with chronic, acute, or terminal illnesses. Patient education counseling and referrals are also provided by healthcare social workers.