Social Work

How to Develop Social Work Expertise When Your School Lacks A Specialization

How to Develop Social Work Expertise When Your School Lacks A Specialization
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Nedda Gilbert profile
Nedda Gilbert August 3, 2018

A hallmark of social work is that professionals can engage on a micro level and perform direct work with individuals, while also operating on a macro scale in terms of policy and organization.

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Social workers’ training and competencies allow them to seamlessly pivot between those two contexts, and to allow one to inform the other. Because of this, there is great respect for the diverse skills a social worker can bring to the table. Not only are social workers helping individuals and communities, they are doing so while considering the big picture of society-at-large.

An example of this is a social worker who treats an elderly individual for depression; that professional might also make broader interventions at the community level by developing dynamic programming for senior citizens. Social worker training has prepared this person to fill both roles.

This is what makes the Master’s of Social Work (MSW) such a powerful degree. Highly developed expertise meets broad competencies, so that social workers are capable of wearing many hats within the same role. Because of their expansive and versatile skill sets, these degree holders have a job to do in almost every aspect of our society.

Becoming An Expert – Launching Your Social Work Career

Although social work programs are renowned for developing wide skill sets, MSW students are expected to select a narrow focus to develop their knowledge base. While they do work on micro and macro levels, they also specialize in certain fields.

In most programs, MSW candidates must choose from several practice areas — also known as specializations — and sub-specializations for both their studies and their field practicum.


“I Want to Be A Social Worker!”

There are a couple of significant practical considerations:

- A Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in social work
- A license to practice or required social work certification

Credentials vary among careers, states, and territories. Licenses include:

- Certified Social Worker (CSW)
- Clinical Social Work Associate (CSWA)
- Licensed Advanced Practice Social Worker (LAPSW)
- Licensed Advanced Social Worker (LASW)
- Licensed Baccalaureate Social Worker (LBSW)
- Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
- Licensed Graduate Social Worker (LGSW)
- Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW)
- Licensed Mental Health Professional (LMHP)
- Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW)

Most of these licenses require a Master’s or Doctorate, along with additional coursework or clinical internships. (source)

A survey of 2017 social work graduates by the National Social Work Workforce Study found that social workers with Master’s degrees and Doctorates made substantially more than those with no advanced degree. (source)

- People with MSW degrees made $13,000-plus more than those with only BSW degrees
- MSWs make more in large cities or urban clusters
- People with doctorates earned $20,000 to $25,000 more than people with only MSW degrees

University and Program Name Learn More

Practice Areas and Specializations

One of the more common practice areas in MSW study is the Clinical or Mental Health track. Also known as the generalist track, this prepares students to become clinicians in the mental health field. Learning here draws heavily on the field of psychology.

Another popular practice area is more macro: social policy. This course of study prepares students to engage at the local, state and national levels in policy, leadership, administration, or community outreach.

Knowing the Population You Want to Serve

Understandably, many students choosing MSW study have their eye on a singular prize. A considerable number have entered the profession because they’re very interested in working with a particular population or focusing on a specific issue.

With that in mind, here are common sub-specialization social work tracks:

  • Gerontology

  • Substance Abuse

  • Military Work

  • Hospice Work

Other new and relevant areas include:

  • Immigration Study/Practice

  • Disaster Mental Health and Trauma

  • Sexual Abuse and Violence

Developing Expertise When the Program Lacks A Specialization

Aspiring MSWs use many criteria in selecting a school. Usually, the top factors are convenience, academic offerings, and the total cost of attending.

Due to the demands of social work study — coursework plus a two year fieldwork experience — and the need for flexibility, online programs have become very popular. However, online study may be limited in terms of specialization options. Whether you choose an online or on-campus program, you will need to consider your desired career path. What happens when the best school for you lacks the specialization you want?

The good news is that a lack of specialization should not prevent you from attending a particular school. If you go in with a plan, you can still attend your preferred program and emerge with expertise your area of interest. Here’s how.

To begin with, the wise student will consider only those MSW programs that are accredited by the Council for Social Work Education (CSWE). These programs share a rigorous and expansive curriculum touching upon a majority of the practice areas and specializations in social work. So if you’re in a CSWE school, you’re in a highly respected program. See their directory of accredited programs here.

While the social work curriculum is important, the bread and butter of social work training — two CSWE mandated fieldwork practicums — are where true knowledge and skills are built.

So you can attend a program, concentrate in a broad practice area such as Mental Health, Clinical, and then specialize by securing a fieldwork experience in your area of interest.

For example, some schools offer what they call a “military” track, which is geared towards working in military and veteran support settings. But if you wish to work with this population, it is not necessary to attend one of these schools. If your program doesn’t offer a military specialization, you can still develop strong expertise by doing your fieldwork in a military or veterans agency setting.

Considering this approach? A winning strategy would be to concentrate in clinical practice for your MSW. While your first fieldwork assignment might be doing more generalist clinical work, you will be able to focus on the specific population or issue that you are interested in for your second practicum. You’ll just need to make sure that your program has access to such fieldwork assignments before you enroll.

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About the Author

Ms. Nedda Gilbert is a seasoned clinical social worker, author, and educational consultant with 25 years of experience helping college-bound and graduate students find their ideal schools. She is a prolific author, including The Princeton Review Guide to the Best Business Schools and Essays that Made a Difference. Ms. Gilbert has been a guest writer for Forbes and a sought-after keynote speaker on college admissions. Previously, she played a crucial role at the Princeton Review Test Preparation Company and was Chairman of the Board of Graduate Philadelphia. Ms. Gilbert holds degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University and is a certified interdisciplinary collaborative family law professional in New Jersey.

About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

To learn more about our editorial standards, you can click here.


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