A Guide to Part Time MSW Programs: Traditional and Online
March 10, 2021
Part-time programs are designed for those who will need to work full-time while earning the degrees, or who have other commitments such as caring for children.
Not everyone who wants to earn a Master’s of Social Work (MSW) degree is prepared for the time or financial investment involved in becoming a full time student. Some MSW candidates need to work while earning the degrees. Others have family obligations. With the double whammy of having to complete coursework along with a lengthy fieldwork assignment, the requirements of an MSW can be tough to manage; figuring out how to fit fieldwork into an already packed schedule may be especially difficult. One option is to enroll in a part-time MSW program.
Part-time programs are designed for those who will need to work full-time while earning the degrees, or who have other commitments such as caring for children.
There are many excellent part-time MSW programs to consider. Part-time options allow for flexible scheduling in earning the MSW. Students can proceed at their own pace, yet still fulfill the obligations of the degree.
One of the most time-consuming aspects of an MSW degree is the fieldwork experience. All accredited MSW programs mandate a minimum number of hours be spent on supervised fieldwork, so there is no way around this essential part of a social worker’s training. But in a part-time structure, the field requirement can be stretched out over a longer time period. For example, in a traditional program, students typically spend two to three days a week in a fieldwork setting, in two back-to-back assignments. These assignments are completed in just four semesters. Even for a full-time student, balancing coursework with fieldwork can be daunting. By comparison, a part time student may spend only one day a week in the field, and even skip a semester, depending on the school.
Not all part-time social work programs are alike. It’s important to note that the structure of each part-time program, and how they handle the coursework and the field experience, will vary.
Part-Time Advanced Standing Programs for Working Professionals and those with a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW)
In particular, part-time MSW programs may be appropriate for anyone already working in a related field. Your current work experience could do double-duty, and provide you "credit" which helps you meet your school requirements. In fact some part-time MSW programs only admit those who already hold a BSW, and thus qualify for advanced standing.
Learn more about advanced standing MSW programs, including online options.
Part-Time MSW Study – Choosing the Best Program for You
You may be considering a social work career because of your desire to help others. Or perhaps you want to engage in advocacy and social activism. Maybe you are already working in a health care agency, and see the degree as necessary for career advancement. If so, the MSW may be right for you.
If you intend to pursue the degree part-time, however, you should learn about the professional requirements for becoming a licensed social worker, and what’s involved in earning the degree as a part-time student.
For starters, just like the fields of medicine and law, social work is a regulated profession. Most employers require that MSW graduates be licensed to practice prior to getting hired. To be eligible to become licensed, students need to have met the graduation requirements of an accredited graduate program. Post-graduation, they must then take and pass appropriate state licensure tests.
The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) is the accrediting and regulatory agency that oversees all social work programs. To ensure a national standard of knowledge and skills, the CSWE mandates a curriculum of 10 core competencies of social work practice behaviors. Some of these competencies are developed during the supervised fieldwork experience, long considered to be the foundational differentiator in social work education.
What does this mean for you? It means that even as a part-time student you should receive a quality education. After completing a part-time degree, you will be armed with the credentials you need to become licensed. However, the credentialing and legitimization of your degree is tied to graduation from a CSWE school. The smart MSW part-time student will choose a program with this affiliation.
As you explore your options, you may discover some part-time programs being offered on local campuses. You may also find many part-time MSW programs being offered in online formats. In fact, there are likely more part-time options with the CSWE credentialing available online than in traditional in-person settings. The very nature of an online format lends itself to students working from the convenience of their homes.
If you are considering an online MSW program, you must be comfortable with technology. You will also need to be self-motivated. Finally, you must be okay with going solo on this. Many online programs do offer dialogue threads with faculty and other students, but you will not necessarily have the bonding experience that peers at a campus-based school might have.
Of all the formats, online programs may offer the greatest flexibility, and yet still provide equally strong training and credentials. Whichever path you choose, getting a part-time MSW is within your reach.
