Like on-campus programs, distance learning master's degree programs in social work train students to work with at-risk populations and help children, families, or communities in need. Online master's programs in social work are found in graduate schools at public and private universities. These programs typically take anywhere from one to four years, depending on school requirements, students' enrollment status and the academic background of students. Graduate social work degree programs are rarely available totally online, since they typically require practicum experiences and/or on-campus coursework. Master's programs require a bachelor's degree.
Master's Degree in Social Work
All applicants desiring to enter an online social work master's program must have a bachelor's degree prior to admission. From there, requirements vary based on the school and the design of the program. Some programs were created specifically for working professionals who already have a social work bachelor's degree and want to enhance their qualifications. Schools may offer a fast-track option for these students that requires fewer credit hours and can be completed in two years or less. Other programs are designed for those with no academic background in the field. In these cases, programs could require considerably more courses and take between two and four years to complete.
Core topics in a master's degree program in social work include a wide range of social issues and human behavior. Specific course topics include the following:
- Social Welfare Policy
- Human Behavior in the Social Environment
- Diversity and Social Justice
- Social Welfare Research
- Data Analysis
- Advanced Practice
- At-risk Populations
- Social Work Values and Ethics
Students taking online courses typically obtain lecture materials and assignments through a virtual classroom available through a school's website. A variety of tools, including message boards and chat rooms, allow students and professors to interact regularly. Many distance learning master's programs in social work utilize video conferencing technology to conduct live classes, which require students to attend online at scheduled times, usually on a weekly basis.
Some programs may also require on-campus visits during the course of the program. Even if all coursework is available online, distance learners must still complete a practicum experience - often multiple ones - at an approved community or human services setting in their area. These typically last a full semester and allow students to apply their skills under supervision.
Completing an accredited program, along with meeting state licensure requirements, could help graduates establish or advance their careers in social work, case management, and other related occupations. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates that counselors, social workers and other community and social service specialists will grow 12% in the 2014-2024 decade (www.bls.gov). Possible positions for social work graduates include:
- Case Managers
- Geriatric Services Coordinators
- Domestic Abuse Counselors
- Adoption Workers
- Hospice Social Workers
- Managed Health Care Counselors
- Psychiatric Rehabilitation Counselors
- School Social Workers
Earnings for social workers vary by specialty, location and employer. For instance, BLS data from 2015 shows that child, family and school social workers earned an average wage of $46,610, while those specializing in mental health and substance abuse made $47,190; healthcare social workers earned an average yearly income of $54,020.
Online master's degree programs in social work provide students with an opportunity to complete coursework online, though a practicum will have to be completed in-person. Students study social issues and human behavior that prepare them for careers as case managers, social workers, and health care counselors.