Why you should consider studying for a Master’s in Social Work online

social work online

Online learning is becoming more and more popular all around the world. This is partly due to necessity as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced schools and colleges to close their doors, but that’s far from the whole story. Even before the pandemic, online study was a growing industry both in relation to short courses and full-length qualifications such as degrees. There are a multitude of reasons for this, including improvements in technology that make it possible to the greater freedom it offers students. Indeed, it seems fair to say that by now most of us have dabbled in some form of online learning!

What you might find surprising though is that it’s not only purely academic or digital subjects such as history or coding that you can study online. These days it’s also possible to study more vocational fields such as nursing via distance learning, all the way up to postgraduate level. This has truly broadened the opportunities available for people to retrain in a new career later in life, even if they have existing work and family commitments that make attending college in person too difficult or inconvenient.

If you have been thinking about kickstarting your career in a new field this year, one great option to consider is taking a Master’s in Social Work (MSW). There are plenty of online MSW programs out there that will give you a top-quality education in the subject, while enabling you to continue working alongside your studies until you graduate and are ready to embark on your new role as a social worker. Read on to find out more.

What is it like to be a social worker?

Before you get too excited and start rushing into applying for online MSW programs immediately, first take some time to think about whether this career is the right option for you. It is a position that can be extremely rewarding and fulfilling because it enables you to make a real difference in people’s lives and the wider community, but it is not without its challenges.

Social workers aim to enhance people’s wellbeing by helping to ensure that their needs are met, and assisting them in dealing with the problems they are facing. They focus on working with those who are most in need, for example people who are vulnerable, oppressed, living in poverty, and so on. This could be on a personal, one-to-one basis, or working with couples, families or small groups of people depending on the situation.

As a social worker, you can expect to have the chance to work with a wide variety of different people and in a wide variety of different locations. For instance you could choose to work with older people, helping them access services that will allow them to live independently and also safeguarding them from elder abuse. Alternatively you could work in a school, assisting students who are suffering from issues such as bullying or absence from class.

One of the most common career options for social workers after finishing their online MSW programs is to work with vulnerable children and families. This can involve assisting them with accessing support services such as food stamps and childcare, or finding housing. It could also be through responding to crisis situations such as child abuse, or by placing children in foster care and adoptive homes.

Many social workers choose to specialize in working with vulnerable adults instead, for example, by helping them cope with tough life changes such as unemployment or divorce. You could also work with those who are afflicted by alcohol addiction or substance abuse, or who suffer from mental health conditions. If healthcare is an area that particularly interests you, it is also possible to become a healthcare social worker. This role involves helping patients to understand and cope with their diagnoses, providing information on support groups and other services, and so on.

There are also a number of more specialist social worker positions available, for example, working in prisons to assist with rehabilitation of inmates, helping refugees and immigrants, or working with military personnel to enable them to reintegrate into civilian life or cope with issues such as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Finally, another important aspect of social work is advocacy. Social workers strive to raise awareness of the issues that their clients and the wider community are facing, and develop programs and policies to address them. So, as you can see, there is no simple answer to the question of what it’s like to be a social worker – with online MSW programs, you can make the role whatever you want it to be!

What can I expect from online MSW programs?

Just as with an on-campus program, when studying online MSW programs you will complete a series of compulsory and elective modules on a number of different topics related to social work. This will involve doing lots of reading, completing various assignments and pieces of coursework, and participating in group discussions. The specifics will of course vary depending on the institution that you study with and the area that you choose to specialize in, but the following are some of the modules that you can expect to find on offer:

  • Introduction to social work
  • Human behavior and the social environment
  • Human rights and social justice
  • Diversity and oppression
  • Social policy
  • Scientific methods in social work
  • Social work research methods
  • History of social welfare
  • Crisis intervention
  • Social services for children, youth and families
  • Community social work
  • Trauma theory and treatment
  • Gender issues
  • Personality disorders
  • Community development and change
  • Psychopathology
  • Working with adult survivors of sexual abuse
  • Childhood stress, risk and resilience
  • Loss and grief
  • Restorative justice
  • Medical social work
  • Military culture for social workers
  • Disaster response
  • Treatment of addictions
  • Vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue

In addition, you will likely be required to complete a dissertation on a topic that is of particular interest to you, and/or an independent research project. These tend to be done towards the end of the online MSW programs, giving you the chance to focus on the areas you have enjoyed the most and will be relevant to the job role you are hoping to progress to. As well as the academic study, students on online MSW programs are required to complete a certain number of field placement hours in order to gain valuable real world experience.

