Sample Thesis Proposal – Master of Social Work (MSW)

On my recent blog post Should You Go to Grad School for a Master of Social Work (MSW), a reader asked how to write a thesis proposal for the social work application. So, here is the thesis proposal I wrote when I applied to UBC (the University of British Columbia) a few years ago.

My MSW program was two years because my first undergrad degree is in Psychology and my second degree is in Education. If I had an undergrad social work degree, it would’ve only taken one year to get my MSW.

If you’re worried you won’t be accepted to the university or program of your choice, read How to Get Into Grad School – Master’s or PhD Programs.

And here’s what I wrote for my grad application for UBC…

Sample Thesis Proposal – Master’s of Social Work (MSW) Program

Social Issue and Research Question

I wish to study internalized oppression in foster children. Specifically, I’d like to explore how social workers can empower and encourage foster children to overcome negative self-beliefs, stereotypes, and misinformation to reach their full potential and create meaningful, fulfilling lives.

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, children in foster care:

  • blame themselves and feel guilty about being “taken” from their birth parents
  • wish to return to birth parents even if they were abused
  • feel unwanted
  • feel helpless about multiple changes in foster parents
  • have mixed emotions about attaching to foster parents
  • feel insecure and uncertain about their future
  • reluctantly acknowledge positive feelings for foster parents

Self-blame, guilt, confusion, fear, insecurity, and fear can lead these kids to believe they aren’t as intelligent, capable, worthy, or “good” as their peers. How foster kids perceive themselves and their role in the world has a significant impact on how they think, behave, and treat others.

Negative self-beliefs can develop even if the foster care system (or foster families, birth families, peers, etc) don’t directly “oppress” youth. Foster kids are at risk of developing destructive self-perceptions simply because of their situations – not necessarily how they’re treated.

Research indicates that children in foster care tend to be more disengaged and exhibit more problem behaviours than other children. Further, they are at greater risk of dropping out or being forced out of high school (Satchwell, 2006). This is pertinent to social services, and directly affects society as a whole. Disengagement, problem behaviours, and negative self-perceptions influence the decisions and choices that foster children make. This directly and indirectly affects their families, schools, friends, and the community at large.

sample master of social work thesis proposalHow can social workers create conditions that help youth in the foster care system overcome internalized oppression? What can we do to help kids challenge their negative self-beliefs and reframe their situations, lives, and futures? Who is in the best position to do this – foster parents? Social workers? Counsellors? Teachers? Mentors? Self-help or support groups? Summer camps specifically for foster kids, organized and run by foster alumni?


I lived in three foster homes as a child, between bouts of living with my single mother. She suffered from severe paranoid schizophrenia and the effects of “treatments” such as electroconvulsive therapy and psychotropic medications. I grew up in a culture of mental illness, poverty, powerlessness, and the stigma of being a foster child.

As a result, I held two specific beliefs about myself: 1) I wasn’t smart or “good” enough to go to university; and 2) I wasn’t lovable enough to be in a healthy relationship.

When I was 11, I was matched with a Big Sister through the Big Brothers/Big Sisters organization. While I can’t pinpoint the exact effect she had, I now have two undergraduate degrees and am happily married. My Big Sister changed my life – and all she had to do was show up once a week.

In my work as a Mentoring Coordinator with Big Brothers, I see firsthand how mentoring changes lives. Research shows that mentoring increases self-worth, improves relationships with others, and is connected to measurable gains in school attendance and academic achievement (Satchwell, 2006).

My goal is to combine my professional and personal experiences, and empower foster kids to transcend their self-limiting beliefs.

Annotated Bibliography

Axner, M. (2011). Healing from the effects of internalized oppression. Retrieved from The Community Toolbox This online resource describes discrimination versus internalized oppression, and offers practical strategies for recognizing and helping individuals overcome internalized oppression. The tools are effective, practical ways to empower people struggling with oppression.

Baskin, C. (2007) Structural determinants as the cause of homelessness for aboriginal youth. Critical Social Work, Vol 8, No 1. Retrieved online from A paper that describes how the cycle of oppression caused by social systems leads to the loss of self-identity in Aboriginal youths in the foster care system. This loss of self-identity leads to unhealthy development and an increased risk of homelessness.

Bishop, Anne. (2002). Becoming an ally: Breaking the cycle of oppression in people. Halifax:Fernwood Publishing. Bishop’s premise is that no one form of oppression stands alone. All oppressions are interdependent, and none can be solved in isolation. She is “looking for mechanisms that cause us to reproduce oppression, generation after generation” (page 71), and encourages readers to form alliances (as opposed to “just” fighting one’s own oppression).

Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York,NY: Continuum International Publishing Group. This book was first published in 1968; this is the 30th anniversary edition. Freire describes how oppressors “dehumanize” oppressed groups, who become incapable of recognizing their own oppression. This would be a solid foundation from which to base my research on overcoming internalized oppression.

Geenen, S. & Powers, L. (2007). “Tomorrow is another problem”: The experiences of youth in foster care during their transition into adulthood. Children and Youth Services Review. 29(8), 1085-1101. Retrieved from This study gathered information from foster youth, case workers, foster parents, educators and other professionals on the experiences of transitioning from youth to adulthood. It revealed that youth in foster care need more opportunities to control and direct their own lives, to take responsibility and ownership for their futures. The authors also found that caring, long-term relationships are more important than accessing formal services, and that a flexible, individualized and creative approach to transition is necessary.

Kirk, R. & Day, A. (2011). Increasing college access for youth aging out of foster care: Evaluation of a summer camp program for foster youth transitioning from high school to college. Children and Youth Services Review. 33(7), 1173-1180. Retrieved from  The School of Social  Work at Michigan State University developed a campus-based learning program to help foster youth transition to college. Foster care alumni offered peer support, role modeling, mentoring and active learning sessions. This intervention increased college-related knowledge and information, enhanced perceptions of life skills, self-concept, empowerment and a sense of purpose.

Krebs, B. and  Pitcoff, P. (2006) Beyond the foster care system: The future for teens.Chapel Hill, NC: Rutgers University Press. Written by the co-founders of the Youth Advocacy Center in New York City, this book offers inspiring, real-life accounts of what it’s like to live in foster homes and illustrates how the foster care system sets teens up to fail by inadequately preparing them for adult life. The authors also offer practical improvements to empower teens.

Satchwell, K. (2006). Mentoring literature review. Retrieved from Government of Alberta Human Services website: Mentoring_Lit_Review_Final[1].pdf. An excellent overview of mentoring that goes beyond “just” a case for mentoring. This report includes volunteer mentor recruitment, training tips, matching considerations, best practices, and more.

van Wormer, K. (2004). Confronting oppression, restoring justice: From policy analysis to social action Alexandria, VA: CSWE Press. This is a guide that doesn’t just explain internalized oppression and social justice theory, it describes what is needed to confront oppression for human services practitioners, students, and educators on the “front lines.”


After being accepted to the MSW program at UBC, I discovered that writing a thesis is a choice grad students have. I’ve decided not to write one, as I’d rather focus on getting as much practical, hands on experience as I can. Plus, I don’t plan (at this point) to go into a PhD program, so writing a thesis for my MSW isn’t necessary.

If you get into a grad program, you’ll probably need to secure a practicum placement! For tips, read Sample Field Placement Request – Master’s of Social Work at UBC.


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