Social Work

8 Keys to Succeeding in a Part-Time Social Work Master’s Program

8 Keys to Succeeding in a Part-Time Social Work Master’s Program
'Keep up with your schoolwork' and 'take care of yourself' top the list of 8 tips to succeed in a part-time master's of social work program. Image from Pexels
Lucien Formichella profile
Lucien Formichella May 30, 2021

It's tough to balance work and life obligations with a part-time master's program. We've collected a few tips to make it easier.

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It’s possible to find a job in social work with just a bachelor’s degree. However, if you want to advance your career, you’ll eventually find yourself considering graduate programs.

Completing a Master of Social Work can take years, but the payoff is substantial. Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSW), who hold a master’s degree, earn an average annual salary of just over $59,000—$10,000 more per year than the average social worker, according to PayScale.

Beyond money, social workers with a master’s degree typically have more responsibility and opportunities to positively impact lives, communities, and even public policy. Still, attending graduate school is a daunting proposition. Social workers don’t make a ton of money—it’s more of a calling than a career—and leaving work to study full-time for a few years may not be possible. Luckily, there are several part-time opportunities for students who want to complete a graduate degree but can’t put their lives on hold to do it.

If you are considering earning a degree part-time, here are 8 keys to succeeding in a part-time social work master’s program:

  • What is a Master of Social Work (MSW)?
  • Master of Social Work fields of specialization
  • Succeeding in a part-time social work master’s program
  • Online vs. on-campus part-time MSW programs
  • Can you handle a part-time social work master’s program?

What is a Master of Social Work (MSW)?

MSW programs prepare students for advanced social work positions; nearly 80 percent focus on clinical social work, according to a Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) study. Clinical social workers provide direct mental and emotional health services to individuals and groups, including families. MSW programs can also focus on community social work (9.2 percent offer this specialization) and macro social work (7.7 percent), including public policy and advocacy.

There are many excellent reasons to earn a MSW, including increased job opportunities and better pay. While it’s possible to hold a social work job with just a bachelor’s degree (or even a high school diploma), most of the best positions require a master’s or doctorate. The CSWE study reports that 43.3 percent of social work jobs require licensure while 34.6 percent of social work jobs require at least an MSW—even if you’re unlicensed.

Licensed Clinical Social Workers can provide therapy services or manage a team of social workers. Social work administrators and social work therapists in private practice can earn six-figure incomes, far more than most social workers make.

Other top career paths for MSW-holders include:

  • Community service manager
  • Employee Assistance Program counselor
  • Professor of social work
  • Social work policy analyst
  • Veteran’s affairs social worker

You don’t need a BSW to apply for a MSW program, though it can help. BSW holders can apply for advanced standing program designation, which offers credit for undergraduate coursework to accelerate the program. Advanced standing students at Virginia Commonwealth University can complete the master’s program in only one year, as opposed to the two-year or 16-month tracks for students with non-social work backgrounds. Students can also complete their degrees part-time.

BSW degrees teach the basic core competencies and social work theories needed to launch your career. Those without a BSW commonly hold a bachelor’s degree in a humanities subject.

Traditional full-time MSW programs typically take two years to complete. MSW programs combine classroom learning and field work experience. MSW students must complete at least 900 hours of field work to graduate, as defined by the CSWE.

What sort of subjects does MSW coursework cover? At Columbia University, for one example, students learn about:

  • Human behavior and the social environment
  • Research
  • Social welfare policy and services
  • Social work practice

Course titles include:

  • Advocacy in Social Work Practice
  • Direct Practice with Individuals, Families & Groups
  • Foundations of Social Work Practice: Decolonizing Social Work
  • Human Behavior and the Social Environment
  • Social Welfare Policy

Finally, social work may not be your only interest. It’s possible to earn a dual degree, meaning you earn an MSW and study another subject. Dual degree MSW students typically pursue degrees like:

  • Juris Doctor (JD)
  • Master of Education (M.Ed.)
  • Master of Public Administration (MPA)
  • Master of Public Health (MPH)

Pursuing one of these degree options typically means setting your sights beyond clinical practice. Graduates can enter careers like teaching at the postgraduate level or creating policy. Alternatively, you may specialize in a particular area of social work. For instance, University of Pennsylvania students who earn a Master of Law and MSW may take immigration and criminal justice positions. They can find careers as advocates, policymakers, and agency leaders.



