Now or later
by Ann Crandell-Williams, LMSW
As faculty members in an undergraduate social work department, my colleagues and I frequently discuss with students the possible advantages of continuing one’s education beyond the undergraduate level—especially those who express an interest in fields or positions that generally require a master of social work degree (MSW). With deadlines for MSW programs quickly approaching, students frequently ask my opinion regarding whether they should pursue their MSW immediately following graduation, or whether they should wait until some time has passed, typically after they get some experience as a professional social worker.
Some grumble and roll their eyes at me (affectionately, or so I like to think) as I tell them, “Well, that’s up to you!” We social workers, whether educators or practitioners, strongly believe in self-determination and empowerment, and we understand that students are more likely to commit to a plan they choose for themselves.
“Now or later?” There is no universally right answer to this question. This decision should be based on life goals, both professional and personal. It is imperative to devise a plan most consistent with those goals. There are potential advantages and disadvantages to consider for each choice, and there are many options and programs from which to choose.
NOW: Attend a full-time program immediately.
After receiving that bachelor of social work (BSW) degree, continuing on to graduate school in the fall, as a full-time MSW student, has its advantages. Many students express that they are currently “in the groove” of college life and would prefer to continue on their current path until completion. Their BSW studies are fresh in their minds, which will certainly strengthen their foundation for education at the next level. Students have developed effective study skills, habits, and a routine that works for them. Why quit now?
Traditional students who entered and graduated from college immediately after high school also may not have some of the obligations that may occur during a “settling down” period. Children, a serious partner, bills, a steady job, and/or a mortgage are priorities that take a significant amount of resources. Balancing priorities such as these, although possible, is a challenge that could be delayed until after one’s education is completed.
Although social workers often don’t choose this career because it is financially lucrative, many students want to improve their education because it improves their job prospects. Upon graduation with an MSW, a student may be qualified for a wider range of positions with better hours, pay, and opportunities for advancement. However, depending on the intended area of practice and the geographic location, sometimes students may be disappointed to find out that they must start out in an entry level position anyway, in order to gain experience. This is not always the case, and many positions require an MSW to get a foot in the door.
LATER: Wait a year or more, and then go back.
Sometimes, BSW students are ready to get out there and practice. They may feel burned out on college life and can’t picture spending another minute in a classroom. Students may feel satisfied that a BSW level position will be perfect for them at this point, or forever. Most students seem to expect that we, their instructors or other mentors, will be disappointed with this decision. They assume that because we spend time discussing graduate school, it’s an expectation. Some students may think we are concerned about them not following through on the intention to “go back later.” Not true!
There are many potential advantages of waiting to attend graduate school. When non-traditional students, especially those with BSW practice experience, return to complete the MSW degree, these students come in with a lot to talk about. They are often more easily able to conceptualize class material, as they are more likely to have had experiences that relate to the content.
These students, the ones with practice experience who’ve been out in the “real world,” are often more confident. They have spent time ensuring that being a social worker is truly the right career path for them. They may have a clearer picture of the population, field, and type of position they are aiming for upon graduation. Because many MSW programs offer specialization, knowing these things can be important in choosing the right program.
Another option for those who aren’t sure if they’re quite ready for graduate school is participation in an intensive service program, such as AmeriCorps, Peace Corps, or the National Health Service Corps. Programs like these typically offer loan repayment and/or scholarships to students who serve in designated high-needs communities for a service commitment period. This can be an exciting opportunity for students to gain experience while earning money. However, it is important to fully understand the terms and conditions prior to signing on to a program.
Other Options: Online and/or Part-Time Programs
There are many other options for students designed to suit practically any lifestyle. Some MSW programs are designed as part-time curriculums for the working professional, making it an option to work in a BSW-level position while taking MSW classes. Other programs offer evening or weekend classes in a cohort fashion, in which students complete all classes together as a group.
There are online MSW programs, which may be part-time or full-time. Contrary to what some may think, online programs are typically as demanding and time-consuming as an on-campus program. Classes may be synchronous (real-time) or asynchronous. Some schools offer “blended” programs, which are a combination of in-person and online classes.
Choosing an online and/or part-time program may seem to be the best of both worlds. BSW graduates may be able to gain practice experience while continuing their education. Social service agencies tend to be supportive of employees continuing their education, and they may assist workers in carving out time for classes and projects. A few agencies even provide financial support, typically in exchange for staying on for a period of time upon graduation. This benefits the agency, as knowledge gained, in turn, creates a more educated and high-quality worker.
An online or part-time program also has its potential pitfalls to consider. Being in school while working can be time-intensive and stressful. Balancing these—and a personal life—is no easy task. Engaging in several hours of schoolwork on a weeknight or a Saturday can be difficult. Additionally, online learning is not for everyone, and those who choose this option must be highly self-motivated and organized to succeed.
After the pros-and-cons discussion, students usually wind up making the decision they were leaning toward anyway. Just over a year ago, I had a conversation with a student who was feeling conflicted, because he was contemplating turning down entry into a one-year accelerated program at an esteemed university. His friends had also been accepted to the same university and were thrilled, which added to his uncertainty as he found himself not sharing their enthusiasm.
He eventually decided to delay admission for a year. He has since spent the past year not only gaining volunteer experience, which helped him determine his passion for working with LGBT clients, but also traveling and enjoying life not being a student. Our department was a final stop on one of his recent adventures, where he relayed his amazing “one year off” experience. He reported he is now more ready than ever to begin his MSW program and, eventually, his career. I would never have been brave enough to take that year off the way he did. I’m very glad he did, as it was the perfect decision for him.
My mantra to fretful students will continue to be, “Going to grad school now or later will not determine your happiness. Being a good person—whatever that means to you—will determine your happiness.” It seems to work at easing anxiety about that ever-evasive right decision. Here’s hoping you make the decision that’s right for you.
Ann Crandell-Williams, LMSW, is an assistant professor of social work and field placement coordinator at Northern Michigan University in Marquette,MI. She has eighteen years of prior social work experience, primarily as achild welfare agency administrator and a mental health case manager.