social worker and elderly patient

The Journey to Becoming an MSW in North Carolina

Written by Helen Lewis

Educational Requirements

As you explore the landscape of degree-offering graduate schools for master’s programs in social work, you may find that there is the option to pursue learning in person or through an accredited online institution. Though every institution’s requirements are likely to be unique, it’s likely that any college or university you apply to is likely to ask for several, or all, of the following:

smiling gradSome, but not all, programs might be more specific in their requests. In some cases, institutions with MSW programs might request that applicants already have a bachelor’s degree in social work or a related field, like sociology or psychology. In other cases, institutions might be okay with applicants with bachelor’s degrees in any other field, so long as they can demonstrate that they took classes with relevant themes during their undergraduate studies. Those courses might include subjects like human biology, anthropology, political science, statistics, or cultural studies.

In general, you can expect that on-campus and virtual MSW programs have basically comparable requirements for applicants. It’s important to note that online universities are not necessarily accessible to students based anywhere in the United States: in some cases, bureaucracy related to licensing, fieldwork organizing, and state authorizations may mean that online MSW degrees are only available to students who are based locally. In other cases, institutions may offer both an online and an in-person MSW program, and have a structure in which students from out of state are encouraged to relocate to that state in order to participate on campus, rather than virtually.

I’m seeing that some institutions offer MSSAs and MSSWs, but not MSWs. Are those the same thing?

In some cases, a university or college may offer what is called a Master’s of Science in Social Administration (MSSA), or a Master of Science in Social Work (MSSW).

No matter which program you choose, in order to become a licensed social worker, the very most important thing is that your school of choice is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education, or CSWE.

The curricula and graduation requirements for MSWs, MSSAs, and MSSWs are very similar, to the extent that the programs are understood as being generally interchangeable. All of these programs will include courses centered around subjects like human behavior, research, policy, and social justice, and all include the requirement that students complete a certain number of fieldwork hours before graduation.

Even though an MSW might be a more familiar acronym, you don’t have to fear that employers are more likely to hire you if you have an MSW and not an MSSA or MSSW: in fact, some of the best colleges and universities in the country provide these latter degrees, which are very respected within the field of social work.

Fieldwork Experiences

One of the cornerstones of achieving an MSW includes fieldwork, the hours of practice you’ll use to combine what you’ve learned in the classroom with real-world experience. Generally speaking, one-third of your studies as a master’s student in social work will be comprised of this critical hands-on learning experience. During your fieldwork, you’ll be able to learn from mentors and colleagues, improving your confidence in your skills as a social worker, expanding your professional network, and enhancing your ability to offer your skills as a social worker to people of all ages and from all backgrounds.

Social work takes a wide variety of forms, and, as such, you’ll have a lot of different options when it comes to choosing where you’d like to do your fieldwork hours during your master’s studies. This could include partnerships with places like:

  • Schools
  • Correctional facilities and justice centers
  • Child welfare agencies
  • Hospitals, hospices, and other health care clinics
  • Rehabilitation centers for substance abuse and addictions
  • Veterans’ homes and hospitals
  • Immigration and refugee services
  • NGOs
  • Foster care facilities
  • Human rights agencies
  • Community service organizations and charities
  • Homeless shelters

Virtual Fieldwork

Since the pandemic, virtual fieldwork has become a growing site for connecting people in need to social workers and resources. As such, it’s possible that you could do fieldwork for an organization, clinic, or institution that is at least partially online.

Interestingly, some MSW degree programs even offer fully virtual fieldwork experiences for students. These take the form of simulations, rather than actual professional work experience. In this context, students are able to test out various scenarios in different situations, while being observed by instructors and classmates.

In some cases, your school might help you to find a place to do your fieldwork. This would include meeting with someone from a fieldwork office, and telling them about your interests and the type of place, or places, in which you’d most like to gain professional experience. In other cases, you might be asked to find your fieldwork sites on your own. In this instance, it could be helpful to ask your university or college if they have a list of alumni from the MSW program. This approach offers the additional benefit of growing your professional network, already an important step in the fieldwork experience. Once you’ve located a place where you would like to do your fieldwork, or your school has helped you facilitate this connection, you will be asked to do an interview with the organization.

Over the course of your studies, it’s likely that you will work with not just one, but several different places, with stints ranging from a couple of months to over a year. At many schools, the location of your first fieldwork position is called a foundation, or generalist, placement. That means that you’ll use your time at the organization to lay a solid basis of knowledge about social work. Your employers will likely have you trying out a variety of roles, so that you can learn a little bit about how each position functions. This could include rotating from resource management to case management, and then to advocacy, then discharge planning. That way, you’ll have a basic, holistic understanding of different social work positions, so that when you enter the workforce as a social worker, you’ll have a strong understanding of which positions are best for you.

Your first fieldwork experience will also help you as you move into future fieldwork placements. Later fieldwork experiences are considered specialized, where you can both expand your foundational skills about social work overall while developing greater expertise in one realm of professional social work.

When you begin your fieldwork as an MSW, you are not expected to already be an expert social worker.

If you don’t know, or are confused about, something, make sure to ask! The idea behind your fieldwork is that you are there to learn, and your supervisor is there to walk you through the basics of the position, or positions, you’re there to practice. You can also turn to your supervisor with any questions or issues you’re having during your fieldwork, including if you are working through complex emotions, fatigue, burnout, or stress. In many cases, social work is an emotional and challenging undertaking, and it’s important to be able to digest those experiences with the support of mentors, instructors, supervisors, peers, and colleagues. Many MSW programs also offer fieldwork seminars, where you will have a place to discuss challenges, successes, and new ideas that have stemmed from your new professional experiences with fellow students and instructors. 

Licensure Requirements

Studying to receive an MSW is not the same as becoming a licensed clinical social worker, or LCSW, but both are important in pursuing some types of professional social work. In order to get your license as a clinical social worker – which would enable you to work in settings like hospitals and private practices – you must first have an MSW.

For some jobs in social work, and particularly those related to mental health care, becoming a licensed clinical social worker is a necessity.

senior patient talking with social workerIn order to become an LCSW, you must finish between 3,000 and 3,500 hours of fieldwork. Those hours must be done in addition to fieldwork completed during your master’s studies – they won’t simply carry over. Furthermore, these hours cannot be logged retroactively: you’ll have to first apply to the North Carolina Social Work Certification and License Board, or NCSWCLB, where – once accepted – you will be given the title of Licensed Clinical Social Work Associate (LCSWA). An LCSWA is a temporary title, one that is intended to last only the duration of your application process toward becoming an LCSW.

Once you have secured the title of LSCWA, you will be able to begin logging your field work hours. Typically, the process of completing these hours takes a minimum of two years, if you are working full-time. According to the NCSWCLB, you cannot take more than six years to complete these hours – after that point, your title as LCSWA will expire.

After finishing your fieldwork, you will then have to take the Association of Social Work Boards Clinical Level exam, or AWSB, which costs $260. This 170-question test is broken down into four sections:

After taking the exam, you will have to apply to be an LCSW, which costs $145. Your license will have to be renewed every two years, as well as a documentation of 40 clock hours, including 4 in ethics.

As a licensed clinical social worker, you will be able to work in one-on-one settings with people who are struggling with behavioral, emotional, and mental health. LCSWs are equipped to work within clinical settings, offering expertise to places like hospitals, rehab facilities, and some private practices. With training in topics like interpersonal dynamics, family systems, systems theory, and psychodynamic theory, LCSWs are able to provide vital, and even life-saving, treatment to patients in mental and emotional distress. This can include conducting assessments, providing diagnoses, and offering psychotherapy.

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