Concentrations in Online Master of Social Work (MSW) Programs
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 degrees 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.
Online MSW Program Concentrations
Typically, the number of concentrations that online MSW programs offer is much more limited in comparison to campus-based programs. While some social work schools offer up to 12 different concentrations within their campus-based MSW program, our research indicates that online MSW programs do not offer more than five different concentrations, and that in fact only one online MSW program offers that many. However, as more schools begin offering online MSW programs, the number of concentration options appears to be growing.
Most online MSW programs offer only one concentration option, typically either “Advanced Generalist” or “Clinical Social Work.” However, most programs do provide electives and/or advanced courses in specific areas of social work, such as Substance Abuse Counseling, Gerontology, and/or Criminal Justice. For students looking for more specialized online MSW programs, several options do exist. We found and have listed accredited schools that offer online concentrations in:
Children, Youth and Family Social Work
Mental Health and Adult Social Work
Community Social Work (including programs which emphasize the needs of the Hispanic community)
Community Organization, Planning and Administration
As noted above, licensing requirements for clinical social workers vary by state and are determined by state-specific social work licensing boards. In some states, students may not be required to complete a MSW program with a clinical social work concentration to become a LCSW. If specialized coursework is required, students may have the option to complete that coursework during or after their MSW program.
Check out our page on online clinical social work programs for more information. Students interested in pursuing a career in clinical social work should review their state’s requirements and speak with an admission advisor before applying to ensure that the program meets the necessary requirements.
Online MSW Program Concentrations by Graduate School
Online MSW Program Concentrations by Graduate School