Interview with Professor Kate Chaffin – Director of the Online MSSW Program at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville

About Professor Kate Chaffin, MSSW, LAPSW: Professor Chaffin is a Licensed Advanced Practice Social Worker for the state of Tennessee. She joined the University of Tennessee, Knoxville in 2008, where she helped develop and implement the online MSSW degree. Before that time, Professor Chaffin was the Clinical Director of the Davidson Co Mental Health Court.

Professor Chaffin graduated from UTK in 2004, where she served as graduate research assistant and research associate on several grants and publications. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Practice and Director of Online MSSW program. Professor Chaffin teaches classes on Evidenced Based Practice with Children and Adolescents, Social Welfare Policy and Leadership. She also works in a small practice as a child therapist. Kate Chaffin was compensated to participate in this interview.

[] Currently, there are less than 20 universities that offer fully online MSW programs. How are the programs at UT Knoxville structured?

[Professor Chaffin] Regular students enter each Fall and stay with their cohort. Advanced Standing students begin each summer and move through with their cohort. Instruction is a nice blend of synchronous and asynchronous depending on the materials being covered. More complex subject matter will receive live online lectures. Students can stop the program if they need to, however they have only 5 years to complete the degree once they start. Students receive the identical curriculum as our face-to-face students and even have the same professors. Nothing is different except the delivery. [Our] MSSW is the same as a MSW. UTK designates the extra S as a Master’s of Science in Social Work.

[] UTK’s online MSW program has two concentration options: a clinical Evidence Based Interpersonal Practice concentration and a macro Management, Leadership and Community Practice concentration. For students who are just starting to research online MSW programs, can you briefly describe the difference between these two?

[Professor Chaffin] Clinical Social Work is specifically designed for those people that want to become a therapist. Our clinical concentration is highly focused on honing skills in CBT [Cognitive Behavioral Therapy], Motivational Interviewing, Trauma Focused Therapies, etc. Students that leave our program can expect to have a greater knowledge of best practices for given populations and how to execute those modalities.

If a student is interested in being a therapist than they should wisely choose a program that offers clinical courses that fit their needs. UTK offers certification in Trauma, Gerontology, School Social Work and Veterinary Social Work, so students can choose a clinical area and truly specialize with that population. If someone is interested in getting their LCSW than they should choose a clinical program as that is a requirement for licensure. Direct Practice is clinical work with individuals, groups, and families. If a student wants to be a clinician, again, it is critical they attend a clinical program so that they can become licensed and gain the skills needed to be a therapist.

Alternatively, UTK also offers the MSSW to those interested in Macro Practice which we call Management, Leadership, and Community Practice. This concentration is for those interested in grant writing and management, research, development of agencies and leadership, community organizing, and program management and evaluation. Students that choose this route often run non-profits, work in executive positions within state offices, and work within communities seeking change.

[] For students who want to become licensed clinical social workers, licensing requirements vary by state. What advice do you have for students in terms of researching the requirements in their state of residence and how does UT Knoxville help with the process?

[Professor Chaffin] All students should go the NASW site for their state and check on licensure requirements. At UTK, we often have the NASW come in and speak to both our online and face-to-face students about licensure requirements. (NASW Tennessee Chapter’s website .)

[] Field Education is a major component of MSW programs and requires a significant time commitment from students. Many online programs are geared towards working professionals, how do you recommend students balance field education with other responsibilities? In addition, how is field education completed in the full-time program versus the part-time program?

[Professor Chaffin] Students in the full-time program are expected to be in field 2 days a week (16 hours) the first year and then 3 days a week (24 hours) the 2nd year. Students that are advanced standing will be in field 3 days a week (24 hours) for one year if they are full-time and then 2 days a week (16 hours) for three semesters if they are part-time. We do our very best to find night and weekend placements for students. UTK has a dedicated field coordinator who works VERY hard at building relationships all over TN and the US.

Sometimes people live in areas where night and weekend placements simply are not possible. Field is the cornerstone of the MSW degree and so students must meet all of the CSWE requirements at their field placement in order for us to place them there. So, if nights and weekends are impossible, students have to make some tough choices. We are as flexible as we can be and diligent but sometimes it just doesn’t work out. In this case students decide to take time off from work, flex time with work, or ultimately may need to drop out. The reality is that field is always the hardest to negotiate for all students and so when people enter a MSW program they should be prepared to make some adjustments in order to be the best practitioner they can be.

[] What advice do you have for students who are considering earning an MSW (and possibly entering the field of social work for the first time)?

[Professor Chaffin] I typically tell people that that they aren’t alone, that half of our students are people seeking a new career because they feel like their profession should have more purpose. I tell them that our program is VERY small and cohort focused so we have the time to give individualized attention so they aren’t a number and will not get lost in the system. We are truly focused on mentoring the best social workers in the field!

[] For students who have already decided they want to pursue a MSW, but are unsure about online education, can you briefly explain the pros and cons to pursuing a MSW online?

[Professor Chaffin] The pros of an online education is that it is VERY flexible and extremely cost effective for those not living near a campus. The cons of an online education is that it takes a dedicated, autonomous person to keep up with the work. Though online can often seem more difficult because of the level of dedication it requires, our online students feel better very prepared and competent to practice once they graduate.

[] Online education requires discipline from students to stay on track and keep up with coursework and assignments. What systems are in place to ensure that online students do not fall behind? Do you have any recommendations for online students in terms of staying on track with coursework?

[Professor Chaffin] Due dates are posted on the syllabus, within the blackboard sites and professors send out weekly reminders. In addition students are asked to calendar all assignment due dates so that they have extra coverage.

[] Currently, UT Knoxville has both a regular program and an advanced standing program, what is the typical academic background of the students in the regular program?

[Professor Chaffin] The MSSW program at UTK has students from several different disciplines but the highest concentration of students [have degrees] in Psychology, Sociology, and Education.

[] Online programs have really helped to open the door to higher education for more individuals, especially those who do not have access to a local university, does UT Knoxville except students nationally or only from certain states?

[Professor Chaffin] We will accept students from anywhere that meet our admissions requirements and where we know we can find a great field placement. I am most proud that we accommodate active military and even have students stationed in Afghanistan.

[] For students who are ready to apply to an Online MSW Program at UT Knoxville, what advice do you have in terms of preparing their application? I know the program requires a personal statement.

[Professor Chaffin] I always tell students to get 4 references instead of 3 in case one person forgets to do theirs, also make sure you trust the source of your reference. Students should make sure they have edited their professional statement completely and have written as a graduate student should write. Lastly, students should apply early as space is limited and fills quickly. These are probably the most important factors in applying.

[] Finally, with more universities starting to offer online MSW programs, why should students consider UT Knoxville?

[Professor Chaffin] People should consider UTK because we are flexible, affordable, cutting-edge and we provide individualized attention. Furthermore, we offer a VERY clinical program, which many people are seeking. We have top-notch faculty teaching in these programs that are highly skilled at teaching in online environments so that classes are engaging and worthwhile. We are consistently presenting at CSWE and publishing in the area of online education because we are dedicated to best practices in social work pedagogy.

Students consistently rate our program highly and so do field instructors and agencies hiring our social workers. Additionally, students that graduate from UTK attain jobs in the field within 3 months of graduation at a rate of over 95%. These are all factors that are extremely important in making a decision to pursue a graduate degree.

Students who are interested in getting more information about the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s online MSW programs can visit the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s website  or contact Professor Chaffin in the College of Social Work at (615) 256-1885 or by email at

Thank you Professor Chaffin for your time and insight!

Last updated: April 2020