The two-year time frame for earning an MSW does make it an attainable degree; in just two years, candidates can develop their skills as social workers, establish their professional identities, and gain some experience in the field. For many people, this is a huge plus: after all, isn’t sooner usually better? Less time spent in school means less money spent on tuition; it also means that the costs of being out of the workforce for grad school are minimized.

Oftentimes, individuals who are considering a social work career will also research the path towards become a psychologist. This is because both degree holders overlap in the that work they do, and in their professional skills and duties. However, once again, earning an MSW and becoming a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) is a much shorter undertaking than becoming a psychologist. While both psychologists and social workers can practice as professional counselors and therapists, the journey towards becoming a psychologist generally lasts 4 to 8 years, depending on the area of specialty.

Although an MSW offers a quick turnaround, the degree does demand rigor. Social work is a regulated profession, and so the MSW has strict graduation requirements. One of those requirements is the completion of a back-to-back fieldwork experience, which involves 60 credits and approximately 900 – 1200 hours. Those who hold undergrad degrees in social work generally receive credit for their prior studies and fieldwork experiences, and can enroll in advanced standing programs (see below). But there is no way of short-cutting the fieldwork process. A fieldwork internship must be completed, no matter the program.

It should also be noted that any MSW holder who is interested in clinical practice — in other words, providing mental health services — must become a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW). This credentialing does require an additional two to three years of supervised clinical experience. However, one can be working professionally as a clinical social worker during that time.

As you can see, becoming a professional social worker is a highly attainable career goal, and it does not have to take the better part of a decade. No matter your background, as long as you already have your bachelor’s degree and can commit to two years of intense study and fieldwork, you can earn an MSW.

Interested in an even faster route to your master’s in social work? Read on.

A Faster, Fast-Track

"Advanced Standing" and 16-Month “Accelerated” MSW Study Options

Advanced standing MSW programs offer qualified students — those with prior experience — the opportunity to complete their degrees in just a year. By design, these programs are meant to "advance" students who have already earned their bachelor’s of social work (BSW) degrees, or who have prior or ongoing relevant work experience.

If you fit into this category, an advanced MSW program is a straight shot to your degree. As we said, the fieldwork requirement is not fully waived in any program. But BSW students can receive significant credit for their prior coursework and fieldwork, and for the work being performed in their current or past jobs.

For advanced standing students, the required time spent in fieldwork may be halved because of credit given for prior work experience. Generally, advanced standing students complete a total of 450 – 900 fieldwork hours, which represents about 8 – 14 hours per week. The minimum hours required for graduation are at the discretion of the program. Requirements for acceptance into an advanced standing MSW program will also vary by program.

An important note: a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree is not a requirement for admission to a traditional, two-year MSW program. Earning a BSW simply qualifies a student for advanced standing placement.

So what if you don’t have a BSW, but you are still hoping to complete your MSW in less than two years? You will want to look into an accelerated 16 month program. Here, no prior experience will be required.

16 Month Accelerated MSW Program Options

Recognizing the need for working professionals to earn their master’s degrees as quickly as possible, many schools condense their two-year programs into intensive courses of study. These programs offer a 16-month accelerated curriculum, so that students can complete their degrees in a shorter time without skipping over important content. The value of an accelerated track, for students and for the social work profession, is that students get back into the workforce much faster.

Accelerated MSW programs allow students to complete their coursework in four consecutive semesters over 16 months. What they all have in common is a calendar schedule that includes a summer semester. Using the summer months as a period for continued study, rather than a period for time off, is what makes the accelerated program possible.

While all accelerated programs involve a summer semester, they do not all begin at the same time of year. Some begin in September; these will involve a four semester schedule of fall-spring-summer-fall. Others begin in January; in these programs, semesters would be spring-summer-fall-spring.

MSW students in accelerated programs complete their fieldwork assignments during each semester, in the same way they would for traditional two-year programs. But again, the difference is that fieldwork — like coursework — continues over the summer months.

The obvious advantage of a 16-month accelerated MSW is that it is identical to the traditional two-year course of study, but students graduate a semester sooner. The disadvantages are: there is no break, it moves at an intensive pace, and some fieldwork experiences and selections may not be available over the summer semester.

From Student to Professional at Warp Speed

MSW study involves master’s-level coursework, in-the-field training, and the opportunity to become state licensed in half the time it takes to achieve similar stature in other professional graduate study programs.

Eligible MSW students can also apply for advanced or accelerated study, which can further fast-track their process to 16 months or less. Few other master’s programs can boast this level of academic and professional warp speed.

That said, it is important to find a reputable MSW program and make sure it is fully accredited by the Council for Social Work Education (CSWE). If you are hoping to complete your MSW as quickly as possible, it should be because you are eager to complete your training and get into the workforce — not because you’re looking for shortcuts or an "easy way in." MSW programs are challenging, no matter their length; and they should be! With this degree in hand, you will be empowered to make a big difference in people’s lives.

Nedda Gilbert

Ms. Gilbert is a certified social worker and 30 year educational consultant with an interest in helping college-bound and graduate school students manage the process and stress of admissions effectively. She is one of the senior founding managers of the Princeton Review Test Preparation Company, and the author of The Princeton Review Guide to the Best Business Schools and another book, Business School Essays that Made a Difference (Random House). She is a guest contributor to Forbes Magazine on college and college life. Ms. Gilbert is also certified as a collaborative family law professional in New Jersey. She received her BA from the University of Pennsylvania and MS from Columbia University.