Read the Fine Print and Be Wary of Enrollment Counselors
Any MSW program you choose should be well researched. It’s important to note that many online part-time programs – even those with CSWE credentialing – start with a disclaimer about who is eligible to attend their school. They may provide a list of states from which they cannot accept applications. This likely has to do with state licensing laws and accreditation.
Whatever the reason for the restriction, make sure this is a program that accepts students from your state of residence.
It is also important to be wary of slick "enrollment" ‘counselors or advisors. These individuals tend to work offsite in an online school. Their primary purpose is to close the deal. They may gloss over important areas of concern, such as how you will obtain an appropriate fieldwork assignment.
In researching a program you have every right to stand your ground and ask to speak to a Dean or another representative who is directly involved in the program, such as a member of the field placement staff. If you have your heart set on becoming a social worker, then you will soon learn that advocacy is part of what social workers do.
Try advocating for yourself as an applicant – and push for the information you need, from the right sources – in order to make this very important decision.
From Flexible Start Times to Fieldwork Assignments – Making a Part- Time MSW Work for You
Start times in a part-time program are generally more flexible. Such programs feature multiple start times, and multiple course load requirements. Start times will vary by school, but in many programs, students can begin in the fall, winter or spring term.
The application filing period may also be more flexible for a part-time program. A school may offer rolling admissions, meaning that they accept and admit a continuous batch of applicants with no set deadline. Or they may accept applications in only one set season, usually the fall through to the end of the year.
As we said, it is important that you do your homework and learn what is involved in any part time program. Part-time MSW programs do their best to make the process of applying and attending as manageable as possible. But this flexibility does not mean that there are no set conditions. You don’t want to miss an admissions deadline.
Fieldwork as a Part-Time Student
Any student participating in an accredited MSW program will have a field education requirement ranging from 900 to 1,200 hours. Those who are already working in related fields, or in healthcare settings, may be able to get some fieldwork credit. Otherwise, students will most likely fulfill these hours through two distinct internships over several semesters.
Typically, part-time students complete these two internships over four to seven semesters in their second and third years. However, the fieldwork experience can start as early as the first year.
Where regular students face a grueling fieldwork commitment several day a week, part-time students may only have to work one to one-and-a-half days per week. Note that most fieldwork assignments operate within standard business hours (Monday-Friday, 9am - 5pm), so it’s unlikely that you will be able to fulfill this requirement on weeknights or weekends.
Securing a Fieldwork Placement: The Devil is in the Details
If you are considering part-time MSW programs, it is particularly important to research how the fieldwork assignment will be handled. Fieldwork can be the fly in the ointment for part-time MSWs, even if schools are generous with how much time you must allocate to this training. Many a student has found a wonderful part-time program – especially in an online format – only to be felled by the difficulty of securing and completing the required fieldwork. You don’t want to be persuaded to enroll in a program because of how easy it is take classes, and then be stuck in a tortuous commute to your fieldwork assignment.
If you choose to enroll in a part-time campus-based or online program, these are the important questions you should ask about the essential fieldwork portion of your education:
Who establishes the fieldwork experience?
How likely is the fieldwork assignment to be located in your geographic area, or within a reasonable commute?
Does the student have to do any or all of the groundwork in finding and securing a fieldwork position?
How is this position supervised?
How likely is it that the fieldwork position will expose you to the problems and population in which you wish to develop an expertise? For example, the elderly, or those with addictive behaviors.
Does the school act as a liaison between the program and the fieldwork institution to make sure that the proper requirements are being met?
Is there a dedicated fieldwork faculty advisor or team at this school?
Can you review a list of the placements the school has set up for other students?
Don’t assume that you can figure the fieldwork piece on your own, even if a school seems to fulfill everything else you need.
As a part-time student, your time really matters. How long does will it take you to earn your MSW at a reduced pace?
Part-time MSW study usually takes anywhere from two-and-a-half to four years to complete. Three years seems to be the most popular time frame. Most schools have some kind of cut-off in terms of time, meaning the degree must be completed within a certain number of years.
When researching programs, you should find out the maximum amount of time allowed for students to complete all of their requirements. You should also inquire about the ability to stop and start the program at any given time.
