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5 Steps to Achieve Your MSW When Working Full Time

So, you have decided to go back to school for your Master of Social Work.  It’s OK if you are making a dramatic switch- say accounting to social work!  There are several steps to consider, and depending on your individual circumstances, you may need a different type of program than traditional classroom instruction.

Getting an advanced degree can be very difficult while maintaining full time employment- add family and any other obligations, and you may begin to feel it is impossible.

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Lucky for you, it is easier than ever to get an advanced degree while still maintaining full time employment.  Many universities have begun to tap into the non-traditional student: a later-in-life returning learner looking to use their experiences in the classroom for professional development opportunities.

If you are not a traditional student, that’s OK too!  The following are still considerations you need to evaluate.

Step 1– Have you discussed with your employer that you’re interested in returning to school?  If you haven’t, now is the time!  You do not want to blindside an employer with special requests and accommodations you might need to complete your degree.

You can also then determine if your employer will be- or can be- flexible with your work schedule.  This is important help hone in on which type of program may be best suited for you.

As an example, if you are currently working in direct care, traditional classroom may be more difficult, because your work schedule is likely more rigid.

Therefore, you may need to begin looking at online or hybrid programs.  Keep your focus in-state and local first.  You might find a state institution that offers just the kind of program you need.

If your schedule can be flexible, you should be aware of which brick and mortar colleges are within driving distance of you.

Is there a distance you’re unwilling to drive (let alone have reliable transportation for)?  Again, depending on the answers to these questions, a determination of the type of program you need should become more evident.

You may also consider talking to colleagues who have recently gotten their MSW or other advanced degree and ask how they were able to make it work.  The more information you have, the better decision you will be able to make.

Step 2– You now should have a good evaluation of your personal circumstances, what colleges are near you, and the type of program you need. Now is the time you should begin comparing programs based on whether the degree is clinical, advanced-generalist, or macro.

Either will prepare you for your state licensure exam, but if you know you want all clinical work, then don’t waste your time in a program pushing macro.

Other considerations for programs include cost of attendance, length of program, admission requirements, curriculum- traditional classroom, online, or hybrid, courses offered, extended study programs, and accreditation.

“ If the Council on Social Work Education has accredited the school, there is a bare minimum standard set for competence of which the school must demonstrate. ”

The majority of brick and mortar institutions that offer an MSW will have an accredited program (though you should still verify!).  If you know you’re looking at an online school, your education will not necessarily be less intense.

If the Council on Social Work Education has accredited the school, there is a bare minimum standard set for competence the school must demonstrate.

Nearly every state also will require completion of an accredited program by the CSWE prior to taking the licensure exam.

As you are considering schools, you also should consider their reputations.  This is most important with online schools.

There are some online schools that employers cringe seeing for two reasons: the first, online schooling has yet to catch mainstream acceptance; and secondly, some online colleges seem to be degree factories.

This latter concern seems to happen most in for-profit universities as you’re essentially paying them for a degree rather than an education.  Employers want you to be licensed and competent; you should too or you will be prone to liability while in practice.

If you’d like to see more about programming and licensure requirements, please visit the Master of Social Work page.

Step 3– So you’ve now determined what school or schools you will be applying to.  You have determined you qualify for admission to the program.  If you haven’t already, identify when your application for admission is due.

Missing this date can throw off your plans for at least a year.

If you are enrolling into an extended study program or another aimed at the non-traditional student, ask the college about class start times.  Often these programs will keep the cohort on the same class schedule for evening classes.

This will allow you opportunity to work with your employer well in advance to make adjustments to your work schedule.  The last thing you want to do is piss off the employer leading into your program.

Once you have completed your application for admission, complete your Free Application for Financial Aid (FAFSA) if you plan to use Department of Education student loans.  By this point, pat yourself on the back.  You’ve completed the easy part.

As a side note, when it comes to applications for admission and essays, feel free to reach out; I can give you tips on making your application stand out.

If you have an undergraduate GPA of less than 3.0 or making a dramatic professional/ academic switch, it will be imperative to write a stellar essay.

