MSW: A New Career in Two Years
The Master of Social Work degree is one of the most popular "second career" options out there today for people who are interested in switching careers and have an interest in social services. It is a two year program that leads to a terminal degree, making the graduate eligible for initial credentialing in the social work field in order to practice in a carefully regulated industry. To a certain extent however, the degree is just the beginning of the educational experience.
MSW programs are found at most universities in a School of Social Work. Most programs will accept applicants with a bachelor's degree in a wide range of academic fields, drawn from the humanities and liberal arts fields - and from some of the sciences as well. An MSW program usually consists of a sixty credit program, into which is mixed a minimum of 900 hours of clinical, or field work. That means placement with a social services agency, a non-profit, a public health program or any number of other human services facilities for supervised work that allows the student to hone the necessary skills. Field work is a large part of working through the licensing process.
Becoming a Fully Licensed MSW
Social workers are licensed by the state. In most states, licensure as a fully operative Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) requires a total of 3,000 hours or more of field work. For that reason most states have developed several gradations of licensure for social workers, allowing new graduates to work their way up to senior level. In Minnesota there are four levels of social work licenses, all of which have differing requirements for field work and in some cases, education.
In most states there is an entry level status for MSW graduates - in some cases referred to as a Registered Social Worker or Social Work Associate. That provisional license is available to new MSW graduates who have found a job and someone to play a supervisorial role so that the new graduate can begin to get the two years' required clinical hours in that are required prior to licensure as a professional who can practice clinically without supervision and provide consulting services. Most states require a total of 3,000 hours' supervised clinical work; some of the clinical hours put in as a student may be applied against that requirement.
Learning on the Job
When you complete your MSW and find placement, your new career is underway. You've probably entered the field with an idea of what you'd like to do; most MSW graduates have focused on a career option such as geriatrics, mental health, public health, families and children, schools, etc. Finding the right initial placement is crucial, because in many states licensure may focus on specialization as well. You may not qualify as a LCSW for schools if your clinical hours have been devoted to public health. It depends on the state, and the licensing requirements can get complicated.