Why You Should Get a Master of Social Work (MSW)

If you’re asking “should I go to grad school?” and you’re considering a Master of Social Work (MSW) program, you’ll find my experience helpful. I earned my MSW as a mature student or adult learner – I was in my early forties when I started and completed my grad degree.

A reader asked what I think of the MSW program; here’s a list of pros and cons. It was a two year Master of Social Work for me, because my undergrad degree is in psychology, not social work. Some social work graduate programs can be completed in one year if the student already has a Bachelor of Social Work.

I think the answer is yes, you should get a Master of Social Work – though it depends on your goals. Generally speaking, however, education is never wasted, and you’ll be qualified for many of the jobs in my list of Best Jobs for Introverts and People Who Like to Be Alone. You’ll learn more about the field of social work, and you’ll probably connect with colleagues who can help you further your career.

I decided I should go to grad school because an MSW is worth the financial investment and time commitment – even if it’s a two year social work program. Below, I share my thoughts on a specific social work program: UBC’s MSW degree.

In my opinion, social work graduate programs in general are more valuable than counseling programs because social work is more interdisciplinary in nature. A graduate degree such as an MSW allows you to work in a wider variety of settings and gives you the skills to perform a wider variety of roles than a counseling degree does. That’s why I decided I should go to graduate school and specialize in social work.

However, a social work graduate program may not give you the counseling skills you need to become a Registered Clinical Counselor in your province or state. So, when you’re wondering if you should go to graduate school, your first step is to decide what type of work you want to do after you get your degree.

Why I Think Grad School is a Good Idea

Here are some of the benefits of graduate school in general and a Master of Social Work in particular…

More job opportunities

Social workers have to be realistic, not just passionate. To me, this means we need to balance our personal goals with the professional opportunities in the marketplace. Before I decided to pursue an MSW instead of a Master of Counseling, I browsed the jobs on Charity Village. That was the tipping point for me – I saw more opportunities for MSWs than RCCs.

Ironically, even though that’s how I knew I should go to grad school, I didn’t end up getting a job in social work! After my two year MSW program, I decided to go back to the job I love most: blogging and freelance writing. But I don’t regret getting my grad degree.

Interdisciplinary skills

Even though I really want to get a job as a counselor, I thought a MSW would give me more skills and a broader background. I knew that social workers are trained to work within the system as a whole, not just with people as individuals. Since individuals live within the system, it’s important to help them see how to navigate it. And, social work graduate programs train students to work with people of diverse cultures and nationalities, which appealed to me.

Variety of practicum placement opportunities

My first practicum as a social work graduate student was with the Alzheimer Society in Vancouver. My primary role was facilitating support groups for caregivers, which I loved doing. My second placement is with the Union Gospel Mission, in the Alcohol and Drug Residential Recovery Program for men. My goal is to learn counseling skills, but it’s not as easy as learning how to facilitate support groups! Individual counseling sessions are private and confidential, and it can be difficult to nose one’s way in.

If you’ve already said to yourself, “Yes! I should go to grad school!”, read How to Get Into Grad School – Master’s or PhD Programs.

Drawbacks of UBC’s Social Work Program

The following weaknesses of UBC’s MSW are my opinions, and not necessarily representative of the true nature of this social work program. Further, classes and professors and course content changes over time, so my perspective may be invalid by the time you read this. I graduated in April 2014.

The quality of the classroom instruction

The professors in the social work program seem to lean heavily towards group presentations and unstructured class discussions, rather than presenting their knowledge or helping students develop relevant social work skills. For instance, my social policy class consisted of the professor sharing memories of his social work experiences over the years (he’s in his 60s, so there were lots of fond memories).

My First Nations class consisted of several guest speakers who shared their traumatic, destructive experiences in residential schools in Canada (this is very, very important information – but it was told so often in this class, I became desensitized. I wished I could learn about more than “just” the impact of residential schools. What about current reservation functioning? Issues facing Aboriginal people today? How to respond to racism on the part of non-Aboriginal people?).

Should I Go to Grad School for Master of Social Work
Should You Go to Grad School?

My child and family social work class consisted of the professor reading his lecture notes to us in three hour stints, and not encouraging us to think for ourselves or discuss issues. When you’re deciding if you should go to grad school, be prepared for an interesting variety of seminars and courses.

That said, however, I did learn from some of the social work grad courses at UBC, such as the group therapy class, the individual counseling course, and my first integrative seminar. But overall, I believe the quality of UBC’s social work graduate program is low. I was disappointed by the courses and the instructors, and am glad UBC is a public institution that doesn’t cost near as much as a private college or university.

Difficulties in getting solid practicum or internship placements

Most social work graduate programs require practicums – and I believe learning on the job is extremely valuable. The practicum system at UBC was a mess when I went there. Some students didn’t get a placement for months after they were supposed to, and others – like me – still haven’t worked with an MSW supervisor after two placements. This doesn’t matter much to me because my primary goal isn’t to get a job as a social worker (counseling is my goal), but I should probably have worked with a social worker at some point during my two year Master of Social Work degree.

Huge class sizes…in grad school?!

A graduate level seminar should NOT consist of 28 students – that’s way too many for the level of class discussions we should have been having. Class size is a huge problem in the MSW program, for both the instructors and the students.

There are other weaknesses of this social work graduate program – and there are other strengths, as well. I’m glad I went back to school for my MSW, but I would never call UBC’s social work graduate program high-quality education.

If you’re over forty, read Making a Career Change at 40? 10 Things You Need to Know.

I welcome your questions and thoughts on UBC’s undergraduate or graduate social work program – or the MSW program at other universities – in the comments section below. I can’t offer advice, but you may find it helpful to share your experience.

“Each moment of our life, we either invoke or destroy our dreams.” – Stuart Wilde.


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