This guide provides a deep dive into the specializations of advanced generalist, clinical or direct practice, children, youth and families, management or administration, health, community and social systems, and gerontology and aging. This is not an exhaustive list of specializations, rather a look at the most widely available programs.In this guide
- Advanced generalist
- Clinical or direct practice
- Children, youth, and families
- Management or administration
- Community and social systems
- Aging and gerontology
At many schools, MSW students have the option to take advanced classes geared towards a particular career pathway. Within these specializations, the courses build upon a generalist social work foundation and apply that framework to history, policy, research, knowledge, and skills that focus on working with a particular population.
All MSW students receive instruction in the foundations of social work. These courses include social work theory, human behavior and the environment, social welfare, research, and fundamentals of social work practice. These courses provide the basis for all fields in social work.
The specializations build upon this framework to teach targeted skills and knowledge in individual practice areas. A school social worker, for example, needs to be able to apply their social work skills within the education system. It would be extremely beneficial to have training in this area. However, this coursework would not be useful for someone who wants to work in hospital management or as an advocate for prison reform. Students who know the type of social work they would prefer to practice would do well to target their coursework towards the skills and knowledge that pertain to their area of interest.
There are some who believe that the generalist perspective is all that’s needed for all positions. While it is true that the foundational skills will serve social workers in all domains, there is no question that learning the ins and outs of the area you wish to specialize in after graduation will be immensely helpful moving forward in your career. Students who don’t know yet where their heart lies can opt for an advanced generalist specialization.
While specializations exist that target specific populations and levels of practice, the advanced generalist is the most widely available.
All social work students receive at least one year of foundational courses. This work grounds students in the systems and person-in-environment frameworks that define the field.
The advanced generalist curriculum further develops these skills and sharpens them to advanced levels that can be applied in multiple settings and levels of practice.
Advanced Generalist students will take advanced courses in direct practice, social work management and administration, human behavior and the social environment, social work practice, policy, advocacy, research, and assessment.
Advanced generalist placements offer experiences at all levels of practice. At the micro level, students provide direct service work to individuals, families, and groups. At the mezzo level they engage in community outreach, advocacy, program development, administration, and assessment. At the macro level students receive experiences in management and policy.
Fieldwork can take place in settings as diverse as community development agencies, social justice and human rights organizations, advocacy programs, child and family service agencies, nursing homes, employee assistance programs, probation departments, hospitals, foster care and adoption agencies, and foundations.
Additional training and certifications
There are several professional education training courses offered through the National Association of Social Workers (NASW).
NASW does not offer an advanced generalist credential. However, the Association of Social Work Boards ASWB offers an Advanced Generalist Social Work Licensing exam.
Clinical or direct practice
Social workers who specialize in clinical or direct practice work with clients at the micro level. Direct practice social workers provide all the client-facing services including assessment, discharge planning, resource management, individual, group, and family counseling, case management, crisis management, and advocacy.
Direct practice social workers can be found in hospitals, schools, government agencies, community centers, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, nonprofits, homeless agencies, and welfare offices.
Clinical social workers also provide counseling and treatment services. They work in mental health settings. These can include psychiatric hospitals or psychiatric wards, residential treatment centers, drug and alcohol treatment centers, community mental health centers, outpatient and day treatment centers, and private practice settings. Clinical social workers can work with individuals across the lifespan and provide counseling to individuals, groups, and families.
Clinical and direct practice students will take courses in direct practice, social work with diverse populations, child welfare, human development through the lifespan, aging, social welfare, policy, clinical skills, case management, and social justice.
Direct practice field placements develop skills in assessment, case management, and discharge planning, information and referral, resource management, evaluation, and individual, family, and group work. Clinical placements also develop counseling and treatment skills.
Direct practice placements include settings such as community centers, welfare offices, probation and parole offices, advocacy agencies, human rights organizations, and immigration and refugee programs. Clinical placements can be found at mental health and rehabilitation centers.
Additional training and certifications
There are several types of certifications available to clinical and direct practice social workers. For example, the American Board of Clinical Social Work (ABCSW) provides a Board Certified Diplomate in Clinical Social Work (BCD). NAADAC, the Association for Addiction Professionals offers several certifications in the field of addiction. Additionally several universities provide case management certifications.
NASW offers credentials in case management and clinical social work. These include the Certified Advanced Social Work Case Manager (C-ASWCM), the Qualified Clinical Social Worker (QCSW) credential, and the Certified Clinical Alcohol, Tobacco & Other Drugs Social Worker (C-CATODSW) credential.
