Fieldwork is an important component of the social work degree. While traditional coursework gives you an idea of the types of situations you may encounter in your work, there is no substitute for practical real world experience.
In your field placement, you will have the opportunity to put the skills you are learning into practice while receiving guidance from an experienced supervisor.IN THIS GUIDE
- Field placement requirements
- What to expect
- Finding your placement
- Where will I work?
- Associated costs
- Field placement supervision
- Required documentation
Field placement requirements
In most states, to become a licensed social worker you must graduate from a social work program that has been accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). The CSWE has set a minimum number of field education hours that a student must complete in order to receive their social work degree from an accredited institution.
In March of 2020, the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) modified their field placement requirements to allow for increased safety protocols for faculty, students, clients, and staff in light of the pandemic. In October of 2020, the CSWE extended these modifications through 2022.
Pre-pandemic, CSWE-approved bachelor of social work field placements required a minimum of 400 hours to be completed on-site. Current protocol allows for students to reduce this by up to 15 percent, to 340 hours. The new protocol also allows for a possibility of remote work. Be sure to carefully investigate how the programs you are applying to are handling the situation, as each program will have their own way of adapting to these guidelines.
The BSW placement is considered a foundation placement. This means that rather than focusing on targeting skills that can be used with a specific population, your placement will focus on building a general foundation of skills that can be used with a broad range of clients and across multiple settings.
Pre-pandemic, CSWE approved master of social work field placements required a minimum of 900 hours to be completed on-site. Current protocol allows for students to reduce this by up to 15 percent, to 765 hours. The new protocol also allows for a possibility of remote work. Again, be sure to carefully investigate how the programs you are applying to are handling the situation, as each program will have their own way of adapting to these guidelines.
The MSW program consists of 2 field placements. The first placement is typically shorter. It is the equivalent of the 400 hour BSW foundation placement described above.
The second placement is typically longer, and specialized towards your professional interests. It is here you will build on the foundational skills from your first placement and hone the skills you will need in your chosen field.
Advanced standing requirements
If you have your bachelors degree in social work and are pursuing your masters degree, you might choose an advanced standing social work program. The advanced standing degree gives you credit for your BSW and waives a significant portion of the masters program, up to an entire year. Most advanced standing programs give you full credit for your undergraduate field placement if you are coming from a CSWE accredited school. In this case, you will only have to complete the specialized field placement defined above.
Students pursuing an accelerated MSW program are committing to complete the same amount of work as a student in a traditional MSW program in a shorter amount of time. This includes fieldwork. Accelerated MSW students will have to complete both a foundation field placement and a specialized field placement with the same number of hours as their traditional counterparts.
State requirements for clinical licensure
If you are planning to pursue clinical licensure after graduation, your requirements for post graduate supervised clinical experience will vary by state. Some states will closely examine your graduate field placement work as well. If your field placement hours do not include enough clinical contact, some states will increase the number of post-graduate clinical contact hours needed to apply for licensure.
For example, Maine doubles its requirements for clinical experience for applicants who do not have a clinical field placement in their masters program. Wisconsin adds an additional 1,500 hours of clinical experience requirements for applicants without a clinical field placement.
What to expect
To ensure you will get the most out of your field experience, you should get a detailed picture of how the process works at each of the schools you are considering.
Some questions to consider:
- How large is the fieldwork department?
- Are students assigned to individual field advisors?
- How many credits of field education are required?
- What are the academic requirements for field education?
- How are field placements obtained?
- Are there placements available with your area of interest?
- What protections are in place for the student?
- What recourse do students have if there is a problem with the field placement?
- Are there any paid opportunities?
- How often do students meet with their academic field advisors?
- Do the academic field advisors meet with the placement site supervisors?
- Does the field education office do site visits?
- Are virtual field placements available?
Finding your placement
If your program matches you to your field placement, your journey will begin with the fieldwork office at your school. You will be asked to identify your career interests and field education goals through questionnaires and interviews.
An honest assessment of your skills will be important here. You want to be open about what you bring to the position as well as what you need to learn. You are not expected to be an expert when you enter the placement.
Some schools will require you to find your own fieldwork sites. Once you have found a match, you must then submit the proposal to your academic field placement office for approval. This can be a long process, so if the program you choose falls into this category, you will want to identify potential fieldwork sites as early as possible.
If your school falls into this category, ask if they have a list of placement sites and supervisors that they have worked with in the past, have access to databases of potential placement sites, or have a network of alumni who can help new students find appropriate placements.
Once your placement options have been identified, you will have an interview. Fieldwork is often considered to be the keystone of social work education, encompassing roughly one third of your entire educational program. You will be spending the equivalent of a part-time job there, learning your craft. So ask questions that will help you determine if the placement will provide you with everything you need.
- What does orientation look like?
- Will you have the opportunity to shadow staff?
- What specific tasks will you be expected to/allowed to complete?
- How are those tasks assigned?
- What resources are available to students?
- What can you expect the workload to look like?
- How often will you meet with the supervisor?
- Will your placement include virtual services? i.e. telehealth
- Will your immediate supervisor be a social worker? Will you have enough hours of MSW supervision to meet your requirements for your program?
- What type of documentation will be provided to your school?
- How do they monitor and evaluate students? What do they expect from students?
- Will you have the opportunity to complete all of the tasks required for your field placement?
Your first placement will be a foundation or generalist placement. This placement provides students with a strong grounding in basic social work skills, practices, and philosophical approach that will apply in any future placement and work setting. Students are exposed to multiple social work roles, including case management, advocacy, resource management, assessment and discharge planning, etc.
