Social Work

Time To Concentrate: Selecting The Right MSW Specialization

Time To Concentrate: Selecting The Right MSW Specialization
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Nedda Gilbert profile
Nedda Gilbert May 8, 2018

As you research the Masters of Social Work (MSW) degree, you will want to explore many different practice areas of study. But as a newcomer to the field, it can be confusing to navigate the numerous available concentrations.

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Even terminology such as concentration, practice area, program track, or specialization may be confusing as you try to figure out what social work is all about. These terms are used frequently, but may not be clearly explained or applied consistently. One MSW program’s concentration may be another school’s practice area.

Yes, this is baffling.

Nonetheless it’s important to get a basic understanding of these terms. Your academic choices will ultimately define your professional area of expertise. Your fieldwork placement will also be impacted by what you choose to study.

Graduate education in social work is fast paced and intense. There’s a lot to accomplish in just two years or fewer. You will probably have to choose your practice area and a concentration by your first semester. A wise approach is to head into any MSW program with a clear understanding of a school’s offerings, and an idea of what you want. We hope the explanations below simplify social work study.

How do you choose a course of study? One that leads to the right credentials and a great job?

The practice of social work is broad and multi-faceted, so it demands a layered approach. Additionally, the profession of social work is regulated by licensure, so a high standard of training is required. The educational methodology is to build skill-upon-skill.

The best way to think about your course of study is to consider a specific job that you’d like to hold post-graduation. Perhaps you’d like a position as a substance abuse counselor. You might say to yourself, that’s easy: I’ll just concentrate on substance abuse. But it doesn’t work that way in an MSW program. To become a substance abuse counselor, you would first have to select clinical practice as an area of study. This is where you would learn how to become a clinician engaging in therapeutic treatment for emotional and mental issues. Next, you might need to choose a concentration in mental health. And finally…wait for it…a specialization in substance abuse disorder behaviors. Alternatively, you might be able to forgo the specialization, and concentrate on working in a substance abuse disorder treatment center for your fieldwork assignment instead.

In other words, you can’t just jump into becoming a substance abuse counselor. You must first become a qualified and trained clinician. From there you can progress to a deeper expertise. In this case, substance abuse.

Most schools offer two or three practice areas – sometimes called concentrations – for students to choose from. This is the base of all other study, and endorsed by the Council for Social Work Education.


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Common MSW practice areas

Social workers want to help people and change the world. Next, we will describe the practice areas into which individual social workers fit.

Although these listed practice areas are most common, we advise contacting a school to make sure you fully understand a program’s specific focus and philosophy.

The three major MSW concentrations or practice areas are:

Clinical/Direct Practice (Micro): This is the area where students develop advanced practice skills and therapeutic techniques in the diagnosis and treatment of individuals, couples, families and groups for a range of emotional and mental issues. Students here take classes such as: Cognitive Behavior Therapy, Couples Therapy and Group Therapy.

Macro: Subtitles may be “Leadership and Innovation”; “Social Policy”; “Community Development”; “Community, Organization, and Social Action”; “Management/Administration.” This approach to social work is systems driven. It involves working with key public and private sectors to address critical social issues. Areas typically explored are community empowerment, social welfare and policy, and social and economic justice.

Generalist (Micro and Macro): Here students develop knowledge and skills in both clinical and social policy driven practice. As generalists, students typically do not develop deep expertise in either area. But this varies by school. It’s important to fully explore how each program establishes the balance between micro and macro study.

Of note, some schools add their unique twist to the above categories. There are schools that offer a generalist concentration with specializations. And there are schools that offer a generalist concentration with a very narrow focus of study, for example, urban family practice.

Within these three concentrations, schools commonly break down the focus of study to more specific populations, or problems. They may call these practice areas or specializations.

Some of the most common practice areas across all MSW programs are:

  1. Adulthood and Aging
  2. Children, Youth and Families
  3. Community and Social Systems
  4. Health and Healthcare
  5. Mental Health
  6. School Social Work

Finally, some schools cut to the chase and offer a “program track.”

A “program track” allows MSW students to develop a deep expertise around a particular population. An example of a more narrow track is the Military Special Worker Track and the School Social Worker Track. It’s likely that at these schools, the track provides a well- established fieldwork assignment that will help you secure a job in a specific field after graduation. However you need not matriculate at a school with a narrow program track to specialize in this or any field. You simply need to determine if there is an opportunity to develop expertise in this area.

Of note, the US Military is one of the largest employers of MSWs. They offer field placement internships at many schools.

The MSW concentrations wrap up

With any luck, you now have a better understanding of how to approach your social work education and develop the skills you need. The good news is that because the degree requires you build a broad base, you need not be defined by one area of specialization. The MSW positions you to pivot to entirely new fields, or to further deepen your current expertise, as your career progresses.

Questions or feedback? Email

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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