Children, youth, and families
Social workers can work with children, youth and families at all levels of social work practice. In fact, they may perform at all three levels simultaneously.
They work with children, youth and families in medical settings such as community health centers, pediatric practices, and children’s hospitals. They work with teens in the juvenile justice system. They work with families at family mental health centers and adoption agencies. They can also be found in the schools and at government child welfare agencies.
At the micro level, children, youth and family social workers provide case management and counseling services on an individual, group, or family level. At the mezzo level, these social workers advocate for their clients with teachers, lawyers, judges and medical professionals. They provide community outreach such as providing parent education. They work in the areas of program development, management, and evaluation. At the macro level, social workers have a central role in creating public policy and legislation that helps families and protects children.
Working with children can be especially challenging. In all settings social workers will work with children experiencing abuse. Often it falls to the social worker to report suspected abuse to the appropriate government agency. Or, the social worker may be the one working with families toward reunification or assisting the transition into the foster system. In other cases, social workers may work with families experiencing homelessness and poverty. They may assist families with obtaining housing and food.
It is therefore crucial for social workers in this field to receive supervision and engage in self care activities. There can be a high burnout rate and turnover in these positions, but with the right safeguards in place this can be one of the most rewarding social work specializations.
Children, youth, and family students will take courses in social work practice with individuals, families and groups; child, youth and family policy; advocacy, research methods, family systems, clinical skills for children, youth, and families; case management, and current issues facing children, youth, and families.
Social work field placements with children, youth and families focus on child development, child welfare and family systems.
These placements develop micro skills in assessment and discharge planning, mediation, case management, education, crisis management, disaster work, and counseling skills on the individual, group, and family level; mezzo skills such as advocacy and community organizing; and macro skills in policy and legislation.
Placements can include community organizations, medical facilities, schools, child welfare agencies, homeless shelters, rehabilitation facilities, community outreach organizations, community health and mental health centers, and adoption agencies.
Additional training and certifications
NASW offers two certifications in this area for masters level social workers, the Certified Advanced Children, Youth, and Family Social Worker (C-ACFYSW), and the Certified School Social Work Specialist (C-SSWS).
Management or administration
Social workers bring a unique skillset to management and administrative positions. These positions occur at the mezzo and macro level, as these jobs do not work directly with the clients. Instead, social work managers and administrators work behind the scenes, providing resources and creating a safe and effective environment for the micro level services.
Social work managers and administrators work at the C-suite and director levels in a social service organization. These social workers must balance the requirements of running a successful business with the mission of the organization and the needs of the population it serves. In other words, the needs of the clients must be an equal partner in decision making along with financial and policy concerns. Fortunately, the systems perspective of social work training provides social workers in management and administrative positions with the tools to reconcile these needs in a way that is beneficial to both the clients and the organization.
Social workers are qualified to administer any type of social service organization as well as to manage larger institutions or even government agencies at local, state, national, and international levels. A social worker might run a community center, work as a director of a national organization such as the United Way, or lead international organizations such as the Red Cross.
In these positions, social workers have supervision and program management responsibilities. They may be responsible for writing and administering grants, and overseeing budgets. They may provide program development and create organizational policy.
Management and administration students will take courses in social welfare policy and services, social work practice with organizations and communities, social work administration, civic engagement, social welfare policy, social work management, program design, program evaluation, and social work leadership.
Social work field placements in management and administration develop competence in business practices, legal issues, government policy and human resources. They develop mezzo and macro skills in leadership, finance, budgeting, grant writing, fundraising, supervision, advocacy, community outreach, event planning and management, public relations, policy development, and strategic planning.
Management and administration field placements will take place in many of the same places as client-facing placements. These include community organizations, nonprofits, government agencies, rehabilitation centers, healthcare organizations, and legal aid.
Additional training and certification
Some schools offer additional certifications such as San Diego State University’s Advanced Certificate in Social Work Administration and the LEAD in Social Work, Graduate Certificate from Florida State University.
NASW does not offer credentialing in management and administration specifically. However, the Academy of Certified Social Workers (ACSW) credential is considered a leadership credential.
Social workers have a place in all types of medical settings such as outpatient, inpatient, hospital, hospice, and rehabilitation centers. Furthermore, social workers work with many different populations. Social workers work with children in pediatric hospitals, older adults in nursing homes, patients in oncology and cardiac centers, dialysis clinics, and all other medical areas.