Part-time students in a traditional feet-on-the-ground setting may be in class with full-time students, and may move along as a cohesive unit. These schools offer a generous schedule of evening classes, because even full-time students need the option of nighttime learning; during the day they are in their fieldwork settings. Generally, part-time students in these programs are offered priority in registering for evening classes.
Again, read the fine print. Without that priority access, competing with full-time students for evening classes may be difficult. Some schools use a different system, duplicating the cohort model with a parallel track of part-time students who get to take their own dedicated classes.
In online formats, none of this matters. Classes are accessed from home on a laptop through various tech platforms.
Synchronous and Asynchronous Instruction
When it comes to online class structure, you will hear two terms thrown about. One is synchronous. Think of it this way: students are synchronized together.
The synchronous method of instruction allows students to log into classes through a home laptop, but they are required to be online at specific times. Through tech platforms, students may be required to join in specific lectures and classes. Synchronous instruction is usually offered in the evenings and on weekends.
Another mode of instruction is asynchronous. Yes, it means what you think it does. It is the anti-together mode of learning; you are free to do your own thing. Here students log in to take classes or coursework whenever it works for them. There are still requirements, such as homework assignments, papers and due dates, but you will not have to rush home and join in a distance learning class at a set time.
A majority of online programs use both of these formats. Some campus-based part-time programs may also offer online classes in the mix.
A Case Study: A Glimpse at Three Different Part-Time MSW Programs
Part-time programs come in all flavors and sizes. Below you will find a description of three programs that represent three different approaches to part-time MSW study. This should inform you about how programs handle coursework and fieldwork, and help guide you to a program that best meets your needs.
Part-time (3 Year) Campus-Based MSW at the University of Pennsylvania
The University of Pennsylvania (Penn) is one of the nation’s oldest and most venerable schools of social work study. It is CSWE accredited, and top ranked. The part-time study program at this school is well structured, and integrated into the entire social work school program. Fieldwork assignments are multiple and well established. At this school, part-time students receive all of the services, and the equal supports, of their full-time peers.
Penn offers a Part-Time (Three Year) MSW program. This program is offered on campus, and involves six semesters and two summers of study to complete the degree.
As you research schools, you will see that most tend to have a philosophy, or an academic focus. MSW programs refer to this as what they call a micro or macro approach. Micro refers to a course of study or training that focuses on the individual, family, or child. Macro refers to a course of study that is more focused on – well – large macro issues such as social policy and other challenges in society.
At Penn, the focus is on addressing micro and macro societal challenges at the local, national and international levels. Penn students tend to be in the thick of things, and pursue relevant societal and policy issues. An example of this is Penn’s recent participation in the hot-topic dialogue around gun violence.
Because many part time students need to continue to hold a job, where appropriate, Penn will use current employment in a related field as a fieldwork placement. This is evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
A more formal version of this accommodation is available through Penn’s Employed Practitioners Program, which allows students already employed social agencies to continue to work towards their MSWs while retaining their full-time jobs. Again, eligibility for this program is determined by the school, and requires an appropriate professional to supervise the student’s employment for fieldwork credit.
Evening classes at this school are offered on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 4pm - 6:30pm, and from 6:45pm - 9:15pm. Priority registration for these is given to all part-time students. Electives are also available in the evenings, though a greater number of electives are available during the day. According to the school, the part-time program guarantees that all coursework requirements can be met through this evening schedule.
A distinct advantage of this part-time program is that the fieldwork assignments are well established. The school not only places students in the appropriate settings, it has them work with the Director of Field Education to determine best fit for their interests and training.
Students at Penn must complete one field placement in each of their second and third years of the program. Penn notes that students spend approximately 16 hours per week in their placement, 8 hours of which must be during the normal business hours of the agency in question.
Between classes, studying, and fieldwork commitments, the school estimates that students make a total time commitment of between 31-36 hours per week.
100% Online Part-time Program at Rutgers University School of Social Work:
Like the University of Pennsylvania, Rutgers University’s School of Social work is CSWE accredited, and top ranked by US News and World Report. At this school the GRE is not required. And there is some other good news: Rutgers accepts students from all over the county to their 100% online, part-time program.
