Everything you need to know about social work internships
This guide is designed to provide information about internships in the social work field. Social work, like other health and helping professions, requires an internship experience as part of the bachelor’s and master’s degree experiences.
“Field internships” provide students with an experiential learning opportunity that prepares them for their professional roles they will fulfill after earning their degree. Since the required field internship experience is not only central to the academic experience but also what employers will look for when hiring, this guide will focus mostly on making the most out of the required social work experience.
Additional experience is also helpful, so at the end of the guide, non-field internships will be discussed.
What is a field internship?
Unlike other fields of study, internship experiences are a required part of the curriculum for bachelor’s and master’s programs.
All BSW and MSW programs accredited by the Council of Social Work Education (CSWE), the sole accrediting organization of social work programs, require social work programs to provide a structured field internship experience as a condition of accreditation. According to the CSWE, “Field [internships] is where students integrate classroom knowledge with real-world experience, and field is where students acquire and demonstrate the skills and competencies fundamental to social work practice.”
Field internships allow students to learn and practice key skills under the close supervision of a qualified social worker and with support of classes and seminars in which they are participating. This allows social workers to have good foundational experience before working with clients and communities as a professional post-graduation.
While the CSWE provides guidelines for the structure and type of field internship students can participate in, schools have a good deal of latitude with how they structure their program. Here are some basic requirements for internship experiences:
- Bachelor’s students are required to participate in at least 400 hours of internship, and masters students are required to complete at least 900 hours. Advanced standing students, which are social workers that have a BSW degree and are seeking a MSW, are required to complete the additional 500 hours on top of the 400 hours they completed in their undergraduate program, bringing their total hours to 900, as required for the master’s programs.
- Bachelor’s students complete their internship in the senior year of their program. Master’s students participate in internships throughout their program. There may be some variance in when they begin internship based on differences in the program structure such as part-time, advanced standing, accelerated (16-month programs), the full two-year program or if the program has online components.
- The experience must be supervised by a professional that is two years post-graduation. BSW internship supervisors must have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree, while MSW internship supervisors must have a minimum of a master’s degree. Sometimes, supervision can be provided by a professional from a related field, such as a psychologist, or a professional counselor. Other times, the supervisor may not have two years post-degree experience, but still, be the best person to directly supervise the intern. In those cases, the field site must articulate how the student will receive and experience in line with social work practice, such as consulting with a staff member or other professional that does have the appropriate social work experience.
- Social work students are required to develop a learning contract with input from their supervisor that outlines how the experience will reinforce learning of the nine social work competencies, outlined by the CSWE. At the end of every semester, students will be rated on their ability to meet the expectations outlined for each competency. The rating of the competencies do impact the grade a student receives from their field internship.
- Students participate in field seminars facilitated by a field coordinator or faculty member. The purpose of the seminar is to assist in making concrete connections between the field and academic experiences. Both BSW and MSW students are required to participate in the class. The class provides students with a space for skill development and reflection related to their internship.
Differences between the BSW and MSW internship experiences?
There are a few differences between the bachelor’s and master’s internship experience, in addition to the difference in hours required. The BSW degree trains students to be generalists in the field, meaning they learn about practices that can be applied across many different settings. Seniors BSW students focus on the nine core competencies outlined by the CSWE.
- Demonstrate ethical and professional behavior
- Engage in diversity and difference in practice
- Advance human rights and social, economic, and environmental justice
- Engage in practice-informed research and researched-informed practice
- Engage in policy practice
- Engage individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities
- Assess individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities
- Intervene with individuals, families, groups, organization, and communities
- Evaluate practice with individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities
- Engage, assess, intervene, and evaluate with individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities.
Master’s level students are allowed to specialize so their field placement opportunities reflect their specialization. For example, students interested in the school social work track at the University of Southern California have to complete an internship experience in a school or with an agency that provides services in schools.
The Columbia University School of Social Work requires that students have a field placement in their specialty. But students in their two-year program are allowed to do two internships, and the second one is focused on their concentration. The learning contracts of master’s level students include concentration-specific advanced practice competencies that must be completed in their internship.
