Social work is one of the most diverse and expansive professions of today. Social workers have roles in almost every major industry and setting, from hospitals to military bases, legal agencies to rehabilitation centers, schools to private psychotherapy practice, and much more. With such a pervasive and far-reaching profession, and limits on the time and funds most students can afford to fulfill degree programs, social work education has been formulated into specialized knowledge trees. Distinct from BSW education, most MSW programs feature specific tracks of specialized learning that students may select during enrollment. There are often two tiers of these tracks: social work specializations and sub-specializations.
Get to Know Your Social Work Specializations
Social work specializations are larger hubs of practice and knowledge that steer the long course of an MSW track into an area of focus, such as mental health, schools, or leadership and development. Subspecializations fit within certain social work specializations to focus the latter portion of MSW curricula into advanced training and certifications in specific practice settings.
Declaring Your Social Work Specializations
Generally, all MSW students are required to declare their social specialization to orient their coursework and curricula, as there are often many more courses offered than are required to fulfill credit hours, and it is usually impossible to take all courses offered by a school of social work within the average graduation trajectory of 2-3 years. However, not all social work specializations necessarily require a declared subspecialization.
Furthermore, many subspecializations often require successful completion of certification exams, which result in a social worker becoming certified within a specific practice area. Certifications convey to potential employers a social worker’s highly specialized knowledge and skill sets, may uniquely qualify them for restricted roles in some settings, and often earn a social worker higher pay grades than non-certified social workers.
During enrollment and program/curriculum planning, prospective MSW students take advantage of resources to empower and inform their best choices in designing their education and degree criteria. Students can set themselves up for success by being diligent in reviewing their school’s program catalog and materials, attending orientation and program planning meetings (many schools now make these mandatory), and establishing good rapport and use of their program advisors.
Here is a brief guide to some of the most common social work specializations and subspecialization tracks, relevant certifications, and why you might consider them in your MSW:
- Mental Health or “Clinical”
- Often considered the “generalist” realm, this track infuses social work education with strong clinical skills rooted in the disciplines of psychology and sociology. Perfect for those pursuing mental agency or private practice careers.
- Children and Families
- This track uses the family system as the prime model of treatment and focuses of developmental needs of children across life stages to enhance family dynamics, parental support, and clinical treatment with children.
- Medical or “Health”
- For those who wish to practice in hospital and health agency settings, this track focuses on helping clients navigate and process health care systems, collaborate with doctors and providers, and discharge/follow-up care.
- School Social Work
- Required for those who wish to work as fully accredited and independent social workers in school settings, this track blends Children and Families with Education disciplines. Perfect for social workers dedicated to both direct service with students and learning age youth and advocacy work within the school system, collaborating with teachers, school boards, and parents.
- Leadership and Development in Social Services (LDSS)
- This track is ideal for macro-oriented and administrative social workers, especially those who want to work in the non-profit sector. Grant-writing, community organizing, political advocacy, and program evaluation & development are the bread and butter of this track
- Gero-ED or “Eldercare”
- Offers training in gerontological health and mental health, which focuses on health and advocacy for late and end-of-life stage people and their families; a great option for medical and hospice social workers.
- Substance Abuse or “Addictions”
- Focuses on the underlying causes and the systemic impacts of addictions, which blends well with any clinical practice and equips a social worker with skills and learning for working with substance abuse across any setting.
- Migration Studies
- Dedicated to the unique plights and needs of immigrants, refugees, and asylees, often blending specialized clinical skills with strong legal and advocacy training to collaborate with migrant families, lawyers, law enforcement, and legislators.
- Military Social Work
- Committed to service personnel and their families, this track focuses on specialized clinical work in trauma, military family work, and often disability and substance use. Collaborates with federal programs and military systems to connect military families to needed services and continuity of care after discharge or retirement.
- Certified Alcohol and Other Drug Counselors (CADC)
- Often open to social workers of any specialization, this certification often enhances social workers’ marketability across the board, as it appeals to many employers in a variety of settings.
- Certificate of Advanced Study in Philanthropy
- The culmination of the LDSS track for macro and administrative social workers, especially those who want to work in the non-profit sector.
- Post Master’s Type 73 – Professional Educator License (PEL) with School Social Worker Endorsement
- Must be taken after completion of MSW program and all School specialization track course requirements are met. This is the terminal accreditation for those dedicated to school social work practice in diverse settings.
Coupled with a full clinical license (LCSW), social workers with these certifications can be regarded as among the highest-grade social work professionals in that realm practice.