Part-time online MSW students at Rutgers must complete their programs within three years. Classes are held in an asynchronous format, which means that students can jump in and take classes when it’s convenient for them. There are no fixed classroom times in this structure; however, there are regularly scheduled assignments, and, like a typical school, due dates for schoolwork.
According to Rutgers, students can begin their programs in the fall, spring or summer. There are specific admissions deadlines to meet in order to begin at any of these terms.
The pace of this program is quite manageable. Students only take two classes per semester for the duration of their time at Rutgers, and their first two semesters are fieldwork free. If you begin in the fall – a pretty typical start time – you do not have to begin your fieldwork assignment until your third semester – which would be the summer. This may give you time to adjust to the program, and to continue to work full time at your job.
Two field placements – a foundation level placement for three semesters (11.25 hours per week), and an advanced clinical placement for four semesters (13.5 hours/week) are required for graduation. In that first foundation level placement, it is occasionally permissible to complete the 11.25 hours in one day, but this does have to be worked out with the fieldwork advisors. It may not be possible.
Another benefit of the Rutgers program is that they have dedicated faculty to help you secure your fieldwork assignment. Rutgers has established relationships with numerous agencies throughout the United States to help students find an internship that meets their career interests. So at this school, identifying great fieldwork placements is fairly well grooved. That said, buyer beware. Ask to see a list of fieldwork assignments handed out to prior students in your geographic area, and in your area of academic interest.
One of the disadvantages of part-time study is that there so much to juggle. Unique opportunities to specialize or take meaningful electives can be lost in the effort to fit it all in. That said, some part-time programs do offer additional certificates that might round out your degree.
For example, the Rutgers part-time online program allows MSW candidates to pursue a special certificate in Violence against Women and Children (VAWC). A majority of online programs don’t offer this option, so if violence against women and children is an area of career interest, this certificate is of value. The school notes that the certificate coursework is embedded into the online program, so pursuing the VAWC certificate will not delay your MSW completion. Importantly, this credential can also help differentiate you in the workplace.
University of South Florida School of Social Work Part-Time (cohort driven program) Program
At this school there is an online part-time option, but only those students who already hold a BSW are eligible for online study.
The University of South Florida (USF) does not require the GRE, unless you have below a 3.0 GPA as an undergrad. They offer a campus based, cohort driven program. Students all start together at the same time, and move lockstep through their studies. A new program begins when the last group has graduated.
Figuring out start times for this program is a bit wonky. You will need to contact the school directly to determine the next start time.
This program offers the advantage of being cohort-driven, with dedicated classes set up only for the part-timers. There is no worry about "getting in" to the classes you need, or about fighting full-timers for a slot. Additionally, moving together as a cohort offers lots of bonding and student networking opportunities.
This program runs for 8 consecutive semesters, which roughly translates to 2 and ¾ years. Classes are held three evenings a week each semester. The fieldwork assignment begins during the third semester, and the weekly hourly requirement for these placements is approximately 12.2 hours. In the second fieldwork assignment, required hours go up slightly.
Before you begin the USF program, a field director will reach out and try to place you with a population that is a match for your interests and area of study.
Note that the academic focus of this program is to become a clinical social worker. Clinical social work involves mastering a discipline and skill set to assess, diagnose, and treat a variety of emotional and mental health problems in individuals, couples, families and groups. Pursuing a clinical track is the most popular area of practice for social work students. With additional training and licensure, MSWs may go into private practice offering counseling and therapy.
Part-Time Social Work Sum-Up
The decision to go to school for social work is a significant one. Working professionals and those with family obligations face unique challenges when earning advanced degrees. Fortunately, accredited part-time programs offer MSWs a method for juggling it all. Identifying the right program, however, involves some soul-searching, research, and due diligence.
As we’ve noted, not all programs are alike. It may be helpful to first ask yourself if are the type of person who prefers cohort learning, or if you are someone who can go it alone in an online format. From there, you should be able to winnow down your choices. Your journey to becoming a licensed social worker is an exciting one. Enrolling in the best program for you will go a long way towards getting you your MSW.