Question: How long does it take to earn an MSW degree? (Traditional and Advanced Standing Programs)

Updated: November 15, 2021

Answer: The length of an MSW program depends on two key factors–whether it is a traditional MSW program or an advanced standing MSW program, and whether the student pursues a full-time or a part-time course of study. In general, a traditional MSW program takes about 2 years of full-time study and 3 years of part-time study. Advanced standing MSW programs usually require about 1 year of full-time study, though part-time students might take 16 to 24 months.

Master of Social Work (MSW) programs require a significant investment of time and effort, regardless of whether a student enrolls full-time, part-time, as traditional student, or as an advanced standing student. Prospective MSW applicants who are planning their potential course of study should take these and other factors into consideration when selecting a program, including online vs. campus MSW programs, field education requirements and support, whether the program follows a cohort model with only one admission cycle per year, or if the program admits students multiple times per year.

Students who pursue their MSW full-time will complete their degree faster than those who pursue their course of study part-time. However, students who are enrolled full-time often take more courses per term than students who enroll on a part-time basis, which means they need more time to dedicate to their studies. They may also be required to complete more field education hours per week, which means it is often difficult to work full-time and complete a full-time MSW program at the same time. Part-time programs are designed for students who intend to continue working while pursuing their MSW degree.

Additionally, students who completed a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) may be eligible for an advanced standing MSW track, depending on their undergraduate GPA and how long it has been since they earned their BSW degree. Advanced standing students save time and tuition by applying their BSW coursework and field education hours to their MSW programs’ first-year requirements.

Below is an explanation of each type of MSW program and the general time it takes for students to complete the program’s requirements.

Traditional, Full-Time MSW Programs

Traditional MSW programs are designed for students who have not earned a BSW degree or for BSW graduates who do not meet the admissions requirements for an advanced standing MSW programs. These programs are typically comprised of 60-70 course credits and 900-1200 hours of field education (the exact number of field practicum hours varies depending on the program and/or the students’ chosen specialization). These requirements generally take students about 24 months, or two years, to complete. However, there are programs that can be completed in 16 months that require students to take courses year-round (fall, spring and summer).

Students who are pursuing their MSW full-time will take a full course load, which can range from 9-15 course credits per term depending on the school’s academic calendar. Some programs also allow students to take courses year-round, which can spread courses out over more terms. Traditional MSW students must complete both a foundational and an advanced field practicum, and when enrolled in field practicum they can expect to work 16-24 hours per week at their field site. Students pursuing an MSW degree full-time are often required to complete field education hours every term they are enrolled in the program in order to meet the required number of hours for graduation.

Traditional, Part-Time MSW Programs

For part-time students of traditional MSW programs, the required credit hours (60-70) and field education hours (900-1200) are the same, but students spread their course load across more terms. Some schools give students the option of enrolling in as few as one or two courses per term. As a result, the time to completion for part-time traditional MSW programs varies depending on how many courses a student decides to take in given term. In general, part-time traditional MSW programs take 36 months or more, with students taking anywhere from 3-9 course credits per term.

While field practicum expectations vary by program and by practicum site, part-time students may be able to work a reduced load of 10-14 hours of field per week while completing their field education hours over more terms. However, it is important to note that some part-time programs still have students complete 16-24 hours of field education per week similar to full-time programs. The difference for these programs is that students are not expected to complete field education hours every term they are enrolled in the program. For example, a three year part-time might have students complete their field education hours in year 2 and year 3, while only taking didactic courses in year 1.

Note: Some MSW programs who have full-time programs that can be completed in 16 months may have “part-time” tracks that can be completed in 24 months of year-round classes. However, most programs that have part-time tracks are designed to be completed in three or more years.

Advanced Standing, Full-Time MSW Programs

Advanced standing MSW programs are designed for students who have earned a BSW degree from a CSWE-accredited program. Students who are admitted to an advanced standing track are able to waive most, if not all, of the first year’s curriculum of a traditional MSW program. This means that advanced standing students can embark on their second-year courses almost immediately upon enrollment (though some programs require students to take one or more bridge courses prior to starting their advanced standing year).

As a result, advanced standing MSW programs are comprised of about 30 to 35 course credits and 500-650 hours of advanced field education. Depending on the program, full-time students can typically complete an advanced standing program in 12 months, although there are programs designed to be completed in 9 months. Students complete 9-15 credit hours per term and 16-24 hours of field education per week.

Advanced Standing, Part-Time MSW Programs

Students who elect to pursue an advanced standing MSW program part-time will generally take between 3 and 9 course credits per term, spreading out their course of study across 16 months or more (many advanced standing MSW programs are designed to be completed in 24 months), depending on how they plan their program of study. The program requirements for part-time advanced standing students are exactly the same as those that are expected of full-time students: 30-35 course credits and 500-650 hours of field practicum.

