<< BACK TO Top 3 Areas to Focus Your MSW in 2019

For those interested in direct practice with a diverse range of clients, clinical practice is a growing area in social work with promising job prospects in coming years.

In this section:

Why Focus Your MSW in Clinical Practice in 2019:

Clinical social work practice is centered on providing direct, therapeutic services to individuals, couples, and families. Clinical social workers can also be described as therapists, and might be employed alongside helping professionals from other disciplines, like counseling, psychology, and psychiatry.

Working with clients to build rapport and a trusting, therapeutic relationship is a hallmark of clinical social work practice, that allows the clinical social worker and client to begin working together on assessment and intervention planning.

The projected growth rate for mental health and substance abuse social workers is 19%, healthcare social workers is 20%, and child, family, and school social workers is 14% by 2026 – meaning that new positions in each of these clinical areas of practice are opening each year.

Engaged directly with their clients, clinical social workers draw on a number of different social and psychological theories to help clients better understand, cope with, and resolve the problems, challenges, and difficulties they are experiencing.

For MSW students interested in working directly with clients through face-to-face interactions, a clinical practice focus is the right choice. Focusing one’s studies on clinical practice will better prepare MSW students who hope to provide supportive services to individuals, couples, and families in a therapy setting.

In-Demand Career Options for Clinical Social Workers

There are a number of options to further specialize one’s skill set within the realm of clinical practice. Programs with a clinical practice focus often offer elective courses for those interested in addressing a specific presenting problem or issue, such as mental health concerns, substance abuse, trauma, or family functioning.

Opportunities also exist to develop or enhance one’s skill set in a particular therapeutic modality, such as psychodynamic approaches or Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT). These all fall under the scope of clinical practice, and allow MSW students in clinical practice programs to develop expertise in the specific topics of interest to them.

Clinical Career Paths

Most clinical social workers are employed (or self-employed) as therapists, facilitating therapy sessions with clients on a daily basis. Clinical social workers can be employed in a non-profit, school, or agency setting, or might establish a private practice. Clinical social workers can also be found in hospitals and other health and crisis centers, providing individual or group-based therapeutic services to clients who are going through a medical or psychological crisis, or who have been diagnosed with a serious and/or chronic illness.

Top Career Paths Clinical Social Workers:

  • Non-Profit (Community-Based, Intervention Roles)
  • Geriatric & Family Services
  • Medical, Health & Crisis Services
  • Trauma & Therapy

Within the field of clinical practice, clinical social workers might also tailor their services to a specific client population or therapeutic approach. For example, some clinical social workers serve children primarily, often through play therapy and art therapy approaches. Or, a clinical social worker that chooses to focus on clients who have experienced trauma might specialize in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, a proven trauma treatment.

Our Picks for MSW Programs that offer a Clinical Practice Focus

  1. Widener University Widener’s University’s online MSW program focuses on trauma in the context of clinical practice, recognizing “trauma as a root cause of mental illness.” Through the lens of trauma, MSW students gain experience in clinical social work practice with a focus on individuals and families, allowing them “to serve a greater population of those in need of mental healthcare.” A trauma certificate option is also available to MSW students to further deepen their knowledge and experience.
    Learn more about Widener University’s 100% ONLINE Program.  
  2. Sacred Heart University – Sacred Heart University’s MSW programs allows students to specialize in clinical practice their second year, by choosing a curriculum focused on clinical assessment and diagnosis. Students can further enhance their clinical practice skills by selecting elective courses in substance abuse treatment, children and families, and loss and life transition, amongst others. This program option gives students “specialized skills in social work practice and includes assessment, treatment planning, interventions and practice evaluation.”
    Learn more about Sacred Heart University’s 100% ONLINE Program.

  3. Rutgers University – Rutgers offers a clinical social work specialization in its MSW program focused on enhancing individual and family well-being. Within this specialization, students can choose to concentrate their studies on Addiction Counseling, Children & Adolescents, and Violence Against Women and Children, amongst others. They also offer several areas of emphasis in conjunction with the Clinical Practice specialization, such as Mental and Behavioral Health and Children, Youth, and Families.
  4. Baylor University – Baylor’s MSW program allows students to choose between two clinical practice areas of focus. The – physical and mental health area prepares graduates “for direct practice and health care administration and planning roles”, while the children and families focus area “Prepares students to evaluate and apply evidence-based practice theories and methods of intervention that reflect a person-environment orientation and strengths perspective.”
  5. University of Illinois – Clinical practice is a major area of focus for the University of Illinois, which allows students to choose an Advanced Clinical Practice Concentration.  Within this concentration, students can refine their area of focus to Mental Health, Health Care, Children, Youth, & Family Services, and Schools. Through any of these clinical practice areas of focus, students are prepared for careers in direct practice across a number of settings.

Spotlight: Programs of Study for Clinical Practice

Programs of study for MSW students focused on clinical practice usually center on direct practice skills, such as assessment and intervention, and evidence-based theories and models. For example, Sacred Heart University offers a core course called “Clinical Assessment and Diagnosis” and Baylor University offers a core course called “Advanced Clinical Theories and Models.”


Elective offerings often include courses that focus on particular presenting problems, assessment tools and techniques, and therapeutic approaches. For example, Widener University offers an elective course called “Treating Trauma,” and the University of Illinois provides training in “Behavioral and Cognitive Methods for Social Work.”