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Getting Into Graduate School In Social Work:

Information About the MSW, the DSW and the PhD

What's the difference between the masters degree (MSW) and the doctoral degree (DSW or PhD) in social work? Focus. The MSW is a pre-professional degree that prepares you to practice social work. The DSW or PhD degrees prepare you to do research or policy analysis in either academic or non-academic research centers. More details about each kind of degree are outlined below.

The MSW (Click here to skip the MSW section and advance to the doctoral degree section)

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MSW stands for "masters in social work". Most MSW degrees are accredited by the Council on Social Work Education, and it is strongly preferrable to obtain your degree from an accredited school. A list of CSWE-accredited MSW programs is available on CSWE web site (click here to go there).

MSW programs are typically two years in length, and include course work in human growth and development, social policies and programs, methods of practice, and social research. Many MSW programs allow students who majored in social work at a CSWE-accredited program to enroll with advanced standing status. Students with advanced standing status can typically finish their masters degrees in one calendar year (e.g., May 2002 through May 2003). (Notice that this will save you a lot of money and time.)

All accredited MSW programs require at least 900 hours of supervised field work in established agencies. Following foundation coursework in the first year, regular MSW students usually choose between direct work with individuals, families, and groups or organizing, managing, planning and policy analysis work with social agencies. Students are also required to specialize in a problem area, such as mental health, employee assistance, aging, health care, corrections, and child welfare.

Masters of social work programs can vary a lot in emphasis. Many allow students to specialize in methodology, public policy, work with different populations, etc. Some schools seek to prepare professionals for private practice in psychotherapy, others for work in public and non-profit social service agencies, and others for engaging in social planning and social change. (Needless to say, you should be very careful to choose a program that is compatible with your career goals.) A few schools also allow students to seek joint degrees such as the joint MSW/JD, or joint MSW with another masters degree in a health-related profession.

There is no undergraduate major or minor required for an MSW. However, solid grounding in the social and behavioral sciences (psychology, sociology, anthropology, political science, economics, ethnic studies, urban studies, health care/social issues, etc.) is important. Some programs require successful completion of a course in statistics and human or general biology. Admission requirements include official transcripts of all post-secondary-school course work, scores from the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) General Test, an application form which may include a 1-3 page essay, and 3-4 letters of reference. Applications are typically submitted between December and March for entry the following fall, but deadlines vary. Most programs require a minimum GPA of 2.5 2.75, although the expected GPA could reach 3.0 3.5, depending on the program. GRE scores above 450 on the verbal and quantitative sections are usually expected. Many programs place a lot of emphasis on community or social service, and expect applicants to have experience in these areas before they will be admitted.

The DSW or PhD

DSW stands for "Doctorate in Social Work" and PhD stands for "Doctorate in Philosophy". There is no difference between a DSW and a PhD; some schools simply prefer one term over the other.

Doctoral degrres in social work are designed for experienced practitioners who want to further their careers by gaining training in research and policy analysis. Doctoral degrees may take between 2 and 4 years to complete (beyond the MSW). Social work practitioners who earn doctoral degrees are typically seasoned professionals who are ready to move into research and teaching. For some this means a total shift from practice into academia: these individuals become social work professors in schools or departments of social work, where research, publication, and teaching will be their primary focus. Others continue in leadership roles in agency-based or self-employed social work practice, while teaching part-time in a school or department of social work and/or collaborating on research with academic colleagues.

Much of the course work in DSW and PhD programs emphasizes qualitiative and quantitative analysis methods. Like all doctoral degrees, these degrees also require students to complete dissertations, which are usually extensive research projects that take more than a year to complete.

Docotral degrees in social work are not accredited by the CSWE. Successful applicants are expected to have very strong academic records (typically stronger than those required to be admitted to MSW programs) and some work experience.