Paid field internships
Whether or not a field experience is paid matters greatly on the specific school, program, and student. The CSWE does not outline whether internships should be funded. While many experiences do not provide any funding for students, there are some opportunities that allow for grants, stipends or to be paid. Below are examples of different funding opportunities at various social work schools.
- Travel stipend: Some schools, like the University of Michigan, provide a small stipend to students that have to travel a significant distance to get to their field placement. Michigan uses a radius of 30 miles to determine eligibility.
- Field agency stipend: Some agencies that host MSW students have money set aside to provide MSW students with a small stipend, like the Behavioral Health Workforce Education and Training program at Colorado State University.
- A full-time job as field placement: There are programs like at Eastern Michigan University, that allow professionals already working in the field to use their full-time job as a field placement while getting their MSW degree. In these programs, the students must provide a plan that shows how their current work fits or will be modified to fit the requirements for a field placement.
BSW students will be placed in internship settings that allow them to have a wide range of experiences and be prepared as a generalist social worker.
Assessment, case management, policy development, and basic counseling skills may be areas of focus. MSW students will have the opportunity to experience more advanced practice experiences. Their internship will be in a setting that closely reflects their concentration. For example a clinical student will be placed at a center that provides therapy or counseling experiences that allow for assessment, treatment planning, diagnosis, and providing treatment.
While an administration student may work in the administrative office of a hospital that will allow them to learn about managing teams, budgeting, and implementing policies and procedures. Below are examples of types of internships.
- Mental health facility
- Child protective services
- Neighborhood organizing agency
- Nursing home
- Domestic violence shelter
- Homeless shelter
- Crisis line
- Addiction treatment center
- Social services at churches or other religious organizations
- Probation office or other correctional facilities
- K-12 school
- Advocacy organization
- Political action organizations
- Local, state or national government offices
- Environmental organizations
- Women’s centers
- Domestic violence centers or shelters
- Tutoring programs
- College or university counseling center
- University lab or research center
Some programs, like at the University of Texas allow for international field placements with nongovernmental organizations or community agencies abroad.
Field placement selection
Each school has a unique process for managing field placement, but there are a few similarities between programs.
Every school will have a field internship coordinator or a team of field instructors who are in charge of managing the process from selection to certifying hours for graduation. Every school will also notify students about their process after admission by before the start of the school.
Methods for field internship placement
Choose your own
Some schools, especially online schools, require the student to research and select an agency for field placement. These schools usually provide students with criteria to follow when selecting an agency. This criterion includes explaining the agency’s capacity for providing an educational experience for a social work student, a description of hands-on opportunities that fulfill the nine core competencies, and the identification of a supervisor that meets the required credentials (two years post-degree).
Online schools almost exclusively follow this model because students may live anywhere in the country, and thus, it would be difficult for them to keep a running list of options.
Choose from a school provided list
Many schools like the University of Denver, provide students with a list of agencies eligible for internship. These agencies have been pre-vetted and meet the requirements for internship as outlined by the school and the CSWE. Schools may place students in the following manner:
- Have students interview at field placement agencies until they are selected by the agency
- Have student rank order their preferences, then provide students with two to three options
- Place students after a written application process
How many field experiences can I have?
For bachelors of social work programs, students typically complete one internship in their senior year. Masters level students complete internships in accordance with their program track.
Accelerated programs such as advanced standing (the program for students with their BSW) or accelerated/16-month track programs often offer one internship experience while longer programs, such as the two-year program or part-time programs over two opportunities for internship. The number of internships offered varies greatly by school.
Liability insurance during internship
Since many MSW students will be providing services to individuals, families, and communities, there may be some liability risk, as there are for professionals in the field.
Professional liability insurance protects people when they are accused of negligence or malpractice. Schools may have different policies about how this is handled for students. Some schools, like the University of Michigan, provide insurance as part of enrollment in the social work program (the students pay for the policy as part of their tuition and fees).
Other schools, like Wichita State University, require their students to purchase liability insurance and provide a discounted rate. Some agencies have professional liability insurance that covers interns during their time with the field placement.
