At the heart of your work as an MSW student will be projects geared towards a process of growth and discovery, critical thinking, and the development of a professional self. Some programs infuse trauma-informed practice throughout their curricula.1 Others emphasize clinical practice, macro practice, social justice, strengths, empowerment, and/or evidence-informed practice, individually or in combination.
The following categories outline the coursework typically offered in MSW programs:
Field Education (Internship)
Field experiences offer you hands-on learning opportunities within community agencies under the supervision of an MSW-level social worker. Full-time students typically complete field requirements over two academic years.2 Two separate internships over the course of your MSW program provide rich source material for classroom exercises and written assignments. Internships can be micro level (work with individuals, families, groups), mezzo (organizations), macro (social policies or systems), or a combination of levels. Projects assigned by internship supervisors will depend on the population, the type of service, the community where the organization is located, and the systems with which the organization interacts.
Social Work Practice
In foundation and advanced year practice courses, students learn the theoretical approaches that they can apply to their work in field. Case examples, articles examining best practices, and instructional videos provide additional learning material. Classes often rely upon role-plays, written assignments, journaling, and other projects that are geared toward professional growth. While you may complete individual projects, group projects are common because they offer a chance to develop self-awareness about your own role in groups and an understanding of group dynamics. As well, you’ll likely be working with client groups, or with interdisciplinary professional groups, in your field internship and in your career.
Human Behavior in the Social Environment (HBSE)
Clients deserve competent practitioners to assist them in coping with their presenting problems; thus, your learning must go beyond intellectual understanding and be well-integrated with empathy for client concerns. Some MSW programs may focus on clinical aspects and offer a course on mental health diagnoses, utilizing the DSM-V.3 (States can have different educational requirements for licensure.4) Other programs may offer one semester of clinical theories and one semester of mezzo and macro level theories. Assignments, possibly in the form of papers and presentations, will challenge you to explore the assumptions, concepts, and application of theories.
Whether you’re more interested in clinical concerns, or have mezzo and/or macro level interests, research has a critical role in social work practice. Determining how and why a practice intervention is effective with a client is indispensable because it can then be replicated by others. As well, researching and developing a deeper understanding about a social problem, for example, can add greatly to the knowledge base for the field in general. Projects in research classes often involve gaining an understanding of research ethics, defining concepts, coming up with hypotheses and research questions, learning quantitative and qualitative research methods, and analyzing data.
Social Welfare History and Policy
Coursework on the history of social welfare policy provides a backdrop to shifts that have occurred over time in how governments (local, state, federal) and social workers, have responded to social problems. Assignments may ask you to examine the process of policy development and policy implementation. You may also be asked to highlight key components of policies within their historical contexts. Some programs may give you opportunities to go into a community and/or social service agency to explore the influence and impact of policies.
Other Areas of Study
In addition to a wide range of electives offered in MSW programs, some programs may offer opportunities to be involved with assistance on a research project, participation in community initiatives, and travel that may entail learning about different social welfare systems, community organizations, and history, as well as doing volunteer work and/or research.
There can be tremendous differences between MSW programs. Common to all the projects that you will do as an MSW student are the values and principles that comprise the NASW Code of Ethics5, including social justice, human rights, cultural competence, and empowerment.
To learn more about the Master of Social Work program offered at Widener University call 844-386-7321 and a Program Manager will be able to assist you.
About the author:
Eric Stein, DSW, LSW is a Clinical Assistant Professor at Widener University’s Center for Social Work Education. He received his master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Pennsylvania. In addition to teaching at Widener, he has taught at UPENN, Rutgers, Marywood, and Stockton University. He has been involved in the field of social work for more than 15 years in clinical and administrative positions both in Philadelphia and San Francisco. His practice has included mental health and community-based services for individuals, children, youth, and families living in marginalized and oppressed communities.
1Widener University, “Master of Social Work.” Accessed June 30, 2016.
2Council on Social Work Education, “2015 Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards,” Accessed June 28, 2016, http://www.cswe.org/File.aspx?id=81660
3American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5®). American Psychiatric Publishing.
4Socialworklicensure.org, “Educational Requirements,” Accessed June 29, 2016, http://www.socialworklicensure.org/articles/social-work-license-requirements.html
5National Association of Social Workers, “Social Work Code of Ethics.” Accessed June 28, 2016. https://www.socialworkers.org/About/Ethics/Code-of-Ethics