But fulfilling the requirements of an online Masters of Social Work (MSW) program may present unique challenges. There’s no way around the cornerstone experience of social work education—the fieldwork component—or the conditions that go with it. Fieldwork experiences require an in-person commitment. Further, fieldwork placements require supervision by a credentialed social worker or fieldwork instructor. Depending on the program you chose, or where you live, securing this kind of placement can be difficult.
The amount of help students receive in finding a placement varies from school to school. Some programs have established relationships with fieldwork organizations. These schools can more readily deliver placements to online students. Field instructors in these placements are experienced, and know the drill. However, not every online MSW program can offer this.
The biggest hurdle for any online MSW student is that while an online portal may give them access to a premier education from their home laptop, the same access may not work for a quality fieldwork position. Online programs can be handicapped by a lack of placement relationships precisely because they are an online platform. Let’s say the program you choose to attend as an online student also offers a parallel, residential MSW program in Los Angeles. For “residential" students, securing a spot in an established placement in the Los Angeles area may be relatively easy. But for an online student who lacks proximity to those fieldwork settings, there is no benefit. If the school has not shored up fieldwork connections for their online population, you may be left scrambling.
What does this mean?
As an online student, you may have to secure your own fieldwork assignment. At some schools, MSW fieldwork liaisons will help you research and contact placements on your behalf. But a good number of online MSW programs leave you to do this on your own. This is where things can get daunting, and eat up a lot of time, the very time you hoped to save as an online student. Worse, you may wind up with an unfulfilling fieldwork position.
With that in mind, here are some tips for navigating your fieldwork assignment as an online MSW student:
1. Put the Cart Before the Horse: Consider Getting Your Online MSW from Only Those Schools that Provide Fieldwork Placement Support
As we said, there is wide variability among online MSW schools in how they handle this foundational aspect of your training. In researching online MSW programs that may be right for you, make fieldwork assignments a priority. You should determine – upfront - what this program will do to help you. And whether you will wind up with an awesome or a dud placement. Ideally, your fieldwork experience should develop your social work training and fuel your career interests.
2. Be Creative and Open-Minded
Perhaps you have your heart set on an online MSW program that focuses on Disaster Relief and Trauma. However, in your geographic area these conditions are absent.
Contact your local Red Cross, United Way or Veterans Association and plead your case. The right person at one of these agencies may be able to brainstorm with you about local possibilities, or even invite you to work for them. Remember, you offer high value: you’re qualified, motivated, and provide free labor at this time. By being creative, you may be able to build a fieldwork experience that touches on disaster relief and trauma training from an administrative angle. If you can’t work in the trenches, this may be a good substitute.
You might also contact the volunteer director at your local hospital. Hospital volunteer departments are in the business of assigning a range of volunteers with varying skills to in-house hospital clinics and outside community organizations as well. This staff person may have their fingertip on a wide variety of settings in your area that could creatively become a placement.
Whatever your career interests, be open to settings and placements that you had not considered but may offer you opportunities to develop your social work skills.
3. If You Build It: They Will Come
If you can find an organization that will agree to host your social work training, your online program may be better able to locate and approve a credentialed supervisor. It’s even possible that a trained MSW at another institution could become your official field instructor.
All of this requires patience, determination and time. This is why we suggest you research the amount of assistance a prospective online MSW provides in securing fieldwork assignments. You should know this before committing to that program.
4. Make the Best of Your Placement: Adjust Your Expectations
If you’ve decided an online MSW is right for you, then you’ve already embraced flexibility. You know there are trade-offs. You know how to be make adjustments. Make those same adjustments with your fieldwork placement. Nothing is perfect; the placement may be less than ideal. Or quite a commute. With slim pickings in your area, you may not have a choice.
In every situation, there is an opportunity to grow and learn. Work with your school’s fieldwork coordinator to parse out the experience in this fieldwork experience that will satisfy your educational requirements and take you where you need to go. And remember, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.