Sunday, August 25, 2013

How to Enroll in a Social Work Master's Program

Click here if you are searching for my post on how to enroll in a higher education master's program.

Social work is an interdisciplinary field that provides a framework for understanding human behavior, identifying community needs and assets, developing social policies and programs, and empowering communities and disenfranchised groups. Social workers are therapists, community organizers, program managers, and policy analysts. Increasingly, a Master of Social Work (MSW) is becoming the entry-level degree for obtaining clinical, research, and administrative positions.

The Council for Social Work Education (CSWE) monitors the social work curriculum and accredits social work programs. Most MSW programs can be completed full-time in two years (students with a BSW can obtain their MSW in one year under the Advanced Standing track). The foundation curriculum (first-year) teaches students how to apply generalist social work practice knowledge and skills to individuals, groups, organizations, and communities. The advanced curriculum (second-year) prepares students professional social work practice. MSW students can also choose to specialize in either direct practice with individuals, families, and small groups (clinical) or community organization, organizational leadership, and policy practice (macro). The field education component enables students to apply their classroom knowledge (theory) into practice (internship) at agencies, hospitals, schools, government offices, higher education, and other nonprofit organizations.

It is important to select a program that offers courses and internships in your area(s) of interest. The majority of MSW programs offer the clinical or generalist concentration. If your academic interest is macro social work, apply to MSW programs that offer that concentration. It is important to do thorough research before you apply because you do not want to enroll in a program that only trains students for clinical practice if your interests are in macro practice. Larger programs (well-endowed private and public universities) often have the resources to offer macro social work course offerings. For those who are looking for MSW programs that offer well-established macro practice specializations, I recommend (in no specific order) Michigan, Columbia, UChicago,  Maryland-Baltimore, UPenn, Hunter College-CUNY, UNC-Chapel Hill, UI-Chicago, and Boston University.

Once you receive your MSW, all clinical social workers must apply for licensure in the state he or she wishes to work. Some states (such as Michigan) offer licensure to macro-practice social workers. If you want to mentor and supervise social work students in field placement assignments, then it is a good idea to apply for the clinical and/or macro licensure. However, keep in mind that many macro-practice social workers work in settings that do not require licensure. You will also need to take the ASWB social work exam (Master's, Clinical, or Advanced Generalist) and obtain 3000-4000 hours of professional supervision under a licensed social worker. Check your state for specific requirements.

If you have visited the U.S. News Graduate School rankings, the education section includes a ranking of social work programs. Keep in mind these rankings focus on the strength of doctoral programs, which tend to emphasize peer-reviewed research. If this is not your career focus, then look for CSWE-accredited MSW programs within your state or surrounding region. Remember: If you are not seeking a career in social work research and macro practice, then the prestige of the program does not matter. What is more important is gaining relevant, professional experience and connections. In addition, the CSWE-accredited MSW program should have a high success rate in graduating students who pass the licensure exams. This approach will also help you avoid excessive student loan debt.

A master's degree in social work generally requires one (advanced standing) to three years (regular admissions) to complete based on a student's enrollment status. Financing your education typically includes campus (work-study) employment, grants, scholarships, and loans. Some field placements offer a stipend. Most master's programs require three recommendation letters in the admissions process. Only a handful of programs (mostly on the West Coast) require GRE scores. High GPA and/or GRE scores can increase your chances of obtaining merit-based scholarship money. Before you apply, obtain volunteer and paid employment in social services, nonprofits, government, policy, and advocacy relevant to your interests so that you have a competitive application. Admissions committees also look for student leadership experience. Finally, write a clear, concise, and compelling statement of purpose that highlights your academic and professional experiences and explains why you want to pursue a career in social work. I hope these tips will aid you in the graduate school application process.

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