Question: What is the difference between a traditional MSW program and an advanced standing MSW program?
Answer: Traditional MSW programs are generally structured to require two years of full-time study: one foundational year during which students learn essential principles and methods of social work practice and research, and one specialized year wherein students take classes that are tailored to their desired area of work post-graduation. Advanced standing programs, which require applicants to have graduated from a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), allow students to waive some or all of the foundational year typically required in a traditional MSW program. This allows students of advanced standing programs to embark on their MSW specialization immediately upon enrollment.
Traditional MSW programs are typically comprised of 60 to 70 course credits, beginning with a foundational year of courses in social work practice and research, social welfare policies and institutions, and an introductory field practicum. In the second year of a traditional MSW program, which is sometimes referred to as the “advanced standing” year, students generally begin taking their specialization courses and also complete a more advanced practicum that aligns with their chosen specialization/career goals. Admissions requirements for traditional MSW programs vary by school, but in general schools of social work accept students who have earned their bachelor’s degree in a variety of subject areas, as long as they put forth a strong application that indicates why they have chosen to pursue an MSW, while also demonstrating their preparedness for graduate study in the field of social work.
Advanced standing MSW programs, which are reserved for graduates of CSWE-accredited BSW programs, are essentially comprised of the second year of a traditional MSW program, plus one or more bridge courses that prepare incoming students for graduate-level study. In other words, advanced standing MSW programs allow students to start immediately upon their specialization classes and advanced field practicum without having to take the foundational year that is part of a traditional MSW program. As such, advanced standing MSW programs require about half the number of course credits as traditional MSW programs (depending on how many course credits BSW graduates can transfer from their undergraduate program to their MSW program, which does vary by program/school).
Admissions requirements for advanced standing MSW programs are quite rigorous, and generally include strong performance in one’s BSW coursework, strong academic/professional letters of recommendation, and a clear articulation of one’s desired specialization during one’s graduate program of study. BSW graduates who do not meet the admissions requirements for advanced standing MSW programs typically must complete a traditional MSW program to earn a master’s degree in social work.
Traditional MSW Program Curricula: Foundational versus Advanced Coursework and Field Education
To understand the differences between a traditional MSW program and an advanced standing MSW program, it is important to understand the overall curriculum of an MSW program. In general, the MSW curriculum is divided into half foundational coursework and half advanced and specialized coursework. Students who enroll full-time in a traditional MSW program take two years to earn a master’s in social work. Typically, full-time students start with foundational coursework during their first year and progress to advanced coursework during their second year. (Note: There are also programs that offer part-time tracks which can be completed in approximately three years. For students who attend part-time, the same concept still applies, they just take longer to complete each half of the program).
While classes vary across graduate programs in social work, in general the foundational courses for MSW programs may include the following (Note: The following course titles and descriptions are intended for informational purposes only, and are not representative of the diversity in course content of MSW programs nationwide):
- Human Psychology and Behavior I and II: The first course introduces students to human psychology and behavior across the developmental lifespan, and within the context of different social systems. An examination of the interplay between individual choice and larger social forces that shape human health, agency, and opportunity. The second class builds off of the foundations of the first to explore the theories of human psychology and behavior within the context of real-life case studies such as those concerning racial discrimination, mass incarceration, national and global health, mental health, substance abuse, and other issues.
- Social Research and Statistical Principles: The theoretical foundations and methodologies for social work research and the design of qualitative and quantitative research studies that focus on protecting vulnerable populations and developing sound interventions for underserved communities. The ethical implications of scientific inquiry are also discussed, as are the applications of social work research in the service of individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities.
- Foundations of Social Work Practice: The frameworks underpinning the need for the social work discipline, including the impact that race, prejudice, oppression, and privilege have on people. Systems of oppression at the micro, mezzo, and macro levels, and how they affect individual and community health, and consequently social work practice. Sexism, racism, LGBTQ+ discrimination, immigrant prejudice, xenophobia, socioeconomic disparities and the politics and social structures that underpin are discussed, as are means of intervention across different contexts.
- Social Welfare Policy and Practice: Students review and discuss existing social welfare programs and policies, as well as their history in the United States. This class also examines the sociopolitical factors that impact the development and maintenance of such programs and legislation at the local, state, and national levels.
- Social Work Practice: Individuals, Families and Groups: The fundamental principles, strategies, and methodologies that are necessary for successful social work practice with individuals, families, and groups. The core values that characterize the discipline and how they translate into direct support of vulnerable individuals within their sociocultural contexts. Students also learn how to design and implement assessments and interventions.
- Social Work Practice: Organizations and Communities: The extension of social work principles, frameworks, and methods to work with organizations and communities. Students learn how to assess and design interventions for organizations and communities, and apply their knowledge to work with community sponsors.
- Foundational Practicum I and II: Supervised social work in an approved social service setting. Students complete at least 16 hours weekly in both term I and II, and are expected to check in with faculty periodically and through their Integrative Learning Seminar.
- Integrative Learning Seminar I and II: Designed to accompany students’ field practicum, this seminar allows students to meet with peers and a course instructor to discuss their experiences during their practicum.
