Question: What is an advanced generalist MSW program?

Answer: Advanced generalist MSW programs provide students with the academic training to both work with clients in need of direct/clinical social work services, and analyze and address the larger social, political, and environmental causes of social injustice. These programs are generally ideal for students who wish to receive academic preparation in both micro- and macro-level social work or for students who would like to enter the field of social work but do not yet know where they would like to specialize.

Unlike MSW programs in more focused specializations, such as clinical social work, geriatric social work, mental health and substance abuse, or social justice program development, advanced generalist MSW programs typically do not have a prescribed list of specialization courses that students must take. Instead, these programs tend to allow students to choose their own advanced coursework to develop their own tailored program of study, mixing and matching elective courses in micro and macro social work as they see fit (though advanced generalist MSW programs typically have some specific course requirements). For example, a student in an advanced generalist MSW program could take classes both in child and family social work as well as classes that focus on political advocacy and program development for vulnerable populations.

This level of flexibility can be highly advantageous for students who want a broad and diverse skills set; however, students should keep in mind that, in order to get the most out of their advanced generalist curriculum, they should plan their program of study, particularly their advanced courses, electives, and field education, to ensure their class selections prepare them for their desired work post-graduation.

As with all MSW programs, regardless of specialization, advanced generalist MSW programs require students to take foundational courses on the fundamentals of effective social work practice, social work theory and research methods, social justice policy and advocacy, and a first-year field practicum. From this foundation, students then embark on their advanced coursework (often referred to as the advanced standing year of a traditional MSW program), which may include classes in working with specific populations in a clinical capacity, as well as classes that focus on more macro-level social work concepts such as program development and assessment, policy and advocacy, and social entrepreneurship.

There are also advanced standing MSW programs in this field, which require students to have earned a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) from a Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) accredited program to be eligible for admission. These programs waive some or all of the foundational MSW coursework, enabling students to start their advanced coursework immediately upon enrollment. BSW graduates with a strong academic and professional background should strongly consider an advanced standing program as they can often earn their MSW in one year of full-time enrollment or two years of part-time enrollment.

Advanced Generalist vs Advanced Standing MSW Programs: It is important to note, in regards to MSW programs, the terms advanced generalist and advanced standing mean two different things. Advanced generalist is a type of MSW program specialization, while advanced standing is a track designed for BSW graduates. There are advanced generalist MSW programs that offer tracks for advanced standing students.

Macro vs. Micro Social Work Practice

Micro and macro social work practice are distinct in that the former tends to focus on direct practice, such as individual and small group counseling, while the latter focuses more on the development of programs that serve vulnerable populations on a broader scale. Despite these differences, it is important to keep in mind that both micro and macro social work have the same core mission to improve the mental, emotional, and physical well-being of people within the context of their sociocultural environments, as well as reduce social injustices and inequalities for all populations.

Micro or Clinical Social Work

Micro-level social workers provide individualized counseling and case management services (coordination of care services and assistance in accessing important resources) to individuals suffering from mental, emotional, physical, social, and/or financial challenges that are negatively impacting their ability to live well. A dominant sector of micro-level social work is clinical social work, which involves using advanced clinical therapeutic methodologies to formally assess and treat patients struggling with mental, emotional, and physical health challenges.

Micro social workers implement a person-in-environment approach to help create multifaceted interventions that not only involve individual psychotherapy and support but also involve clients’ familial and social support systems. In addition to clinical social worker positions, careers in micro social work include school social workers, hospice and medical care social workers, substance abuse social workers, child and family welfare social workers, and military social workers.

Advanced Generalist MSW Programs and Licensure in Clinical Social Work: Advanced generalist programs may offer the required curriculum and field education experience to prepare students for licensure in clinical social work post-graduation. However, licensing requirements vary by state and may require students to take specific courses and complete field education hours in specific settings. Therefore, students interested in licensure should review the licensing requirements for their state of residence and talk to a program administrator to ensure they will be able to complete those requirements before applying to an MSW program, regardless of the specialization.

Macro Social Work

In contrast to micro-level social work, macro social work involves working on programs, policy advocacy, and research that aims to have a broader impact on the well-being of individuals within their environments. Macro social workers might engage in policy-making at the local, state, and federal levels, or study the history of social service and social justice policies that impact the well-being of different populations. Other types of macro social workers might focus on program development and evaluation, which involves researching the needs of certain populations, establishing frameworks for programs that address these needs, obtaining funding, and managing the development, implementation, and evaluation of programs. A recent sub-set of program development that has gained prominence in the past few years is social entrepreneurship, which is the practice of applying business, marketing, and organizational management principles to design, execute, and promote programs and/or services that advance social justice.