Ideally, the foundation year field placement will provide students with opportunities to develop what the Council on Social Work Education calls the nine social work competencies: ethics, diversity, research, policy, human rights and social, economic, and environmental justice, and direct practice skills including assessment, engagement, intervention, and evaluation. This placement may not be in the student’s preferred area of practice, but instead will offer a wider array of experiences.
An example of a foundational fieldwork placement in a hospital might include the following:
- Assessment and discharge planning
- Case management
- Interdisciplinary teamwork
- Community resource management
After completing the foundational field placement you should feel more confident in your abilities, and have a level of comfort and confidence with the core competencies. You will then be ready to pursue your second year, specialized field placement. Here you will build on these foundational skills and add training in the skills targeted to your specific career interests.
An example of a specialized macro field placement with a NGO might include the following:
- Public health
- Social justice
- Campaign design
- Program development
- Community outreach, assessment and engagement
- Liaison i.e. between communities, organizations, and government
Where will I work?
For a deep dive on the distinctions below, check out our complete guide to the different levels of social work.
- Rehabilitation Center
- Community Mental Health Center
- Medical Practice
- Legal Aid
- Probation/Parole Office
- Foster Care
- Senior Living Facility
- Childcare Center
- Homeless Shelter
- Community Based Organizations
- Advocacy Groups
- Immigration Services
- Refugee Services
- Advocacy Groups
- Government Agencies – all levels
- Human Rights Agencies
Professional social workers have incorporated virtual technologies into their practice for many years. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) has devoted a section of their code of ethics to the use of technology in social work practice.
With the advent of the pandemic in 2020, fully virtual placements became more common. These days it is likely that a field placement will include at least some virtual elements. Be sure to inquire about this in both your interview with the school prior to admission and with your field supervisor during the interview process.
Some schools offer a fully virtual field practicum for their first year placement. This format uses technology to place students in simulations of the situations they would encounter at a traditional foundation field placement site. Faculty, other students, and sometimes actors take on the roles of clients and staff, while faculty observe and instruct the students in real time.
Field placements are a part of the social work curriculum. On average, field education credits make up about a third of the total course work in a social work program.
At first glance, this can seem exploitative, using the student not only as free labor, but going even further and making them pay to work. However, this should not be the case. A good field placement will offer hands-on education. It provides an opportunity for students to observe and engage in practical situations that will prepare them to work independently as a social worker.
The tuition for field education covers much more than work experience. Ideally, along with the time you are putting in at your placement agency, your tuition will cover access to field placement staff support. The field education office should be assisting you with finding a placement that is a good fit. They should be checking in with you and your supervisor on a regular basis. And there should be at least one site visit per semester.
Your field education coursework will also include seminars where you will be discussing your placement with an instructor and other students. Your professor will be providing guidance as well as reviewing the papers and projects needed for successful completion of your placement.
In other words, your tuition should be paying for more than just the hours you are putting in at your placement site.
However, if you want to be compensated for your time, there may be some opportunities available to you. Some schools provide stipends, and some agencies do offer paid placements. It will be up to you to seek out these opportunities, so be sure to ask about this during your application process and during the field placement selection process.
While you may not find a placement that is an exact match for your interests, a good supervisor will ensure that you get the most out of the experience.
Your supervisor’s job is to train you so that you can gain the skills and confidence to be a professional social worker. You are not expected to know everything when you get there.
Your field supervisor will do more than help you hone your skills. A good supervisor will educate you on how to incorporate your social work competencies and subjects from your classroom learning into your work. They will provide opportunities for observation and education.
Your supervisor should also work with you to process your experience. Social work can be an emotionally demanding profession, and this can be difficult to navigate. Your supervisor should provide you with opportunities for self-reflection and self-care.
If your field supervisor does expect you to be an expert, or expects you to jump in and act as staff from the start, don’t take this as a compliment. You are not unpaid labor. You are there to learn.
You should never be made to feel like a burden. As time goes on you can and should be able to take on more responsibility, but you should also be supervised and should always feel comfortable seeking supervision.
If you are having trouble with your supervisor, address it with your academic field office ASAP. If you are worried that you will not be able to complete your course objectives, if you feel exploited or ignored or harassed or abused, your field education office should be able to help you resolve the situation, or find a new placement if necessary.
As you have seen, there are many field education requirements to be met. The Council of Social Work Education has requirements. The school has requirements. The placement site will have requirements. Good documentation will be key to ensuring that you are on track to meet all of your obligations.
Each program will have its own contract or agreement that the student and placement supervisor must review and sign prior to beginning the practicum. Be sure to fulfill your part of the contract, and hold your supervisor to their part.
The contract should set out a detailed outline of the responsibilities, rights, and risks for both the student and the field supervisor. It should include specific tasks, knowledge, skills and abilities. Most importantly, the contract should provide accountability for both the student and the supervisor.
Fieldwork is considered to be the cornerstone of social work education. More than anything else, it is your field experience that prepares you for a successful social work career. Ask questions and advocate for yourself throughout the process. From the moment you begin to consider educational programs through the process of finding a placement site and interviewing with your potential supervisor, you have the opportunity to find a placement site that meets your needs.
When you get there, take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way. Make the most of your supervision sessions by asking questions. Accept the feedback you receive. Learn how to apply the knowledge you have learned in class to a real world setting. At the end, you will have the skills and the confidence to pursue your social work career.