Online Clinical Master of Social Work (MSW) Programs
According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), clinical social work is defined as a specialized area of social work practice that focuses on the prevention and formal assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of mental illness, as well as emotional and behavioral challenges. Online clinical MSW programs prepare students to work with patients in settings such as private practice, child and family welfare agencies, primary care clinics, inpatient care departments at hospitals, and community health centers.
Clinical social work as a profession is highly regulated at the state level by social work licensing boards (or licensing boards that oversee behavioral health occupations). While social workers are not required to be licensed to work with patients in clinical settings (although there must be a licensed clinical social worker within the organization serving as supervisor), clinical social workers must be licensed if they wish to establish their own private practice. In addition, many clinical social workers seek licensure even if they do not plan on managing their own practice, as many positions require a candidate to be licensed and/or may offer a higher salary or more leadership opportunities to candidates who are licensed.
It is important for students who are interested in clinical social work to complete an MSW program that is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) and which will qualify them for social work licensure in their state of residence. This is especially important for students who are considering an online program, as requirements for licensure vary by state, and the curricula of some online programs may not meet licensing requirements in all states. Therefore, students should review their state’s licensing requirements and speak with a program administrator about whether or not a program’s curriculum will meet their state’s licensing requirements.
Current and prospective students of online MSW programs should keep in mind that a direct practice/clinical social work specialization (or sub-specialization such as Child and Family Welfare Social Work, Adult Mental Health and Wellness, or Substance Abuse and Addictions) may not be the only specialization that can qualify them for clinical social work licensure. Advanced generalist MSW programs, depending on their curriculum, may provide students with the courses and field education experiences needed to pursue licensure post-graduation. For more information, please check out our Online Advanced Generalist MSW Programs page.
This page describes important considerations for students interested in online clinical MSW programs, including online instruction methods, curriculum content, field education, and the difference between full-time and part-time courses of study.
Instruction Methods for Online Clinical MSW Programs
Online clinical MSW programs use either asynchronous instruction, synchronous instruction, or a combination of both to deliver course content to students. Asynchronous instruction is defined as course content that students can access on their own time, such as self-guided learning modules, pre-recorded lectures, course readings and self-paced assignments. Synchronous instruction is defined as instructional content that students complete in real-time, including live video lectures, instructor-led discussions that students must attend, and assignments or tests that students must complete at a specific time and date.
Online MSW programs use learning management systems (LMS) which are cloud-based portals through which students can access all of their program materials (i.e. the course syllabus, lecture slides and recordings, assignments, grade information, discussion forums, and professor contact information) on one dashboard. Students can also typically contact professors and fellow classmates through their program’s LMS. Depending on the program and their LMS, students may also be able to access course materials on their phone or tablet, in addition to desktop and laptop computers.
Most LMS systems are designed to allow programs to use both synchronous and asynchronous instruction, and all online MSW programs incorporate asynchronous instruction (e.g. course readings and assignments) into their curriculum. However, not all programs utilize synchronous instruction. In addition, programs vary in terms of how much they use asynchronous versus synchronous instruction. For example, some online programs may be primarily asynchronous, but require students to take examinations synchronously by logging into their LMS at the same time. Other programs may combine weekly asynchronous class lectures and discussion chats with optional biweekly synchronous seminar-type discussions.
For more information on instruction methods for online MSW programs, including the benefits and potential drawbacks of asynchronous vs. synchronous instruction, please refer to our FAQ: Instruction Methods for Online MSW Programs.
Specializations for Online Clinical MSW Programs
As mentioned previously, there are numerous online MSW concentrations that may qualify students for social work licensure in their state of residence. Among these include, not only clinical social work specializations, but also specializations that focus on the populations whom clinical social workers assist. Examples of such specializations are included below:
- Clinical Social Work/Direct Practice: This specialization focuses on preparing students to work in clinical settings with a wide variety of vulnerable client populations, using therapeutic modalities that are specific to a clinical setting. Students learn the processes of clinical assessment and diagnosis, how to implement advanced treatment methods, and also advocate on behalf of their clients in multiple systems (i.e. health care, social/familial, financial/government aid, etc.). This specialization may also include courses that focus on specific populations, such as young and middle aged adults, the elderly, children and adolescents, racial minorities, women, and individuals facing marginalization due to sexual orientation, immigrant status, or other factors.
