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- What is social work, exactly?
- Where do social work professionals work?
- What types of careers are there in this field?
- Who should pursue a social work degree? Who shouldn't?
- Do I need an advanced degree to work in the field of social work?
- How much does a master's in social work cost?
- How competitive is admission to MSW programs?
- Do I have to know my degree concentration now? How do I choose one that's right for me?
- How are social work programs ranked? Do rankings matter?
- Are there online programs available? How do they compare to offline programs?
Master’s in Social Work: FAQ
Social work is a rich and rewarding field, ripe with opportunities for those who are interested in helping study, shape, and aid their society. Those considering a master’s degree in social work have a number of specialties, concentrations, and professions to choose from, and it can be difficult to determine the right path for your particular career goals. We have assembled a list of frequently asked questions and provided precise answers to help you make an informed decision.
What is social work, exactly?
Social workers are dedicated to improving the quality of life of their clients. They can work in a number of capacities, most notably enhancing client service through research, policy, direct practice, and education.
There are two main types of social workers: direct-service social workers, who work individually with clients to help them to cope with problems in their everyday lives, and clinical social workers, who diagnose and treat mental, behavioral and emotional issues.
Where do social work professionals work?
Social workers often work in private offices, but they visit clients “in the field” at their homes, residential facilities, and other locations. They can also be employed in hospitals, schools, clinics, or various other facilities with a need for a social service specialist.
What types of careers are there in this field?
There are many categories of professional social workers. For instance, child and family social care workers protect children and help families in need of assistance; school social workers work with teachers, parents and school administrators to develop plans and strategies to improve academic performance and social development; healthcare social workers help patients understand their diagnosis and make necessary adjustments to their lifestyle, housing or health care; and senior care social workers work in nursing homes and help senior residents, or work in hospitals to help patients adjust to serious, chronic or terminal illnesses.
Who should pursue a social work degree? Who shouldn't?
Pursue social work if you have a genuine desire to help people solve or cope with the problems of everyday life. If you possess a high degree of compassion and empathy, you’ll find hands-on casework fulfilling. With direct-service social work, listening skills and a love of working directly with others is key. Clinical social work and policy development are fields more often pursued by those with strong organizational and analytical skills.
While social workers are always in demand, you should not pursue work in the field if you’re primarily concerned with secure and steady work. Social service work can be very emotionally and psychologically taxing, as well. Often, direct-care social workers are asked to work with people who are facing difficult or unsafe circumstances in their lives. Clinical social workers are usually further removed from the harsher realities of individual casework, but spending long hours to collect and analyze data from these cases can be just as taxing.
Do I need an advanced degree to work in the field of social work?
A bachelor's degree is the most common requirement for entry-level positions. However, some positions, like those in schools and in healthcare facilities, require a master's degree in social work. All clinical social workers are also required to earn a master's degree. In short, a Master’s in social work is not a necessity for those looking to advance to leadership positions, but the credential will definitely make the path easier.
How much does a master's in social work cost?
The cost of programs varies substantially among public and private schools. Students can expect to pay between $12,000 and $20,000 of in-state tuition at public schools each academic year, and as high as $40,000 or $50,000 annually for out-of-state tuition, or at private institutions.
Though the cost of a master’s program at most schools is substantial, nearly every school offers a variety of scholarship and work-study options that can considerably alleviate the burden of tuition. Many public and private organizations also offer grants and scholarships designed specifically for social work students.
How competitive is admission to MSW programs?
Social work masters students are held to high standards and admission requirements are rigorous. Generally speaking, the master’s selection process includes an evaluation of each applicant's demonstrated and potential abilities as a student, practitioner, and leader in the field of social work.
Admission requirements vary, but they typically include full transcripts, a minimum grade point average of 3.0, evidence of social service experience, and a demonstrated ability to conduct academic research. Multiple professional and academic references are often required, as are letters of recommendation. Applicants almost always must submit an admissions essay, autobiographical statement, and in some cases, an analysis in which the applicant describes a social problem that they consider significant and offers opinions on how it might be solved.
Do I have to know my degree concentration now? How do I choose one that's right for me?
It is not necessary to choose a concentration immediately upon entering a program. Many schools do not require students to choose a concentration until their second year after they have some experience with the different areas they could go into.
While considering possible concentrations, you should first decide whether clinical or direct-care social work better suits your interests and abilities. From there, you can determine the specific type of social work you hope to pursue, be it healthcare, substance abuse, school and child care, or another concentration.
How are social work programs ranked? Do rankings matter?
A variety of criteria is used to rank social work programs. However, of all university rankings,the US News & World Report system is the most popular, and is widely considered the most reliable. In ranking the health programs of American schools, US News and World Report experts base their assessments on the results of peer assessment surveys sent to administrators and faculty at accredited degree programs in each discipline. Respondents rate the academic quality of programs on a scale from 1 (marginal) to 5 (outstanding). In 2011, over two hundred social work schools were surveyed, and only fully accredited programs in good standing during the survey period were ranked.
For those with specific interests within the discipline, particularly those who are looking to become clinical social workers, a degree from a school with a high ranking will reflect well on your future resume. However, rankings are not the only factor that ensures a thorough and effective education.
If a school with a more modest ranking specializes in the specific area of social work a student wants to pursue, it could be a better choice than a school with a higher ranking, but a more generalized program. Additionally, as with all subjects, you will get out of your program what you put into it. You can earn a comprehensive education at a school with a low ranking just as well as a top-ranked school, as long as you take your classwork seriously and participate in rigorous independent study.
Are there online programs available? How do they compare to offline programs?
Many social work programs are offered online, often from some of the highest-ranked schools. The program at Fordham University in New York and the University of Southern California’s School of Social Work, for example, each offer online corollaries, and are tied for 11th place in the country by US News & World Report.
Students should carefully consider the residential requirements and feasibility of online programs before committing. Online students at Fordham are required to attend face-to-face sessions in New York City twice a year for the duration of the program, and the master’s degree social work program at USC arranges supervised internships to assist in job placement and to ensure students are received thorough on-the-job training. Therefore, be aware that many “online” social work programs are not offered 100% online.