Social Work

How Do I Evaluate A Social Work School’s Philosophy and Fit for My Career Goals?

How Do I Evaluate A Social Work School’s Philosophy and Fit for My Career Goals?
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Nedda Gilbert profile
Nedda Gilbert April 25, 2018

If you’ve decided you want to become a social worker, you’ve probably given serious thought to the rewards of the profession, and the time and commitment involved in earning a degree. Getting a Masters of Social Work degree (MSW) is a bit like jumping into a moving car; things go fast and you’ll have to grab the wheel quickly.

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Much of your time as a student will be spent in a fieldwork experience. This hands-on training is the cornerstone of the MSW, and typically requires a back-to-back fieldwork assignment totaling 900 – 1200 hours. This assignment starts shortly after your coursework begins, and depending on the program you choose (traditional 2-year, online, accelerated, advanced standing), you may be out of school and practicing as a social worker in fewer than two years. Because the social work degree offers such intensive training, it’s important that you go in with a clear idea of what you want. It’s just as important that you research and understand the social work school’s philosophy and specializations. Once you’re enrolled, you’ll be driving down a particular roadway: one that dictates where you’re headed.

Match a school’s specialized areas of study to your passions and interests

There’s a lot to consider in choosing a social work program and specialization. The following may help you assess the quality of a school and whether it fits your career goals.


When deciding on a social work program, reputation matters. Reputable social work schools are accredited by the Council on Social Work Education. This is the regulatory body for social work education, and the gold standard for ensuring a quality program. Beyond confirming that the school is accredited, it may be important to assess the school’s reputation regionally, and with employers and peers. Schools with strong alumni ties and opportunities for networking are going to offer advantages that lesser known schools will not.

It’s also important to take note of a school’s leadership in the field of social work. Is the school nationally renowned for making an impact beyond the classroom? Is it well-known for performing social work research? Answering these kinds of questions may go a long way to establishing a school’s reputation and the value of its degrees.


MSW programs are ranked by US News and World Report. While we don’t recommend basing your entire impression of a school on these rankings, it may be worth determining where, if at all, a school you are considering is positioned. To read up on MSW rankings, check out our article on the subject!

General Curriculum

All programs accredited by the Council on Social Work Education require that students complete a generalist curriculum. These classes provide a base of knowledge and skills critical to the practice of social work. Sample classes include Introductory Social Work Research and Methods, and Social Welfare, Policy and Services. As you assess schools, understand that this groundwork is considered essential to your training.

Specializations, Subspecializations and Certificates

Beyond the generalized curriculum, students should pay particular attention to a school’s specialized curriculum and unique certificates. This is where students begin to develop and build an area of expertise. And for most students, this is where their passion for a field of study, or population (i.e. the elderly) can finally be ignited. The opportunity to specialize and serve in a unique area is what motivates many students to seek a career in social work. This part of the journey towards the MSW is very rewarding.

A note: specialized study is permitted after completing the generalist curriculum. Depending on the school, however, students may be able to take specialized classes along with their generalized curriculum classes.

Certification: Certificates represent another way to further professionalize and market an MSW’s training in a narrow area. Certification offers an additional credential, signaling to employers that the MSW holds deep expertise. Not all schools offer certificates, however. If you’re interested in earning a certification, you will need to do your homework and learn what options are available. An example of a certification is: Certified Alcohol and Other Drug Counselors (CADC).

Specializations, practice areas, and subspecializations: The terms “practice areas” and “specializations” often get tossed around together, and are confusing. For the most part, practice areas and broad areas of specialization refer to the industry or category in which you want to work.

Subspecalitions refer to the narrow population or problem area an MSW hopes to specialize in. Common specializations are:

Mental Health or “Clinical”: This represents one of the most popular paths of social work study. This clinical social work track builds strong clinical skills, and positions the MSW for a career in a mental health facility or in private practice as a counselor or psychotherapist.

Children and Families: This track is designed for those MSWs who want to develop clinical skills and see the child within the family as the focus of treatment.

Medical or Health Care Social Work: This track is best for those who plan to practice in hospital or health care settings as a medical social worker. Students work in multidisciplinary teams with doctors and nurses, and work in a variety of professional roles within the medical setting, such as in transplant social work or in neonatal care. In the medical setting, MSWs play a lead role in discharge planning and aftercare treatment.

K – 12 School Social Work: This track is meant for MSWs who want to work in school settings as social workers and school counselors. They may also be involved in advocacy and policy within an educational setting.

Non Profit Leadership and Development: MSWs in this area are most interested in macro issues such as social policy, political advocacy, community organizing, program development, fundraising and marketing, or grant writing.

A school’s subspecialization and certificate options may include:

  • Eldercare/Gerontology
  • Substance Abuse
  • Family Practice
  • Military Social Work
  • Eating Disorders
  • Marital Conflict
  • Adolescent Behavior and Conflict
  • Disaster Mental Health and Trauma
  • LGBT
  • Domestic Violence
  • Immigration: International human Rights

What’s New and Exciting

Schools tend to advertise what they stand for and what they are fired up about via their websites. Look at their academic specialties, ties with local agencies, and action-oriented mission statements. Pay attention to calls for action and advocacy; this is why you’re going to school for social work. You may choose to get involved with your school’s initiatives. When you do, you’ll be fulfilling that sense of purpose and advancing your career.

“I want to make a difference; I want to affect social policy”

As you browse school websites, you may see statements that promote a strong interest in a particular field, or represent a philosophy of action. For example, at Tulane University’s School of Social Work{target=”blank”}, you may read about Dr. Bordnick, the Dean of the School, who is renowned for his virtual technology-based research in the fields of autism and addiction. Tulane also offers training in Disaster Mental Health, which prepares aspiring social workers to treat the psychological impacts experienced by families and communities in the wake of a disaster. At the University of Pennsylvania MSW program{target=”blank”}, cross-disciplinary study and social issues such as global human rights are emphasized strongly. All of these programs offer other areas of specialization and will provide you the skills needed to become a licensed social worker in any field, but each school has a distinct energy and focus.

It should be noted that the majority of MSW programs – including programs at Tulane and the University of Pennsylvania — offer you training in preparing for a career in clinical mental health social work practice. This is the practice area required to become a clinician practitioner, to offer mental health counseling and treatment. Many schools consider this the bread and butter of social work practice.

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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.

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