Are you interested in entering the field of social work, and wondering how long it will take you to earn your master’s degree and receive your license to practice? For individuals who feel called to the field of social work, there are many possible education paths to take — including earning a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree. One of the advantages of this popular degree is that it is a relatively short and direct route to the ultimate goal: a career of working with and helping others. In fact, whether the MSW is being offered in a traditional, on-campus format or as an online MSW, a graduate-level social work education can typically be earned in two years or less.
The two-year time frame for earning a Master of Social Work does make it an attainable degree; in just two years, candidates can complete their education, establish their professional identities, and gain some experience in the field. For many people, this is a huge plus: after all, isn’t sooner usually better? Less time spent in school means less money spent on tuition; it also means that the costs of being out of the workforce for grad school are minimized.
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Often, individuals who are considering a social work career will also research the path towards become a psychologist. This is because both the psychologist and the clinical social worker overlap in the work that they do and in their professional skills and duties. However, earning an MSW and becoming a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) takes significantly less time than becoming a psychologist. While both psychologists and social workers can practice as professional counselors and therapists, a graduate-level psychology education usually takes four to eight years, depending on the area of specialty.
Although an MSW offers a quicker turnaround, the degree does demand rigor. Social work is a regulated profession, and the MSW has strict graduation requirements, including the completion of a back-to-back fieldwork experience, which involves 60 credits and approximately 900 to 1200 hours. Those who hold a bachelor's degree in social work generally receive credit for their prior studies and fieldwork experiences and can enroll in advanced standing programs (see below), but there is no way of short-cutting the fieldwork process. A fieldwork internship must be completed, no matter the program.
It should also be noted that any MSW holder who is interested in clinical social work — i.e., providing mental health services — must become a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW). This licensure credentialing does require an additional two to three years of supervised clinical experience. However, one can work professionally as a clinical social worker during that time.
As you can see, becoming a professional social worker is a highly attainable career goal, and it does not have to take the better part of a decade. No matter your background, as long as you already have your bachelor’s degree and can commit to two years of intense study and fieldwork, you can earn a master's degree in social work.
Interested in an even faster route to your master’s degree? Read on.
Advanced standing MSW programs offer qualified students — those with prior experience — the opportunity to complete their degrees in just a year. By design, these social work programs are meant to "advance" students who have already earned their bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW)], or who have prior or ongoing relevant work experience.
If you fit into this category, an advanced MSW program is a straight shot to your degree. As we said, the fieldwork requirement is not fully waived in any program. But BSW students can receive significant credit for their prior coursework and fieldwork, and for the work being performed in their current or past jobs.
For advanced standing students, the required time spent in fieldwork may be halved because of credit given for prior work experience. Generally, advanced standing students complete a total of 450 to 900 fieldwork hours, which represents about 8 to 14 hours per week. The minimum hours required for graduation are at the discretion of the program. Requirements for acceptance into an advanced standing MSW program will also vary by program.
An important note: a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree is not a requirement for admission to a traditional, two-year MSW program. Earning a BSW simply qualifies a student for advanced standing placement.
So what if you don’t have a BSW, but you are still hoping to complete your MSW in less than two years? You will want to look into an accelerated 16-month program. Here, no prior experience is required.
Recognizing the need for working professionals to earn a master’s degree as quickly as possible, many schools condense their two-year programs into intensive courses of study. These programs offer a 16-month accelerated curriculum so that students can complete their degrees in a shorter time without skipping over important content. The value of an accelerated track, for students and for the social work profession, is that students get back into the workforce much faster.
Accelerated MSW programs allow students to complete their coursework in four consecutive semesters over 16 months. What they all have in common is a calendar schedule that includes a summer semester. Using the summer months as a period for continued study rather than a period for time off is what makes the accelerated program possible.
While all accelerated programs involve a summer semester, they do not all begin at the same time of year. Some begin in September; these will involve a four-semester schedule of fall-spring-summer-fall. Others begin in January; in these programs, semesters would be spring-summer-fall-spring.
MSW students in accelerated programs complete their fieldwork assignments during each semester in the same way they would for traditional two-year programs. But again, the difference is that fieldwork — like coursework — continues over the summer months.
The obvious advantage of a 16-month accelerated MSW is that it is identical to the traditional two-year course of study, but students graduate a semester sooner. The disadvantages are: there is no break, it moves at an intensive pace, and some fieldwork experiences and selections may not be available over the summer semester.
MSW study involves master’s-level coursework, in-the-field training, and the opportunity to become state-licensed in half the time it takes to achieve similar stature in other professional graduate study programs.
Eligible MSW students can also apply for advanced or accelerated study, which can further fast-track the process for full-time students to 16 months or less. Few other master’s degree programs can boast this level of academic and professional warp speed.
That said, it is important to find a reputable MSW program and make sure it is fully accredited by the Council for Social Work Education (CSWE). If you are hoping to complete your MSW as quickly as possible, it should be because you are eager to complete your training and get into the workforce — not because you’re looking for shortcuts or an "easy way in." MSW programs are challenging, no matter their length; and they should be! With this degree in hand, you will be empowered to make a big difference in people’s lives.