If you’ve decided you want to become a social worker, you’ve probably given serious thought to the rewards of the profession, and to the time and commitment involved in earning the degree. Getting an MSW is a bit like jumping into a moving car; things go fast, and you’ll have to grab the wheel quickly.
In addition to your regular courses, much of your time as a student will be spent in a fieldwork experience. This hands-on training is the cornerstone of the Master’s of Social Work (MSW) degree, and typically requires two back-to-back field work assignments totaling 900 – 1200 hours. The fieldwork assignment starts shortly after your classes begin. And depending on the program you choose (traditional, online, accelerated), you may be out in the field working as a practicing social worker in less than two years.
Your fieldwork experience requires an in-person commitment. More than any other part of your degree, fieldwork options will be affected by your location. This is because fieldwork placements require supervision by a credentialed social worker or fieldwork instructor. Depending on where you live and the program that you’ve enrolled in, securing this kind of placement can be difficult.
When you think about location, consider the type of program you want: traditional on-campus based, part-time, or online. Making a choice about this will drive your studies and training. An online program has no real geographic setting. This can impact how you go about securing and working in your mandatory fieldwork experience. But an on-campus program might add a long commute, stealing precious time from your already jam-packed schedule.
For numerous reasons, geography can impact your training and experience.
It is important to have a sense of the population you want to serve and the practice area in which you hope to build expertise before choosing your program.
A school in an urban area such as New Orleans or Los Angeles may offer very different fieldwork options than a school in another setting. In fact, inner cities and urban locations may qualify as high-need areas. In some cases, this may allow you to apply for a stipend for your social work internship placement.
While it is true that urban areas can offer countless fieldwork options working with a broad range of vulnerable populations, this does not mean that you can’t find what you need at a local, regional MSW school. For example, if you have an interest in substance abuse, you will find that there are treatment programs, which need trained social workers, all over the country.
Think about where you want to go to school. Is location is a priority? What is most important to you?
Then, do your homework and learn what kinds of fieldwork opportunities are available in your desired programs. Remember that beyond its size or reputation, a school’s location can influence the work you do.
Not all online MSW programs offer the same supports in securing a high quality fieldwork assignment.
The amount of help you can expect to receive in finding your placement will vary from school to school. Some programs have established relationships with fieldwork organizations, and can more readily deliver placements to online students. Field instructors in these placements are experienced — they’ve worked with students many times before, and they know the drill. However, not every online program can offer these types of contacts.
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 utilizing an online platform. Let’s say the program you choose to attend as an online student also offers a parallel, on-campus MSW program in Los Angeles. For on-campus 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 will leave you to do this work 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 end 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
There is wide variability among online MSW programs in how they handle this foundational aspect of your training. Do yourself a favor and determine — upfront — what this program will do to help you find an awesome placement.
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, those conditions are absent in your personal geographic area.
Contact your local Red Cross, United Way or Veterans Association, and plead your case. Even if you live in an area that has not been impacted by recent disasters, the right person at one of these agencies may be able to brainstorm with you about local possibilities. Even better, they might invite you to come work in their office. By being creative, you may be able to build a fieldwork experience that touches on disaster relief and trauma training from an administrative angle.
You might also contact the volunteer director at your local hospital. Hospital volunteer departments are in the business of assigning a range of volunteers to in-house hospital clinics as well as outside community organizations. Someone from their volunteer office may have a wide variety of local settings at their fingertips, and might be able to help you find a placement.
3. If You Build It: They Will Come
While it is essential that your placement include a credentialed fieldwork supervisor, you do not necessarily need to exclude organizations that don’t seem to offer this type of personnel. If you do the legwork to find a placement that will agree to host your social work training, your online program might be better able to locate and approve a credentialed supervisor for you.
If you’ve decided that the MSW is right for you, then you’ve already embraced a great future. But whether you attend a program on-campus or online, there will always be trade-offs. Depending on where your program is located, you may need to make some compromises with your fieldwork placement. Nothing is perfect; the placement may be less than ideal. Or quite a commute. If there are slim pickings in your area, you may not have a choice.
But it’s important to note that no matter where you live — big city, rural area, or somewhere in-between — earning an MSW is possible. And once you have that versatile degree in hand, you’ll learn that social workers truly are needed everywhere.