There are several paths to earning a master’s in social work (MSW). For most candidates, the degree requires two years of full-time study. It is also possible to earn earn an MSW in a shorter period of time through accelerated or advanced standing MSW programs. Accelerated programs are 16 months, and require study through the summer. Advanced standing programs can be completed in as little as one year for those with previous experience. Individuals who hold a bachelor’s of social work (BSW) degree are particularly appropriate for advanced standing study. Online study is also a viable option for earning an MSW.

Lmore about MSW program options, including online MSW programs.

Whether you choose to go to school full-time or in an online format, MSW programs pack a punch and move at an intense pace. That’s because MSWs have a wide skill set and large base of knowledge to develop in a short time. In addition to coursework, all accredited MSW programs – including online options – mandate that students complete two back-to back fieldwork experiences. The only exception to this requirement is if a student is an advanced standing candidate. Here, a prior fieldwork assignment or the work being performed in a current job by an aspiring MSW may do double duty. It can satisfy some of the fieldwork requirement. But in general, to be eligible for graduation and for licensure as an MSW, all students must fulfill two fieldwork experiences.

In-the-Field Training for MSWs, aka the Internship or Fieldwork Placement

As you research MSW programs, you may come across a range of the terms that refer to the hands-on training portion of a social work degree. You may hear this time referred to as a field placement, fieldwork experience, internship, fieldwork assignment, or practicum. In reality, these are all one and the same.

Fieldwork experiences are the bread and butter of social work education. The unique training they offer is the key differentiator in graduate school education among similar academic disciplines. Fieldwork experiences get students out of the classroom and into the field (as the name implies) within weeks of a program’s start date. This allows newbie social work students to quickly scale up to a high level of professionalism, and provides them with direct hands-on training as practitioners. The fieldwork experience also allows students to hone in on areas of expertise, and develop specialized skills in particular practice areas, or with single populations. Examples of such populations include the elderly and those dealing with substance abuse issues.

All fieldwork assignments have an approved on-site supervisor in place to give students support and feedback. This supervisor works directly with the school to ensure that students develops the skills they need to become professional social workers.

Fieldwork – A Make Or Break Experience

Aspiring MSWs generally focus on whether they can get into a school, and on picking the right program. As part of that process, they may zero in on a school’s areas of specialization and practice. But one of the most important areas to research when selecting a program is the availability and quality of fieldwork assignments.

Not every school earns a high grade in making fieldwork assignments accessible or of high quality. There may be a shortage of placements. Or the placement itself may be chaotic or stressful. At some MSW programs, it may be entirely up to the students to identify and secure their own fieldwork assignments. Any of these scenarios can squander the opportunity for valuable fieldwork experiences, or worse, make it challenging for students to find fieldwork placements at all.

Remember: More than classroom study, the fieldwork placement can have a tremendous impact on the career options for a student.

A strong fieldwork experience can round out, or greatly enhance, what an MSW studies. For example, an MSW who wants to work with military families can choose a program with a clinical track in counseling, but may only be able to develop highly specialized skills with the military through fieldwork. The same might be said of those interested in working with individuals facing substance abuse. There may be just a few electives devoted to this subject in an MSW program. But a fieldwork experience in a drug rehab facility will go a long ways towards developing working skills for this population. This expanded training is one of the reasons fieldwork is so valued, and why it positions MSWs to graduate with strong competencies.

Because fieldwork is so important to your future career, it is critical to research the fieldwork component of your MSW study. Fortunately, this is not as hard as it seems.

Ask these questions about fieldwork before committing to an MSW:

  • Does the school have enough fieldwork placements available in your area of interest?
  • Does the school offer diverse placements that will expose you to a wide range of populations or problems? Will you choose a specific population to focus on?
  • Are the settings in rural, urban or suburban areas?
  • Does every student get the placement they desire? Or are students required to rank their choices?
  • Is there a dedicated fieldwork department?
  • Will you be assigned a dedicated fieldwork advisor for the duration of your MSW studies?
  • Is the commute to your fieldwork agency likely to be reasonable? Are there placements within your geographic area?
  • If you must secure your own fieldwork assignment (sometimes this is the case in online programs), what kind of supports will be provided by the school?
  • What remedies are in place if a fieldwork assignment does not work out?

With good planning, your chosen MSW program will lead you to a long and fulfilling social work career. Advocating for the right kind of fieldwork placements will position you on the best possible starting path.

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.