University and Program Name Learn More

Master of Social Work fields of specialization

Earning a MSW can help you specialize in a social work discipline. You may do this by earning a dual degree, but that can be time consuming and difficult. Many MSW programs offer specialiation or concentration tracks that students can complete to focus their skillsets. Students fashion specializations by complete elective coursework in addition to core courses.

Before delving into concentration options, it’s helpful to understand the types of social work careers available to you. All social workers abide by the same code, which includes fighting for social justice, human rights, and social change. Social work encompasses of three practice levels:

  • Micro: The sector most people think of when they imagine social work. Micro social workers typically provide direct human services to individuals and groups, including child protective services, substance abuse intervention, and homeless outreach.
  • Macro: These professionals tackle issues at an institutional level. They are the ones that write social service policies. Policy and advocacy are examples of macro social work.
  • Mezzo: Even though micro social workers can help groups, they focus primarily on individuals. Mezzo social workers, on the other hand, spend most of their time on group outreach. This can mean working with religious groups, community leaders, and schools.

According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), there are 16 social work specialty areas. They are:

  • Administration and management
  • Advocacy and community organization
  • Aging
  • Alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs
  • Child welfare
  • Developmental disabilities
  • Healthcare
  • International social work
  • Justice and corrections
  • Mental health and clinical social work
  • Occupational and Employee Assistance Program (EAP) social work
  • Policy and planning
  • Politics
  • Public welfare
  • Research
  • School social work

Note that not all schools offer concentration tracks in all specialization areas. In fact, very few, if any, programs cover all 16 areas. Similarly, different schools approach each specialization from unique perspectives. Do your research before deciding on a Master of Social Work program.

Your field work hours also contribute to your specialization. Finding a placement in your chosen area of study will provide you invaluable experience upon which to build your career.

Succeeding in a part-time social work master’s program

Before jumping into the best ways to succeed in a part-time social work master’s program, a little about the experience. A vast majority of students (77.8 percent) graduate in three years or fewer. Students in part-time online programs often need between one and two years.

Here are helpful tips to succeeding in a part-time MSW.

Make a schedule and stick to it

Remember, part-time doesn’t necessarily mean tacking on years to your studies. According to the CSWE, only 1.4 percent of students spend more than four years, and only 2.5 percent spend more than five in a part-time in-person program. The numbers are even lower for online students, with 1.1 percent spending more than four years and zero percent spending more than five. Most students complete their coursework in two years, roughly the same amount of time it takes students in traditional master’s programs.

Before even starting to look at things like assignments and field experience, determine how much work you’ll need to put in to graduate in your desired timeframe. Having an ultimate deadline can help keep you on track and put the other smaller tasks in perspective. Then create a realistic schedule that allows you to meet your deadlines.

Include work-life balance in your schedule

Be sure to allow space to relax in your schedule; not having enough can overwhelm you and ultimately cost you time.

Combining assignments can also help with this. Working part-time students may earn field work hours at their regular jobs, which can significantly help those on a tight schedule. Monmouth University, for one, “approve[s] work/field arrangements regularly.” The school says, “a student may take on additional responsibilities and hours at his or her agency. Each arrangement requires an individualized plan established with us and your employer.” Being able to meet two requirements at the same time can dramatically improve your work-life balance.

Make sure to research whether your school allows this; not every student can take advantage of this option. It also depends on where you work. If you’re not satisfied with the position you have, it may be more beneficial to complete field work elsewhere.

Organize assignments, due dates, and exam dates

Finding enough time to complete school is daunting for any student, especially for part-timers trying to balance coursework, field work, and regular jobs. This is why it’s helpful to plan your semester and fill a calendar with significant due dates and deadlines. This can help provide an idea of good study days vs. days where you want to focus on another task. From there, you can make shorter schedules for the week or day and map your time hourly. The best way to keep up with everything is not to get behind. Sticking to your plan is vital.

Network with fellow students

Networking is essential for every career, including social work. It’s helpful to get to know your fellow students, not only because you’ll be learning and studying with them, but because you may continue working with them after graduation. It can be challenging to network in a part-time program, where students often spend minimal time on campus and balance work commitments. One way is by chatting with people before and after class or even scheduling events outside of school.

