Going to graduate school for social work is a big step that can have an even bigger impact on your future career opportunities. When you study social work at the master’s level, your classes will consist of a mix of generalized and specialized graduate-level coursework and a lengthy internship.
Combining Generalist and Specialist Knowledge
While the BSW degree is a generalist program that primarily qualifies graduates to work in non-clinical direct service settings, the MSW blends generalist and specialized studies at the graduate-level, according to the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). That means you develop versatile skills in advanced social work practice that you can use in any area of the field, but you also have the opportunity to focus on the paths and client populations that you find most interesting.
Often, MSW students start off with their generalist studies that cover the foundations of social work at a level of difficulty consistent with graduate studies. Subjects of study might include social welfare programs, social welfare policies, social work theory, clinical and non-clinical social work practice with individuals and groups, human behavior in social environments, racism and oppression and research methods and design in the field of social work.
Specialized studies in the MSW program often build on these foundations. The coursework is more advanced and focuses on a particular function of social work, category of client population or type of clinical service. Some MSW programs have students choose between studying direct clinical social work practice and macro social work functions such as community and social action or management and policy. Other MSW programs get more granular with their specialization options. You might focus on the clinical social work practice of behavioral health or substance abuse. Your studies might emphasize the skills you would need to work with children and young adults, aging populations or victims of abuse and trauma.
If you earned a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) as an undergraduate student, some of these courses might sound like repeats. Some programs award advanced standing to BSW holders so they can finish their MSW in one year instead of two years.
Extensive Experience Requirements
As an undergraduate pursuing a BSW from an accredited program, you would have needed at least 400 hours of supervised experience. As a graduate student, the fieldwork demands are even more rigorous. In accredited MSW programs, students complete a minimum of 900 hours of fieldwork under the supervision of an experienced social worker, the CSWE reported.
This time around, you are already fully qualified to work in the field of social work practice. You may have real-world work experience outside of the fieldwork required for your degree, and you are studying advanced areas of social work. As a result, you can expect your assignments as an intern to be more complex and sophisticated now than what you experienced pursuing your BSW, the Michigan chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. However, since you are learning new skills in new environments – and potentially dealing with some of the most challenging and sensitive topics in social work, including abuse or plans of suicide – you still require supervision by experienced clinical social workers.
If you want to be a clinical social worker, your supervised experience doesn’t end when you graduate. Earning your license typically requires at least two years of supervised clinical experience after getting your MSW, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported.
Expanded Career Opportunities With Your MSW
What makes the MSW such an appealing degree is the extent to which it opens up new career opportunities. With your BSW, you are usually limited to working primarily in direct service roles outside the sphere of clinical social work. You may help clients find access to the community resources and programs that offer counseling, psychotherapy and other clinical services, but you aren’t authorized to provide those services yourself. You may be able to work in lower-level roles in social advocacy but will need a graduate education for more prominent positions.
With your MSW and a license, you can offer counseling and clinical therapy services and work to help clients struggling with mental illnesses, substance abuse disorders and difficult life circumstances get better. These credentials allow you to make a more direct impact on the lives of clients than you can with only a BSW. You can also use your graduate studies to cultivate a more thorough understanding of social welfare policy that will put you in a better position to push for real social change. Some social workers use the leadership skills they develop while earning their MSW to move into management roles within social service agencies and organizations.
Earning your MSW can be a smart financial move. The National Association of Social Workers reports that wages are $13,000 higher for social workers with their MSW. Social workers with a master’s degree see a wage premium of 25 percent, according to the BLS.