How to choose the right Master of Social Work program
You may be a baccalaureate-qualified social worker looking to advance to a clinical role. Or maybe you’ve earned a bachelor’s degree in a different field, but you’re now considering a career change to become a social worker. Whatever has brought you to this point, the thought of earning a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree fuels your interest in making a difference.
It may seem like the hard part is behind you now that you’ve decided an MSW is the right path for you. But you’ve likely noticed that it can be difficult to discern differences among the plethora of MSW programs out there. It helps to gain perspective from reputable sources. We spoke with some social work education experts to get their take on what professionals like you should look for when choosing the right social work program.
What to look for in an MSW program
MSW graduates tackle their robust careers by being skilled in a broad spectrum of settings. This can include positions within child protective services agencies; hospitals and other health care settings; non-profit, human rights and advocacy organizations; and criminal justice, legal service and military organizations.
But not all MSW programs are the same. It’s important to consider what matters to you when choosing a social work program. Dr. Catherine Pearlman, associate professor of social work at Brandman University, explains that finding the right fit is more important than the program’s prestige. “If it’s too expensive or the hours aren’t going to work, it doesn’t make much sense for the student,” she adds.
So, what factors should you consider in your MSW program search? Our experts have identified six important elements.
As you begin to search for an MSW program, one of the most critical factors to consider is program accreditation. The Commission on Accreditation within the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) is responsible for developing all accreditation standards that ensure qualifying social work programs adequately prepare their students for success.
You may assume that all college social work programs are required to obtain accreditation, but that’s not the case. It is true, however, that a degree from an accredited program is a requirement for licensure as a clinical social worker. This means it’s worth it to make sure the programs you’re looking at are either CSWE-accredited or have achieved candidacy for accreditation through the CSWE.
2. Flexible learning options
There was a time when going back to school to earn a master’s degree meant either taking time off work or driving to campus to attend classes in the evenings. While that may work for some, not everyone’s schedule allows that degree of flexibility. The good news is many programs have begun to explore online learning options.
“Learning online opens up the flexibility of going back to school to students with a complexity in their life structures, such as work commitments or family responsibilities,” explains Dr. Ellen Belluomini, assistant professor of social work at Brandman University.
Some MSW programs have also begun offering hybrid learning opportunities. Hybrid learning is a great option for students who want to enjoy the flexibility of online classes while still maintaining an element of face-to-face instruction offered through on-campus courses.
It’s true, however, that even prestigious social work programs with an established campus can run into notable challenges when finessing the details of online and hybrid offerings. What sets some schools apart is the fact that their MSW programs are specifically designed to be successful in an online format.
If a flexible, online learning format is important to you, be sure the programs you’re scoping out offer that option for their MSW students. It is helpful to schedule a conversation with an admissions counselor or enrollment coach to ask them about the specific resources they have in place to support online students.
3. A well-rounded curriculum
MSW programs offer a number of different social work specializations through elective courses. This allows students to tailor their MSW curricula to their interests in the field. With this in mind, it can be helpful to analyze the specific course offerings when you’re researching various programs.
“The majority of courses in every social work program will be the same, as schools are required to offer these classes by the accrediting body,” Dr. Pearlman explains. “However, electives, concentrations and certificates are where students should focus their attention during their search.” She adds that studying a specialization in-depth can be a differentiator in your job search later on.
Dr. Belluomini says those who don’t have a clear idea of the direction their social work careers will head should still pay close attention to each program’s course offerings. “If you don’t know what you’re interested in, look for a program with elective courses that cover a wide range of topics and specializations,” she says.
While other MSW programs may require students to select a degree concentration and stick to it through the entire program, students at Brandman University are never bound to a single concentration. This allows them to customize their MSW experience by selecting whichever electives interest them, exploring a range of social work specialties before stepping into the next phase of their careers.
4. Experienced faculty
Exploring an MSW program’s curriculum is a great way to find out what you can expect to learn. It can also be helpful to take a closer look at that program’s faculty. Be sure to look into not only their educational and professional qualifications, but also how involved they remain in today’s evolving social work field. Are the faculty members working practitioners? Do they regularly publish papers on social work or participate in industry events?
“Our faculty members present at conferences, write their own blogs and keep up-to-date with the field, as the social work profession regularly evolves in practice and technology,” Dr. Belluomini explains. “It’s important for faculty members to make an effort to understand what’s happening in the current social work community.”
5. Practicum options that will work for you
All MSW students are required to complete field placement practicums — the CSWE requires students to complete a minimum of 900 practicum hours. This experience allows MSW students to gain hands-on experience and put what they’ve learned in the program into practice. Schools vary in how they go about assigning students to practicums. Not every program allows students to choose their placement.
“Some schools place the students depending on preference and location — those students have less say in their placements,” Dr. Pearlman explains. She elaborates that students at Brandman University play a much larger role in their practicum placements in conveniently located local services agencies across the country — even abroad.
Because the MSW program at Brandman University is offered online, faculty work directly with students to find and develop field placements in their area and desired specialization. “These can focus on the specialization the student is interested in,” Dr. Belluomini says. “If the student is unsure what they’d like to specialize in, the field placements can serve as an opportunity to try out a few different types of social work to get a feel for what they’d like.”
6. A focus on technology
Whether they’re exploring how social media impacts adolescents, learning how to establish appropriate boundaries within a family system or examining the digital divide that exists with marginalized populations, social workers’ duties are closely tied to today’s digital age. It makes sense to consider whether schools you’re considering work technology into their program.
“We integrate technology into all of our MSW courses at Brandman,” Dr. Belluomini says. “We work to make sure our students understand its importance and learn how to use those skills to their competitive advantage in their job searches.”
Find the MSW program that’s right for you
If you’re feeling confident about your choice to head back to school to earn your MSW, you’re likely eager to get started. But, as you can see, it’s important to take your time when searching for a high-quality social work program that will fit your lifestyle needs and professional goals.
Keep the six important elements our social work education experts suggested in mind as you begin your MSW program search. To learn more about what Brandman University’s program has to offer, head over to the Master of Social Work degree page.
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