Field internships and job search
Many positions require recommendation letters as part of a job application and social work is no exception. When applying for their first positions, social work students will be expected to submit a letter of recommendation from their supervisor at their field internship. This letter may provide the most relevant information about the student’s experience as a social worker and can hold a lot of weight with prospective employers.
Some students may find it useful to participate in an internship outside of their official field internship experience. Perhaps the student wants to get additional experience in a different from their placement. Or perhaps a student would want to spend their summer participating in a meaningful experience. There’s nothing preventing a student from participating in extracurricular internship experiences. However, these experiences may be different from a field placement:
- One possible difference is the type of work a student in which a student is able to participate. Being an intern through the school of social work program provides certain privileges and protections that allow students to engage in more intense, hands-on work than an ordinary intern. Some states, like Ohio, require students to get a license when they practice as an intern. Designations like this allow for supervisors and agencies to cover the student under their liability insurance. General internship experiences may not provide this type of access.
- Agencies may not be willing to accept non-school of social work interns. School of social work interns are special because they are participating in an academic program that trains them to work at the agency and have an additional set of eyes on their experience. Because of this, they may be easier to train and provide a lower risk.
There are some advantages to engage in an extracurricular internship:
- You will have full control over application and selection. Since many schools closely manage where students are placed, an internship outside of the field experience may allow a student to have more control over the selection process, as they are allowed to apply wherever they wish.
- You might find more flexible opportunities. For some agencies, not having to comply with a learning contract may open up more opportunities for the types of experiences for program participants.
Where to find non-field internships?
Internships, or even consistent volunteer experiences, are plentiful in all kinds of geographic areas and settings. Many of the settings listed above for possible field internships may also have options for other volunteer or paid positions that are not connected to academic social work experience.
There are a number of websites and directories that list internship opportunities. Keywords like “social justice,” “social work,” “social impact,” or “nonprofit” may help find related choices.
- Indeed.com is known as a site that allows job seekers to have access positions for free but it also is a great place to find internships. They allow you to search by type of position, paid experiences, and location. Since anyone is welcome to post an opportunity, there’s a wide range of internships.
- Human Rights Careers provides a bank of internships in multiple human rights and social change internships. They also believe that internships should be paid, so they only list paid internships. Since they require the internships to be paid, the list may be shorter than others, but the internships have been through some vetting.
- Idealist.org is a job, internships and volunteer search site that is committed to, “Working with others, in a spirit of generosity and mutual respect, we want to help build a world where all people can lead free and dignified lives,” and an obvious fit with the field of social work. They report having over 200 internship opportunities and over 50,000 volunteer experiences.
- AmeriCorps and the PeaceCorps is a national civil service program where volunteers can find opportunities within the United States (AmeriCorps) or internationally (PeaceCorps) for a year or longer. While these programs are not traditional “internships” they can provide an extremely unique and relevant experience for future social workers. The Coverdell Fellowship program provides an opportunity for Peace Corps volunteers to directly connect their experience with masters of social work programs across the country.
- High school or college volunteer centers. Some high schools and many colleges have community service offices that connect students with community organizations for volunteer or community service experiences. In high school, it may be connected with the counseling office, while at colleges and universities, it may be its own office, like at California State University, Chico. These resources may have connections to local community organizations that offer internship experiences in line with social work.
- Government internships. The NASW Code of Ethics, which articulates the “heart” of the profession describes political action as an important part of being a social worker. Internships in all levels of government; local, state or federal, can provide experiences that are essential to the practice of social work. Six members of congress and over 100 state legislators are social workers. There are also social workers in the executive branch and in the judicial branch. USA Jobs has a number of internships options for all kinds of interest areas including social work. Listenings include in the White House, State Department, Health and Human Services and a host of others offices. Students can also locate their local government office and legislators for more information on their internship opportunities.
Unlike other academic and professional programs, social work internships are not just about adding experience to a resume or building network.
Instead, social work internships are a universal part of the social work curriculum at both the bachelor’s degree and master’s degree level.
Looking for more resources while preparing for a career in social work? Be sure to check out our social work job guide and social work salary guide.