Master of Social Work (MSW) Specializations: Micro, Macro, and Advanced Generalist

In terms of broad areas of specialization, Master of Social Work (MSW) programs can generally be divided into three categories: micro, macro, and advanced generalist programs. However, within these broad categories are specializations through which students can further hone their areas of expertise in order to work in their desired field post-graduation. Examples of such specializations include, but are not limited to, substance abuse and addictions, child and family social work, geriatric social work, criminal justice social work, social work program development and administration, social work advocacy, and social entrepreneurship.

Some schools of social work, in addition to offering specializations, also offer their students tracks or sub-specializations, enabling students to gain advanced knowledge in more than one area of social work. For example, some programs may have a specialization in adult mental health and wellness, along with a sub-specialization or optional track in military social work, substance abuse, and/or trauma. Below is a general overview of each of these three areas of social work, grouped according to whether they align with micro, macro, or advanced generalist social work.

Micro Social Work: Clinical or Direct Practice Social Work Specializations

Clinical social work involves working closely with individuals in need of mental and emotional health counseling and support. Also known as micro social work, clinical social work is a broad field wherein students can specialize in working with one or more specific populations, such as children, adults, the elderly, victims of domestic abuse, people struggling with substance addiction, and/or individuals who are subject to the criminal justice system. Clinical social work students also have the option to work in a variety of settings, such as child and family welfare agencies, substance abuse clinics, prisons, military bases, hospitals, outpatient clinics and community health centers, and women’s health organizations, just to name a few.

To accommodate the wide range of populations and settings that clinical social work encompasses, many schools of social work offer specializations in one or more of the following specializations and/or sub-specializations:

  • Child and Family Welfare Social Work: This specialization trains social workers to provide counseling, case management services, and other direct support to children, adolescents, and their families. Classes that are common to this sub-specialization include, but are not limited to, courses in diversity and social justice, family counseling, psychopathology, and social work practice with children, adolescents, and young adults.
  • Trauma and Domestic Abuse: This specialization focuses on the application of clinical social work methodologies to providing therapy and support services to victims of traumas such as domestic abuse and neglect, community violence, natural disasters, or assault. Students in this sub-specialization typically learn about the nature of trauma and its impact on people’s psyche, and how the clinical social worker can help victims of trauma to cope with and gradually heal from their experiences.
  • Mental Health Care for the Elderly (Geriatric Social Work): Students of this specialization learn about the mental, emotional, financial, familial, and social challenges that aging and elderly adults face through courses such as integrated geriatric health care, the biology and psychology of aging, the legal and ethical issues facing geriatric care, and advanced clinical practice with elderly clients.
  • Substance Abuse and Addictions: This specialization delves into the nature of substance dependency, the underlying causes of addiction, advanced therapeutic modalities (such as cognitive behavioral therapy, harm reduction techniques, and motivational interviewing), and the mental health care system in the United States.
  • Adult Wellness and Mental Health: This specialization provides a thorough overview of the theories, principles and methodologies that are essential to providing clinical therapy and social services to adult clients struggling with mental, emotional, and/or behavioral problems. Students learn to implement a person-in-environment approach coupled with therapeutic modalities ranging from dialectical behavioral therapy and experiential therapy to group psychotherapy.
  • Social Work in Health Care Settings (Medical Social Work): This specialization trains students to support patients in medical settings, as well as their families. Courses in this specialization may cover topics such as helping patients and their families navigate the medical benefits system, providing clinical therapy and emotional support to patients and loved ones suffering from anxiety and depression, and patient advocacy at the individual, organizational, and larger community level.
  • Criminal Justice Social Work (Forensic Social Work): Students of this specialization focus on people within the criminal justice system, such as individuals awaiting trial, prison inmates, and victims of crimes that involve them in the legal system. This specialization provides students with knowledge of the American legal system, the impact of trauma on both victims and perpetrators of crimes, the injustices and inequalities that are commonly found in the criminal justice system, and how to provide clinical therapy, case management services, and advocacy to vulnerable individuals within the legal system.
  • Military Social Work: This specialization provides students with the requisite knowledge and skills to work with members of the military and their families, and to support these individuals with challenges such as post-traumatic stress disorder, job-induced anxiety and/or depression, relocation, relationship strains, and substance reliance.
  • Psychiatric Social Work: Students of this specialization learn how to design and implement clinical interventions for individuals suffering from complex and/or severe mental, emotional, and/or behavioral disturbances. This specialization typically provides courses in advanced clinical diagnosis, intensive psychotherapy, risk assessments, and care coordination in inpatient psychiatric settings.