Following this foundational coursework, students progress to their advanced concentration coursework and electives. In addition, students complete a field education experience that aligns with their chosen concentration during their second year. Below is an example of possible second-year course list for a traditional MSW program with a concentration in child and family welfare social work. (Note: Please keep in mind that this course list is meant to serve as an example only, and is not reflective of all MSW programs available nationwide. Furthermore, concentration and elective coursework varies depending on a student’s chosen concentration.)
- Concentration Course: Social Work Practice with Young Children and Families: An in-depth and advanced exploration of the clinical methodologies and key social service resources that are available to support children and their families. How to engage children and their families in a way that is tailored to their sociocultural context, as well as the developmental stage and needs of the child. The latest research in terms of effective interventions at the micro, mezzo, and macro levels.
- Concentration Course: Social Work Practice with Adolescents and Young Adults: How to work holistically within a family unit to support all members through a variety of challenges, including barriers to educational attainment, mental and physical health issues, substance abuse, child welfare, and juvenile incarceration. How family, school, community, and culture impact the development of challenges that youth face, and how these elements can contribute to effective interventions as part of a holistic solution.
- Concentration Course: Social Work Policy for Children and Families: The policies, governmental programs, organizations, and systems/institutions that are designed to support vulnerable children, youth, and their families. Through this course, students gain an advanced understanding of legislative processes and their impact on social phenomena. Students also learn about how policy impacts social services, and how to analyze social policy in order to effectively advocate for and support families and children across a variety of contexts.
- Elective: Substance Abuse in Youth: Prevention and Intervention: The methods of preventing and intervening in adolescent substance abuse at the individual, group, and community levels. The factors that contribute to substance abuse in youth, and the epidemiology of chronic drug and alcohol use.
- Elective: Social Service Program Development and Evaluation: How to design and implement holistic and inclusive child and family welfare programs that are tailored to the specific needs of diverse communities. How to evaluate interventions and programs and improve these programs accordingly.
- Elective: Social Justice Leadership and Innovation: The principles, theories, and practices that are central to leading social justice advocacy and positive social change in numerous contexts, from individual and small group/family to larger organizational and community environments.
- Elective: Cultural Competence in Social Work Practice: The role that culture must play in the design of interventions and programs for children, youth, and families. An examination of different cultures and the challenges they face in terms of the educational systems, health care accessibility and quality of care, and social prejudice/marginalization. How social workers can provide targeted help to these demographics in a way that is compassionate, sensitive, and effective.
- Specialized Field Education I and II: Students engage in a field practicum that is tailored to their specific interests in child and family welfare social work. Potential sites might include child welfare agencies, parent support centers, youth advocacy centers, sexual health centers, and more.
- Integrated Learning Seminar I and II: Students attend biweekly seminars during which they discuss their advanced field education experiences with peers and an instructor, and also complete reflective assignments for their instructor and/or practicum preceptor.
To illustrate how these foundational and concentration courses are divided across two years of full-time study (with Fall and Spring semesters) for the traditional MSW student, a curriculum chart is provided below.
Traditional MSW Curriculum (2 Years)
Traditional vs. Advanced Standing MSW Programs
Students in traditional MSW programs complete the entire curriculum described above. For advanced standing MSW programs, students typically take the courses from the second year of a traditional MSW program, which means that they focus almost exclusively on concentration coursework, electives, and advanced field education. This is because they completed many of the foundational courses during their CSWE accredited BSW program. (Note: Some advanced standing students may be required to take one or more classes from their program’s foundational year coursework, depending on the coursework they completed during their BSW program.)
While advanced standing programs waive the foundational course requirements of the traditional MSW program, they often require students to take one or more “bridge courses” that assist them in their transition from undergraduate-level to graduate-level work in the social work discipline. In these bridge classes (which might be held over the summer term or at the beginning of the fall term), students engage in intensive individual and group work that gives them experience in graduate-level bio-psycho-social assessments, advanced social work research, and advanced writing and analysis.
Below is a sample Advanced Standing MSW Curriculum for a full-time student who has chosen a concentration in child and welfare social work (the same concentration as that of the sample traditional MSW curriculum featured above). Please keep in mind that this curriculum plan is meant to be an example only, and does not represent the diversity in curricula and course options amongst MSW programs nationwide.
Advanced Standing MSW Curriculum (1 Year)
Admissions Requirements for Advanced Standing MSW Programs
Advanced standing MSW programs require that students have demonstrated strong academic and internship/professional performance during (and potentially after) their BSW program. Many advanced standing MSW programs have a minimum GPA requirement of 3.0 or higher for applicants’ undergraduate career. As a result, students who think they may be interested in enrolling in an advanced standing MSW program should begin preparing for the selective admissions process by maintaining strong grades throughout their baccalaureate work.
Furthermore, advanced standing MSW programs require students to submit numerous academic letters of recommendation, and many programs also require a letter of recommendation from an applicant’s field practicum supervisor for their BSW program. Therefore, it is important for students who are interested in advanced standing programs to perform well in their undergraduate field education and to maintain strong relationships with their faculty and practicum supervisors.
As advanced standing MSW students embark on their advanced and specialization coursework immediately upon their enrollment, schools of social work expect applicants to their advanced standing track to have a clear idea of the areas of social work in which they wish to focus. In their personal statements, students should articulate what areas of social work practice and research interest them the most, and how they plan to use their master’s degree to fulfill their specific career goals in the years following graduation.