As mentioned previously, despite their differences, micro and macro social work share the same mission of advancing social justice, and therefore micro social workers rarely work without considering macro-level concepts, and vice versa. For example, clinical social workers and child welfare social workers must take into consideration macro-level concepts such as policies and environmental or community-based factors impacting their clients. Likewise, social workers who operate primarily in the macro-level spheres of program development and evaluation, advocacy, and research must have knowledge of human psychology and behavior and how individuals’ thoughts and actions tie into the larger health of a community.

Advanced Generalist Social Work

Advanced generalist social work embraces the idea that micro and macro social work are two necessary halves of the same whole by preparing students to perform advanced responsibilities in both types of social work. Advanced generalist social workers have similar job titles to their those of their peers in micro and macro social work, with the main difference being the degree to which they work in both micro and macro social work, relative to social workers who work primarily in one discipline or the other. As a result, graduates of advanced generalist social work MSW programs may work as counselors who also engage in advocacy and program development. Examples of this could include a school social worker who also spearheads student programs that benefit multiple schools or school districts. Alternatively, they may be social justice advocates, social work researchers, or program administrators who work part-time in direct practice social work or who interact closely with the populations they seek to help to research the best ways to serve them.

Curriculum and Field Education for Advanced Generalist MSW Programs

To accommodate the many different types of careers that exist at the intersection of micro and macro social work, advanced generalist MSW programs typically allow students to take a wide range of classes that match their specific interests in both micro and macro social work. For example, an advanced generalist MSW student could take classes both in child and family and/or clinical social work, while also taking courses that focus on women’s rights, advocacy for LGBTQI populations, or social entrepreneurship. This level of flexibility can be highly advantageous for students who want a broad and diverse skills set; however, students should keep in mind that, in order to get the most out of their advanced generalist curriculum, they should make sure the courses they take and field education they complete prepare them for their desired career post-graduation. This requires careful planning on the part of the student well before he or she enrolls in an advanced generalist MSW program.

Note: It is also possible for students in advanced generalist MSW programs to focus their electives and advanced coursework in either micro or macro social work, if they already know which career path they would like to pursue. However, an advanced generalist MSW program may not offer as many specialization courses as programs that are specifically focused on either clinical social work or macro social work practice.

Below is a sample curriculum chart outlining the program requirements for a traditional standing advanced generalist MSW program. Please note that these program requirements are for informational purposes only, and are not meant to exactly represent an existing MSW program.

Curriculum ComponentExample Courses and Field Education Requirements
Core Courses
  • Human Behavior and the Social Environment
  • Foundations of Social Work Practice
  • Social Work Policy and Advocacy
  • Social Work Research
  • Clinical Assessment and Diagnosis
  • Foundational Principles of Macro Social Work
Advanced Courses
  • Advanced Generalist Social Work Practice
  • Child and Family Welfare Social Work
  • Clinical Practice with Vulnerable Populations
  • Social Entrepreneurship for Social Change
  • Group Psychotherapy
  • Advanced Social Work Policy Advocacy
  • Social Work Program Development: From Grassroots to International
Elective Courses
  • Substance Abuse and Behavioral Addictions
  • Women’s Rights Advocacy
Field Education Requirements
  • Foundational Field Practicum and Integrative Field Seminar
  • Advanced Field Practicum and Integrative Field Seminar

Field Education for Advanced Generalist MSW Programs

Advanced generalist MSW programs require students to complete a minimum number of practicum hours that give them hands-on experience in the areas of social work that are relevant to their desired career post-graduation. Students of advanced generalist MSW programs may complete field education hours in setting that give them training in both micro-level social work practice and macro-level program development. Such settings may include, but are not limited to, child and family welfare agencies, substance abuse treatment centers, military hospitals and Veterans Affairs medical centers, outpatient behavioral health care centers, social service-oriented non-profits, political advocacy organizations, government think tanks, and startups and companies that focus on social entrepreneurship and social justice.

Advanced generalist MSW programs may also have students complete one field education practicum in one setting and a second in the other setting, so that they gain experience in both micro and macro social work. Unlike MSW specializations where field practicum settings might be more specific, such as an MSW program in substance abuse social work that would require students to complete their practicums in environments relating to addictions treatment, advanced generalist MSW programs have a degree of flexibility in terms of students’ field practicum settings. Students of advanced generalist MSW programs should proactively meet with their program’s field education director and staff to discuss their learning objectives to ensure their field education practicums align with their desired career goals. For more information on field education, including the essential steps to succeeding in one’s practicums and how MSW programs typically handle the placement process, please refer to our comprehensive Guide to Field Education.