Clinical social work, which is sometimes referred to as direct-practice social work, involves diagnosing and treating clients who suffer from a range of psychological and social problems, including mental illness, addiction, and trauma. Like other types of social workers, clinical social workers provide assistance to individuals, families, and other social groups, and help connect those in need to local, state, and federal aid programs like Medicare and SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). They also direct clients to healthcare services, educational and vocational resources, and human services programs that provide housing and other vital needs.
The key feature of clinical social work is the counseling services that professionals in this area of social work provide. Mental health counseling requires advanced training in the theories and practices of psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and other counseling modalities. Clinical social workers receive this advanced training in specialized MSW programs that are designed to prepare students for the challenges of offering these treatments to clients who may be struggling with substance abuse, domestic violence, homelessness, and other difficult problems. Graduates from MSW programs with a clinical focus are also typically eligible to apply for state licensure as a Licensed Clinical Social Work (LCSW), a professional designation that is a requirement for social workers who want to set up their own private practice in all 50 states.
Training for clinical social workers occurs at the master’s level in MSW degree programs with a clinical focus. These programs provide students with foundational instruction in advanced social work topics like theories of human psychological and social development, health and human services policy research, and social service administration and advocacy. But the core training in a clinical MSW program involves learning how to conduct direct client interventions with people in need and at-risk populations. Students in a clinical MSW program learn to deploy proper counseling techniques in psychotherapeutic settings with children, adults, families, and others who may require such services. They also receive didactic instruction in theories of counseling, principles of mental health assessment, and psychopathology. They then apply this knowledge in clinical settings as part of formal field education that is integrated into the MSW curriculum.
Online clinical social work MSW programs offer the same training and instruction as campus-based programs through the use of distance-learning technologies. Online programs are generally a more convenient and flexible option for students who cannot or would prefer not to relocate or commute in order to attend on-campus classes. Students in an online program log on to a learning management system (LMS) for lectures, interactive activities, and other coursework. They typically contact instructors, participate in discussion groups, and submit assignments through the LMS as well. To complete field education requirements, online students can generally find placements at local health services agencies. While some programs match online students to local agencies and field instructors, others require students to set up their own placements.. In addition, some online MSW programs require students to attend a limited number of on-campus sessions or intensives, which may include orientations, workshops, seminars, and other instructional activities.
The core MSW curriculum is fairly standardized, as programs accredited by the Council for Social Work Education (CSWE) must meet set criteria for instruction and training in the professional practice of social work. While the majority of master’s in social work programs are MSW programs, there are Master of Science in Social Work (MSSW) and Master of Science in Social Administration (MSSA) programs that are accredited by the CSWE and provide clinical training for licensure as an LCSW.. Students should note there are two other main types of MSW programs: Advanced Generalist and Macro/Community Practice, which differ from clinical social work programs.
Some schools only offer Advanced Generalist MSW programs, which combine instruction in clinical social work with classes in macro social work. These programs may not provide sufficient clinical training for licensure, depending on the curriculum, the state’s licensing requirements, and where a student completes his or her field education. Students should check with their state’s licensing board for the most up-to-date licensing requirements to determine whether or not a program offers the requisite coursework and field education. Unlike Advanced Generalist programs, macro social work programs usually do not meet the requirements for LCSW licensure.
OnlineEducation.com conducts independent research and classifies online MSW programs based on several factors. All of the programs included on this page are offered by regionally accredited, non-profit colleges and universities, and all programs must have programmatic accreditation from the CSWE. In order to be classified under clinical social work, the program must offer a clinical or direct practice concentration with instruction in the theories and practices of clinical counseling. Programs must also offer all or most of their classroom instruction online. MSW programs that require more than two campus visits per year are classified as hybrid programs and are not currently included on the site.
Clinical social work programs have three basic components: general advanced instruction in the theories and practice of social work; specialized training in the clinical practice of social work; and field education in clinical social work settings. The CSWE guidelines for education in social work encompass nine general competency areas, including professional ethics; research-informed practice; human rights and social policy; social and cultural diversity; engagement and intervention with individuals, families, and groups; clinical assessment; and evaluation of social programs and policies. Most of these topics are covered as part of the core MSW curriculum.
The clinical component of an MSW program addresses topics specific to clinical practice, including theories of counseling and psychotherapy, and direct assessment and interventions with individuals, families, and groups. Clinical MSW programs may also offer advanced training and instruction in one or more sub-specialization, through either elective coursework or a formal concentration. Areas of sub-specialization in clinical social work include: adult health and aging; alcohol and substance abuse; children and families; schools and education; and trauma and interpersonal violence.
