Masters in Social Work (MSW) Guide - 2024

Social Worker License

by Social Worker License Staff

Updated: September 8th, 2023

To enter a Master of Social Work (MSW) program, you’ll need a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) or a bachelor’s degree in another subject. These programs typically take two years to complete unless you have your BSW. Those with a Bachelor of Social Work degree may qualify for advanced standing in the MSW program, depending on the school. The degree will then only take one year to earn. Regardless of the subject, the bachelor’s degree was earned; your MSW must come from a CSWE accredited college or university

The school may also require you to have a minimum GPA and submit an essay with references. If English is not your native language, the school may also require you to pass an English test.

Prerequisite Skills You Should Already Have

After completing the BSW program, there are specific characteristics and skills that you would have developed as you completed each course. You are expected to maintain those skills and carry them over with you to the MSW program. They include the following:

Empathy – Showing compassion for another person’s position in life is a key characteristic social workers must-have. They have to be able to see things from another person’s perspective and understand that everyone will have a different worldview based on their experiences. The NASW describes empathy as “perceiving, understanding, experiencing, and responding to the emotional state and ideas of another person.”

Organization – The life of a social worker is a busy one that requires excellent organizational and time management skills. They will have multiple cases to manage, and they’re responsible for keeping all of the paperwork for each case in order. If a client’s social worker isn’t organized, the client may not receive the prioritization or urgent attention their case needs.

Critical Thinking – Critical thinking means setting your biases aside when analyzing case data. Information is gathered by observing, interviewing, and researching what has been obtained. All of that must be done in an objective manner and from an unbiased standpoint to ensure the best outcome for the client.

Active Listening – Allowing the client to talk without interrupting them and injecting your opinion is what active listening looks like. One of the biggest obstacles to overcome is getting the client to open up. Once that is done, you can begin to develop a plan for treatment. But, if you aren’t actively listening, you may miss vital information, or the client could view you as dismissive of their problem and shut down. Let the client know you hear them by paraphrasing and summarizing what they’ve said as a way to build trust.

Cultural Competence – As a social worker, you’re expected to be knowledgeable of your client’s cultural background. It is a huge part of their identity and can be helpful when developing and implementing an intervention. Showing respect for a client’s cultural background and any experiences related to their race, gender, age, or other distinguishing characteristic is paramount to successful engagement.

Patience – Each client is different and moves at their own pace. Some may need a longer time to adjust to changing circumstances than others. It’s important to understand each client’s situation and remain patient as you guide them through their issue.

Professional Commitment – Social work is a dynamic field where methods and techniques are constantly updated to keep up with our changing world. While the core values and ethics will remain the same, professional competencies will change. Social workers must make a commitment to continuing education in order to effectively assist clients.

Advocacy – Social workers have been known to be social justice warriors. They represent their clients and the communities they come from by advocating on their behalf when they don’t have the knowledge, courage, or ability to speak for themselves. 

Common MSW Program Courses

The courses offered in the first year of MSW programs focus on introducing social policies and research and prepare you for clinical practice. By year two, you are diving into the specialty that brought you to the MSW program. You will see Introduction to Social Work as one of the courses listed and wonder why. Just remember, you don’t need a BSW to enter an MSW program, so the social work field is going to be new to many applicants. 

Whether your specialty is families, older adults, disabilities, or healthcare-related, these are some of the classes all MSWs are required to take: 

Human Behavior and the Environment

This course is designed to give students the basics of human development. The relation between how individuals, groups, families, organizations, and communities interact and the influence their environment has over those interactions is studied. Social workers take this course so they can accurately assess issues and develop an intervention based on the client and their environment. 

To demonstrate they understand the information in the course, students will be able to define a social worker’s role and the services they are able to provide. They’ll also be able to apply theories on human behavior to their evaluations and assessments. The person-in-environment perspective must also be displayed by the students.

Death and Dying

This course examines the lifespan of humans from infancy into late adulthood, so they can define what death is and identify mourning and grief. If the pairs of students engage with individuals and communities who have suffered from loss. It also covers the role culture and religion play in individuals’ understanding and acceptance of death. Students will be taught the skills needed to develop interventions for those experiencing death and dying.

Each student should come out of that class with an understanding of the stages of mourning and death. They’ll recognize aspects that impact how a person grieves by taking into account religious, spiritual, and cultural influences. 

Dynamics of Racism and Oppression

This course introduces the students to diverse populations based on race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and physical differences. The impact societal oppression has on social, economic, and environmental justice will also be explored. The systems in place that sustain oppression at individual and institutional levels are examined, as well as how oppression affects the social work field.