- Child and Family Welfare Social Work: This specialization delves into clinical work with children, adolescents, and families. It examines the individual and group therapy modalities that are most effective in addressing mental, emotional, and behavioral issues that youth and their families might encounter across the lifespan, and also includes courses in the external factors affecting children’s health and well-being (for example, school systems and settings, bullying and cyberbullying, domestic violence, poverty, divorce, etc.). Students learn how to use a multifaceted approach to address clients’ challenges.
- Adult Mental Health and Wellness: This specialization focuses on the later stages of human life and the mental, emotional, social, financial, and spiritual challenges that come with these stages. Common topics in this specialization include health care accessibility for the retired and elderly, mental and emotional challenges that older adults face, grief and bereavement counseling, substance abuse interventions for adults, and integrated care systems for adults struggling with depression, anxiety, isolation, or other mental/emotional challenges.
- Substance Abuse and Addictions: This specialization trains students to work with clients struggling with substance abuse, addiction, and addictive behaviors across the age spectrum and in different contexts. Students of this concentration may take classes in adolescent drug use, substance abuse in adults and the elderly, treating substance abuse within the family unit, opioid addiction treatment and prevention, anxiety disorders, interventions for depression, and addictive behaviors.
In addition to the above specializations, some online MSW programs also offer students the option of minoring or earning a certificate in another sub-discipline within clinical social work, such as working specifically with victims of trauma and violence, members of the military, or psychiatric patients.
Curriculum Details for Online MSW Programs with a Clinical Social Work Specialization: Foundational Courses
The curriculum for online clinical MSW programs typically covers the foundations of the professional relationship between clinical therapist and patient, the theoretical foundations of social work theory and research, the fundamental methods of micro social work practice, and the government policies at the local, state, and federal levels that govern the profession and impact the mental, physical, emotional, and social well-being of different populations. The core curriculum might also include a course or two in organizational and community social work (otherwise known as macro-level social work) to give students context in social work systems and programming that can enhance their direct work with clients.
- Human Behavior in the Social Environment: The central theories of human psychology, behavior, and development in their social environment, as well as how humans interact in small group, familial, organizational, and community contexts. Common sociocultural, sociopolitical, and socioeconomic issues and their impact on human development, psychology, and behavior are also discussed within the context of social work practice; these include gender and race politics, economic inequalities, disability discrimination, and human rights.
- Social Work Practice: The foundational principles of social work practice with individuals, small groups, and families, including the primary methods of assessing and addressing clients’ needs, connecting clients with public support systems, and supporting clients’ self-determination within their familial and/or social support network. This course employs a bio-psycho-social-spiritual framework, incorporating biological, psychological, sociocultural, and spiritual considerations when determining a client’s needs and designing targeted interventions to help them.
- Social Work Policy and Advocacy: The policies, government programs, and public systems that impact the well-being of vulnerable populations from an individual, familial, small group, organizational, and community standpoint. A history of social services in the United States and how they have evolved, and how the role of social workers and mental health professionals has likewise evolved and expanded across different environments.
- Social Work Research: The role of scientific inquiry and research in establishing evidence-based practices, advancing the profession, and improving the delivery of social services at the individual/clinical and larger scale community levels. Students examine how they can incorporate findings from scientific inquiry and research into their decision-making with clients as well as their professional identity as social workers.
- Diversity, Multiculturalism, and Social Justice: How clinical social workers can engage with diverse client populations with empathy and an understanding of their social and cultural experiences. Students discuss certain vulnerable minority populations, such as women, racially marginalized demographics, members of the LGBTQI community, and immigrants and refugees, and the social challenges they face. Students also learn how to build an awareness of their own assumptions and biases within the context of their professional and personal values.