Step 4– Flash forward- you’ve been accepted to a MSW program.  Your employer is aware of your class schedule, so there should not be any real surprises on that front.

So what else do you need to consider?  A lot! There are Internships, family, kids, self-care, and other obligations that cannot be marginalized.

Once you have a class schedule set, sit down with your family and children and discuss your commitment to them and your schooling.

Hopefully they are all on-board with your decision.  It will be imperative to schedule time for family.  As an example, when I got home from evening classes, I would spend time with my family until they went to bed (luckily my wife goes to bed relatively early).

I would then have the remainder of the night to read and complete other assignments.

Every accredited MSW program will require you to have at least one internship.  If you are in an extended study program, you will possibly have two: a foundational and concentration (regardless, they generally total 900 hours).

Hopefully you know this information up front and can discuss the time requirements with your employer.

During my two internships, I had to average 15 hours per week.  I was fortunate to have an employer that allowed me to intern within another department and could split my time.

Discuss options such as this with your employer; you would be helping them out tremendously and allow more time later in the day for homework, family, or self-care.

If you are making a major switch e.g accounting to social work, target local social service agencies.  Outreach and find what possibilities there may be in considering your work obligations.

If you know your employer cannot be flexible with your 8-5 schedule, finding an internship location with after hours/ on call staff may be your only shot.  Your school should be able to help identify placements!

“At the height of my MSW program, I was working at least 18 hours per day and was lucky to get in one meal.”

At the height of my MSW program, I was working at least 18 hours per day and was lucky to get in one meal: I worked 8-4 (worked through lunch to leave early), drove an hour to class, had class from 5:30-8:00, left class and worked with our Emergency Services staff at the ER until midnight.

My caloric intake was mostly coffee.

This is not healthy!

Don’t do what I did- I lost a lot of weight.  Structure your day and internship hours to permit time for yourself.  Family time is not necessarily self-care time.

For me, I would play video games for about a half hour before I started on school work.  It’s short but frequent and gave me time to space out.  Learn to pack food and bring it with you so you’re not going all day without eating.

This places you at a huge disadvantage in learning and retaining a mental sharpness you will need during your internship.

Step 5– Extend a thank you to everyone who has helped and supported you.  I made a point to send a thank you card to my field supervisors, my direct supervisor, and even the executive director of our agency.

Without all of these individuals working in agreement, I would have had a significantly more difficult time completing my studies.

This also is a reminder of how great a worker you are to all those you’ve interacted with.  It is unlikely you’re looking to stay in your current job after receiving your MSW, right?

This also should go without saying but be sure your “day job” does not suffer; your employer likely will not make accommodations for you if you can’t stay on top of your job.

“When we can extend this appreciation to those who have helped support our schooling, we are strengthening the bond we have with supervisors we will continue to work with and paving the way for other colleagues to follow in your footsteps.”

For my wife, I made a point to save an unnoticeable amount each pay period over the course of a year and took her on a surprise weekend getaway.

She sacrificed as much as me, if not more due to many lonely nights at home- pregnant and then caring for an infant for my last year of school.

When we can extend this appreciation to those who have helped support our schooling, we are strengthening the bond with supervisors we will continue to work with and paving the way for other colleagues to follow in your footsteps.

Pursuing an advanced degree is a significant decision.  It will be at least two years of substantial work; many of your personal relationships will become strained as a result.

With the proper planning, however, the stress on others will be mitigated.

The opportunities are vast with a MSW compared to psychology and counseling.  Stick with the program; network along the way; and you likely will find yourself in a cushy master level position with room for advancement.

If you have further questions about how to make both full time employment and graduate school work in tandem, contact me.  There are personalized tips I can provide.

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Ben Barrett

First, thank you for reading The How to Social Worker- my alter ego.  My name is Ben Barrett and am a clinical social worker and addictions counselor. My personal experiences with mental health have shaped my professional perspective. Through my struggles both personally and professionally, I hope you can improve your own quality of life.

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