The third component of an MSW program involves experiential and applied learning through field education, which is integral to training in the professional practice of social work. Students in a clinical social work program complete their field education in agencies and organizations that provide clinical services. Most programs require two or more field placements of 450 or more hours, and these placements require students to be on site to actively participate in the delivery of counseling and other clinical services. Prospective applicants should inquire with a program representative to determine the details of how field education requirements are structured and how field placements are determined. Some programs have dedicated field placement teams that arrange placements for students, while others require students to find and set up their own placements with approval from the program.
The following table provides and overview of courses that are typically part of an MSW in clinical social work program curriculum. The courses and descriptions reflect actual coursework in existing online programs.
|Course Title||Course Description|
|Human Behavior & the Social Environment||An examination of theories of human behavior and social development that are central to the practice of social work, including issues of diversity, group identity, social structures, and biopsychosocial development over the lifespan.|
|Methods of Social Work Research||An overview of research methodologies in the social sciences, including designing studies, collecting and analyzing data, and reporting outcomes.|
|Diversity & Oppression||How race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and physical differences impact social identity, social welfare, and power relationships.|
|Social Work Practice with Individuals, Families, & Groups||The theories and practices of social work counseling in clinical settings.|
|Social Work Practice in Communities & Organizations||The theories and practices of social work at the community and organizational level.|
|Psychopathology||Clinical symptoms, diagnostic methodologies, and treatment modes for emotional, behavioral, and mental health problems.|
|Trauma & Abuse in Adulthood||The clinical treatment of adults who have experienced trauma and abuse.|
|Childrens Mental Health Services||Clinical treatment of children and young adults who display emotional, behavioral, and mental health issues.|
|Cognitive Behavior Therapy Across the Lifespan||The use of CBT treatments with children and adults in a clinical setting.|
|Clinical Field Education Practicum||Supervised practice of clinical social work in an approved agency or organization.|
Graduates who hold a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university are generally eligible to apply to online MSW programs regardless of what they majored in as an undergraduate. Some programs have a minimum GPA requirement of 2.5 or higher, although these programs may consider applicants with a lower GPA if they submit GRE scores or have a certain number of years of professional experience in the field of social work. While many online programs do not require the submission of standardized test scores, there are some that do, and some programs may have additional requirements, including undergraduate course prerequisites (usually a statistics class and/or a course in psychology or sociology). Applicants to an online MSW program typically have to submit two or three letters of recommendation, a personal statement, and undergraduate transcripts as part of their graduate school application.
All of the MSW programs with a clinical social work concentration listed on this site are offered online by accredited, non-profit schools that have programmatic accreditation from the CSWE. However, not all online programs are the same. There are several variations in format and structure that prospective applicants should consider. The main areas of differentiation concern the method of online instruction, enrollment options, and campus visit requirements.
Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Instruction: There are two basic modes for the delivery for online courses. Synchronous instruction takes place in real time and requires students to be logged on to the program’s LMS at a particular time in order to view lectures and participate in other instructional activities. Asynchronous instruction does not have a real-time component. Students in a course that uses asynchronous instruction can log on to the LMS at their convenience to access lectures and other course materials. While asynchronous instruction affords more flexibility and may be preferable for students who anticipate potential scheduling conflicts, it also requires more self-motivation and self-discipline than synchronous instruction. Conversely, while synchronous instruction affords less flexibility, it provides more structure, which may be preferable for students who are more comfortable with set meeting times.
Part-Time vs. Full-Time Enrollment: In general, it is possible for students to complete the coursework and field experience requirements for an MSW in clinical social work in two years of full-time enrollment by taking the equivalent of three or four classes per semester. However, many online MSW programs are structured to accommodate students who may be working or have other significant commitments outside of school. These programs may offer a part-time enrollment option that allows students to take fewer courses per semester (one or two), which can extend the time to graduation by one to two years. Some programs are only offered full-time, while others are only offered part-time, so prospective applicants should weight these options when researching MSW programs.
Campus Visits: There are MSW programs that offer 100% of their didactic coursework online. Students in these programs must still complete field education requirements in person at a local agency or organization, but they do not have to attend any on-campus sessions. There are also online MSW programs that incorporate a limited number of campus visits into the instructional curriculum. These campus sessions may include orientations, workshops, seminars, presentations, and other activities, and they may be as brief as two or three days, or last for an entire week or more. Campus sessions can be a valuable addition to an online curriculum in clinical social work, but they may be difficult for some students to attend. Students may also incur additional expenses for travel, food, and lodging in order to attend campus sessions. Currently, OnlineEducation.com does not include any MSW programs that require more than two campus visits per year.