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Question: What Can You Do with an MSW Degree?

Answer: Master of Social Work (MSW) programs offer a core curriculum designed to prepare graduates for careers as professional social workers. However, specific career paths often depend on a program’s area of specialization. Graduates from clinical social work MSW programs can work in clinical settings, providing social work counseling services to clients in need. This can lead to state licensure as a Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSW), which allows clinical social workers to set up their own private practice. Graduates from macro MSW programs typically move into administrative areas of social service policy and program development. There are also MSW programs that train students for careers providing social work services to members of the military, to children in schools, to trauma victims, and to other special populations.

MSW Career Training

MSW programs are designed to provide training for career advancement in the field of social work. This is accomplished through a common core of general knowledge and skills that are the foundation of master’s education in social work. The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), the sole body that accredits bachelor’s and master’s in social work programs, outlines this core curriculum in its Education Policy and Accreditation Standards, which delineates nine key areas of competency:

  • Competency 1: Demonstrate ethical and professional behavior.
  • Competency 2: Engage diversity and difference in practice.
  • Competency 3: Advance human rights and social, economic, and environmental justice.
  • Competency 4: Engage in practice-informed research and research-informed practice.
  • Competency 5: Engage in policy practice.
  • Competency 6: Engage with individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities.
  • Competency 7: Assess individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities.
  • Competency 8: Intervene with individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities.
  • Competency 9: Evaluate practice with individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities.

Many of these core competencies are addressed in courses taken during the first year of a standard two-year MSW program. While course names vary by program, the subject matter covered in foundational MSW classes includes: theories of human behavior and development; the history of social welfare policy; theories of social, cultural, and organizational behavior; scientific methodology in social work; the evaluation of social work programs; and diversity, oppression, and social justice.

During the second year of an MSW program, students receive more specialized training. For example, students in an MSW in clinical social work program take advanced classes in the theory and practice of individual, family, and group counseling in preparation for providing these services in the field. Training in clinical social work also typically includes coursework in psychopathology, trauma counseling, and the provision of mental health services to children, adults, and families. In contrast, students in macro MSW programs train for careers as administrators, advocates, and policy experts by studying the social welfare system, learning to design, implement, and coordinate social service programs, and developing practical skills related to funding, staffing, and other operational aspects of health and human service organizations. There are also advanced generalist MSW programs that provide a mix of clinical and macro training for students who have not chosen an area of specialization.

In addition to clinical and macro specializations, there are sub-specialties within social work, which can determine the focus of the training students receive, either through elective coursework or designated tracks/concentrations. These sub-specialties include:

  • Adulthood and Aging
  • Child and Family Practice
  • Mental Health and Substance Abuse
  • Military and Veterans Services
  • School Social Work

MSW Field Education

A key component of training in social work is field education, which involves supervised experience in the professional practice of social work. The CSWE requires accredited MSW programs to provide a minimum of 900 hours of fieldwork. Students typically complete field education requirements in their area of specialization. For example, students in clinical social work programs often complete their field education at agencies and clinics that conduct direct client assessment, counseling, and intervention services, while students in a macro social work program generally find field education placements within organizations that administer social welfare programs.

In addition to being a signature pedagogy of social work training, field education can often be a stepping stone to an eventual career. Students who intend to pursue a career in school social work typically complete some or all of their field education by working in a school setting. Students who are training to become military social workers typically find field education placements in Veterans Administration clinics and hospitals or on military bases among active-duty service members and their families. There are also placement options for students pursuing careers working with children, families, trauma victims, and the elderly.

Careers in Social Work

Social work is a multifaceted field that is integrated into the larger health and human services sector at different levels. Experts and analysts often find it useful to break the field down into three interrelated strata: micro, mezzo, and macro. At the micro level, there are counselors and case workers who engage directly with individuals, families, and groups in need of various types of assistance, including poverty relief, vocational training, and mental health therapy. This front-line counseling work is typically conducted by those with clinical training and may require LCSW licensure, depending on the position and place of employment.

Macro social workers may not engage or intervene directly with clients, but they develop, assess, coordinate, and administer social welfare programs and implement policies to address systemic problems affecting disadvantaged groups, minorities, trauma victims, and others who require social services. Mezzo social work takes places in the spaces between micro and macro social work, often at the community or neighborhood level, and may include a mix of clinical work, community organizing and advocacy, and administrative responsibilities.

Where Social Workers Are Employed

Clinical social workers can find employment in hospitals and other medical facilities, public and private schools, community clinics and mental health centers, homeless shelters, trauma and substance abuse treatment facilities, and other clinical settings where individuals, families, and other client groups require direct counseling and social assistance services. LCSWs may also set up a private practice to treat patients (licensure as an LCSW is regulated at the state level and specific requirements for licensure vary by state).

Social workers who pursue careers in macro or community practice focus on addressing systemic problems and facilitating large-scale improvements in social welfare through policies and programs administered by government agencies, non-profit organizations, and other groups operating within the public sector. A career in macro social work might involve researching the causes of poverty, inequality, and other social ills; developing policies designed to address these problems; and coordinating the implementation and assessment of social assistance and public health programs.

There are also a range of career paths in social work that combine elements of macro and clinical practice. For example, social workers employed in community organizations may provide some direct client counseling services to those in need of immediate assistance, while also administering educational programming, advocating for underserved populations, and/or coordinating initiatives that involve other health and human services organizations. Similarly, a school social worker might work directly with students in need of counseling while also engaging with school administrators to set up educational programming to address substance abuse, bullying, poverty, and other social problems.

These are just some of the professional roles that are open to graduates from MSW programs, and some of the career paths that students in an MSW program can learn more about. Indeed, one of the purposes of MSW training is to introduce students to the various facets of social work so that students can make informed decisions about their career and professional goals.


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