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Question: How Long Does it Take to Complete a Master of Social Work (MSW) Program?

Answer: Master of Social Work (MSW) programs are designed to be completed in two academic years or the equivalent of four traditional semesters. However, the time to completion can vary depending on several factors: the number of courses taken per semester; the structure of the program; and the type of program. Students who enroll full-time time in certain programs may be able to earn an MSW degree in as few as 16 months of year-round instruction, while students enrolled part-time can take up to four years to graduate. There are also Advanced Standing MSW programs that can be completed in 12 months of full-time, year-round enrollment by students who hold a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW).

The MSW Curriculum

There are essentially three components to an MSW program: the core master’s level social work curriculum; specialized coursework in clinical or macro social work; and field education. The basic MSW curriculum is outlined in Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards for Baccalaureate and Master’s Social Work Programs, a 2015 document published by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), the official organization that provides accreditation to bachelor’s and master’s in social work degree programs. It includes coursework in professional standards of practice; social, economic, and environmental justice; research in the field of social work; and assessment of and engagement with individuals, families, groups, communities, and organizations.

In addition, the CSWE requires MSW programs to include at least 900 hours of field education, a signature pedagogy of social work education. The field education component of an MSW program can take place in a variety of places, but it involves hands-on training in real-world social work settings like community centers, mental health clinics, hospitals, schools, social service agencies, and correctional facilities.

The third component of an MSW program curriculum involves advanced instruction in one or more areas of specialization in social work practice. This includes advanced training in clinical social work, macro social work, and other areas like military social work and school social work.

MSW Program Structure

A typical MSW program requires students to complete 60 total credit hours of training and instruction prior to graduation. Roughly two-thirds, or 40 to 45 of those credits are earned through formal classes. The other third of those credits come from field education, which may be scheduled throughout the program and/or during specific terms that depend on full-time or part-time enrollment.

Full-time students can typically complete a standard, 60-credit MSW program that adheres to a traditional academic calendar in four semester or two years with a summer break. However, some programs include a summer session, which allows full-time students to complete their MSW requirements in less than two years, or roughly 16 months.

Many MSW programs are structured to accommodate part-time students who cannot or would prefer not to take a full course load every semester. The time to completion for a part-time student varies depending on the number of credits they complete each semester. While programs with a part-time enrollment option offer a certain amount of flexibility, it is not uncommon for programs to cap the number of years a student can be enrolled at four or five years.

Graduates from CSWE accredited Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) programs may be eligible for admission to an Advanced Standing MSW program. Full-time students can complete an Advanced Standing program in 12 to 16 months due to reduced crediting requirements and the ability to carry field education hours over from their BSW program.

Students who enroll part-time in an Advanced Standing program can generally complete the program in roughly two years. Advanced Standing programs typically require 30 to 45 credits to graduate, as compared to the 60 credits that a standard MSW might require. The table below offers an overview of the different types of MSW programs and the various enrollment options:

FormatCreditsTime to CompletionStructure
Advanced Standing, Full-time30-4512 to 16 monthsThree consecutive semesters year-round (fall, winter, spring/summer) - 4 or 5 courses per term
Advanced Standing, Part-time30-4520 to 24 monthsFive or six consecutive semesters - 2 or 3 courses per term
Full-time, Accelerated60~16 monthsFour consecutive semesters (fall, spring, summer, fall) - 4 or 5 courses per term
Full-time6020 to 24 monthsFour semesters with summer break (fall, spring, fall, spring) - 4 or 5 courses per term
Part-time60Up to four yearsFive or more semesters - 2 or 3 courses per term

Prospective applicants to an MSW program should carefully examine format options to determine the time it will take to complete the program requirements, whether or not the program offers part-time and/or full-time enrollment options, and how many courses they should expect to take per semester.

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