5 Things the best social work programs have in common
When it comes to your career, it’s clear an excellent education will be one of the keys to success – and that starts with attending the best possible school. In your case, that means choosing a program that will help prepare you to be the most effective social worker you can be.
But sometimes it’s difficult to tell the difference between the various institutions. There are a lot of options out there. Finding the right fit can be difficult if you don’t know precisely what to look for. What exactly do the best social work programs have in common?
Dr. Ellen Belluomini, assistant professor of social work at Brandman University, shared her insight. As you search for the right social work program for you, keep the following factors in mind.
Features you’ll find in all the best social work programs
Every school has something different to offer, whether it’s a particular class or an impressive field placement. But every social work program you’re looking into should meet these criteria to even make your final list.
1. Experienced faculty members
It’s important to connect what you learn in the classroom with what you’ll be doing after graduation. Faculty members like Dr. Belluomini can help by drawing on their own expertise when working with students.
“Over the past thirty years, my experience has varied from micro work with individuals and families to macro-level practice as a director and community leader,” Dr. Belluomini says. She’s able to use her wealth of knowledge and analytical thinking skills to help future practitioners understand the nuances of social work.
Scholar-practitioners – faculty members who are active participants in their professional fields – can help students make sense of the more intangible social work concepts. Practicing things like empathy and setting boundaries may seem straightforward enough. But until a seasoned professional describes what it’s like to feel empathy for a person in crisis or have their boundaries tested, it’s hard to know exactly what it means to make use of those skills.
It’s also important to note that seasoned faculty can offer relevant career advice – from sharing insider knowledge about the different types of social work you could pursue to preparing you for the challenges and benefits they’ve encountered in different social work settings.
Even after graduation, you can lean on a trusted faculty member for encouragement and guidance — they’ve likely faced similar situations in their career. They may even be able to connect you to organizations they’ve worked with before. Dr. Belluomini can tell you firsthand how impactful it’s been to have more senior social workers to guide her throughout her career.
“I appreciated my mentors being able to walk the walk,” she says. “As a professor, I follow the same path.”
2. A variety of electives
Once you begin to develop a foundational education in social work, you can begin to focus on a more specialized area. Options include crisis intervention, substance abuse and mental health. Dr. Belluomini chose a more administrative scope. While focusing on a particular area for your career is often wise, you still want to be able to explore other interests. Unfortunately, not all social work programs allow you to take all the electives you’re interested in.
“My MSW program only allowed students to take courses in their selected track,” Dr. Belluomini reflects. “At the time, my interests included management and leadership, but I was not allowed to take any electives that wouldn’t count toward my degree.”
The best social work programs will help you develop a passion by allowing you the opportunity to explore different areas through elective study. “Our program allows students to decide their own path with a diverse offering of electives,” Dr. Belluomini says. “We know the importance of choice in the field of social work.”
3. Quality internship options
“Most careers teach theory and leave the student to figure out how to apply concepts after they graduate,” Dr. Belluomini says. Social work isn’t the type of career that allows for that type of approach. In this field, you will practice what you learn in an internship, also called a field placement or practicum. This allows you to gain practical experience that will help you develop the tools needed for social work career that makes an impact.
“Students learn a range of social work skills from micro and macro practices with marginalized populations to clinical skills of assessment and intervention,” Dr. Belluomini explains. “Internships prepare the student for competent social work right after graduation.”
While all programs require fieldwork or a similar type of training, some schools do a better job of assisting students with finding the right opportunities for them. Rather than assigning you an internship or leaving you to figure it out for yourself, quality programs will help you navigate the process while allowing you to have a say. At Brandman University, for example, faculty work directly with students to identify nearby placements that support their interests.
4. An emphasis on career preparation
While social work may be seen by some as a humanitarian profession that isn’t too focused on career advancement, the best social work programs are the ones that work to ensure students are equipped with the skills that will make them stand out as job candidates in a competitive job market.
“An example of an extremely marketable skill is the student’s knowledge of how to integrate technology into social work practice,” Dr. Belluomini says. “Many social service agencies do not have skilled workers knowledgeable in the application of technology ethics and practice.”
To develop graduates who can fill that gap, Dr. Belluomini teaches her students about things like policy modifications and digital risk management. Clearly, it’s important to find a program that’s as focused on the future as you are.
5. Appropriate accreditation
This is perhaps the most important factor to consider when comparing social work programs. While it’s very likely that a school with all of the above standards is professionally accredited, you’ll want to verify this yourself.
Why? Because to obtain licensure as a clinical social worker, you’ll need a degree from a program that is accredited by either the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) or has achieved candidacy for professional accreditation through the CSWE. This shows that it has been reviewed and meets the quality standards that are important within the industry.
In addition to seeking a program that has obtained the proper professional accreditation, it’s also important to look into the school’s academic accreditation – this includes determining whether the school is nationally or regionally accredited.
Regional accrediting organizations operate in specific areas of the country, while national accreditors can accredit schools across the entire country. The latter may sound like the better option, but it’s actually true that credits from regionally accredited institutions are more widely accepted, making them more easily transferrable.
Find the best social work program for you
Ultimately, the best social work programs are the ones that meet your needs. It’s important to find a school that will provide you with quality education and prepare you to succeed in the workforce.
Interested in learning more about social work programs that can help you reach your career goals? If you have yet to attend college, check out Brandman University’s Bachelor of Arts in Social Work program. And if you already have a bachelor’s degree, learn more about the Master of Social Work program.
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