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

Social workers who are interested in working with a particular segment of the general population, a focus on a special population of interest will provide the skills and knowledge needed to engage those individuals and groups throughout your social work career.

In this section:

Perhaps now more than ever, social work practitioners are recognizing the unique strengths, needs, and experiences of ethnic, religious, racial and sexual minority populations, people with disabilities, older adults, immigrants and refugees, and other groups that are socially marginalized based on identity categories. A program of study that focuses on these “special populations” is one way to develop expertise in providing social work services to these groups.

Why Focus Your MSW in Special Populations of Interest in 2019:

Focusing MSW studies on a special population provides students with a focus on the practice and policy issues of most relevance to a particular group or community within the general population. These “special populations” reflect the interests and priorities of the social work profession as a whole, as well as the individual MSW student.

Projected Growth By Field:

  • Individual & Family Services –  31%
  • Social Assistance – 27%
  • Social Advocacy – 17%

MSW students who focus on a special population gain enhanced knowledge of and practice experience with their population of interest, allowing them to develop expertise in working with a group that has particular strengths and needs. The central aim of this focus area is to provide specialized educational and training opportunities to MSW students who are interested in engaging specific client groups in their careers as social workers.

MSW students who are interested in working with a particular group or community should consider focusing their MSW studies on that special population. This focus area is well-suited to those interested in providing social work services to a special population of interest. From clinical practice to policy analysis and advocacy, a focus area on a special population of interest provides graduates with the skills and expertise needed to effectively address the challenges and issues impacting a particular group or community.

In-Demand Career Options for Special Populations Social Workers

Social workers are committed to giving increased attention to the most marginalized and vulnerable groups in society, and the options available for focusing an MSW degree on a special population reflects this commitment. Some examples of special populations that MSW students might consider as a focus for their studies include LGBTQ populations and sexual minorities, older adults, people with intellectual and/or physical disabilities, immigrants and refugees, indigenous/Native populations, and other cultural or ethnic minority groups.

These groups are considered “special populations” because they are socially marginalized, excluded, and/or otherwise disadvantaged by social systems that cause, contribute to, and perpetuate oppression. Many MSW programs offer programs of study that focus on one or more of these special populations, preparing students to practice with clients who are members of that special population.

Career Paths:

MSW students who choose to focus their studies on a special population of interest have multiple career paths available to them upon graduation. Programs of study that focus on a special population usually provide a broad knowledge base that spans micro level to macro level social work practice with a particular group of people. Through a wide scope of practice with a selected population of focus, graduates are prepared to step into a number of different positions and settings that allow them to engage with that population.

Top Career Paths Clinical Social Workers:

  • Special Interest Advocate
  • Clinician
  • Community Advocate
  • Non-profit Leadership

Many social workers who focused their studies on a special population go into clinical practice in areas, settings, or organizations that primarily serve members of that special population. For example, a social worker who focused on older adults might provide clinical services at a nursing home, or a social worker who focused on sexual minorities might provide clinical services at a local LGBTQ center.

Alternatively, social workers can go into private practice in a geographic area that primarily serves a particular ethnic minority, so a focus on that group would be advantageous in providing effective and culturally-competent services.

At the macro-level, MSW graduates who focused on a special population can go into community practice, doing community organizing, program development and administration, or policy analysis and advocacy around issues relating to a special population. This could mean working at a research center and investigating policy issues related to immigration and asylum-seeking for a social worker who focused her studies on immigrants and refugees, or taking a role as a community organizer around increasing accessibility and support services in the local community for people with disabilities.

Often, social workers who have developed expertise on a special population through their MSW studies choose to be employed at a non-profit organization or social service agency whose mission is to serve their population of interest.

Our Picks for MSW Programs that offer a Special Populations Focus

    1. Widener University Human Sexuality
      Through a hybrid (in-person and online) program, Widener University offers a dual-degree program leading to the MSW and a Master of Education in Human Sexuality Studies. It is the “only dual-degree program offering Clinical Social Work and a Human Sexuality focus” and prepares graduates to “teach, consult, provide counseling and therapy, and conduct research in a variety of settings on complex issues related to human sexuality.” The clinical focus allows graduates to focus on sexuality within their social work practice, and/or work as licensed sex therapists. The program offers a range of courses in human sexuality, sexual minority populations, and clinical sexology, in addition to foundational social work courses.  Learn more about Widener University’s 100% ONLINE Program.

    2. Our Lady of the Lake University Worden School of Social Services – Hispanic Families
      The MSW curriculum at Our Lady of the Lake focuses on social work practice with Hispanic families. The program’s goal is to “prepare professionally trained social workers for specialized intervention in advanced social work direct practice with Hispanic/Latin@ children and families in a way that fosters commitment to culturally competent practice with diverse populations.” The first year of the program provides students with foundational knowledge, while the second year concentrates on the skills and knowledge needed in providing social work services to Hispanic children and families across the life course. Learn more about Our Lady of the Lake University’s 100% ONLINE Program.


    1. University of Denver – Native Populations
      Based in Durango, Colorado, the University of Denver’s Four Corners MSW program prepares graduates for rural and tribal social work practice. The program offers two specialized courses offered by Native faculty members to add Native content to the curriculum, reflective of the needs of nearby native communities. The program “emphasizes culturally responsive practice needed for the increasing diversity in communities locally and nationally.” The program aims to help meet the demand for social workers “trained to work with Native and Spanish-speaking clients.”


    1. University of Southern California Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work Older Adults
      For MSW students interested in working with the aged and aging populations, USC offers a dual-degree program leading to the MSW and a Master of Science degree in Gerontology. The dual-degree program focuses on mental health and wellness for older adults, and social change and innovation in response to the growing population of older adults.


  1. Hunter College Silberman School of Social Work – Immigrants and Refugees
    Hunter College in New York offers a field of practice specialization in Global Social Work and Practice with Immigrants and Refugees, available to all MSW students. This unique program combines global social work with practice with immigrants and refugees in response to the increasing interdependence of people, communities, and institutions in the context of globalization. Covering a wide range of topics in international social welfare policy, immigration policy, and cultural competency, the program is meant to “incorporate indigenous social work perspectives from around the globe – to inform learning and practice with families and communities wherever they are located, globally or in the US urban environment, with special attention to all forms of migration.”

Spotlight: Programs of Study for Special Populations Practice

Programs of study for MSW students focused on a special population of interest generally include coursework that provides students’ an understanding of the historical and political issues impacting the population of focus.

Additional coursework might focus on treatment and diagnosis, such as Widener’s course on “Sexual Dysfunction and Treatment” as part of its Human Sexuality focus. Further courses often provide knowledge related to working with members of the population of focus across the lifespan. For example, Our Lady of the Lake’s focus on Hispanic families includes a course called “Social Work Practice with Hispanic Youth” and “Social Work Practice with Hispanic Elders.”