Social Work Graduate Programs – Pros and Cons

I recently earned my MSW (Master of Social Work) at UBC in Vancouver. A reader asked what I think of the program, so here’s a list of some of the pros and cons. It was a two year MSW for me, because my undergrad degree isn’t in social work. Some social work graduate programs can be completed in one year.

In my opinion, social work graduate programs in general are more valuable than counseling graduate programs because they are interdisciplinary in nature. A grad degree such as an MSW allows you to work in a wider variety of settings and gives you the skills to perform a wider variety of roles than a counseling degree does.

But, a social work graduate program may not give you the counseling skills you need to become a Registered Clinical Counselor in your province or state. So, when you’re deciding about which of the many social work graduate programs would be best for you, your first step is to decide what work you want to do after you get your degree. If you’re learning towards counseling or psychology, read What to Do With a Psychology Degree.

Benefits of Social Work Graduate Programs

More job opportunities. We have to be realistic, not just passionate! To me, this means we need to balance our personal goals with the professional opportunities in the marketplace. Before I decided to pursue an MSW instead of a Master of Counseling, I browsed the jobs on Charity Village. That was the tipping point for me – I saw more opportunities for MSWs than RCCs.

Interdisciplinary skills. Even though I really want to get a job as a counselor, I thought a MSW would give me more skills and a broader background. I knew that social workers are trained to work within the system as a whole, not just with people as individuals. Since individuals live within the system, it’s important to help them see how to navigate it. And, social work graduate programs train students to work with people of diverse cultures and nationalities, which appealed to me.

Variety of practicum placement opportunities. My first practicum as a social work graduate student was with the Alzheimer Society in Vancouver. My primary role was facilitating support groups for caregivers, which I loved doing. My second placement is with the Union Gospel Mission, in the Alcohol and Drug Residential Recovery Program for men. My goal is to learn counseling skills, but it’s not as easy as learning how to facilitate support groups! Individual counseling sessions are private and confidential, and it can be difficult to nose one’s way in.

If you’re considering web-based or online social work graduate programs, read Pros and Cons of Online University Courses.

Drawbacks of UBC’s Social Work Program

Buyer beware! The following weaknesses of UBC’s MSW are my opinions, and not necessarily representative of the true nature of this social work program. Further, classes and professors and course content changes over time, so my perspective may be invalid by the time you read this. I will graduate next month – in April 2014.

Master of Social Work MSW UBC Vancouver

“Social Work Graduate Programs” image by Laurie

Low quality education in class. The professors in the social work program seem to lean heavily towards group presentations and unstructured class discussions, rather than presenting their knowledge or helping students develop relevant social work skills. For instance, my social policy class consisted of the professor sharing memories of his social work experiences over the years (he’s in his 60s, so there were lots of fond memories). My First Nations class consisted of several guest speakers who shared their traumatic, destructive experiences in residential schools in Canada (this is very, very important information – but it was told so often in this class, I became desensitized. I wished I could learn about more than “just” the impact of residential schools. What about current reservation functioning? Issues facing Aboriginal people today? How to respond to racism on the part of non-Aboriginal people?). My child and family social work class consisted of the professor reading his lecture notes to us in three hour stints, and not encouraging us to think for ourselves or discuss issues.

That said, however, I did learn from some of the social work grad courses at UBC, such as the group therapy class, the individual counseling course, and my first integrative seminar. But overall, I believe the quality of UBC’s social work graduate program is low. I was disappointed by the courses and the instructors, and am glad UBC is a public institution that doesn’t cost near as much as a private college or university.

Difficulties in getting solid practicum or internship placements. Most social work graduate programs require practicums – and I believe learning on the job is extremely valuable. The practicum system at UBC was a mess when I went there. Some students didn’t get a placement for months after they were supposed to, and others – like me – still haven’t worked with an MSW supervisor after two placements. This doesn’t matter much to me because my primary goal isn’t to get a job as a social worker (counseling is my goal), but I should probably have worked with a social worker at some point during my two year Master of Social Work degree.

Huge class sizes. A graduate level seminar should not consist of 28 students – that’s way too many for the level of class discussions we should have been having. Class size is a huge problem in the MSW program, for both the instructors and the students.

There are other weaknesses of this social work graduate program – and there are other strengths, as well. I’m glad I went back to school for my MSW, but I would never call UBC’s social work graduate program high-quality education.

If you’re paying your way through graduate school, read 10 High Paying Jobs for College Students.

I welcome your questions and thoughts on UBC’s undergraduate or graduate social work program – or the MSW program at other universities – in the comments section below.