2020 was a difficult year for a lot of people. From the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdowns it brought about causing high levels of unemployment, financial struggles and mental health problems to divisive politics bringing social justice issues to the forefront of our minds, most of us felt the impact in some way. The positive side of this is that we saw how important our local communities and social networks truly are, as well as the priceless value of the key workers, services and programs that protect the most vulnerable in our society. Whilst much of the focus has naturally been on healthcare workers such as doctors and nurses, another profession that has been vital for us is social work.
Social workers focus on supporting those who are in need, and helping people to cope with difficult life changes and obstacles – something that has been more essential than ever over the last year. For those of you who have been inspired to retrain in a field like social work that is dedicated to helping others, the good news is that thanks to online MSW programs it’s never been easier to move into this sphere. Studying for a Master’s in Social Work (MSW) provides you with the skills, knowledge and experience you need to begin a career in this challenging but rewarding field.
In this post we’ll cover what exactly social work is, why it is so important, and how you can become a social worker by enrolling on one of the many excellent online MSW programs out there.
What is social work?
Social work is all about helping those in need. In the US, the profession was established in the 19th century as a means of assisting people to escape from economic and social poverty. Since then the movement has continued to grow, and broadened its scope to cover other issues such as substance abuse and the needs of military veterans returning to civilian life.
These days social workers use a wide range of tools at their disposal – such as education, advocacy, intervention and research – to help vulnerable people with all sorts of difficulties. They can be roughly categorized into clinical social workers and nonclinical or direct social workers, with the main difference being what each is legally allowed to do as part of their profession.
Clinical social workers have to study for a Master’s in Social Work rather than just a Bachelor’s, and as a result can be licensed to diagnose and treat mental, behavioral and emotional disorders as well as provide counseling treatments. Therefore online MSW programs are best suited to those who wish to progress to this sort of higher level position. It takes more training, but also brings with it a correspondingly higher salary.
What kind of areas are social workers employed in?
As a social worker you could be working with people of all ages and backgrounds, from children to the elderly, and those in prison to those in hospital. This is an indication of just how broad the field can be. Some of the possible areas you could specialize in include:
- Healthcare – working directly with patients in hospitals or other healthcare facilities to understand and cope with their medical diagnoses, including those with a terminal illness. This may involve helping people to make decisions regarding their treatment, and ensuring that they are receiving the care they need.
- Schools – working with students who are struggling with issues from bullying and skipping class to learning difficulties and confusion over their future options. This may involve developing anti-bullying policies and individual education programs, or facilitating sex education and providing careers guidance.
- Elderly people – working with older citizens to ensure that their needs are being met. This may involve anything from connecting them with social services and programs to help them live independently, to working in assisted living facilities and care homes. It could even require intervening in instances of elder abuse.
- Families – working with families in need to connect them with social services such as food stamps and childcare, or helping them to cope with unexpected life events such as divorce or unemployment.
- Children – working with vulnerable children to protect them from abuse and neglect, or place them in foster care or adoptive homes where necessary.
- Mental health – working with those who are suffering from mental disorders. This may involve providing counseling or psychotherapy.
- Substance abuse and addiction – working with people in the grips of alcohol addiction or who are misusing prescription or illegal drugs. This may involve connecting them with rehabilitation services and programs, or providing information on support groups.
- Criminal justice – working with prisoners to deliver counseling, facilitate therapy sessions, develop educational programs, and assist those who are soon to be released to reintegrate into society successfully. This may also involve working with those who are on probation to help them lead productive lives and avoid reoffending.
- Military – working with veterans coming back from conflict and helping them return to civilian life successfully. This may involve working with other family members too, and supporting people through struggles with PTSD and other challenges.
- Advocacy – working to raise awareness of the issues that affect the most vulnerable people in society, and drive real change. This could be through campaigning for changes in the law, setting up new programs and services, or fighting for human rights and social justice. It may also involve advocating for your individual clients to make sure that their voices are heard.
Why is social work so important?
