How Do Social Work Internships Work?

Internships, also known as a field practicum or field placement, is an important component of all online MSW programs. Internships are designed to enable students to gain experience working in health services agencies while under close supervision of field instructors. This gives students the opportunity to apply what they have learned in the classroom to real world situations.

Field education is usually taken concurrently with classes and students have placements in both their foundation and concentration years. As a result, advanced standing students who enter their MSW program in the second year have fewer required hours of field education to graduate.

View our guide to the best online msw programs for you to find field placement that meets your needs.

Most MSW programs have a team or office dedicated to internships. These teams are responsible for approving agencies and ensuring that field instruction meets CSWE accreditation standards. Field instructors (employees at agencies who are responsible for training and mentoring MSW students) are licensed social workers and have earned a MSW from a CSWE accredited program. Agencies and field instructors have to be approved by the program before they can start taking students. In addition, most schools have field advisors who act as liaisons between students, agencies and the university.

Inside View: To help prospective MSW students better prepare for field education, we asked social work professors and field education directors about the advice they give to MSW students in their programs.

Social Work Internship Requirements

The number of hours of field experience students are required to complete varies by graduate school. For students in traditional programs, the social work internship requirement typically ranges from 900 to 1,200 hours. For advanced standing students, the requirement ranges from 450 to 900 hours. Typically, students entering traditional standing programs work at two different agencies during their program and complete that work over four semesters (two at each agency). Students entering advanced standing programs may have one or two field placements depending on the program.

How internship hours are broken down depends on the program and whether the student is enrolled full-time or part-time. For some programs, the number of hours is split equally between the foundation and concentration years while, for others, the concentration year practicum requires more hours than the one completed during the foundation year.

Students enrolled in a full-time online MSW program will start their internship during their first year while students in part-time programs may start field education in their first or second year, depending on the program. For students who plan to work while pursuing their degree, it should be noted that the majority of programs do require students to work at least one day a week during normal business hours (i.e. Monday through Friday, 9am to 5 pm). While it may be possible to arrange for field education outside those hours or on the weekends, it is not guaranteed as most agencies do not have proper supervision outside normal business hours.

  • Full-Time Programs: In order for full-time students to meet the required number of field education hours, they must typically work 16 to 20 hours per week at their field agency. For some programs, students may work 16 hours per week during their foundation year and 18 hours per week during their concentration year. Each program is structured differently and students should speak with an admissions advisor for more information.
  • Part-Time Programs: The structure of field education in part-time programs differs greatly by school, as the overall length of these programs is not standardized like full-time programs. Part-time programs typically take two and a half to four years to complete. Therefore, some programs still require students to work 16 to 20 hours per week, while others may have students work 10 to 14 hours per week over more semesters. Students should speak with an admissions counselor at their prospective schools for more information.

Field Education Agencies

Internships are designed to give students hands-on experience in the field of social work. Typically, students complete their internships at health services agencies, which could include, but is not limited to:

  • Human services agencies
  • Addiction treatment facilities
  • Community organizations
  • Adoption agencies
  • Counseling centers at schools and colleges
  • Senior care facilities and nursing homes
  • Mental health facilities
  • Correctional facilities
  • Hospitals and medical care facilities
  • Family counseling and therapy centers
  • Other health services agencies

While universities only match students with approved agencies, it is important to understand that placement in an agency is not guaranteed. Most agencies have specific requirements that potential students must meet before they can start working. These can include things like fingerprinting, a background check, TB testing, drug testing, proof of car insurance, and a good driving record. Some of the requirements may add costs that are not included as part of the program’s tuition and will need to be paid for by the student.

Many agencies require students to have access to transportation as they may need to travel during their field education. Travel could include visiting community outreach sites, visiting patients at their home or attending meetings. Students who do not have access to transportation may have limited options for field placement sites and should definitely discuss their options with an admissions advisor before applying.

In addition, once matched with a field agency, students may still need to interview for a position. It is very important that students take these interviews seriously and treat them like job interviews. Like all job interviews, it is good to ask lots of questions about the work environment and any specific requirements the agency might have with respect to background testing or access to transportation. Finally, since field education is about learning, students typically do not receive a stipend for their work. Some agencies may provide students with a small stipend, but it is at the discretion of the agency and completely independent of the school and degree program.

Inside View – Virtual Field PracticumVirtual Field Practicum (VFP) is a new technology in social work education that is being pioneered by our partner the University of Southern California (USC) for students enrolled in their online MSW program. Students complete up to 210 hours of VFP before starting a traditional community-based field placement. In VFP, students learn practical skills in a controlled environment that is closely monitored by a USC faculty member.

As part of VFP, students in small groups of 8-10 interview simulated clients that are portrayed by actors. This allows students to gain valuable decision making skills and experience in techniques such as Motivational Interviewing, Problem Solving Therapy, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Following completion of VFP, students should be better equipped to take on real cases once they start their traditional community-based field placement. While new to social work education, simulated patients are used in other degree programs like medical and nursing education.

How are Internship Placements Determined?

Students pursuing an MSW online complete their internship at an agency in their local area. It is important to note that while schools try to match students with an agency near their place of residence, some programs may require students to travel 30 to 60 miles to their placement site. In addition, programs that only accept students from specific geographical areas may also have geographical restrictions on where students can complete their field work. Students with travel restrictions or who are interested in attending a program with geographical restrictions should consult an admissions advisor about their options before applying.

Typically, social work internships in the foundation year give students a generalist perspective, and the majority of online schools do not give students the ability to select their placement from a list of potential agencies – they are matched directly to an agency. Field education in the advanced or concentration year, however, is more specific to a student’s focus or interest. During their advanced year, some schools will allow students to select from a list of options that match their career goals or specializations.

The majority of programs do not allow students to set up field placements on their own. Nonetheless, some programs will take recommendations on potential new agencies that might be interested in taking students. These agencies will need to be approved by the university and meet all accreditation standards. For students who already work at a health services agency that is approved (or plans to seek approval), it may be possible to complete one of their two internships at that agency. In general, this is usually not recommended as the agency needs to ensure that the student is released from all current responsibilities during times when they should be considered a student rather than an employee. Schools that do allow these placements usually restrict them to a specific year in the program and require students to complete their other internship at a different location.

Internship Requirements by Online MSW Program

(N/A = Not applicable as school does not offer program type)

Last updated: March 2020