Whatever form their service to others takes, social work is not for the faint of heart.

Most MSW graduates report that they entered the field because of the desire to care for others and make the world a better place. However, the work can be emotionally challenging. In some cases it may cause stress, heartache, and disappointment. Many social workers say this is not something you can fully understand until you are out in the field, experiencing it for yourself.

Why are you going into a social work career?

While a social work career is undoubtedly rewarding, an MSW may not offer the salary benefits of other graduate degrees like business or law. Some of the rewards – financial and otherwise – from an MSW may depend on the particular job category you pursue. There are positions in social work that pay more, and are less stressful. But it’s important to know that MSW can get a bad rap, and lack the high prestige that other graduate professions enjoy.

Ironically, the very desire to be in service to others – sometimes for low pay – is what triggers criticism of those who enter the field. Your friends may question your wish to enter a field where you could be overworked and underpaid. MSWs are everyday heroes, but they may also be unsung and stressed out ones.

Despite the fact that the MSW is in great demand, and is a highly marketable degree, there are unique stressors to the profession.

If you are considering an MSW, you must embark in some self-assessment and determine if you have what it takes to become a social worker. As you go through the process of applying to MSW programs, you’ll find that your prospective schools are equally concerned about your state of readiness and ability to handle the challenges of a career in social work.

How do you know if you’re ready?

Admissions officers worry less about the GPA of their applicants, than about their readiness for the program. The single greatest impediment to admissions for any MSW program may be the fear that you don’t have what it takes, or that you are a risky or inappropriate candidate.

What does this mean for you?

It means that your motivation for seeking the MSW should be well thought through. The social work profession draws some individuals who are more interested in self-reflection than service to others, or are pursuing social work to solve their own personal pain. This is the wrong reason to get an MSW degree. Although many applicants experience that “aha” moment in their own lives that sets them on a path towards helping others, there’s a fine line between feeling inspired by personal experiences and seeing the degree as a solution to your mid-life crisis or divorce. MSW programs seek out those who have the potential to become boundary-driven professionals, and who will serve the field well.

Your checklist for readiness

As you review whether the MSW degree is right for you, consider this checklist to determine your “readiness” for a social work career path:

  • Time Management: All MSW programs require a two year back-to-back field work experience (unless you have been accepted into an advanced or accelerated program.) This involves a huge time commitment. When this is combined with the demands of a full time course load, it can become overwhelming. Do you have the resources and tools to manage this? Good study habits and time management skills may be essential.
  • Support networks: Do you have relatives and friends whom you can count on for support? These networks will help you meet the intense demands of the program — especially if you have a family in tow.
  • Does the program fit in with your lifestyle?: Earning an MSW requires a significant investment of time and funds. Can you handle this with your current lifestyle? There are various program options to choose from, including online or part-time, if you need flexibility and support; choose the program that offers you what you need to succeed.
  • Emotional Awareness: Because social workers deal with upsetting and stressful situations, it’s critical that you demonstrate emotional resilience. It’s important for you to understand your own feelings, and to manage them. You also need to be able to draw strong boundaries around helping and giving. The therapeutic and supportive relationships that social workers develop with their clients benefit from close dynamics. But at all times, they must be boundary driven.

As stated above, you should not pursue an MSW in order to “fix” areas of your own life, or to further your own self-discovery. Social work training and class work is scholarly and rigorous. Schools expect a mindset and skills that reflect maturity, academic curiosity, and appropriate motivations. They want to know that you are in it for the right reasons.

Nedda
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.