- Mental Health Care Institutions: An overview of the American mental health care system, including the institutions and the policies that govern the care of people experiencing mental and behavioral challenges (as well as their families). The systems and communities that impact people’s social, mental, and behavioral health across the lifespan, and the social worker’s role as an advocate and mental health care professional within these systems.
- Community Social Work Practice: A foundational course in social work at the community level, which includes an overview of systems, institutions, and programs in place that are social work and social justice oriented. How clinical social workers can both help their clients leverage community programs and resources, and also contribute to the design, implementation, and evaluation of such programs and macro-level initiatives.
- Foundational Field Practicum: Students complete a practicum under the supervision of a clinical social work professional. During this practicum, students apply the concepts, skills, and clinical methodologies they have learned in their coursework to real work with clients. They complete assessments and diagnoses and collaborate with their supervisor in the formation of treatment plans and interventions. At the beginning of their practicum, students establish key clinical learning outcomes with their supervisor by which they are evaluated.
- Integrative Field Seminar: In this field seminar, students discuss their practicum experiences with their peers and course instructor, and complete reflective exercises that help to solidify their clinical learning outcomes.
Curriculum Details for Online MSW Programs with a Clinical Social Work Specialization: Advanced Standing Courses
All clinical MSW programs, regardless of students’ chosen specialization, build off of their core curriculum by further preparing students to work directly with clients in a therapeutic capacity. Specialization courses, which are often referred to as advanced standing courses, for clinical MSW programs train students to assess, diagnose, and treat patients in complex client cases, engage in group therapy, and/or work with specific populations.
The classes that students take for their specialization coursework and electives vary depending on the program and students’ chosen specialization. For example, the program of study for an MSW student specializing in Adult Mental Health and Wellness will have a different curriculum when compared to a program with a specialization in Substance Abuse and Addictions; however, both programs of study can qualify as clinical MSW degree programs. Below are examples of specialization courses and electives that students of online clinical MSW programs might take:
- Integrated Care for Adults: The system of integrated behavioral health care in the United States, including the intersection of integrated mental health care and primary medical care, pharmacological interventions, and research and evidence-based practices. How clinical social workers can optimally support patients within this system, and form holistic care plans for clients using a combination of individual therapy, assistance in accessing public benefits and other resources, group therapy, and other methods.
- Complex Clinical Social Work Cases: How to engage with, assess, diagnose, and treat clients struggling with complex mental, emotional, behavioral, and/or social problems. Students examine different case studies representing complex client problems and the therapeutic modalities and other strategies that are most effective in treating these cases. This course also focuses on complex mental health disorders and the methods for diagnosing them.
- Crisis Intervention and Acute Care Situations: The multimodal approaches to providing acute care and crisis intervention services to individuals and groups across a range of mental health contexts and crisis situations. How social workers and other mental health professionals can skillfully help clients cope with emergency situations in a timely manner and de-escalate situations to support the safety of their clients.
- Group Psychotherapy: How therapeutic modalities such as cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, motivational interviewing, exposure therapy, task-oriented therapy, and narrative therapy translate into group psychotherapy contexts. How to facilitate and oversee the progress of a group of patients, and leverage the group’s dynamic to support clients’ progress both individually and in aggregate.
- Substance Abuse and Behavioral Addictions: Students study substance abuse in all its dimensions, including its impact on individuals, families, and society. The process of diagnosing substance use disorders and their underlying causes. The development, treatment, and prevention of substance abuse and addictions across different situations. The social and political structures that regulate substance use, and recent public policy efforts to reduce substance abuse.
- Social Work Practice with Children and Their Families: An in-depth examination of social work in child welfare and family settings. Students integrate their training in direct social work practice, clinical diagnoses and therapeutic modalities, design of individual and family interventions, and human service and social justice systems/policies to support children, adolescents, and families experiencing different challenges.
- Advanced Macro-Level Practice and Advocacy for Clinical Social Workers: This class focuses on the relevance of macro-level social work in the daily and long-term responsibilities of clinical social workers. Students learn how to use data gathering and analysis to inform their direct practice as well as their larger advocacy work. How social workers can use an integrated and collaborative approach to client care, an approach that also incorporates social enterprising, program development, community mobilization, and other macro-level ventures.
