Field education is an essential component of all Master of Social Work (MSW) programs and is considered the signature pedagogy for social work education. A field practicum or internship allows students to take what they are learning in the classroom and apply it directly to helping patients in need. Students work under the close supervision of a field instructor at a local health agency. Depending on the MSW program, students may complete one or two field internships.
Field education is a significant time commitment for students, especially for working professionals who are pursuing an advanced degree. The majority of field placements require students to work during normal business hours (9 am to 5 pm) on weekdays. Weekend and after-hours field placements are difficult to find as they require agencies to have field instructors present outside of normal business hours.
Typically, students pursuing their MSW full-time are required to work 16 to 20 hours per week to meet the number of hours required for graduation. (The number of hours required varies by program and ranges from 900 to 1,200 hours for traditional programs.) For part-time programs, it ranges from 10 to 14 hours per week to 16 to 20 hours per week depending on how many semesters (or quarters) students have to complete the field education requirements.
For students who are currently enrolled in a MSW program and for future MSW students who want to better understand the challenges of field education, we asked social work professors and field education directors the following question as part of our interview series:
Field Education is a major component of MSW programs and requires a significant time commitment from students, how do you recommend students balance field education with other responsibilities?
Hopefully their responses will help students better balance field education with other responsibilities that are competing for hours in the day.
Martha A. Fuller, MSSW, CSW, ACSW (Director of Field Education at the Univ. of Louisville, Kent School of Social Work)
We find that most students, whether online or on-campus, are working professionals. The time commitment for practicum is indeed significant and challenging for those employed full-time. We encourage students to consider working part-time, or 80% time as a way to retain benefits but also freeing up one whole day to devote to the practicum… Some students are able to negotiate moving some of their employment time into the evenings or weekends [in order to] free up weekday hours for the practicum.
Whether local or distant, students are generally anxious about juggling work, classes, family, and practicum. Students want to succeed well with their studies, and the time demands create real pressures… [I] encourage students to care for themselves and reduce their stress level by pacing through their graduate studies over a longer period of time with a reduced course load, than originally planned. The learning through practicum is often the most exciting part of the curriculum for students, and their enthusiasm for their field experiences often propels them through the other stressors inherent in graduate studies.
(Read the full interview with Director Fuller here)
Professor Sarah Keiser, MSSW, LCSW (Assistant Professor and Coordinator of Field Services for the Online MSSW Program at the U. of Tennessee, Knoxville)
Self-care is essential to the practice of Social Work and students receive information about self-care during their Foundation Field Seminar [at UTK]. Students are encouraged to give themselves down time to relax and rejuvenate and this is particularly important for our students in field. . . [self-care helps students] recognize when they are experiencing stress and how stress affects their daily functioning as well as their Social Work practice. The hope is that students will be able to implement a plan to alleviate the negative effects of stress they are experiencing. . . Burnout is a very serious issue among Social Work practitioners; therefore, it is critical that we teach Social Work students to not only recognize but to take action when they are undergoing stress. Having a self-care plan can be an excellent source of support for students and creating a plan can be a validating experience. Students often question if it is normal to be affected by the stories that their clients are sharing and having a discussion about compassion fatigue can confirm a student’s experiences as well as teach them to be proactive about their own self-care.
(Read the full interview with Professor Keiser here)
Professor Craig Stanley, MSW, LCSW (Director of the MSW Program for the College of Social Work at Florida State University)
We encourage students to be candid with their family members about this part of the education. We find that communication and planning, in preparation for a field placement, is extremely important to students who will need to delegate some of their family responsibilities during this time.
As soon as students start the program, we encourage them to have conversations with their supervisors about their upcoming educational journey. Because many of them are in jobs where their education will benefit the agency and the clients they serve, supervisors have been willing to work with them on creating flexible and creative schedules. Many of our students bank their leave time to allow them to take some time off at their job in order to complete field hours. We advise students of strategies, like these, that have been successful for their predecessors.
(Read the full interview with Professor Stanley here)