Social work is an undeniably fulfilling field, but becoming a social worker is not easy. It takes years of dedication to achieve the various levels of certification required for practicing social work. In addition, the job can be stressful and even heartbreaking at times, and compensation is relatively low.

Making it through an MSW program can be equally challenging. Many students report they underestimated the academic workload, stress, and personal impacts of their work before starting their MSWs. Others find that they have very little down time; every hour is consumed with study or working in the field assignment. Still others start off feeling optimistic, but get worn down by bureaucracy and other issues.

To avoid social work burnout, MSW programs seek out students who demonstrate emotional maturity, resilience, and readiness. If you are in the process of applying, or have already been admitted, chances are you have what it takes to succeed. You just need to arm yourself with the right tools and mindset to survive and thrive in an MSW.

What To Expect In An MSW Program

Graduating from any accredited MSW program requires you complete two back-to-back fieldwork assignments. In a traditional two-year program, you will be in these placements two to three days a week while attending school. This structure may vary in online or part-time programs.

You might find that your graduate school offers an abundance of late afternoon or evening classes. This is because fieldwork agencies typically operate on a 9am- 5pm schedule, so class times are adjusted to accommodate those hours. Though some opportunities for alternative hours do exist, it probably won’t be possible to fulfill fieldwork duties weekends or evenings.

All fieldwork placements are led by dedicated, trained fieldwork supervisors who guide students through their work as trainees. These people act as instructors and mentors. At the outset of a fieldwork program, they establish a contract that identifies goals and core competencies to build. They also act as a resource for students who are managing the emotional and personal impacts of serving vulnerable populations. Students should be able to confide their upsets and concerns with supervisors, and to gain skills for managing these emotions. In most programs, students and supervisors meet several times a month.

School assignments in MSW programs generally involve writing papers and learning how to do assessments. Some classes also involve role-play, and the development of practical skills for working with individuals and groups. There are also a couple of notoriously tough classes that are required for MSW graduation. One of the courses that most MSW students dread is statistics. Depending on the school or program, it may be possible to take this course online or at a different school. Going elsewhere to fulfill this requirement might alleviate some of the stress.

The fact is, making a difference is hard work. The key to success is to anticipate and be realistic about the demands – both personal and academic – that will impact your two years of MSW study.

5 Tips For MSW Success

  1. Organize and prioritize. Every student in a MSW program has to juggle the demands of attending class, completing assignments, traveling to their fieldwork placement, and working two or three days a week in that setting. MSWs may also have important personal commitments that demand their time. If you are not a well-organized person now, you will need to become one. Once in graduate school, efficiency and organization will matter like never before. Simple habits such as writing everything down, using a planner and calendar, and even setting aside a food-prep day may help you make some order out of what can feel overwhelming.

  2. Use the buddy system: develop relationships and work with student cohorts. Many graduate school programs encourage the formation of study groups. But MSW programs are different; so much learning takes place outside of a traditional classroom setting that study groups are less common. That said, it is possible to form pairs and groups to study together, even in an MSW program. Importantly, these groups support each other through a very challenging degree. No one will be able to entirely understand what you’re going through in the way that your classmates will. So it’s worth is to find a buddy or buddies and travel down this path together.

  3. Be proactive about orienting your classes and fieldwork assignments to your career interests. If possible, do your best to select an area of specialization before heading into school. This will allow you to take targeted classes and secure a fieldwork assignment in line with those interests. Though typically your first year in of fieldwork is more generalized, and you might not have many options for placement, the second year can be tailored to your career goals. Lobby for the placement you want. When you graduate from school, prospective employers will focus more on the work you did in that second setting. With any luck, someone from your second fieldwork placement may even make you a job offer.

  4. Reach out for help if your fieldwork assignment does not feel right. It takes some time to get used to anything that is brand new. You might find your work in the field to be emotionally draining. You may even experience disappointment and heartbreak, depending on the circumstances. But if your fieldwork assignment feels unsafe or inappropriate, or your fieldwork supervisor is not providing you with the support that you need, consider reaching out to your MSW program’s fieldwork advisor.

  5. Take care of yourself. In the social work profession, this is what’s known as "self-care." Because it’s so important to longevity, many schools devote time to this concept and make sure that students tend to it. Self-care is considered an essential tool for dealing with the stress and burnout that can accompany this profession. It can translate to finding balance, establishing a support system, taking time off to reset, investing in outside activities that relieve stress, and engaging in good nutrition and physical exercise.

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.