Online MSW programs generally take between one and three years to complete, depending on whether you choose to study on a full-time or part-time basis. After graduating, you will need to become licensed if you wish to work as a clinical social worker. Most states also require licensure for nonclinical social workers too. This usually involves getting a certain amount of supervised experience and then sitting an exam, but be sure to check the specific requirements for the state you intend to work in.

What are the advantages of studying online MSW programs?

There are a whole wealth of advantages to studying online MSW programs. Perhaps the most obvious is that it enables you to learn in a much more flexible manner compared to a traditional degree. You can choose to study at a time that suits you, on the days that suit you. It gives you the chance to learn at the pace that is best for you as well – whether you’re a quick learner or you need a bit more time to fully understand a topic, you can work at a speed you’re comfortable with. All of this makes online MSW programs a particularly good option for those who have existing commitments that would simply be incompatible with a standard college course. By choosing virtual learning, you can fit your studies around a day job, caring for your family, travel, or your hobbies.

Online MSW programs also enable you to study from anywhere in the world. This opens up a whole host of opportunities in terms of the institution that you can study at because you’re no longer restricted by where you live and work. The only thing to bear in mind is that some online MSW programs may still require you to attend campus on a couple of occasions, so check the details of those courses you are interested in carefully before applying to ensure they’re suitable for your circumstances. Even on a smaller scale, an online course enables you to study from the sort of place that you prefer – whether that’s a coffee shop, your couch, or the beach!

You may also find that online MSW programs are cheaper, either because the tuition fees are lower or because you don’t have to cover extra costs such as commuting to campus. Plus you will have access to cutting edge learning and communication tools that traditional courses often don’t use – which could even prove to be useful experience for your professional life, as many offices are beginning to use the same technology for remote working.

Finally, studying online MSW programs will help you to build up a range of useful transferable skills such as time management, organization and motivation due to the fact that you will be taking more personal responsibility for your education. This is sure to give you an advantage in your future career as a social worker.

Do online MSW programs suffer from a lack of hands-on experience?

Getting real world experience through field placements is a vital part of a social worker’s education, and it’s understandable to be concerned that online MSW programs can’t offer you this. However, you can rest assured that this is not the case. Online MSW programs ensure that you get the same number of hours of hands-on experience, but at a location close to where you live. That means you get all the benefits of flexible learning, as well as the valuable internship hours required to succeed as a social worker.

During your placement training you will work under the supervision of professional and experienced mentors, allowing you to test the waters in a supportive environment and figure out the specific type of social work that you would most like to go on to do as a career. Some of the possible places you could complete your internships in are:

  • Hospitals
  • Schools
  • Nonprofit organizations
  • Substance abuse treatment centers
  • Mental health organizations
  • Nursing homes
  • Correctional facilities
  • Departments of social services

Normally, the first field placement you complete is a general one, and the second a more advanced or specialist one. You can expect to have a minimum requirement of 900 hours to fulfil, although the way these hours are split up and arranged will vary according to your institution.

Wherever you complete your training, you’ll be able to make a real difference to your community and the people you work with. It’s a great opportunity to get used to the kind of tasks social work involves, as well as the challenges you may face after graduating. Plus all the while you will be putting what you’ve learned into practice and making valuable connections to expand your social network. Don’t worry if this sounds intimidating – there will be plenty of help and support along the way.

Likewise, don’t worry about online MSW programs being seen as somehow less valid than campus programs – nowadays employers are accustomed to online learning, and as long as your course is accredited you shouldn’t encounter any problems as a result of it being an online degree. In fact, it’s an option that is only becoming more popular.

Another concern people sometimes have about studying online MSW programs is the lack of social interaction with faculty members and other students. While it might be true that you won’t be able to all go for a coffee together after class, you will find a wide range of virtual communication options at your fingertips. From online discussion boards to live video classes and instant messaging, you will be able to stay in regular contact with your peers if you wish. Plus of course the staff will always be available at the other end of the phone line if you have anything you want to talk about. 

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