Social work is one of the few fields professionals can enter at either the baccalaureate or masters level. Whether you are currently a social work professional advancing your career or new to the field, one constant remains: you need a license (at minimum) to practice. To be eligible for that license, you need a CSWE-accredited degree.
The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) is a nonprofit national association representing more than 2,500 individual members as well as graduate and undergraduate programs of professional social work education. The CSWE is also the sole accrediting agency for social work education in the United States responsible for developing minimum competency standards for social work programs.
The Difference Between BSW and MSW
Many social work or human services professionals hold a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) which prepares students for entry-level general practice in family services, child welfare, public health and substance abuse.
A Master of Social Work (MSW)prepares professionals to do advanced specialized clinical work in direct practice or administration. A typical clinical social worker will provide individual, group, and family therapy to develop strategies to change behavior or cope with difficult situations. In addition, an MSW program may offer you the opportunity to choose a specialization or concentration in a specific field of practice, allowing you to focus your studies and propel your career in the direction you want to go.
Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) Program Basics
For those beginning undergraduate education, the first step in beginning a social work career is enrolling in a Bachelor of Social Work degree program. The Bachelor of Social Work begins the social work career at the baccalaureate level, allowing you to pursue work in the field upon graduation, or continue on to the terminal Master of Social Work degree.
These programs provide generalist knowledge of social work research and practice, preparing graduates for entry-level positions in human services. BSW programs require the completion of one year of fieldwork – an internship in a social work setting, providing valuable practice experience as students enter the job market.
Because a BSW degree does not allow graduates to practice clinical social work (which requires a Master’s Level education and licensure exam), many students pursue a BSW as a stepping stone to graduate studies.
Master of Social Work (MSW) Basics
The Master of Social Work is a graduate-level degree that prepares students to become social work practitioners in a variety of settings. Graduate programs require a higher level of work, and require students to expand and deepen their theoretical knowledge, research skills, and application of social work knowledge and skills through intensive classroom and fieldwork experience. MSW programs typically require two years of full-time study, combined with two years of fieldwork placements that allow students to concurrently apply skills in real practice settings.
Our Lady of the Lake University – Online MSW (Advanced Standing Available)
Sacred Heart University – Online MSW (Advanced Standing Available)
Widener University – Online MSW (Advanced Standing Available)
Winthrop University – Online MSW (Advanced Standing Available)
MSW students can expect to gain both general and specialized knowledge of the social work field. The course of study includes basic theoretical foundations for understanding human development, societal structures, and relationship dynamics from an interdisciplinary perspective. Students are also trained in making clinical diagnoses, cultural competence, analyzing social policy, research and program evaluation, intervention methods and strategies, and social work practice with individuals, groups, communities, and organizations. Through electives and specializations, students are able to gain specialized knowledge in particular areas of interest.
Selecting an MSW Program
In choosing a graduate program for social work study, students should first and foremost ensure that the schools under consideration are accredited by the Council on Social Work Education.
Applicants should also review and consider the ranking and reputation of the school and program. School rankings and program rankings can vary, and at the Master’s level, it is advisable to consider program ranking above school ranking. An ivy league school, for example, might have a very high ranking and good reputation generally, but a lower-ranked university or college could have a higher-ranked and more reputable social work program.
Since graduate level studies in social work are more specialized, it is best to first consider program ranking and reputation, while not neglecting the overall ranking and reputation of the university in which each program is housed.
At the graduate level, students are expected to work closely with faculty members, often acting as teaching or research assistants. For this reason, it is important to closely examine faculty members’ research interests in relation to your own. For example, students who are particularly interested in international social work will want to look for faculty with international experience who are publishing research that takes place in an international context.
Selecting a school whose faculty interests match your own is a great way to ensure that you will be able to gain the specific types of knowledge that interest you and will form the foundation of your career.
Faculty are a valuable resource, so reach out to professors whose research interests are similar to yours to find out more about their work, the program overall, and potential opportunities for collaboration should you decide to attend their program.
MSW Specializations and Certifications
One of the advantages of an MSW program is the flexibility to choose between various options for specialization and certification as you shape your career. Specialization options will vary depending on the specific programs, but most schools offer some combination of the following:
Children and Families: this specialization focuses on child welfare and development, family assessment, and family systems, providing the specialized knowledge base needed for those who wish to work in child protection, family therapy, youth development, and adoption.
Schools: this specialization prepares graduates for practice in the school setting, working with students in the institutional educational environment to provide appropriate support and intervention during their educational trajectories.
Mental Health: this specialization emphasizes clinical social work practice, and the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of mental health issues, preparing graduates for work in intensive mental health settings, including hospital psychological wards, mental health agencies, and private practice.
Health: this specialization prepares students for social work practice within the broader health landscape, providing the expertise needed to complement medical care through social work practice in hospital and healthcare centers.
Gerontology: this specialization focuses on social work practice with the aged and aging, a population that needs increasing attention and care, preparing students for clinical and casework practice with clients reaching the end of their lifespan in hospice care, nursing homes, and other settings.
Leadership and Development in the Social Services/Non-Profit Management: this specialization emphasizes the skills needed to be a successful social services administrator, preparing students for careers as managers and leaders in health and human services agencies.
The online Master of Social Work (M.S.W.) at Winthrop University incorporates a powerful approach known as empowerment practice. This approach involves promoting social justice through affirming the strengths and capabilities of people, valuing human diversity and implementing system changes at the micro, mezzo and macro levels.
Many schools also provide sub-specialization options, allowing students to further hone their expertise in more specific areas of research and practice. Sub-specializations complement the general specializations listed above by delving further into one of these areas. Sub-specializations are not offered by all schools, and availability of options varies by program.