The path to becoming a clinical social worker is a lengthy and arduous one. After four years of undergraduate study, students spend anywhere from 16 months to several years completing a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree, depending on whether they're a part- or full-time student and whether they enroll in an accelerated program. Whether they hold a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) also impacts the duration of their graduate studies.
So what is a typical day in the life of a social work student like? An MSW student's time is filled with an ever-changing lineup of classes, assignments, and studying, not to mention whatever obligations they have outside of their program, like a full-time job or family. As their program progresses, they'll need to add a field placement to their schedule and clock anywhere from 16 to 20 practicum hours per week. Depending on their area of interest, their placements could have them working anywhere from a foster care agency to a domestic violence shelter to a community assistance program.
Given the demands of an MSW, it's easy for social work students to feel overwhelmed at some point, especially when dealing with the burnout that tends to go hand in hand with exposure to their clients' trauma. Still, they stick with their programs for many reasons, possibly most significantly, to gain the knowledge and skills necessary to better the lives of marginalized and vulnerable populations.
Think you could handle 24 hours in an MSW program? While no two programs are exactly alike, you'll find that specific components of the degree are universal to all social work students. Here are a few responsibilities you'll encounter in daily life no matter where—or how—you choose to study.
Early on in their programs, MSW students take foundation courses designed to provide them with an introduction to the field. The curriculum offers a generalist perspective of social work practice, spanning human behavior and the social environment, social welfare policy and services, research, and field education. In a campus setting, students participate in their program with the traditional in-person, in-class approach.
The majority of full-time online MSW programs are synchronous and use a cohort model in which students proceed through the curriculum as a unit. Synchronous students meet online regularly with classmates and their professors, and exchange ideas and participate in discussions in real-time. Others are asynchronous, allowing students to complete their courses on their time.
While all accredited MSW degrees prepare students for a wide variety of social work jobs, specialization allows them to focus the latter part of their programs on gaining advanced training necessary to a specific practice, like community advocacy, child welfare, or mental health.
The role of a social worker varies depending on which scope of practice their work falls into. There are three scopes of practice—micro, mezzo, and macro. Micro practice involves working directly with individuals, family members, or small groups to better their quality of life. Clinical training at this level is the most common kind of social work and includes specializations like family therapy and mental health counseling. This is the track pursued by students interested in ultimately establishing a private practice.
Mezzo social work practice deals with medium-sized groups, such as schools and community organizations. Macro social work practice involves promoting communal, societal, or cultural change on a broad scale, encompassing subfields that engage in social work research and policy at the state or national level.
After choosing a specialization, students will spend the remainder of their program enhancing skills and expertise in their area of interest. As an online student, you'll likely find that your program only offers a concentration in clinical social work. However, most programs provide electives or advanced courses to serve specific areas of the field, such as substance abuse counseling, LGBTQ+ services, and school crisis support.
Field education, also called practicum, fieldwork, or field experience, is the hands-on training portion of your MSW program. It's your chance to test the waters in your field, make mistakes in a supportive learning environment, and learn to think and act like a social worker.
Regardless of where you earn your MSW, you'll be required to complete a generalized field education experience to learn and demonstrate social work's core competencies. From there, you'll have the opportunity to pursue additional field experience within your specialization.
Some MSW students spend their practicums at hospitals and public health organizations. Others who are interested in school social work may complete their fieldwork at a social service agency or education-based nonprofit. Students hoping to pursue a career path in policy may find themselves working for a government agency or research organization.
The majority of online MSW programs don't offer students the option to choose their placement from a list of potential agencies and instead match them directly. While these programs make an effort to connect students with agencies near their homes, some students will need to upwards of 50 or 60 miles to their placement sites.
At some point in your program, you may wonder, "why should someone hire me over anyone else? Everyone in my class is graduating with a degree and field experience." In which case, you're not alone. Beyond your degree and professional license, National Association of Social Work (NASW) credentials shows potential employers that you have nationally certified knowledge and skills—not to mention, a serious commitment to the field.
Students must possess NASW membership to qualify for professional social work credentials like the Academy of Certified Social Workers (ACSW) and Diplomate in Clinical Social Work (DCSW). Advanced practice credentials are available to all qualified social workers across a variety of specializations.
Your social work license—and your career—depend on the results of your licensure exam, which means that you'll likely start preparing for it well before your last semester. Since social worker licensing requirements vary by state, you can start by researching social work regulation in the state where you want to practice.
Since the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) is the organization that creates the exams, registering with ASWB through your state regulation board will allow you to take an online practice test for $85. The test results provide a detailed review of your score so you can where you did well and where you can improve.
If the results of your practice exam prove less than favorable, NASW professional development courses can help you gain training in any weak areas. You can also turn to third-party companies like Social Work Examination Services (SWES) and Licensing Exam Preparation Services (LEAP) for additional exam prep resources. These platforms are available around the clock, and some even facilitate introductions among their members, resulting in online study groups.
All graduate students know how easy it is to feel overworked and overwhelmed as they balance the responsibilities of their education with career preparation and their lives outside of school. That balance is particularly important for social work students, who are tasked to manage the stress of their program with the burnout that can stem from working with victims of trauma.
There’s no one-size-fits-all self-care plan for social work students—or social workers. Instead, you'll need to develop a strategy to combat the unique stress and challenges you'll face during training as a means of maintaining your physical, mental, and emotional health. Maybe you'll take time every week to read your favorite book or watch your favorite TV show. Or maybe you'll make a routine of spending time outside, if even for a few minutes, every day.
Whichever strategy you choose, you'll need to remember that you don’t have to sacrifice your well-being for your education or career. After all, the healthier you are, the better you can help those who need your help the most.
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