Let's start by stipulating that every graduate degree program is hard. Do you remember that feeling you had in your first college class when you realized, "Wow, I am not in high school any more! This is tough!" Graduate school is like that, except the benchmark now is college-level courses, which suddenly seem easy in the face of what you're about to tackle. Welcome to graduate school.
Earning a Master of Social Work (MSW) poses unique challenges, however. The curriculum is not only academically challenging but also emotionally draining. Finances can present a problem because unlike, say, a JD or MBA student, you're not likely to start earning a fortune the moment you receive your degree. Or ever. And because social work is so expansive, you face an unusually broad range of choices in selecting a specialization and forging a career path. You need to make some critical decisions fairly early in your MSW education.
So, what makes earning an MSW hard? We address that question in this article by discussing:
According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), social work is "a helping profession" whose primary purpose is "to enhance human well-being and help meet basic and complex needs of all people, with a particular focus on those who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty." Social work focuses on both the individual and their environment, considering external forces in assessing clients' challenges and assisting in solutions.
Social work covers a lot of ground. Experts divide the profession into three categories: micro, mezzo, and macro:
We tend to think of social workers as politically progressive because of their work on behalf of marginalized communities. Indeed, this work attracts more than a random distribution of professionals who champion social justice causes and believe wealth and opportunity should be distributed more equitably. However, anyone from any background can, and does, become a social worker. The most critical requirements for the job are compassion for others and a willingness to work hard.
You can enter social work with an associate's degree, but don't expect much responsibility or to earn much money. You'll work as someone's assistant, a caseworker, or a low-level administrator. Most people in these jobs find a way to continue to a bachelor's degree. I they're serious about a social work career, they pursue a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW), which can qualify them for higher-level administrative jobs, group home and residential supervision, and community advocacy positions. What it does not qualify them for is a clinical counseling role. For that, they must earn a Master of Social Work.
A Master of Social Work is a graduate-level social work degree. It is not the highest degree you can earn in the field; that would be a doctorate, of which social work offers two varieties (the Doctor of Social Work (DSW), which is a terminal professional degree, and the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Social Work, which is a terminal academic-research degree).
The MSW is by far the most popular social work graduate degree; about 69,000 students enroll in MSW programs each year, compared to about 1,500 in DSW programs and 2,000 in PhD programs. Social work is a predominantly female profession; approximately 85 percent of social work master's degrees are held by women.
MSW curricula vary from school to school, depending on the faculty's areas of expertise and the needs of the community surrounding the school. Students may specialize in one of social work's many focus areas, which range from child and family welfare to military social work to substance abuse counseling to community organization. All students complete coursework in social work ethics and theory, research and assessment practices, administrative and interpersonal skills, and psychology. All MSW students must complete a fieldwork placement under the supervision of a licensed social worker.
An MSW is the minimum degree necessary to practice clinical social work, a form of one-on-one psychotherapeutic counseling. Many MSWs enter clinical practice as personal therapists, child and family therapists, substance abuse counselors, or school counselors. They work for governments, nonprofit organizations, and private companies. Some provide counseling services as independent contractors. Every state requires clinical social workers to earn licensure. While requirements vary from state to state, all require licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs) to hold an MSW from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE).
The CSWE accredits nearly 300 master's in social work programs in the United States. While admission to the top programs is competitive, prospective social work students should have little trouble finding a program that suits their career objectives that will admit them. Many schools offer an online MSW (in addition to on-campus full-time and part-time options) , meaning MSW students are no longer constricted by geography in their program choice.
You do not need a BSW to pursue an MSW degree. Plenty of college graduates from other disciplines—including English, psychology, history, economics, sociology, criminal justice, computer science, healthcare sciences, and just about any other area you can think of—enter social work master's programs each year. Holding a BSW does confer a significant advantage, however. It allows students to enter MSW programs with advanced standing, accelerating their progress toward the degree. Graduate students without a BSW must complete a slew of foundation courses that advanced standing students skip. As a result, BSWs can complete some MSW programs in as little as one year.
Financing an MSW ranks among the most compelling challenges to earning the degree. Other graduate degrees—medicine, law, business, computer science, and data science, to name just a few—lead to average salaries in the six-figure range. In contrast, the average annual salary for an MSW is $65,511, according to Salary.com.
That's hardly a pauper's wage, but does it justify the financial and time investment required to complete this graduate degree? Compare that figure to the average BSW salary of $59,221. You could argue that an annual differential of $6,300, spread out over a career, justifies the investment. Prorate that over 35 years, and you get over $220,000, more than enough to cover the cost of even the most expensive social work program.
But there's another, even more important question you should ask yourself: are you going to be happy in the type of career you can have with a BSW? You'll be closed out of a lot of decision-making positions and many supervisory roles. You'll never be able to go into clinical social work practice. You will hit your ceiling much sooner than will someone with an MSW. Are you good with that? If not, you're going to need that MSW sooner or later. The sooner you earn it, the quicker you start advancing your career.
You will likely find completing an MSW a challenge. One MSW explains on Quora that earning this degree requires "lots and lots of reading, vignettes, arguing our point, client interviewing, diagnosing, and writing 20+ page research papers." The same poster notes that success requires "being able to write well, prove your points, use research, and understand how generational themes like education, poverty, race, religion, location and trauma can affect a person's choices and interactions."
However, according to numerous students, the most significant challenge is the "huge amount of field placement work… between 16 and 24 hours a week" in addition to coursework. Not only does fieldwork impose a significant workload ("agency paperwork in addition to the field paperwork you have to do for your program"), but it also exacts a high emotional toll due to the "inherently stressful and draining nature of social work practice, especially when working with vulnerable populations." Sums up one MSW: "It will be challenging physically, emotionally, and mentally. That said, if you're passionate and determined enough, it's both doable and well worth it."
Social work addresses too many disparate practices for one to simply earn a degree in social work. You won't be just a social worker when you graduate; you'll be a school social worker, or a mental health social worker, or a child welfare social worker. Developing a specialization or concentration area is a crucial phase of your MSW education.
According to the CSWE's 2019 Annual Statistics on Social Work Education in the United States report, the most commonly offered specializations in American MSW programs are:
With nearly 300 MSW programs in the US, it's evident that not every program offers every specialization. In fact, fewer than half of all programs offer the single-most-popular option. That means you need to identify your area of interest early and make sure that the school you attend offers your specialization. It's not impossible to transfer from one program to another if you have a change of heart, but it's not easy, either. It's better to avoid that hassle if you can.
"Nothing in this world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty," Theodore Roosevelt told an assembly of Iowa teachers in 1910. Yes, earning a master's in social work is demanding. It's also rewarding, not in spite of, but because of its level of difficulty. A social work master's program will challenge you in ways that prepare you for the challenges of daily life as an effective, fulfilled professional social worker. If you hope to become a social work professional with maximum impact on the lives of those you serve, a master's can certainly help you reach your aspirations.
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