Every day, social workers across the country and around the world strive to "help relieve people's suffering, fight for social justice, and improve lives and communities." It’s a herculean undertaking that individual social workers can’t do all on their own. That's why many join professional social work organizations that advocate for public policy in support of the field, provide continuing education, and create opportunities for networking and advancement.
How many social workers join professional organizations? The National Association of Social Workers (NASW has over 120,000 members. That's roughly 17 percent of the 715,000 social workers identified by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW), a coalition of 144 professional associations, represents over 5 million professionals worldwide.
Annual dues for social work organizations typically run a few hundred dollars (or less). In exchange, members gain access to benefits like annual conferences and other networking opportunities, professional growth courses and training, and even liability insurance.
What are the most important social work organizations? This article surveys some popular groups that provide excellent services to their social worker members.
Arguably the most influential social work organization in the world, the NASW helps set industry standards and offers social workers benefits like liability insurance, legal services, and continuing education and networking opportunities, often through webinars and conferences. The NASW also contributes to the social work field by advocating for policy changes and upholding practice standards. Because of its significant impact on the field, even non-members feel NASW's reach.
The typical NASW member holds a master's degree and has 16 years of professional experience. The organization has 55 chapters across the United States and American territories, including Washington D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Virgin Islands. New York City is the only city with a dedicated chapter.
As the body accrediting bachelor's and master's social work degree programs, the CSWE sets social work education standards, primarily through policy recommendations to the government. Additionally, the Council hosts events to advance teaching practices and provides prospective social work students with materials to help them launch a career in social work. Members include educators and practitioners, plus social work schools and agencies.
According to its website, the IFSW "strive[s] for social justice, human rights and inclusive, sustainable social development through the promotion of social work best practice and engagement in international cooperation." It upholds international education, human rights, and ethical standards in social work, often working directly with the United Nations to achieve these goals. The IFSW collaborates with other professionals and organizations, including healthcare practitioners, to improve global conditions.
Clinical social workers offer direct human services to clients, making clinicians the field's backbone. The CSWA supports clinical social workers, including students and recent graduates. Though the CSWA partners with state organizations, its primary focus is individuals. It represents Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) interests by advocating for better benefits and healthcare plans. According to the CSWA website, membership gives you "professional credibility" plus key networking and educational opportunities.
This society is primarily a student organization, though it's also open to practicing social workers. Phi Alpha offers an excellent networking option to social work students. It also provides scholarships, awards, and grants that can reduce the cost of social work education. Undergraduate and graduate students (in a master's or doctoral program) can join individually or through their degree program. Postgraduate memberships also are available.
Many specialized social workers need a professional organization that offers professional development, networking, and education opportunities tailored to their careers. Geriatric social workers can join the Association for Gerontology Education in Social Work, oncology social workers may want to become members of Association of Oncology Social Work (AOSW), and school social workers have the School Social Work Association of America (SWAA). All three organizations offer mentorship, training, and career opportunities.
No, but membership can be helpful for networking, advancement, and continuing education opportunities.
According to a 2017 CSWE report from the CSWE, 45 percent of social workers hold a master's degree. An MSW is mandatory for licensed clinical social workers. Many MSW programs offer areas of specialization as part of their curricula, allowing students to focus their elective coursework in such areas as medical social work, disaster and crisis intervention, administration, healthcare, and criminal justice.
Most MSW programs take two years to complete. Accelerated programs can be completed in 16 to 18 months, while advanced standing programs—open to those who earned a Bachelor of Social Work as undergraduates—can sometimes be completed in one year.
You do not need a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) to gain admission to an MSW program. Candidates with undergraduate degrees across liberal arts and sciences disciplines qualify for admission to MSW programs. Most schools require candidates to submit undergraduate transcripts showing a GPA of 3.0 or higher, a resume, letters of recommendation, and standardized test scores (though more schools are becoming test-optional).
Attending an MSW program means you'll receive both general and specialized social work education, according to the CSWE. At Tulane University, students complete foundational course titles like Social Welfare History and Policy, Intro to Organizational and Community Practice, and Theories of Human Behavior Across the Life.
Students typically specialize through focus courses and fieldwork after completing foundational coursework.
The NASW identifies 16 areas of social work specialization. Traditional focus areas include mental health, advocacy, and geriatric social work. Some programs offer a macro social work specialization or another wide-lens concentration, such as policy. Your fieldwork should be designed to develop skills in your specialization area.
Many excellent schools offer the Master of Social Work degree. An increasing number have added online or hybrid versions of the program, among them Tulane University of Louisiana and Virginia Commonwealth University. Other top MSW programs include those listed below.
Most Columbia students complete foundational coursework in the first year, then decide on a specialization in the second. That said, the program can be completed in as little as a year (part-time students take longer). According to the website, 98 percent of Columbia graduates are either employed or pursuing further education. All students can access top facilities and receive top training and resources.
Additionally, Columbia offers an entirely online MSW, allowing students from across the country to earn a top social work education. Field placements for online students take place in their nearest city. Remote students can even participate in research and student activities.
The University of Michigan has the top-ranked school of social work, according to US News & World Report. It offers full-time in-person, part-time (including online weekend classes), and online options. The online program is designed for working students and requires fewer credits (45) than the traditional pathway (60). Students still obtain fieldwork experience, but the school places them with local organizations. BSW holders can complete the advanced standing pathway, and all students choose from specialty tracks, which include global practice, child welfare, and management.
Washington University offers ten social work focuses, including hyper-specific specializations like American Indian and Alaska Native and violence and injury prevention. Students also can specialize in social work research, management, and policy. Washington University is conscientious of working students. The part-time program, which includes online and weekend coursework, allows students to maintain their jobs and studies.
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