- Domestic Trauma and Abuse: Students examine case studies of domestic violence and trauma and learn about the essential diagnostic, intervention, and preventative measures for partners, parents, and children who are victims of domestic abuse. Students read, discuss, and analyze perspectives on working with both victims and perpetrators of abuse, with the aim of empowering students to use their understanding of culture, environment, and each individual’s needs and situation to create effective interventions.
- Clinical Social Work in Criminal Justice Settings: The specific challenges facing individuals who are incarcerated or subject to the criminal justice system in some capacity. Students read about and discuss the experiences of different demographics, including incarcerated women, juvenile inmates, individuals on probation, and other vulnerable populations who are subject to the criminal justice system.
- Psychiatric Social Work: How to work with patients in inpatient psychiatric settings, and support individuals suffering from severe, debilitating, and/or dangerous mental or behavioral problems, such as psychosis, schizophrenia, severe depression, and life-threatening substance abuse. The therapeutic modalities that are central to psychiatric social work, including conducting risk assessments, providing psychotherapy and other clinical therapy, and coordinating patients’ care with members of a larger medical and mental health care team.
- Advanced Field Practicum: Building off of their first-year, foundational practicum, students complete a more advanced clinical practicum at a site that closely aligns with their desired work setting post-graduation and/or aligns with the populations with which they wish to work. During this practicum, students employ more advanced clinical social work methodologies and also participate in more comprehensive client care in collaboration with their supervisor and other professionals at their work setting. As with their foundational practicum, students consult with their supervisor at the beginning of their advanced field education experience in order to establish clinical learning outcomes.
- Advanced Integrative Field Seminar: Students discuss their advanced practicum experiences with classmates and their seminar instructor, write reflections on their work, and may also present to their class regarding their clinical experiences and learning outcomes.
Curriculum Options for Online Clinical MSW Programs
Many online clinical MSW programs offer students both full-time and part-time study options in order to best accommodate students’ schedules as they pursue their graduate degree. A full-time course of study for an MSW program generally takes about 24 months to complete, while a part-time program may take 32 to 36 months or longer, depending on students’ course load each term.
Below are sample clinical MSW curricula for both full-time and part-time tracks. Please note that these programs of study are meant to serve as informational examples only, and are not intended to replicate the exact curriculum of an existing online clinical MSW program.
Full-Time Course Schedule for an Online Clinical MSW Program (24 Months)
Part-Time Course Schedule for an Online Clinical MSW Program (32 months)
Field Education for Online Clinical MSW Programs
All online MSW programs, regardless of their specialization, require students to complete field education in-person in a social work setting where they apply the knowledge they have learned in their classes to real work with clients. Field education for online clinical MSW programs focuses on giving students the tools and training to work closely with clients in a therapeutic capacity.
During both their foundational and advanced field practicum experiences, students counsel clients using clinical therapeutic modalities; assist social work professionals in designing, implementing, and evaluating client interventions; and familiarize themselves with common scenarios and challenges of clinical practice. During their first-year field practicum, students typically complete more foundational clinical tasks to help them build a strong baseline set of clinical methodologies and skills. In their second field practicum, students generally take on more advanced and complex responsibilities in order to more closely approximate their future work upon graduating.
Online clinical MSW programs vary in terms of how they handle students’ practicum placements. Some programs actively match students to their practicums by interviewing students and partnering them with sites and supervisors that align with their academic interests and career goals. Other programs require students to manage the field placement process themselves, which involves seeking out social work sites and supervisors, interviewing at these locations, and applying for site approval from their program’s field education director or office. In addition, some programs use both methods in that they handle the matching of students to their first, foundational field practicum, and then ask that students manage their placement for their advanced field practicum. Students should consult with admissions officers at their programs of interest for the most detailed information on these programs’ field education procedures and policies.
For more information on the field education matching process and a detailed guide to succeeding in one’s field practicum, please refer to our comprehensive Guide to Field Education.