When social workers need the latest information in their practice field, where do they turn? Professional development sessions—both live and online—provide a useful resource but typically require scheduling and may not be immediately accessible. Peer-reviewed social work journals, in contrast, offer a library of up-to-date knowledge and research to address practically any situation.
Consider the COVID-19 pandemic, which disrupted every aspect of society. This long-running crisis negatively impacted healthcare, labor markets, and social networks. Social work has always been demanding, but COVID-19 amplified those challenges exponentially.
One consequence of the 2020 pandemic-driven lockdowns and isolation/physical distancing protocols, for example, was that both senior citizens and older teens/young adults experienced a loneliness epidemic, adversely impacting their mental and physical health. A consequent rise in depression and anxiety resulted in an increase in substance abuse and accidental drug overdoses.
Frontline workers in the healthcare and service industries grappled with the stress of doing their jobs at the risk of infecting themselves or their loved ones with the virus. Many lower-income people struggled with food insecurity and evictions and homelessness. Families had to negotiate unforeseen challenges related to childcare and remote learning. Social workers intervened in all these circumstances.
Social work journals explore these problems, providing the latest research and conclusions in near-real-time. It is not an exaggeration to say that the information these journals deliver saved lives during the pandemic—as it does in non-crisis times. Social work involves lifelong learning; social work journals are one vehicle for that.
In this article, we'll cover the five best academic journals for social workers, as well as the following:
When working so closely with individuals and communities—and in such an impactful way—social workers must stay up-to-date on crucial developments in the field. Scholarly research informs their daily practice with clients, conversations with policymakers regarding social policy, and their own studies relating to social work theory and practice.
Let's first consider the importance of academic journals in aggregate. Their primary function is to advance the body of knowledge within a particular field. Articles published in academic journals are rigorously reviewed by experts in the field to ensure that the information disseminated regarding new findings and studies is high-quality, accurate, and reliable. Since these journals serve as a documented public forum, the articles invite a dialogue with other professionals in the field and often spark additional research building on the information contained in the original articles.
Social work academic journals provide social workers with access to trusted information regarding the latest developments in their field. In doing so, they help social workers better serve their clients' needs (and, in the process, make social workers better at their jobs).
Narrowing down the top social work journals for social workers is challenging because there are so many areas of focus in the social services field. There are social work abstracts for everything from the effects of trauma to HIV/AIDS research. The journals noted below cover broad topics within their particular area.
On a related note, when perusing scholarly social work articles online, you'll come across a scoring system known as the 'impact factor' (or 'journal impact factor'). As Sci Journal explains, this ranking system indicates the number of citations a journal article received in a given year. While the system permits scores over 10, it's important to look at ranking within the context of each discipline. For example, the average social work journal impact factor score is 1.49. So, what would at first seem to be low scores are actually very good ones within the world of social science academic journals.
Social work students and professionals can either subscribe to the journals through their schools' libraries, professional social work organizations, the journal publishers, or by using search engines like Google Scholar or Scopus.
This journal is the official publication for The Society of Community Research and Actions(SCRA)—a division of the American Psychological Association (APA). The journal reports on cutting-edge research and theories of social justice, community psychology, and challenges with youth development. Frequently cited abstracts include topics like community resilience, social work implementation, and psychological empowerment.
Many child welfare social workers utilize the Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD) publication Child Development. It launched in 1930 and covers topics "in child development from the fetal period through adolescence" for a range of professionals, including pediatricians, clinicians, early childhood educators, and social workers. With a subscription to Child Development, subscribers also gain access to research articles in SRCD publications Society for Research in Child Development and Child Development Perspectives.
Since 2011, The Journal of Social Work has explored public policy, community research, and debated topics in its six annual issues. The journal notes that it also includes short think pieces on recent discoveries, challenges, and trends in the field. Some of its most-cited works cover social welfare inequities in children, policy and practice of social workers, and arts interventions.
The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) is the largest professional membership organization in the field. Its official publication, Social Work, is just one of NASW's scholarly journals. As a general clinical social work journal, it explores groundbreaking research, practice, and theories relevant to a broad range of social work topics. The journal is currently on its 67th volume and publishes four issues a year.
Commonly referred to as the JSSWR, this is the official publication of the major research organization the Society for Social Work and Research (SSWR). Its website notes that members include top professors and researchers at universities across the country as well as master's and doctoral students and a range of agencies in the field. This online journal focuses on the impact and effectiveness of today's social work practices and social problems, policies, and research methods. The publication releases four issues a year.