Macro-Level Social Work: Social Services Administration and Community Practice Specializations

Macro social work, in contrast to micro/clinical social work, concerns supporting vulnerable populations through large-scale programs that seek to help entire populations within a community. Macro social work does not typically involve working directly with or counseling clients using therapeutic modalities, or managing clients’ cases within an agency, health care, or related setting. Instead, the macro social worker seeks to have an indirect impact on many individuals at a time. They may accomplish this through the development of policies that address social inequalities and injustices; the design of programs that offer shelter, counseling, health care, financial aid, or educational services to vulnerable populations; the research of social work issues and/or best practices; or the creation of campaigns that seek to build awareness around key social justice issues.

Macro social work MSW programs may offer one or more of the following macro specializations or sub-specializations:

  • Social Work Administration and Leadership: This specialization provides students with the skills and knowledge to provide organizational direction and leadership to social work institutions. Students learn about the systems and processes that are inherent to effective human service organizations, as well as strategies for team, departmental, financial, and organizational management. They also learn the fundamentals of clarifying and communicating an organization’s social service or social justice mission, and how to orient programs in accordance with this mission.
  • Social Work Program Development and Evaluation: Students in this specialization learn the principles of program needs assessments, fundraising and proposal/grant writing, team and project management, and social work research’s role in identifying social justice needs and the best practices to address them. This specialization also includes courses on program evaluation and improvement.
  • Human Rights and Social Justice Advocacy: This specialization teaches students about the policies, political systems, and social structures that perpetuate injustices in the United States (as well as globally), and gives them the knowledge and tools to advocate for positive political change, as well as design and campaign for policies and institutions that support politically oppressed or vulnerable populations.
  • Social Entrepreneurship: As a relatively recent specialization, social entrepreneurship seeks to apply the principles and strategies of entrepreneurship—such as innovative use of technology, venture capitalist funding, and marketing strategies—to the design and implementation of programs, products, and services that support people in need. Students learn how to conduct research relevant to the populations they wish to serve, apply for funding, and leverage business development strategies and technology to design and iterate on programs that promote social justice.

Advanced Generalist MSW Programs

In addition to the above specializations and sub-specializations in micro and macro social work, there are also advanced generalist MSW programs that allow students to specialize within the area(s) that interest them. Advanced generalist programs typically enable students to choose the majority of their specialization and elective coursework, which allows students to receive training in both micro and macro social work, or to specialize in multiple areas within micro or macro social work.

For example, a student of an advanced generalist MSW program who is interested in working with clients struggling with substance abuse, as well as engaging in program development to aid this population, could take classes in clinical social work modalities and addictions, program development, social work research, and policy advocacy for populations vulnerable to substance abuse and addictions. On the other hand, another MSW student in an advanced generalist social work program could specialize in working with individuals suffering from trauma by taking classes in domestic abuse counseling, military social work, crisis management, and complex social work cases. For more information on advanced generalist programs, please refer to our What is an Advanced Generalist MSW Program? FAQ.

Important Considerations for MSW Specializations

There are several factors students should keep in mind while researching MSW programs. Advanced generalist programs typically do not offer specializations, so the depth and breadth of a program’s curriculum is determined by their elective courses. Programs that offer more electives provide students with a greater ability to tailor their course of study. Therefore, students should review both required and elective courses while researching advanced generalist MSW programs.

For micro and macro MSW programs, there are schools of social work that offer both types of specializations. Therefore, it may be possible for students who are interested in one specialization to take a course (or two) from the other specialization as an elective. However, there are schools that only offer clinical social work programs (there are not many schools that only offer macro social programs), and there are schools that only offer specific sub-specializations within clinical social work. Therefore, students should also review program curricula, including required and elective courses, to ensure they choose a program that will meet their educational and professional goals.

Finally, students who think they might be interested in eventually setting up their own private practice in clinical social work will need to seek licensure from their state’s social work licensing board. The process and requirements to become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) or equivalent vary by state. In general, however, these requirements often include completing specific types of courses, completing a specific number of field education hours in specific settings, and passing an exam offered by the Association of Social Work Boards (AWSB). Students interested in licensure should review the licensing requirements for their state of residence and check with program administrators at prospective programs to ensure they will be able to meet those requirements before applying. For example, for some states, macro social work programs may not provide the needed curriculum or field education experiences to see licensure in clinical social work.