Social work is a broad and very diverse field that aims to address social hardships at the individual, group, and societal (local, state, and national) levels. Social workers can work at the micro level, counseling and supporting people suffering from psychological, emotional, medical, social, financial, and familial challenges; at the mezzo level, working with groups within social service agencies and other organizations; and/or at the macro level, developing and implementing social research projects, completing non-profit work aimed at addressing large-scale social problems, and advocating for positive social change or increased support for certain vulnerable populations.
Given the many different areas of social work, and the various levels at which social workers can enact social change, some MSW programs offer concentrations to help social work students gain academic and internship experiences that are relevant to their desired career path in social work. These concentrations typically fall into one of three main categories: micro, macro, or a combination of both. According to the Council on Social Work Education’s 2013 Statistics on Social Work Education in the U.S., common MSW concentrations include:
- Clinical/Direct Practice Social Work (Micro): This concentration typically trains social work students to have the knowledge and skills to identify, evaluate, and treat different mental and emotional challenges that individuals face. Clinical social work generally emphasizes a person-in-environment approach that aims to help people understand and address their psychological, emotional, and behavioral problems within the context of their family, professional lives, and social circles.
- Advanced Generalist (Micro and Macro): This concentration allows students to gain experience in and knowledge of both clinical and more community-focused social work practices. Advanced generalist programs may be advantageous for students who want knowledge of and training in both micro and macro level social work; however, students should keep in mind that advanced generalist programs do not generally go as in-depth into certain areas of micro or macro level social work, when compared to concentrations that focus solely on one type of social work practice. In addition, advanced generalist concentrations tend to vary in terms of course content and how much they emphasize clinical social work methods versus strategies for larger scale change, so students should research different advanced generalist programs to see which ones best fit their academic and career interests.
- Community Development, Management/Administration, and Policy (Macro): MSW concentrations in community development, management/administrative leadership, and social work policy generally train students to understand how social problems develop and persist at the local, state, and/or national levels, and to address these problems through various strategies. Macro-level concentrations aim to prepare MSW students to help people collectively through community mobilization, education, and/or political advocacy. Students who concentrate in one or more of these macro-level fields during their MSW program may work in such settings as non-profit human services agencies, community centers, and political advocacy organizations.
More specific concentrations within a given MSW program typically fall into one of the categories described above. For example, MSW concentrations in child and family welfare, school social work, substance abuse, or military social work generally offer classes and internship experiences that aim to train social work students to assess, diagnose, and address individuals’ psychological, emotional, social, cultural, and familial challenges, and these concentrations would thus fall under the category of micro-level or clinical social work. On the other hand, MSW concentrations in social work research, policy advocacy, or program development and management concentrations fall into the macro-level social work category.
Students who are deciding between different academic concentrations in their MSW program should consider whether they wish to eventually earn their LCSW credential, and to make sure to select a course of study that allows them to fulfill all of the academic requirements for licensure. For example, some macro social work concentrations might not include enough clinical coursework or assign students a suitable internship to allow them to meet the requirements for clinical social work licensure in their state of residence. If students select a concentration that does not fulfill all of the academic and internship requirements for licensure, they will typically have to complete these requirements post-graduation if they wish to earn their clinical social work license.
Note: During their research of graduate social work programs, students should also check with their state’s board of social work licensure to obtain up-to-date information about licensing requirements.