A masters degree in social work, commonly abbreviated to “MSW,” is a graduate university degree that normally takes about two years to complete. Different schools have different requirements about how to get accepted, and the actual course of study can vary from place to place, too. All degree programs prepare students for careers helping defined population groups, though, and there are many consistencies when it comes to broad objectives and teaching methods. People usually enroll in this sort of program as a way to advance a career in social work or to break into the field in a meaningful way.
Basic Requirements for Entry into a Program
Getting into an MSW program typically requires an undergraduate degree, usually a Bachelor of Arts (BA) or a Bachelor of Science (BS) in a field that has at least some bearing on social work. While BAs in social work specifically are available at some institutions, they are not always necessary for an MSW. Students can typically fulfill the undergraduate requirement with a degree in any of the liberal arts. Degrees in psychology, sociology, and anthropology are among the most common.
In most cases, a specific academic background is not as important as a student’s passion for and interest in social work as a lifelong career. Schools typically want to see some evidence of scholastic interest in the field, but students with degrees in very unrelated fields — chemistry, for instance, or literature — often still gain admittance by convincing admissions committees that they are very committed to social work. This can be done with essays, letters of recommendation, and field experience. Volunteering with social agencies or crisis centers, for example, can often demonstrate interest that wouldn’t be seen when looking at an academic record on its own.
Types of Program
Like many master's degree programs, the MSW is usually very focused. Students have some choice between courses, but the parameters and requirements of study are often much more stringent than they are at the undergraduate level. It is often the case that certain schools have certain specific strengths, which can attract students with more defined interests. Someone who wants to work with aging populations might look for a school that has a strong elder care faculty, for instance, while someone interested in helping inner-city kids might seek out a program with an urban studies or poverty center.
How the Degree Is Earned
Most schools offer the master's degree in social work as a full-time course of study, though there may be part-time programs available in some places. Most of the coursework involves a combination of book learning, lecture, discussion, and hands-on experience. First-year students usually spend most of their time in classes and seminars while second-years tend to spend more of their time in the field. Schools will often place students in internships within the local community where they can observe and get a feel for what social work is really like as a profession.
Students will often turn their hands-on experience into a research paper or other publishable work at the end of their program. Most schools require MSW degree candidates to prepare a master's thesis as the capstone of their studies. Many of the facts and basic research for this piece of writing are collected from field work. Students usually have a lot of latitude in choosing their topics, but almost always have to demonstrate a grasp of both social welfare issues and statistical analysis in order to be successful.
How to Use the Degree
MSW degree holders have a lot of options when it comes to what sort of work they can do. Some graduates take jobs as social workers for government agencies, working in foster care or social welfare offices. Others take positions with nonprofit groups that help underserved populations, work with women and children, or help refugees, to name a few. Still others pursue careers in therapy. Many marriage and family therapists, school counselors, and crisis intervention workers have master's in social work degrees in their backgrounds.
As a Stepping Stone to Greater Achievements
The master's degree is often all that is needed to get started in a rewarding career, but it doesn’t have to be an endpoint. Many people go on from the master’s level to further hone their expertise, either through more specific counselor training programs or more in-depth schooling. Most doctoral programs in social work require an MSW as an intermediary step, for instance, and the degree can also be an asset for more advanced degree programs in related fields like psychology or social justice.