First, it is essential to note that forensic social work is a specialty under the banner of social work. As outlined in other DegreeQuery articles on this topic, the forensic concentration adds the component of interacting and networking with legal, law enforcement, and medical professionals. Forensics means that it involves the criminal justice system in some capacity. Therefore, the same parameters apply to this specialty as they do to all aspects of social work.
The consensus among social work organizations is that a bachelor’s degree is the minimum. You may, perhaps, find work at an entry-level with an associate’s degree. A two-year degree may open the door to be a Social Services Assistant. The job involves working with healthcare professionals, including social workers, psychologists, and nurses, to assist them with different duties. Work settings include nursing homes, assisted living facilities, care facilities, and community service organizations. Another potential job is a case manager assistant. This venue may provide some experience applicable to forensics, such as substance abuse treatment centers, mental health facilities, and parolees.
There are online Associate degrees in Social Work that are generally 60 credits. You can complete most within two years for less cost than a four-year bachelor’s degree. You may find a community college in your area that offers the degree. At this level, you should look for courses that provide a foundation in sociology, social work ethics, psychology, addictions, probation, and legal services.
The problem with the Associate degree is that it may not qualify you to work as a social worker in your respective state. The qualifications for licensure differ by state. Arizona, for example, has different job opportunities depending on whether you have a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degree. Professionals with a bachelor’s degree can pursue work in areas such as case management or program management. Graduates with a Master of Social Work (MSW) have more opportunities in specialized fields such as addiction, mental illness, and clinical work.
In New York state, you need at least a master’s degree in social work from an accredited college or university. Several states have two tiers of licensing. There is a Licensed Social Worker (LSW) and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW). A BSW will qualify you to apply for the LSW. You need a master’s to earn an LCSW, which may also require hours of supervised social work experience. Illinois, for example, demands 3,000 hours. Therefore, how advanced your degree is, is dictated by the state in which you want to be licensed.
There are exceptions to the above criteria set by Illinois. One example is Virginia, where you can apply for an LSW with a baccalaureate. The caveat is that you must first complete 3,000 hours of work experience. Those with a master’s in social work are exempt from the supervised work hours!
A doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.) in social work is not necessary unless you plan on working in research or academia. An MSW with additional training in forensic social work is preferable. The National Organization of Forensic Social Work (NOFSW) has a Forensic Social Work Certificate Program. Also, the National Association of Forensic Counselors (NAFC) offers Forensic Counselor and Criminal Justice Specialist certifications. The NAFC divides their certifications into non-clinical and clinical levels. The former requires the minimum of a bachelor’s, whereas the clinical level requires a master’s or higher.
Perhaps More beneficial to your career in forensic social work, instead of a Ph.D., is a graduate mcertificate. Iona College in New Rochelle, New York, has a Certificate in Forensic Criminology and Criminal Justice Systems. The 12 credits program has the ingredients to enhance your knowledge of victimology, deviant behavior, forensic health, the Law, and the criminal justice system.
Not all of the certificate programs require a graduate degree or residency. Portland State University offers online courses that highlight criminal law and legal reasoning. Becker College in Worcester, Massachusetts, has a Certificate in Addictions Counseling. The 21-credit curriculum covers psychology, addictions counseling, substance abuse counseling, and psychopharmacology.
In summary, how advanced a degree you need is a personal decision. A decision influenced by your career aspirations, state of employment, education objectives, and long-term goals in the field of forensic social work.