There are also numerous opportunities to network with more than just your peers. According to a post on the University of Southern California Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work blog, networking techniques for social workers include:

  • Utilizing your school’s alumni network, which can provide everything from words of encouragement to potential job opportunities.
  • Taking advantage of NASW events, including conferences and training. The NASW is one of the largest professional organizations for social workers and can advance your career outside of school. Participating in conferences is a great chance to meet other social workers and increase your knowledge, especially in a specialty area.
  • Joining groups on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
  • Volunteering with local organizations, such as a food pantry, can connect you with other social workers.

Seek fieldwork that fits your career goals

This is perhaps the most helpful thing for MSW students—regardless of full or part-time status. According to the CSWE, over a third of respondents gained a job as a direct result of their field work, meaning it can have a significant impact on your career. It can also be your best chance to specialize; it’s advantageous to get a field work placement at an organization that fits your goals.

Many schools split time between general and specialized field work placements—starting in the first year. At Fordham University, for example, students first complete the Generalist Field practicum, which serves as an introduction “to direct social work practice with individuals, families and/or groups within organizational systems that help students conceptualize the ways in which social policy, regulatory standards and community needs all impact service delivery.” Next comes a specialist field practicum, which has students apply skills to an “advanced clinical practice or macro/administrative practice.” Students in the specialist section of the program can take more agency over their placements. Virginia Commonwealth University offers a similar path; students in the specialist designation get more time per week—over 20 hours instead of around 15.

Reach out to faculty and administrators when you need help

This is an excellent option whenever you are struggling. Remember, professors and faculty are there to help you become the best social worker you can be, not to make life impossible. Social work professors typically have extensive work experience, meaning they were in your position once. Good social work professors can utilize their backgrounds to help you.

Practice self-care

Self-care is essential, no matter who you are. That said, social workers can face higher levels of stress and exposure to trauma than the average professional. According to the website Good Therapy, “Social workers can suffer secondary or vicarious trauma, which may trigger burnout, stymie their ability to support clients, and trigger chronic mental health issues.” Self-care could mean finding a therapist you can discuss your experiences with, conversing with other social workers, or even just carving a few hours out for yourself to relax and not think about work.

Enjoy the experience!

Enjoying your job not only improves your quality of life but can make you a better worker. There is evidence of a link between job satisfaction and productivity. Unfortunately, social workers face high stress and limited flexibility in their careers, meaning they can burn out easily. If you decide to pursue an MSW, make sure it’s because you genuinely want to perform social work.

Online vs. on-campus part-time MSW programs

There isn’t much difference between part-time, full-time, and online MSW programs in terms of education content, but they attract different types of students. Because of their flexibility, part-time and online MSW programs are typically more attractive to working professionals. Tulane University of Louisiana offers all three options, each offering the same basic curriculum. All students complete 948 hours of field work, though the placement process differs. In-person students receive placements at locally affiliated agencies, while the school helps online students find local organizations where they’re studying.

Though educational content may be similar, schools may limit students’ format choice. There are three options in the Tulane University of Louisiana online MSW, including part-time, full-time, and advanced standing. In-person students can only complete full-time programs—traditional or advanced standing.

Ultimately, the decision to pursue an online or on-campus degree comes down to your personal preferences, but your background can influence it. According to a CSWE study, online students are typically older than in-person students, and have more work experience, often at least six years. Online programs also attract more Black students and students from rural areas. There are differences in the type of social work people in online and in-person MSW programs practice. For instance, online students are more likely to work with children than in-person students, who are more likely to work with the elderly.

Can you handle a part-time social work master’s program?

There’s no clear answer to whether or not you can handle a part-time social work master’s program. Maintaining a job throughout school is possible, albeit challenging. If you want to be a social worker, however, the extra effort pays off. Though requirements differ, most states only license social workers who have an MSW. If you want the best jobs in social work like therapist or LSCS, you’ll need to earn an MSW.

That said, the benefits of an MSW don’t stop at clinical social work. It can prepare you for other great careers in:

  • College counseling
  • Community outreach
  • Human resources
  • Legal mediation
  • Social entrepreneurship

Once you’re sure you want to earn an MSW, the decision to pursue a part-time or full-time degree becomes easier. Occasionally, employers may offer to pay at least in part for your degree, though they typically ask for some commitment in exchange. The upside is you may have more control over your schedule. Though it can be challenging, earning a part-time MSW may offer the best chance to advance your social work career while maintaining a positive work-life balance.

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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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