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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9 thoughts on “Why You Should Get a Master of Social Work (MSW)”

  1. Hi Amanda,

    Congratulations on being accepted to the MSW program at UBC! That’s awesome – and I can almost guarantee you won’t regret it.

    I graduated two years ago, and started the MSW two years before that. A lot has changed with the program since then, and I can’t add anything to what I’ve already written on the subject. I know St Paul’s offers an excellent training program — and I would leap at the chance to be part of it.

    Go. Learn. Participate fully. No regrets!


  2. Do you know anything of the Advanced program, specifically in regards to the health and social care specialization? I’m planning to specialize in health and the UBC program looks great, with training taking place directly in the St Paul’s Teaching Hospital. From what I can tell of the course layout, the program is everything that I’m looking for in my education. If you have any thoughts I’d be interested in hearing them before I accept my offer. Thanks!

  3. Hi Rick,

    No problem – I don’t mind the questions! I’ve never wanted to work with children or youth, especially in the counseling arena. I taught grade 8 and high school for three years, and haven’t thought about working with them further. That said, however, I think the program you mentioned would be a great way to gain experience with kids and counseling.

    You’re right; deciding which social work grad program is most suitable is a huge transition and life change. It is a big decision. I wish you all the best with it!

  4. Hi Laurie,

    Thank you for the response! I have just one more question. Sorry I am picking your brain a bit about graduate programs, I just want more information from those who went to grad school…it is a big life transition/stage.

    You have mentioned that you wanted to develop your counselling skills when working with children. I was wondering why you did not consider the Master in Child and Youth Care, where there is a specialization to become clinical counsellors, was part of doing the MSW because of the social justice perspective?

    BTW, great blogs!!


  5. Anonymous MSW student

    After I learned about the UBC Okanagan MSW program I went there to check it out. I was quite impressed!! The campus is stunning and the area is beautiful. Its research-based and the profs seemed quite open-minded. As long as the speaker shows critical thinking and discourse is respectful, they entertain any position shared in the seminar format. However, as with Laurie, I could not move to attend the program. Similarly, I had no interest in doing an online MSW. I have done Practicums with full-time Social Workers doing the online option via UVIC or Dalhousie to increase their wage. I got the distinct impression that they seem to miss out on a lot that is learned by sharing in face-to-face discussions and doing presentations critiqued by peers. Its definitely a good option for those full-time parents and workers, but I like classroom learning in comparison. Otherwise, if I had a time machine, I would have done the MSW program at Wilfred Laurier in ON. They have distinct streams and you can walk to the University of Waterloo or Renison College to pick up supplemental classes.

  6. Hello Rick,

    I didn’t apply to any other MSW program, other than UBC, because I can’t move to another place right now and I didn’t want to do an online social work graduate program. So, I only applied to UBC – and I didn’t do any research into other programs.

    My only regret is not feeling equipped as a social worker or a counselor. However, I think I can change that by identifying what areas I’m lacking, and fill in the gaps myself. And many jobs are all about learning as you go, on the job :-)

    I wish you all the best as you pursue your MSW. Let me know where you end up!

    In peace and passion,

  7. Hi Laurie,

    Thanks for posting this information about your POV on the MSW from UBC. Some of what you and Anonymous have said, I have also heard from others working in this field.

    I was wondering if you can share a little about other MSW programs you had thought about before you accepted the offer to attend UBC?? – It would be great to get an idea of some of the schools you were thing about as I have read some of the postings you have written and find that some of my values and interests are reflected in your posts. I also saw that you will be graduating soon, graduations!! You will be an amazing social worker and ally for your future clients!

  8. Anonymous MSW student

    As one of your cohorts in the MSW program at the UBC Vancouver campus, I think you were very gentle with your critiques about the program. However, given the number of classmates who have filed complaints with the Graduate Student Society (GSS) after being intimidated by veiled warnings to ‘tow-the-line’ from one administrator, I empathize with your selectively cautious wording.

    You are absolutely brilliant by highlighting the importance of first asking what one wants to do with their Graduate education and then examining the core focus the Grad program [supposedly] teaches. For example, I had no idea the MSW program at the UBC Okanagan campus was intensely clinical from a Mental Health perspective, compared to the [vague] generalist anti-oppressive program at the Vancouver campus. Had I known this ahead of time, I would never have chosen the UBC Vancouver program; I don’t see the point of being a master of nothing, but having a two-cent opinion about everything.

    Similarly, coworkers in each of my Practicums and therapists at conferences with an MA in Counselling said they wish they could go back and do an MSW with an RCC instead, since we can do 5-7 jobs with an MSW. Not to mention private practice, third-party billing with extended health insurance is automatically accepted with an MSW. The MSW program at UBC also allows you to draw the [false] conclusion that you will take classes that will prepare you to go forward and be eligible for certification as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), but they still do not offer a single class that is accepted under current certification guidelines along with the clinical hours.

    Some of our classmates have filed complaints with the BC Association of Social Workers (BCASW) and College of Social Workers (CSW) about this, having submitted syllabus of classes and being told they barely meet the licensure criteria. After all, it seems weird to graduate from UBC and then have to take 4 classes at UVIC or elsewhere to finally finish one’s journey. Sadly, I have met social workers at hospitals and at conferences who graduated from our program up to five years ago, and it seems the problems have existed as long as one specific administrator has been in charge of the MSW program. Unfortunately, there are many other differences. For example, as numerous classmates phone CSW for clarification of inconsistencies within our program compared to UVIC, they have learned that the CSW only asks Grad students to complete 300 hours per practicum. Conversely, our program demands 450 hours. The CSW told our classmates that there is no type of conflict for Grad students to also complete paid practicums, but we are forbidden to do paid practicums. Students courageously seek out solutions (strength-based approach) and try to advocate (motivate) changes.

    Thus far, [most] concerns about the inconsistencies are either ignored or retorted from a wounded defensive position, rather than being open-minded (client-centered) to what is being done (evidence-based) at other universities. Otherwise, make sure the Grad program attendance numbers are conducive to seminar-based teachings. There were 27 cohorts accepted into our Foundation year and there are 40+ in our final year.

    Instead of Grad student with vibrant backgrounds exchanging rich discourse in seminar classes, we sit in three hour classes watching 60+ power point slides go by listening to high school-like lectures. I have taken 16 classes thus far, and I only bought books for four classes. All of the material is presented in power point slides or easily online via Google. This year they tried to “fix” their lack of preparation by actually combining BSW and FMSW students into one class on policy issues. Needless to say, new complaints at the GSS and disgruntled students.

    Anyway, if nothing else, being a grad student in such a purist dogmatic (social work versus psychology mentality) and dysfunctional program (youthful new hires versus tenured 1960s professors) framed around paternalized power dynamics entrenched in hierarchical systems, we have certainly learned how to empathize with clients and navigate (hoop jump) our way to the end. In short, by suffering we have learned to develop resiliency and empathize with clients who face a system that changes faces, but truly never changes within.