Social work is a challenging career in many ways – emotionally, mentally and often physically. However, the education required to attain this career is easy in some ways but difficult in other ways. Generally, the less advanced the degree you are pursuing is, the easier it will be to meet graduation requirements. If you plan to pursue a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree, the easiest options are the ones that allow you to count the credits you earned from one program toward both your undergraduate and graduate degrees. Of course, there’s always a tradeoff. Choosing an easier program like an associate’s degree won’t qualify you for a lot of the better and better-paying positions in social services, and the dual degree and advanced standing programs that allow you to get your master’s degree faster can also carry a more intense workload than you might anticipate.
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Easiest and Hardest Parts of the Social Work Curriculum
Unlike programs that are heavily based in laboratory science, high-level mathematics or complex abstract theories, the subject matter taught in a social work degree program isn’t difficult to master in a technical sense. Social work programs, particularly at the bachelor’s level of study, are primarily focused on the practice of social work and on learning to provide direct service to clients, as opposed to research or academic purposes.
For many students, the hardest part of the study of social work is also the most interesting and rewarding: field experience in real social worker settings. The Council for Social Work Education (CSWE), which accredits social work degree programs, requires at least 400 hours of supervised experience for undergraduate students and 900 hours for MSW students.
Social work students still take some math and science coursework. Typically, they are expected to take at least one class in statistics, a laboratory science that satisfies general education requirements and a minimum of one class on social research methodology.
Lower Levels of Degrees
The lower your level of study, the easier you can expect your curriculum to be – but the harder it might be to find the job you want. If you start your career with an associate’s degree, your curriculum will include mainly general education and foundational major courses, not high-level studies in the field. Although some community colleges offer associate’s degree programs in social work specifically, many schools instead offer more general degrees in human and social services. These two-year programs may require few, if any, hours of fieldwork experience.
Unfortunately, these programs don’t qualify you to become a social worker. The minimum level of education you need if you want to be a social worker is a bachelor’s degree from a four-year institution, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). If you stop your education at the associate’s degree level, you are most likely to find employment in a social and human service role, holding a position such as social work assistant or human service worker.
If you know you want to work as a social worker, rather than an aide or assistant, the Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree is a happy medium and a great launchpad for your career. Students in a BSW program learn the social work foundations, theories and models used in generalist practice without needing to delve into the specialized coursework common in MSW programs. They gain experience through fieldwork and are qualified to seek social worker license or certification as needed in their state, but the fieldwork obligations are much more modest.
There’s a considerable salary difference between social and human service assistants and actual social workers. The median wage for social service assistants is just $33,750, while for social workers, it’s $49,470, the BLS reported.
Graduate Social Work Programs That Reduce Credit Requirements
For roles in clinical social work practice, as well as many roles in advocacy and in social service management, a master’s degree is required. While there’s no way to truly make graduate-level studies – and the demanding fieldwork requirements that accompany them – easy, students can make their overall education somewhat easier by choosing certain types of programs when they go for their MSW.
Generally, master’s degree programs require four-years of full-time undergraduate study plus another two years of graduate study, if you enroll full-time. There are two kinds of MSW programs that eliminate a year of studies, not by condensing them into a shorter time period but the same workload, but instead by reducing the total number of credits students need. A dual-degree program that awards both an undergraduate and a graduate degree works by allowing undergraduate students to begin taking graduate classes early and count those credits toward both degrees. Advanced standing MSW programs waive the first, foundational year of social work studies for students who already have a BSW, allowing them to jump right into the specialized coursework needed for clinical social work practice or for high-level leadership, policy and advocacy roles. In either case, the subject matter itself may not be easier, but the graduate requirements are less than what you would see through a traditional combination of earning a four-year bachelor’s and two-year master’s degree.
The most difficult degree options in social work are doctorates, such as the Ph.D. or the Doctor of Social Work (DSW). These programs often focus on research, academics and teaching as opposed to direct practice.