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.

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1 comments On Social Work Graduate Programs – Pros and Cons

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    As one of your cohorts in the MSW program at the UBC Vancouver campus, I think you were very gentle with your critiques about the program. However, given the number of classmates who have filed complaints with the Graduate Student Society (GSS) after being intimidated by veiled warnings to ‘tow-the-line’ from one administrator, I empathize with your selectively cautious wording.
    You are absolutely brilliant by highlighting the importance of first asking what one wants to do with their Graduate education and then examining the core focus the Grad program [supposedly] teaches. For example, I had no idea the MSW program at the UBC Okanagan campus was intensely clinical from a Mental Health perspective, compared to the [vague] generalist anti-oppressive program at the Vancouver campus. Had I known this ahead of time, I would never have chosen the UBC Vancouver program; I don’t see the point of being a master of nothing, but having a two-cent opinion about everything. Similarly, coworkers in each of my Practicums and therapists at conferences with an MA in Counselling said they wish they could go back and do an MSW with an RCC instead, since we can do 5-7 jobs with an MSW. Not to mention private practice, third-party billing with extended health insurance is automatically accepted with an MSW. The MSW program at UBC also allows you to draw the [false] conclusion that you will take classes that will prepare you to go forward and be eligible for certification as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), but they still do not offer a single class that is accepted under current certification guidelines along with the clinical hours. Some of our classmates have filed complaints with the BC Association of Social Workers (BCASW) and College of Social Workers (CSW) about this, having submitted syllabus of classes and being told they barely meet the licensure criteria. After all, it seems weird to graduate from UBC and then have to take 4 classes at UVIC or elsewhere to finally finish one’s journey. Sadly, I have met social workers at hospitals and at conferences who graduated from our program up to five years ago, and it seems the problems have existed as long as one specific administrator has been in charge of the MSW program. Unfortunately, there are many other differences. For example, as numerous classmates phone CSW for clarification of inconsistencies within our program compared to UVIC, they have learned that the CSW only asks Grad students to complete 300 hours per practicum. Conversely, our program demands 450 hours. The CSW told our classmates that there is no type of conflict for Grad students to also complete paid practicums, but we are forbidden to do paid practicums. Students courageously seek out solutions (strength-based approach) and try to advocate (motivate) changes. Thus far, [most] concerns about the inconsistencies are either ignored or retorted from a wounded defensive position, rather than being open-minded (client-centered) to what is being done (evidence-based) at other universities. Otherwise, make sure the Grad program attendance numbers are conducive to seminar-based teachings. There were 27 cohorts accepted into our Foundation year and there are 40+ in our final year. Instead of Grad student with vibrant backgrounds exchanging rich discourse in seminar classes, we sit in three hour classes watching 60+ power point slides go by listening to high school-like lectures. I have taken 16 classes thus far, and I only bought books for four classes. All of the material is presented in power point slides or easily online via Google. This year they tried to “fix” their lack of preparation by actually combining BSW and FMSW students into one class on policy issues. Needless to say, new complaints at the GSS and disgruntled students.
    Anyway, if nothing else, being a grad student in such a purist dogmatic (social work versus psychology mentality) and dysfunctional program (youthful new hires versus tenured 1960s professors) framed around paternalized power dynamics entrenched in hierarchical systems, we have certainly learned how to empathize with clients and navigate (hoop jump) our way to the end. In short, by suffering we have learned to develop resiliency and empathize with clients who face a system that changes faces, but truly never changes within.

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