As with part-time traditional MSW students, advanced standing MSW students are generally able to spread their field practicum hours over a longer period of time, completing 10-14 field practicum hours per week relative to the full-time student’s 16-24. Although, as mentioned above in the section on Traditional, Part-Time MSW programs, the number of field education hours that students must complete per term varies by program. Some part-time advanced standing MSW programs may still require students to complete 16-24 hours of field education per week.

Note: Many advanced standing programs require students to have completed their BSW degree within a specific time period, such as within five years of applying to their MSW program. This time period can vary between 5 and 10 years, and there are a handful of programs that do not have this requirement. Therefore, BSW students should check with a program to see if they are eligible for an advanced standing track before applying.

Other Factors That Determine How Long it Takes to Earn an MSW

While traditional vs. advanced standing and full-time vs. part-time are the factors that have the biggest impact on how long an MSW program will take to complete, there are also other important considerations for students who want to earn their MSW degree as efficiently as possible. These factors are outlined in detail below.

Online MSW Programs vs. Campus-Based MSW Programs

Online and campus-based MSW programs have equivalent course requirements, and therefore they generally take the same number of academic terms to complete. For example, an online student who is enrolled full-time in a traditional MSW program can expect to earn their degree in about the same time as a full-time student who pursues their degree on-campus. However, thanks to innovative communication technologies and learning management systems, online MSW programs can offer significant day-to-day time savings for students, by negating the need to commute to campus for classes several times a week, and enabling students to participate in class discussions, examinations, and other course elements from anywhere as long as they have an internet connection and a computer.

While this time savings may not allow students to earn their degree in fewer months, it can provide additional time for students to tend to their personal and professional obligations more easily while also pursuing their graduate degree. However, online programs, especially those that mainly utilize asynchronous instruction, require students to be more independent and have excellent time management skills in order to keep up with course materials in the absence of weekly in-person lectures and discussion sessions. Many online programs also have multiple start dates per year, which can be advantageous for students who live near a campus-based program that only admits students once per year.

Field Education

Field education is a major time commitment for students of MSW programs, and it also requires significant planning. While some programs match MSW students to placements, others require students to find their own practicum sites. For programs that do not match students to practicum sites, the process of completing field education involves identifying a work setting that is relevant to their career goals, finding and connecting with a potential preceptor (supervisor) who can provide guidance and evaluation of their work, and obtaining approval of their chosen site and supervisor from their MSW program. This process takes time, and in general students are expected to have found and received approval for their field practicum site(s) well in advance of the term in which they are to enroll in field.

When a student is unable to find a field practicum site and/or supervisor in time, their graduation time can be delayed, especially if they have to wait until the next term to fulfill required field education hours. Being proactive and also selecting an MSW program with robust field education support services can help students avoid delaying their graduation due to field practicum concerns.

The Cohort Model

Many MSW programs follow a cohort model, wherein a group of students is admitted at the same time and proceed through their academic requirements together as a group. Each cohort takes a set curriculum together (although students may still be able to select a limited number of electives), and students also attends field practicum discussion seminars together. In the cohort model, students benefit from having a consistent community of students with whom they progress through the program requirements.

While there are several advantages to the cohort model, it can have some disadvantages as well. For example, some programs may have specific and distinct cohorts for full-time and part-time students, making it difficult for students to vary their enrollment each term if needed. Also, if a program only admits new cohorts once per year (for example, if a school only admits new students for the fall term), required classes may only be offered once per year. Therefore, if a student needs to take a leave of absence, they may have to wait until the following year for specific classes to be offered again. This is usually not as big of an issue for programs that admit cohorts of students multiple times per year.

There are also programs that do not use the cohort model where students can select which courses they enroll in each term and follow their own path of study. For students who wish to vary the number of courses they take from term to term, they may want to look for programs that provide this type of enrollment flexibility.

Important Considerations

Prospective students should keep in mind that the course credits, field practicum hours, and time-to-completion estimates outlined above are meant for informational purposes only, and that MSW programs can vary significantly in their course credit requirements, their field practicum expectations, and the number of credits they require full-time students and part-time students to take in order to remain enrolled in the program. Students should always check with an admissions advisor at their programs of interest in order to learn the most up-to-date information on enrollment expectations.

In addition, there are many factors that determine whether a given MSW program is ideal for a student’s goals, learning preferences, and personal and professional timelines. The length of time it takes to complete an MSW program is one such important factor, but it should also be considered alongside factors such as MSW specialization options, delivery methods, course content, field practicum and research opportunities, faculty support, and more. Students should weigh all of these factors as they research MSW programs and narrow down their list of which programs to apply to and ultimately attend if they are accepted.

Finally, students who plan to pursue their degree part-time and apply for financial aid while earning their degree should check with the financial aid office at each school they apply to in order to determine the number of credits they need to register for each term to be eligible for financial aid. Minimum credit requirements for financial aid eligibility can vary by school and by the type of academic calendar the school uses for their MSW program. Students must apply for financial aid and financial is not guaranteed, therefore, students should always check with financial aid offices for the most up-to-date information.