A Master of Social Work(MSW) is a graduate-level degree that prepares students to pursue licensure to practice in advanced-level positions in their state. These master's programs are accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), which oversees standards for licensure and ethics and is the sole social work accreditation agency in the US.
Students explore the field of social work on a micro, mezzo, and macro-level—from individual counseling to working with large communities. Graduates go on to work in managerial positions in local or national nonprofits, government agencies, and healthcare settings.
Generally, it takes two years to complete an MSW, although some schools offer accelerated programs that allow you to reach your goal more quickly. If you already have a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW), you should look into advanced standing programs, in which you can apply credits from your BSW toward your master’s degree, saving time and money in the process.
Tulane University, for example, offers several MSW tracks. Students opt for either a 16-month full-time program, a 12-month accelerated program for students with advanced standing, or a part-time pathway completed over 32-months.
Admissions offices often require undergraduate transcripts with a minimum GPA of 3.0, letters of recommendation, a resume/CV, and a personal statement demonstrating how their program will support your career goals. Some programs also require Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) test scores.
Social work professionals find their way to the field from a wide range of pathways. Some come right out of undergrad with a bachelor's degree in social sciences or the humanities. Others work in the field or volunteer before deciding a master's is the next best step. For all these reasons, MSW admissions officers typically look at the applicant as a whole.
For example, the University of Michigan looks for candidates with "intellectual and personal qualities likely to lead to roles and careers that have centrality in the social welfare system."
Social work classes cover a wide breadth of topics but all come back to understanding unique communities and how to help them thrive in challenging environments. An MSW allows social work students to focus on their professional specialty while still providing the foundation skills necessary to understand the field as a whole.
Tulane University, for example, provides an introduction to social work in the first semester before branching out to coursework in social justice, diversity, and the history of social welfare. Subsequent terms cover research skills, human behavior courses, and community advocacy topics.
In the second semester, students transition to fieldwork to complement their classes. By the end of a four-semester program, the curriculum transitions to hands-on practicums and a research capstone project.
Specialization is key in social work. Professionals either work with a specific population or confront a specific challenge in society, such as homelessness, mental illness, or addiction. Most MSW programs steer students toward these concentrations with electives, target research, and professional practicums.
At Columbia University, students choose one of 28 tracks at the end of their first year (the generalist year). The tracks combine an area of specialization—such as policy or clinical social work—and one of seven fields of practice, such as children's services or mental health and disabilities. In the second year of study, students tailor their research, practicum, and coursework based on this choice.
A master's in social work is a common and popular area of study across the country. The best program for you comes down to the program's timeline and format, access to top faculty, and specialization options. Let's take a look at several of the top MSW programs.
Columbia established the first school of social work in the United States back in 1898. Its MSW program offers in-person and online options with rigorous fieldwork of up to 21 hours a week. The university places students with one of its 800 network members personalized to their career goals. Students can also opt for a range of dual degrees, pairing social work with an MBA, MEd, or a JD, just to name a few.
Tulane has been training social workers for over a century and notes that "New Orleans’ unique resilience in facing disaster" is "indelibly written" into its curriculum. (The school offers an online Master of Social Work and Master of Science in Disaster Resilience Leadership Dual Degree Program (MSW/MS-DRL).) Coursework includes Diversity and Social Justice: Theory and Practice, Community Organization and Policy Advocacy: Theories and Practice, Social Work Practice with Individuals, Families, and Groups, Research for Evidence-Based Social Work Practice, and Data Analysis and Interpretation. Students also complete three field practicums and a capstone project.
The University of Michigan offers both full-time and part-time MSW degrees for new and experienced social workers. Students can choose from several timelines and specialized pathways, completing their master's in 12, 16, or 20 months in their topic of choice. The University of Michigan also notes that it offers over 300 scholarship opportunities for MSW students.
Virginia Commonwealth has housed a school of social work since 1917; today, it's one of approximately 90 institutions offering a fully-online Master of Social Work. US News & World Report ranks the program among the nation's top 25 and best in the state of Virginia. Its online program, which focuses exclusively on preparing clinicians, is largely self-paced for the convenience of busy professionals earning their degrees while working full-time.
The Brown School at Washington University of St. Louis offers links to over 400 organizations for their MSW student practicum. Candidates opt for both a concentration and specialization and complete multidisciplinary coursework related to the university's seven specialized schools. Graduates have become urban educator reformers, policy analysts, and program managers.
Online MSW programs are extremely popular, particularly due to the rigorous demands of career social workers. Remote learning encourages students in rural areas or those unable to travel to their chosen school to study with the program of their choice. Keep in mind that online MSW programs typically require an in-person practice element, but students will often have the option to complete the work locally.
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