Social work professionals can make careers in a wide variety of settings, from homeless shelters to government agencies, from pregnancy counseling centers to public-policy think tanks.

Wherever they work, it is essential for them to be expert at helping people with a variety of real-life problems.

To gain vital real-world experience before going into practice, Master of Social Work (MSW) students are required to do field education. Jamie Sundvall, who directs the fieldwork program for social work students at Capella University, compares the experience to the residencies expected of medical doctors. “Social work students are expected to test their skills in a real-world setting, sort of like a residency for medical professionals to hone their practice skills in a guided context before being released to practice independently,” Sundvall says.

Hours Helping Others

Capella’s MSW students are required to complete 1,000 hours of fieldwork to get their degree. (Those who already have a bachelor’s degree in the field and 400 hours of fieldwork can apply those hours, bringing their total requirement down to 600 hours.) Satisfying the 1,000-hour requirement also means students meet national standards for social workers and can seek licensure anywhere in the United States, making them eligible for most jobs requiring an MSW.

Sundvall and other faculty members help students find field education experiences that are rigorous, educational, and aligned with what the students need to know. A student might work at social-service agency, within the criminal justice system, at a school, or at a trauma center. Students are expected to take the initiative to arrange their own fieldwork experience, building their skills in networking and communication, but Capella advisors must sign off on the arrangement and in many cases faculty offer suggestions on how to find good internships.

For example, Sundvall has worked with students living in rural areas who ultimately want to work at a trauma center. Because the nearest trauma center is several hundred miles away, this isn’t possible. “Instead, I’ve worked with them to develop an internship at a nearby hospice agency that helps them focus on skills that are transferrable to a trauma-center setting,” Sundvall says.

Gaining Real-World Experience

Fieldwork experiences are supervised for legal and ethical reasons. The arrangement also allows students to learn at the side of seasoned professionals. “In many cases, students will be working through the internship process to get to the point where they are maintaining their own caseload while supervised,” Sundvall says. “The supervisor is there to guide them and make sure they’re developing best practices.”

Social work students are required to complete 200 hours each term. Getting the hours in can be challenging, Sundvall says, so students should be prepared to sacrifice some personal time to reach their educational goals. Sundvall encourages adjustment and self-care during this time to fulfil this commitment. In some cases, however, students who are already working in social work have been able to work with their employers to transform their existing employment into fieldwork opportunities.

In the end, the hands-on experience prepares social workers for the future—giving them the capacity to deal with whatever challenges come their way. Says Sundvall, “Field education allows students to take what they have learned in the classroom and apply it under supervision in a real-world context.”

Learn more about how the MSW program at Capella University can help you prepare for a career in social work by partnering with industry professionals and gaining real-world experience.