The Master of Social Work degree typically takes two years of full time study to complete. A major part of the academic program for any MSW area of concentration is field placement: working in a social services agency or institution as an on-the-job training experience, learning the finer points of social work from experienced professionals. While the first year of an MSW program has a lot of classroom hours, there is field placement during this initial year as well. The second year includes extensive work in the field; an accredited MSW program will require a minimum of 900 hours in field work from its students.
At some point fairly early in the program an MSW student is going to have to make a choice of "major," or area of concentration. It's a career orientation decision and necessarily has a lot to do with field placement. The options for areas of concentration vary in title to some degree from program to program, but the divisions of professional roles among areas of concentration are essentially the same. There are a few general areas of concentration; some schools have sub-specialties within those general areas.
Child and Family Services
Students in this field are working towards a family counseling role, working with at-risk children, intervention services for families in crisis, and adolescents with family or social issues. An MSW with this area of specialization can end up working in the schools, residential treatment centers, family shelters, and family counseling services. Some graduates find work in the juvenile justice system or with foster placement services. The child welfare specialization is a program funded in part by funds from Title IV of the Social Security Act and may be used to underwrite expenses for students who opt for this area of focus. Gerontology is becoming a popular option for MSW students as the need for social service liaison activity with the senior population increases; this field is usually a stand-alone area of concentration.
Social workers in this field are often placed with public health centers to provide support services for individuals and families whose first contact with the social services system is brought about by a health issue. Some schools of social work have a case management certificate as an academic addition for students in this field. Jobs may be in non-profit or for-profit health centers, in public clinics or in hospitals. The range of services may include assisting multicultural families integrate into the health system, interceding on behalf of children or the elderly that need further care, and working to educate families on home health issues. Part of the training in this area of concentration includes the study of broad target groups for health services, and assessment procedures for health care delivery services to various populations.
Psychological issues are often part of the complex set of problems among individuals or families seeking help from a social service agency. MSW graduates trained in this field learn to assess perceived mental health problems, direct clients to services and provide counseling services as appropriate. Outreach can be an important function in mental health, particularly among the homeless. There are also ongoing policy issues with funding agencies that can become an area of expertise as well, since mental health treatment can come from one of several sources, including public health facilities and residential treatment centers.
Management, Planning and Administration
There is an entire academic specialization for MSW students who are interested in administrative roles and policy issues in the social work arena. Management of non-profit agencies is part of the course of study in this area, as is the public policy development process that keeps social service networks intact. The role that community organization and advocacy can play in social work is also a part of this area of concentration. Program development, financing and learning about funding sources in the non-profit sector are an essential part of this training program.