Question: Are there any online MSW programs in military social work?

Answer: Yes, there are online MSW programs with a specialization in military social work. There are also online MSW programs with a specialization in adult mental health, trauma, or a related field that also give students the option of pursuing a sub-specialization or track in military social work.

Online MSW students who are interested in military social work have numerous options to prepare for this challenging yet impactful and rewarding career path. Online MSW programs in military social work can generally be categorized into three different types:

  • Online MSW Programs with a Specialization in Military Social Work: These programs have a formal specialization in Military Social Work, wherein students take a prescribed number of specialization classes that train them to work with military personnel and their families to address issues of trauma, stress, crisis, and other challenges that people in the military face.
  • Online MSW Programs with a Sub-Specialization in Military Social Work: These programs have a specialization in a broader field—for example, Clinical Social Work, Adult Mental Health and Wellness, or Trauma and Violence—and also provide students with the option to take a set number of military social work courses within their broader concentration. Some programs in this category award students with a certificate in Military Social Work in addition to their MSW degree.
  • Online MSW Programs with Military Social Work Electives: These programs do not have formal specializations or tracks in military social work, but offer numerous electives in this area for students to hone their skills in working with military personnel and their loved ones.

Examples of online MSW programs in military social work include the University of Southern California’s (USC) Master of Social Work with a Track in Military Social Work and the University of Louisville’s online Master of Science in Social Work (MSSW) with a specialization in Military Social Work.

USC’s MSW program has specializations in Adult Mental Health and Wellness, Social Change and Innovation, and Children, Youth, and Families, to which students can add an Optional Program Track in Military Social Work. The Track includes three classes in Clinical Practice with the Military Family, Clinical Practice with Service Members and Veterans, and Military and Veterans Policy and Program Management.

The University of Louisville’s MSSW (which is for all practical purposes equivalent to an MSW) with a Military Social Work specialization requires students to take a class in Military Social Work, as well as two electives from the following four courses: Mental Health, Psychopathology, Family Therapy Practice, and Substance Abuse. In addition, students of this program are required to complete their Advanced Field Practicum in an approved military social work setting, and to also attend a seminar wherein they discuss and reflect upon their experiences working with military members and their families.

Curriculum Details for Online MSW Programs in Military Social Work

Online MSW programs in military social work prepare students to work with members of the military, veterans, and their loved ones in a therapeutic capacity. They also train students to help their military clients access important public and private resources such as veteran’s benefits, financial aid for health care and education, and mental health and family counseling. As such, the classes that comprise online MSW programs in military social work tend to cover:

  • Clinical social work methodologies to use when working directly with military members and their families.
  • The internal and external factors that contribute to trauma, stress, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, substance abuse, marital challenges, and other mental and emotional hardships for members of the military.
  • The overall social and governmental systems that are in place to support military personnel in their professional and personal lives.

While the majority of MSW programs in military social work focus on micro-level/direct practice social work, or individual clinical work with clients, there are also military social work MSW programs that have classes in macro social work, such as program development for military communities and political advocacy on behalf of vulnerable populations such as veterans and military members facing financial hardship.

Below is a sample chart outlining the program requirements for an online MSW program in military social work. Please note that these program requirements are for informational purposes only, and are not meant to exactly represent an existing online MSW program.

Curriculum ComponentExample Courses and Field Education Requirements
Core Courses
  • Human Behavior and the Social Environment
  • Social Work Practice with Individuals and Families
  • Social Work Research
  • Social Work Policy and Advocacy
  • Diversity and Social Justice
  • Clinical Social Work Methods
Concentration Courses
  • Clinical Social Work Practice for Military Personnel and Families
  • Foundations of Military Culture
  • Clinical Practice with Veterans
  • Social Work Policies and Program Management for the Military Family
Elective Courses
  • Trauma and Crisis Social Work for Military Personnel
  • Substance Abuse and Addiction Disorders
Field Education Requirements
  • Foundational Field Practicum and Integrative Field Seminar
  • Advanced Field Practicum and Integrative Field Seminar

Foundational Classes for Online MSW Programs in Military Social Work

The foundational classes for online MSW programs in military social work give students an essential understanding of human psychology, development, and behavior in a social environment, and also gives them the fundamental skills in social work practice. Examples of classes that students can expect to complete in their foundational curriculum include but are not limited to:

