How to Decide if a Master’s in Social Work is the Right Option for You

Rohan Mathew

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As we finally say goodbye to 2020 and welcome in the new year, you may be thinking ahead to the things you want to achieve in 2021. Perhaps you want to buy your first house, get healthy, or travel somewhere new. Or maybe this year is the time you’ve chosen to focus on your education and career. Going back to college to boost your credentials or retrain in an entirely new area is becoming easier and more manageable, thanks to the increased availability of online learning and part-time study options. This means that there are now even fewer barriers standing in your way.

If you’re thinking of returning to university to study for a Master’s degree in a different area, the next question to consider is what field you’d like to train in. Depending on what you majored in during your undergraduate degree, there will be all sorts of interesting options open to you. For many people, though, the COVID-19 pandemic has awoken a desire to work in a job that helps others. Of course, one of the most obvious ways to do this is to go into a career in medicine, but if you don’t have the time or money for medical school, there are plenty of other paths you can take – one of which is social work.

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This post will look in more detail at what the job of a social worker entails, why it’s important, what studying for a masters in social work is like, and what sort of person best fits the role, in order to help you decide whether it would be a good choice for you. Read on for all the interesting details!

What is a Social Worker?

Whether they have a masters in social work or a bachelor’s in the subject, a social worker works with people who need some help to cope with and solve problems that they are facing in their lives. This could cover all sorts of different challenges, from illness and divorce to unemployment and substance abuse. As such, there are numerous ways in which social workers provide assistance, from researching community resources and referring clients to programs to responding to crises such as mental health emergencies or child abuse.

Another important aspect of the job is advocating and raising awareness at local, state, and national levels regarding issues that affect the people you work with and the social work profession more generally. You could also find yourself helping to develop and evaluate services and programs in order to ensure that they are effective at solving the problems they are designed to overcome. Of course, there are also some administrative tasks too, such as maintaining records and case files, referring people to other services, and liaising with insurance companies regarding payment.

Depending on the exact role you choose, you could be working with elderly people or children, individuals or families, and in locations ranging from hospitals and schools to public agencies and businesses. If you choose to study for a masters in social work rather than a bachelor’s, you can qualify to become a clinical social worker. This enables you to also diagnose and treat mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders, provide therapy, and develop treatment plans alongside healthcare professionals. So as you can see, the role is extremely varied!

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Why is Social Work Important?

Social work is all about standing up for human rights and social justice, which makes it an extremely important role in society today. Social workers aim to enhance people’s wellbeing and help ensure that every single person – particularly focusing on those who are most vulnerable – have their basic needs met with respect and dignity. In addition, they fight for real and long-lasting change by addressing the underlying issues that cause these problems in the first place.

In the US, it’s estimated that 10.5% of people are living in poverty, and social workers play a key role in helping them cope with the challenges this can entail. Over the last year, in particular, we’ve seen the COVID-19 pandemic cause a huge rise in unemployment and mental health problems. Not only that, but there’s a shortage of trained professionals to help people deal with these difficulties – so by taking a masters in social work and going on to have a career in the field, you know you’ll be making a valuable contribution to our society.

Social workers also play a vital role i helping vulnerable children. From issues such as poverty, neglect, and even abuse, to supporting children moving through foster care, they provide many key services. At the other end of the scale, social work is also a much-needed support network for the elderly. Whether it’s providing them with information about available services or home adaptations or safeguarding them from harm, social workers are often the first point of contact for older people who live alone. With the US population continuing to age, this aspect of the role is only going to become more important.

What Kind of Career Can I Have With a Master’s in Social Work?

As you can see from the information above, the careers you can go into with a masters in social work are very varied. Plus, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job prospects for social workers are growing faster than average – so you can rest assured that there will be plenty of opportunities to choose from! Here are just a few options to give you an idea of the sort of position you could work in and help you figure out if the qualification is right for you:

Healthcare social worker – this involves working directly with patients to help them understand their medical diagnosis, assist them in making decisions regarding it, and ensure they are receiving appropriate care. You may also facilitate communication between patients and other healthcare professionals. In this role, you’ll play an important part in advocating for patient rights and supporting people and their families during a difficult time in their lives.