Upon completing the course, students should be able to demonstrate a knowledge of the history of diversity and the different approaches used to understand diverse populations. They’ll be able to apply the methods and theories learned to support clients and understand they have a commitment to affect change through advocacy. 

Assessment and Diagnosis

This course was established to give students the basic background needed to work in clinical assessment settings. They’ll gain the knowledge they need for an apprenticeship, utilize assessment instruments when conducting research, and produce and evaluate the application of assessment instruments.

After completing the course, students will be able to use the DSM-5 to differentiate diagnosis And conduct structured diagnostic interviews, unstructured clinical interviews, and perform suicide risk assessments.

Couple and Family Therapy

In this course, students are taught the history and concepts surrounding family development and couples therapy. Modern-day theories are examined as well as the therapeutic techniques derived from those theories. The course objective is for students to demonstrate a knowledge of the theories and methods used to facilitate engagement with clients.

Social Work Services for Older Adults

The class focuses on social work practice with the elderly and their families. The aging process is explored as well as how an individual transitions into the adjustment and how interventions can help the individual and their families adapt. Assessment, case management, and intervention are the skills that are developed, and they are taught to use diagnostic tools to assist in several different community-based and institutional settings. Students should be able to produce a practice model using the knowledge gained in this course to address issues among older adults. 

Substance Abuse: Alcohol and Other Drugs

This course focuses on addiction and drug dependence. Students will be taught the range of drug dependence disorders and methods used to diagnose and treat patients. The impact addiction has on families and the larger society is addressed, as well as techniques to prevent addiction.

Once the course is over, students should be able to demonstrate an understanding of society’s historical beliefs and attitudes toward addiction. They’ll also be able to list the criteria for diagnosing substance abuse disorders and explain the current treatments and approaches for alcohol and drug abuse.

Strategic Planning for Public and Nonprofit Organizations

Some schools combine public and nonprofit organizations into one class, while others separate the classes. Either way, this course can teach students how to implement strategic planning to ensure a nonprofit organization’s success. Students will demonstrate an understanding of the knowledge By drafting their own strategic plan for managing a successful nonprofit. They’ll also be able to explain how the plan contributes to the nonprofit organization’s vision, goals, and mission.

Selecting the Best MSW Program for You

Not all MSW programs are created equally. There are a few factors to take under consideration as you search for the right school to attend. All social work programs are accredited by the CSWE, so be sure to check the program’s accreditation. This is especially important for those who want to become licensed social workers since you cannot obtain licensure if you didn’t attend a CSWE accredited program.

The program should also offer flexible learning options where you can take some courses online and receive in-person instruction also. Our lives are hectic, and our schedules may not allow time to commute back and forth to campus for classes. A school that offers this kind of flexibility shows they haven’t understood modern-day challenges and are adapting to the new world in which we live. 

The school should also have a robust curriculum offering quite a few specialty areas for study. The core classes will be the same from school to school, but the electives, specific areas of concentration, and the depth in which they are explored will differ. As you learn more about the different career opportunities in social work, you may decide to change the specialty you wish to study. Some programs do not allow you to switch the area of concentration, but a quality program will allow you to explore your options. 

A quality MSW program will allow you to have a say and where you are placed for your practicum field experience. Some schools don’t consult with their students and simply place them with organizations that may not focus on their specialty. You want a program that takes your learning just as seriously as you do and will help you find a suitable field position to gain your required experience hours.

How experienced is the faculty for the MSW program? Are they currently practicing? If so, what is their level of involvement with the field? Are they frequently publishing papers on social work? These are all questions you should seek the answers to when looking for a program. Faculty members should be regularly involved in the social work community so that they can give you adequate guidance as you start your career.

Lastly, technology should be part of the program’s focus. Social media has changed how we consume information and communicate with one another. A quality MSW program recognizes the technology factor and incorporates it into its curriculum. They also keep you updated on technological advances in the field, so you are prepared to operate the different systems used by health care professionals when you’re collaborating. 

After graduation, most MSWs go on to become licensed social workers in their state. They take the master exam given by the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB), and after passing, many go on to provide supervised clinical services. There are a few states that allow an MSW to practice clinical work unsupervised. 

Most become healthcare social workers as the demand in this area is rising and projects to grow 5.5% from 2018 to 2028. You can find them in hospitals, advising and educating patients and collaborating with healthcare providers on treatment plans. 

Others continue their education and seek a doctoral degree in social work to expand the range of services they’re able to offer as an independent practitioner.