Social Justice

How to choose the best social work master’s program for you

April 20, 2022

social work master’s program

Are you a baccalaureate-qualified social worker looking to advance to a clinical role? Or do you hold a bachelor’s in a different field and aspire to become a social worker? Either way, a Master of Social Work (MSW) could be exactly what you need.

To choose the best social work master’s program for your career, you’ll want to do some research. 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 in an MSW program.

7 Factors to consider when searching for the best MSW programs

MSW graduates thrive in their careers by being skilled in a broad spectrum of settings. This can include positions within child protective services agencies; hospitals and other healthcare 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 in your education journey. Dr. Catherine Pearlman, associate professor of social work at UMass Global, 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 search for an ideal social work master’s program? Our practitioners have identified seven important elements.

1. Accreditation

One tried-and-true characteristic the best social work master’s programs share is 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 every social work master’s program is 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 considering are either CSWE-accredited or have achieved candidacy for accreditation through the CSWE.

2. Return on investment

Social work is a vital and impactful profession that attracts hardworking, compassionate individuals. Most individuals entering this field aren’t doing it for the money, but it’s still important to keep earning potential in mind as you consider investing in an MSW program.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average social worker salary in 2021 was $61,190. This is a contributing factor to evaluating the cost and value of a social work master’s program. If you don’t do your research, you might find yourself taking on too much in student loans and exceeding your debt-to-income ratio. The best MSW programs aren’t necessarily the most expensive ones — you may find more affordable options with similar or better outcomes.

3. Flexible learning options

Not so long ago, earning a master’s degree meant either taking time off work or driving to campus to attend classes in the evenings. While that may still be the best choice for some, many students require more flexible 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 MacKenzie, assistant professor of social work at UMass Global.

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. The best online MSW programs are specifically designed to be delivered in a virtual 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.

4. A well-rounded curriculum

Quality MSW programs offer several different social work specializations through elective courses. This allows students to cater their curriculum to their personal or professional interests. 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. MacKenzie says those who don’t have a clear idea of the type of social worker they’d like to be 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.

While other social work master’s programs may require students to select a degree concentration and stick to it through the entire program, students at UMass Global 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 launching the next phase of their careers.

5. Practicum options that will work for you

Every MSW program requires students to complete field placement practicums. The CSWE mandates students to complete a minimum of 900 practicum hours so they can apply what they’ve learned in a supervised yet hands-on environment.

Schools have varying methods of assigning students to practicums. Not every program allows students to choose their placement. In Dr. Pearlman’s experience, “Some schools place the students depending on preference and location — those students have less say in their placements.”

But at UMass Global, students play a much larger role in developing their practicum options, even if they haven’t picked an area of focus. According to Dr. MacKenzie,

 

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.

Because our MSW program is offered online, faculty work one-on-one with students across the country to identify local field placements. “These can focus on the specialization the student is interested in,” Dr. MacKenzie says.

6. 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. Besides their educational and professional qualifications, ask questions like:

  • Are the faculty members working practitioners?
  • How are they involved in today’s evolving social work field?
  • 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. MacKenzie explains. “It’s important for faculty members to make an effort to understand what’s happening in the current social work community.”

7. 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 incorporate technology into their program.

“We integrate technology into all of our MSW courses at UMass Global,” Dr. MacKenzie 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 best MSW program for you

Not all social work master’s programs are created equal. It’s important to take your time when evaluating your options in order to find the best fit for your lifestyle needs and professional goals.

Consider the advice above from our social work education experts as you progress in your MSW program search. To learn more about what UMass Global’s program has to offer, explore our Master of Social Work degree or check out our robust Social Work Resource Hub.

 

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