Mental health social worker – this involves clinical work providing psychotherapy and counseling for those suffering from mental health disorders or challenges. You would first assess and diagnose the patient, then develop a treatment plan and work with patients to help them achieve their goals. This could be at a community mental health center, hospital, or private practice.

Substance abuse and addiction social worker – this involves working specifically with people who are suffering from an addiction to and/or misuse of drugs (legal and prescription), alcohol, or other substances. It’s a very demanding and difficult role, but it can be an extremely rewarding one as you see those you work with turn their lives around.

School social worker – this involves working with children within the school environment to help kids who are facing difficulties. This could be through working on anti-bullying policies, providing career guidance, facilitating sex education, working with families dealing with economic problems, or developing individualized education programs for students with specific learning requirements.

Child and family social worker – this involves protecting vulnerable children and helping families in need, for example, by assisting them in finding services such as housing and benefits. One of the most common career destinations for social workers, it can also involve difficult tasks such as investigating child abuse and neglect, placing children into foster care or adoptive homes, and even removing children from homes when they are in danger.

Criminal justice social worker – this involves working in jails and prisons to facilitate therapy groups, deliver counseling services, and develop various educational programs. You would also assist those who are about to be released to reintegrate successfully into the community or work with those on probation to help them live a life free of crime and prevent reoffending.

Gerontological social worker involves working with the elderly to ensure that their specific needs are being addressed, whether in an assisted living facility, a nursing home, or a hospital. Another aspect is conducting home visits and connecting older people with programs that will help them live an independent and fulfilling life and look out for signs of elder abuse and intervening if necessary.

Is a Master’s in Social Work right for me?

This is a key question to ask yourself before signing up for a masters in social work program. Whilst social work can be an extremely fulfilling and rewarding career to embark on; it can also be a challenging and emotionally demanding one. As such, it’s a good idea to think carefully about the sorts of skills and traits that are necessary to do the job successfully and whether you fit this profile.

For example, one of the main personality traits you need is a strong desire to help others, as the entire job revolves around this. You have to be a compassionate and understanding individual who can empathize with the struggles that other people are going through and work towards solutions. It’s also important that you are passionate about your local community and strive to make it a better place for those who live there. At the same time, you want to make sure that you can detach yourself from your work to a certain extent to prevent troubling cases from impacting your private life and mental health.

Similarly, good communication skills are vital. This is particularly in terms of relating to people on a personal, one-to-one basis and in small groups. To be an effective social worker, you need to be able to relate to people and have them feel that they can trust you and open up to you honestly about their struggles. Active listening, perceptiveness, and strong powers of observation will all help with this.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, patience is also a key part of the job. It may take a while for people to cooperate with you or be honest with you, and you may encounter frequent setbacks in your cases. Being resilient in the face of challenges and adaptable enough to change as situations progress is also part of this. Likewise, it’s important to be able to remain calm and in control during crisis situations because the challenging nature of the work means that you may have to make difficult decisions under pressure.

On top of these specific attributes, more general skills such as time management and organization will help balance your caseload and work efficiently. Your masters in social work will help you to learn these soft skills, as well as all the knowledge you need to do the job effectively.

What does studying for a Masters in Social Work involve?

If you think that social work sounds like a good fit for you, then studying for a masters in social work is a great place to start. The program normally takes around two years to complete, although it can be done in a shorter time if you have a bachelor’s degree in the subject or a longer period if you study part time. Both online and in-person programs are available, so you can choose the option that best suits your lifestyle and existing commitments.

When it comes to the course itself, whether you study digitally or on campus, you will have to complete a series of compulsory and elective modules. These will involve coursework and vary according to the institution you attend, but will likely include some of the following:

  • Human behavior and the social environment
  • Social welfare programs and policies
  • Trauma theory, assessment, and treatment
  • Advocacy and social justice in social work

You may also cover specialist topics such as:

  • Military social work
  • Social work practice with immigrants and refugees
  • Mass incarceration and its implications for social work
  • Crisis management

You will also complete a project or dissertation plus in-person fieldwork to get real-world experience of what it’s like to be a social worker. This internship could be anywhere from a healthcare facility or hospice to a counseling center, school, or non-profit organization. Wherever you go, you’ll work under the guidance of professional supervisors who can mentor you along the way – making it the perfect bridge between study and work.