  • Human Behavior and the Social Environment: The central theories of human psychology and behavior across the lifespan, and in the context of the individual within his or her social, cultural, and political environments. How social workers can use this person-in-environment model in their assessments of clients’ needs and the design of effective interventions and preventative strategies.
  • Social Work Practice with Individuals and Families: The foundational theoretical models and methods for working with clients from diverse backgrounds and developing effective interventions that are culturally sensitive. Students learn how to evaluate clients’ mental, emotional, and behavioral health, engage clients with empathy and active listening, and implement effective interventions and client follow-ups.
  • Social Work Research: The importance of social work research in establishing best practices in the profession. Students learn how to use different research methodologies, including quantitative, qualitative, and mixed-methods research to evaluate social work practices, study populations that need or use social work services, and examine social, political, and environmental circumstances that impact people’s well-being.
  • Social Work Policy and Advocacy: The key government structures and policies that impact the social work profession as well as the needs of social work clients across different demographics. The methods of policy analysis that empower students to develop advocacy plans to advance social justice and human rights.
  • Diversity and Social Justice: The roles that race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and ability play in the establishment of social identity, the formation of communities, and the development of social inequalities and conflict in different contexts. Students investigate social and political systems that support, instigate, or perpetuate selective privilege, oppression, marginalization, and underutilized talent in the form of underemployment, unemployment, and insufficient educational opportunities.
  • Clinical Social Work Methods: An introduction to clinical social work methodologies, including how to diagnose mental, emotional, and behavioral health conditions, design interventions that engage clients in a collaborative and holistic self-care approach, monitor clients and assist them in their commitment to their change plan, and evaluate the efficacy of interventions. Students focus particularly on vulnerable populations from diverse cultural backgrounds, and how to help clients to address inequality and injustice that they experience.

Specialization Classes for Online MSW Programs in Military Social Work

Specialization coursework for online MSW programs in military social work build off of students’ foundational coursework in social work practice, therapeutic methods, social work policy and advocacy, and social justice to prepare students to work specifically with military personnel and their families. Members of the military can experience high stress situations, trauma, PTSD, health problems, relationship challenges, social isolation, and other issues that relate to their profession either directly or indirectly. To support military clients and their families through these challenges, social workers might take the following specialization classes (Note: The specialization classes outlined below are by no means an exhaustive list, as course titles and content tend to vary across online MSW programs):

  • Clinical Social Work Practice with Military Personnel and Families: How clinical social work methods can be applied to challenges that members of the military and their families face on a daily basis or long-term. The strategies that social workers can teach their clients to help them cope with the demands of their job and the impact that their work has on their social and familial lives. The different stages of various types of military careers; the effect these stages have on military personnel mentally, physically, and emotionally; and how social workers can help military personnel navigate these stages with their families.
  • Foundations of Military Culture for Social Workers: The sociocultural development of identity for military members, the experiences of military families within the context of social and professional structures within the military, and the social, familial, emotional, and mental health needs of these populations within the context of military culture. Students also examine ethical considerations when working within this environment, as well as government policies around military personnel and families and how they impact the health of military family units.
  • Clinical Practice with Veterans: An examination of the specific challenges that veterans face in the United States, including medical health and health care challenges, mental and behavioral health problems, social isolation, unemployment and/or underemployment, and relationship issues. Students also study how to assist military personnel in their transition from active service to retirement from service. The evidence-based clinical methodologies that have been proven to support combat veterans across culturally diverse client groups.
  • Social Work Policies and Program Management for the Military Family: The public and private programs that currently support members of the military and their families, and the process of designing, implementing, evaluating, and improving programs that serve the needs of this population. Students connect with various non-profit organizations that serve military personnel and their families through mezzo and macro-level programming, in order to familiarize themselves with the process of researching, designing, developing, implementing, and evaluating the impact of larger-scale programs that seek to address the challenges faced by military members on a broader scale.
  • Trauma and Crisis Social Work for Military Personnel: An in-depth look at the unique types of trauma and crisis that military personnel experience in different scenarios throughout their professional journey in the military, including wartime, combat, and post-war trauma. The impact of trauma and crisis on not only military personnel, but also their friends and family, and how social workers can support these individuals through these effects.

Field Education for Online MSW Programs in Military Social Work

MSW programs in military social work typically require students to complete both a foundational and advanced field practicum in a setting that is relevant to military social work. During their field practicum experiences, students apply the concepts, methodologies, and skills they have learned in their classes to real responsibilities that prepare them for their job post-graduation. In their foundational field practicum, students complete tasks that align with what they have learned in their first year’s classes, while in their advanced field practicum, students take on more complex responsibilities. For each practicum experience, students work under the supervision of a social work professional or field instructor.

While some online MSW programs in military social work require students to complete at least one of their field practicums at a site that is directly affiliated with the military, such as a VA hospital or a military personnel-specific community health center, some programs do not have this requirement. Due to the limited number of available practicum positions at such sites, and the fact that online students may not live near such sites, some online MSW programs in military social work may allow students to complete their practicums at a clinical social work site or a site that focuses on helping clients cope with the same or similar challenges that military personnel commonly face.

In general, students of military social work MSW programs must complete their practicums at sites that allow them to assume responsibilities such as working with clients directly in a therapeutic capacity and helping build human service programs that support individuals struggling with depression, substance abuse, trauma, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Such sites, which could include a psychiatric department of a hospital, a rehab center, or a behavioral health center specializing in family counseling, may not be military-specific, but are still relevant to military social work students’ career goals because they can give students the skills in diagnosis, therapeutic practice, and family support that are essential in military social work.

For more information on field education for online MSW programs, including the field placement process, the difference between foundational and advanced field practicums, and the steps to succeeding in one’s field education experience, please refer to our guide entitled: Field Education: Translating Pedagogy into Practice.