Should You Earn a Master of Social Work (MSW) Degree?

A career in counseling and therapy starts here
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If you are interested in a career helping others, as a therapist or counselor, for example, consider earning a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree.

Why Earn a Master of Social Work Degree?

Graduates of Master of Social Work programs often work directly with people, helping them cope with a variety of problems. When licensed, MSW holders can conduct therapy independently. MSW degree holders might train teachers to identify children and adolescents who are facing adjustment issues and have special needs, such as substance use problems, mental health issues, or difficulties at home.

They might train teachers and child care provides to identity signs of child abuse. The MSW degree also prepares graduates to work as administrators, case managers, and program developers in mental health and social services organizations.

What many people, including applicants, don't realize is that the Master of Social Work degree may also prepare graduates for research positions in social and government agencies. MSW professionals gather, analyze, and interpret program and policy related data. They may also work as policy makers and planners. MSW holders work with government or private agencies to fund, set up, and evaluate policies and programs that address social issues such as domestic violence, poverty, homelessness, and child abuse.

About the MSW

The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) accredits MSW programs and stipulates educational and experiential requirements. It is in your best interest to choose a CSWE accredited MSW program as accreditation is a measure of quality and is required for licensure in most states.

Licensure as a clinical social (LCSW) enables mental health professionals to practice independent therapy. If you seek a career as a counselor or therapist, a CSWE accredited program is a must. In addition to the MSW, most states require the completion of additional post-graduate supervised treatment hours as well as a written exam.

The Master of Social Work degree takes about two years of full time study to complete. It entails both coursework and supervised practice. Depending on program emphasis you can expect to take courses in human development, social policy, mental health issues, methods of practice, and research. Typical courses might include

  • Social welfare concepts
  • Social and economic diversity
  • Family and child services
  • Social work practices and procedures
  • Interventions and social treatments
  • Working with social and public health agencies

Many students choose to concentrate their studies in a specific area or population, by taking courses in child and family social services, mental health or substance abuse.

During the second year students begin their field work or practica. All accredited MSW programs require at least 900 hours of supervised (typically unpaid) field work in approved agencies and practice settings. Practica setting include the broad range of places in which MSW holders work such as mental health centers, women's centers, clinical facilities, and social welfare agencies. Students specialize in a specific area, such as mental health, employee assistance, aging, health care, corrections, and child welfare.

It is through supervised field work that students learn the craft of therapy. Typically they begin by working alongside an experienced therapist and then gradually take on therapeutic duties. Students might be videotaped in their sessions so that they and their supervisors can review and discuss their work.

It is important to recognize, however, that not all MSW programs train students for careers in therapy. Some train students to specialize in research methodology, public policy, and administration of agencies. These MSW programs may train students for leadership careers running agencies, conducing research designed to inform policy, and create and evaluate social programs. Research-oriented MSW programs accept only applicants who are interested in research and have no desire to conduct therapy.

Some research-oriented MSW programs permit students to obtain joint degrees in law (joint MSW/JD), public health (joint MSW/MPH) or a masters or other professional degree in a health-related profession. Students who are interested in academic, research, or administrative careers might consider the Doctor of Social Work (DSW) degree.