For aspiring social workers, the main career requirement is earning a bachelor’s degree, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Naturally, the Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree is the ideal choice for this career path, because it provides specific formal training and real-world experience in the practice of social work. The curriculum of a BSW program includes undergraduate-level coursework in the foundations of social welfare and social work practice along with field experience, and it prepares students for generalist direct-service roles in the field.
An Undergraduate Social Work Curriculum
A BSW curriculum covers all of the foundational material you need to know to get started in the field. Often, your major coursework will start with an Introduction to Social Work class. Studies in social work methods, social welfare and human behavior as it pertains to social environments are common. To develop the competencies needed to succeed in the social worker career, undergraduate students learn to practice social work with individuals, families, groups and communities.
By the time you complete a BSW program, you will understand both the theories and practice of social work. Graduates learn about human development, forms of oppression and social interactions involving families and communities. They develop the skills needed to assess social programs and advocate for individual clients and for social justice for groups.
Of course, you need more than your major coursework to complete your bachelor’s degree. You must also meet all of your school’s graduation requirements, including general education coursework. Courses in social science and statistics are among the most valuable.
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Gaining Your First Social Work Experience
For social work majors, an internship isn’t a minor commitment. Often, they must devote two or more full days to fulfilling their fieldwork requirements each week – not just for one semester, but throughout the entire academic year. For an undergraduate program to achieve the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE)’s Office of Social Work Accreditation (OSWA) accreditation, it must include a minimum of 400 hours of field education. Many accredited BSW programs have even more demanding requirements that you must meet in order to graduate from the program.
What should you expect when starting the fieldwork component of a BSW program? You won’t be just an intern getting coffee and doing busywork. Qualifying fieldwork experiences for BSW programs are required to directly expose students to the practice of social work in agency or community organization settings. You will work under the supervision of an experienced field instructor at the agency and will participate in professional tasks that give the opportunity to put your classroom knowledge into practice. As you develop your skills working in the field, your responsibilities will increase. Although you continue to work under supervision, by the end of your undergraduate fieldwork experience, you will act as a beginning practitioner, not merely an observer.
The number and variety of potential work environments where you can gain internship experience are extensive. It’s not uncommon for a single school of social work to have partnerships with hundreds of local agencies and organizations. While you may work in public or private, nonprofit and for-profit settings as an undergraduate intern, what matters most is that you learn the skills needed to apply your social services knowledge to real-life scenarios. Your fieldwork may involve working in different areas of social work, including mental health, substance abuse, children and family services, education, health, justice and domestic violence. Although students have some degree of choice in applying for internship placement, opportunities are competitive. Even if you don’t get to work in your first-choice field during your internship, you will learn valuable skills that can easily translate to the area of social work in which you want to practice.
Internships are usually completed during a student’s senior year of study, though some BSW programs begin introducing students to fieldwork during their junior year through shorter practicum experiences.
Comparing the BSW to the Master of Social Work (MSW) Degree
Once you’ve completed your BSW, should you take the next step and pursue your MSW? The answer depends on your professional interests and career ambitions. The BSW is a generalist education that prepares students to provide individual and family services in direct-service social work settings, the CSWE reported. If this sounds like what you want to do long-term – and it can certainly be a meaningful career path if so – then attaining your MSW may be unnecessary.
It’s when social workers want to specialize their practice and expand the scope of the services they offer that the MSW degree becomes worthwhile. An advanced education that encompasses both generalist and specialist studies, the MSW degree is what you need if you aspire to become a clinical social worker who treats patients with mental health disorders, earning this degree is the next step. The MSW can also prepare you to work in the advocacy-focused roles of macro social work or to step up into a leadership position in a social services program or organization.
Is a graduate degree worth the investment? Some MSW programs award advanced standing to applicants with a BSW, allowing them to save both time and money by finishing their graduate studies in one year, the CSWE reported.