As you can see from the description above, online MSW programs and social work in general focus on helping those people who may otherwise slip through the cracks. Unfortunately we don’t live in a perfect world, and sometimes people need a little extra help to cope with what life throws at them – and social workers play a vital role in this. Even in a highly developed country such as the US, there are still high levels of poverty, homelessness and unemployment. Plus no matter where you live or what your social standing is, obstacles such as illness or divorce could strike at any time.
Social work is also important for making long term, progressive changes in society. For example, social workers played a key role in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, as well as winning workers rights such as disability pay, unemployment insurance and social security. They continue to fight for causes such as the destigmatization of mental illness, the expansion of access to healthcare, and the development of programs to limit the most destructive effects of poverty. All of which means that the field has been a key driving force behind some of the most important social reforms in the US’s history, and will likely continue to be so in the future – so if you want to be part of the next wave of change, online MSW programs are perfect for getting you there.
What sort of person makes a good social worker?
Whilst online MSW programs can provide you with the knowledge and skills required to be a successful social worker, there are certain personality traits that make you particularly well suited to the career. First and foremost, compassion and a desire to help others are key. If you’re not genuinely passionate about supporting people and your community, this may not be the career for you.
Good communication skills are also needed, because you may find yourself having to deal with people who are reluctant to open up to you or may even try to deceive you. Practice active listening and observation skills, and work on becoming the sort of person that people can trust and be honest with.
The truth of the matter is that social work can often be a difficult and thankless job, and one in which you have to deal with challenging situations on a regular basis. As such it is important to be resilient and persistent, with the ability to remain calm under pressure and utilize reason even in emergency situations. This goes hand in hand with a capacity to leave your work at the door when you get home, to prevent it from having a negative impact on your personal life and mental health.
There are also a number of soft skills that will be extremely useful during your career as a social worker. These include organizational skills and time management, as you may find yourself dealing with a large caseload, as well as a drive to continue learning. This will be necessary to keep up with frequent changes in laws and programs, in addition to new techniques in your specialist area.
Many who go into social work do so because they have experienced difficulties in their own lives, and seen firsthand the positive impact the job can have. This is of course not necessary though – as long as you truly care about helping those in need, you’re sure to be suitable for online MSW programs.
How can I become a social worker?
In order to become a social worker you will need to have either a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in Social Work. As discussed above, taking a Master’s course will open up more opportunities for you in the field, so that’s what will be focused on here. You don’t need a Bachelor’s in the subject in order to enrol on the Master’s, though you will need an undergraduate degree in any subject.
Online MSW programs and more traditional on-campus courses both take between one and three years to complete depending on whether you study on a full-time or part-time basis. You’ll have to take a series of modules, some of which will be core compulsory courses and others that will be electives you can choose between.
The types of modules you can expect to cover include human behavior, social justice, social policy, human rights, and psychopathology. You’ll learn about various different social work theories, and also cover research methods. Some of the more specialist modules you might have available to you include those focusing on specific populations such as the elderly, children, the LGBTQ+ community, military veterans, and families. You could also opt to cover specific topics such as trauma, grief, crisis situations, or substance abuse and addiction.
On online MSW programs you will have reading and assignments to complete for each module that you take, as well as a final research project or dissertation towards the end of the course. This will be on a topic that is of particular interest to you, and ideally one related to the specific area that you are hoping to work in after graduating.
It’s not all about the books though – you will also be required to complete a certain number of hours of hands-on work experience in the real world. This is intended to be a bridge between study and work, enabling you to put what you are learning into practice in a supportive environment. You’ll be under the guidance and supervision of experienced professionals, who will be on hand to give advice and answer any questions that come up. This is a fantastic opportunity to experience what the job of a social worker really entails and figure out exactly which area you wish to work in, so make the most of it!
After graduating, most states require you to become licensed in order to practice as a social worker. When it comes to both online MSW programs and on-campus ones, if you want to aim for the more advanced position of a clinical social worker, you will have to complete two years of clinical work experience and pass an exam in order to be granted a license. Nonclinical social workers are also often required to sit an exam in most states.
The good news is that according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics the job prospects for social workers are set to grow much faster than average over the next decade, so you can look forward to enjoying high levels of job security and employability once you’re qualified.