At the micro level, social workers provide assessment, care and crisis management, and discharge planning services to patients and their families. They act as an advocate and liaison for their patients with medical staff and insurers, ensuring that patients are treated respectfully and that they are being given all of the information necessary to make important medical decisions. They help patients secure additional support and resources such as meals and transportation.
At the mezzo level, social workers advocate for populations who have limited access to healthcare services to ensure that they can get their medical needs met. They may also work on crisis management teams. They act as a liaison between communities and public health agencies. They work to secure equal access to medical services and encourage populations that are hesitant to seek out medical services to engage in preventative, acute and chronic care. Social workers can be found in middle and upper level management at health care facilities.
At the macro level, social workers advocate for accessible healthcare for all, regardless of age, medical condition, or economic status. They advocate for patients rights. They work to improve healthcare policy and laws.
Social work students with a medical specialization will take courses in medical social work, trauma skills, case management, crisis work, assessment and discharge planning, grief and loss, medical policy, and advocacy.
At the micro level placements develop skills in assessment, discharge planning, resource management, individual, group, and family counseling, case management, and crisis management. At the mezzo level, fieldwork experience develops skills in advocacy, healthcare administration and management, and public health. At the macro level, medical fieldwork experiences develop skills in public health, law, and advocacy.
Medical field placements can be found in hospitals, medical centers, rehabilitation centers, home health agencies, hospices, lobbying organizations and law firms.
Additional training and certification
Several schools and organizations offer training and certificates in the medical social work field. These include but are not limited to a Medical Social Work Certificate from Florida Gulf Coast University, an oncology social work certification from the Board of Oncology Social Work Certification, and even a veterinary social work certificate from the University of Tennessee.
The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) offers the Certified Social Worker in Health Care (C-SWHC) certification.
Community and social systems
Community social work focuses on improving the functioning of a community. Community social workers practice at community centers, governmental agencies and advocacy groups. They work in fundraising, grant writing, disaster recovery, policy, advocacy, outreach, organizing, and research.
Community and social systems students will take courses in planning, program evaluation, applied research, coalition-building, advocacy, grant writing, social work administration, community development, social welfare, social justice, policy, community and organizational practice, and leadership.
Community social workers work at all levels of practice, often all in the same day. Fieldwork experiences develop micro skills such as assessment, case management, and outreach, mezzo skills such as administration, group work and organizing, and macro skills such as advocacy and research.
Community fieldwork settings include community based organizations, cooperatives, collectives, advocacy organizations, and food banks.
Additional training and certification
There are many different types of certificates available which reflect the diverse nature of the community practice field. These are offered by individual universities and organizations and include but are not limited to certificates in advocacy, human services, social work leadership, environmental justice, and financial social work.
Furthermore, there are several dual degree programs which are appropriate to community social work. These include but are not limited to MSW/MPH (Master’s of public health) and MSW/MPA (Master’s of public administration).
At this time there are no community social work certifications available through the National Organization of Social Workers.
Aging and Gerontology
Geriatric social workers assist seniors at all levels. At the micro level, geriatric social workers work in case management, counseling, and family assistance. At the mezzo level, geriatric social workers run community centers, care homes, or work with communities to provide programs for seniors such as aging in place. At the macro level, geriatric social workers advocate for change and work to improve legislation for seniors.
Geriatic social workers can be found working in hospitals, senior centers, area agencies on aging, elder law offices, and even on Capitol Hill.
Aging and gerontology students will take courses in aging and society, policy, direct practice with the elderly, family systems, grief and loss, aging and human development, assessment of older adults, research methods, and advocacy.
Fieldwork in the gerontology specialization develops micro skills such as assessment, discharge, case management, and resource planning.. In a mezzo or macro setting, advocacy and policy training are included.
Fieldwork can take place at hospitals, nursing homes, long term care facilities, community centers, elder law firms and organizations such as AARP and Senior Corps.
Additional training and certification
Several social work programs offer certificates in gerontology, including Rutgers and the University of Pittsburgh. Additionally, some social work programs such as the University of Southern California offer dual degrees in social work and gerontology.
The National Association of Social Workers offers two credentials in the area of gerontology. These are the Advanced Social Worker in Gerontology (ASW-G) certificate and the Clinical Social Worker in Gerontology (CSW-G) credential.
As you can see, within the field of social work there are many different career pathways. The MSW degree is extremely versatile, and with some advanced planning it can be highly specialized as well.