MSW Programs: How to Choose the Right One

Whether you are thinking about becoming a social worker or seeking to advance your current career, there are a multitude of factors to consider when looking at Master of Social Work (MSW) programs. Social work is a broad field. It offers opportunities ranging from owning a clinical practice or working in a social service agency  to being a social justice advocate, HR executive, or college professor.

That is why it is extremely important for you to identify your goals, interests, and the type of work you wish to do. Then, you’ll be able to find the right school and program to prepare you for the job you desire. 

What are Your Goals?

The first step is to set some goals. As you begin to look at social work programs, think about your future and in what direction you want your career to go. Figure out what kind of work you would like to do — are you hoping to work with at-risk adolescents in an urban high school, elderly patients in a hospice care facility, or clients through your own private practice? 

There is a wide range of jobs for those with a degree in social work. The more you can narrow down the specifics of your ideal career, the easier it will be to find a Master of Social Work program that provides you with the education and experience you will need to achieve it. For example, in order to become a clinical social worker, a master’s degree and two years post-graduate experience in a supervised clinical setting are required.1

Many schools offer specific areas of concentration or electives. With many different options, you can customize your education to your background, previous work experience, and area of interest. Widener University offers a variety of electives such as addiction, intellectual and developmental disabilities, human sexuality, child welfare, and investigating a person’s biographical timeline to better support them. 

Additionally, some schools offer dual degree programs that allow you to earn two degrees simultaneously.2 For instance, Widener University offers a dual degree MSW/MEd in human sexuality studies, which provides practitioner-level training. It also has one of the only doctoral programs in human sexuality studies offered at a fully accredited university in the United States.

Determine Your Level of Education Needed

There are three types of social work degrees, each of which corresponds to a certain level of responsibility and range in salary. “The median annual wage for (bachelor’s level) social workers was $45,900 in May 2015,” according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.3

Social workers with a bachelor’s degree typically hold positions as caseworkers or mental health workers and tend to earn less than those with a master’s degree. Those who acquire a Master of Social Work degree have the option to get licensed as a clinical social worker for advanced agency clinical work and go into private practice as part or all of their practice. Graduate programs also offer more advanced classes that focus on specific areas of interest, such as child abuse treatment or human sexuality. Those with doctorates are most likely to assume leadership positions in the field or become researchers or graduate-level professors.

How Much Will it Cost?

Once you have determined the level of education needed to achieve your career goals, you will need to factor in the amount of time and money it will take to complete your degree. Earning a master’s degree is a long-term commitment. Most MSW programs take two to three years to complete, depending on whether you are a full- or part-time student.

Admission requirements are another factor. Some social work master’s programs require applicants to have a minimum GPA and/or test score. The two most common entrance exams used are the Miller Analogies Test (MAT) and the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). Widener University’s Master of Social Work program does not require GRE or GMAT test scores for admission, but students must have earned a minimum GPA of 3.0 in their undergraduate coursework.

While degree programs can be quite expensive, many of them offer financial aid in the form of federal loans. For example, Widener University offers financial aid for military professionals and veterans through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the Yellow Ribbon Program, the Montgomery GI Bill and the Post-9/11 Bill benefit programs in addition to financial aid for non-military students. Contact the financial aid office at the schools to which you plan to apply so you can ask about their financial aid options or other forms of tuition assistance.

Field Placement

Some graduate-level programs also offer field practicums which provide valuable hands-on experience. At Widener University, you can take the skills and knowledge you’ve gained in the classroom and put them into action through field placement. Your field practicum can be completed at several different types of organizations, such as hospitals, child advocacy centers, homeless shelters, and outpatient drug and alcohol facilities. If you are pursuing  a degree in social work, you should investigate what field placement opportunities your school has to offer.

Choosing a Modality

Another consideration is whether to attend class on campus or pursue an online degree. Online Master of Social Work programs are often designed for adult learners who need to be able to keep working and have the flexibility to complete your degree from home.

CSWE Accredited

One of the most important things you should do when looking at a Master of Social Work program is to verify whether a school is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). CSWE accreditation signifies that the school adequately prepares students to be effective practitioners by meeting certain core competencies in social work education. Widener’s MSW Programs are accredited by CSWE. Many agencies require you to be licensed before or soon after you are employed, and in many states an accredited degree is a prerequisite to licensure. Widener University offers guidance on license and state requirements.

Career Placement

In addition to the reputation of the school and caliber of its faculty, you should also consider whether the school offers career advice and networking opportunities with potential employers. While many schools offer field placement opportunities in traditional settings, such as family service agencies, you should check to see if they offer placements that match your personal career goals and areas of interest. It is important to make sure the school you choose to attend is CSWE accredited, has a good reputation, and offers the kind of coursework you need to prepare you for your career in social work.

If you are thinking about getting an Online Master of Social Work degree, Widener University offers an MSW program that is CSWE accredited and offers a clinical curriculum specializing in trauma and social justice. If you are interested in a Clinical Social Work degree with a focus in Human Sexuality Studies, Widener also offers a Hybrid Dual Master of Social Work/Master of Education, Human Sexuality Studies program. 

To learn more, call 844-386-7321 to speak with a program manager or request more info.


1“Deciding on a social work degree program.” (accessed on September 2, 2016).

2Sella, M. “Choose the right graduate school for you.” (accessed on September 2, 2016).

3“Occupational outlook handbook: Social workers.” (accessed on September 2, 2016).