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How Do Social Work Field Placements Work?

June 23, 2022

Schools, nursing homes, even prisons — whatever setting they work in, social workers are specialists, and they need a range of specialized skills.

Few social workers acquire these skills from classroom learning alone. They need hands-on experience that taps their knowledge and expertise. Social work field placements provide just that.

What Are Social Work Field Placements?

As a core component of accredited Master of Social Work programs, social work field placements give students practical training for the workforce. These supervised internships take place at organizations and institutions that deliver social work services. They give students experience in the daily activities and responsibilities of social workers on the job, under the guidance of seasoned professionals. They also allow students to apply their classroom learning, social work methodologies and theory to real-life situations.

During field experiences, participants benefit from evaluation and constructive criticism from their field instructors and faculty field liaisons. Participants can then integrate the feedback into their work and sharpen their skills.

Types of Field Placements

With a social work field placement, M.S.W. students often immerse themselves in their specific interests or passions. Aspiring social workers still discovering their areas of interest can use field placements to gain important insights about the right path forward.

M.S.W. students can complete their field experience in any of a number of specialization areas, from child welfare to geriatric social work. Given this flexibility, students can choose from all sorts of organizations to fulfill their field placement requirements, including:

  • Schools
  • Hospice centers
  • Health care facilities and hospitals
  • Substance use clinics
  • Community service organizations
  • Child welfare agencies
  • Interpersonal violence crisis centers
  • Mental health organizations
  • Justice centers

First Field Placement

Typically, M.S.W. students complete two field placements. The first aims to hone their generalist social work skills, such as case management with individuals, families, small groups and communities in need of additional support. Practical applications may include:

  • Assessment
  • Interviewing
  • Shadowing
  • Case planning
  • Report writing
  • Research

In addition, first field placements encourage M.S.W. students to dive into the nitty-gritty details of how agencies function — how insurance billing works, techniques for writing case notes or the way funding is secured. Aspiring social workers also call on their interpersonal skills and start forming professional relationships during these first field placements.

Second Field Placement

The second social work field placement focuses on a chosen concentration and allows for the development of specialized and advanced practice skills. For example, participants may serve families experiencing homelessness, interpersonal violence survivors, immigrants, refugees or veterans through in-depth practice activities such as:

  • Program development
  • Community organizing
  • Implementation of trauma-informed interventions
  • Policy change advocacy
  • Direct therapeutic services

What’s an Example of a Social Work Field Placement?

Consider this hypothetical situation.

An M.S.W. student wanting to pursue a career as a school social worker may find field placement in a local middle school. The intern shadows their field instructor and performs assigned tasks on their own. Diverse activities will make up the intern’s day — some routine, others impromptu and arising from the situation at hand. For example, the intern may:

  • Conduct a socio-cultural assessment of a student getting evaluated for special education
  • Administer a child behavioral assessment, score it and report the results to their supervisor
  • Attend individualized education program (IEP) meetings (sessions that evaluate and update a student’s special education services)
  • Co-lead a weekly group focused on building coping skills and self-empowerment
  • Deliver individual student counseling
  • Collaborate on an interprofessional team to develop the school’s anti-bullying campaign

Benefits of Social Work Field Experience

Described as social work’s “signature pedagogy” by the Council on Social Work Education, field experience offers vital benefits to participants.

Hands-on Professional Experience

In field education, student interns take the theoretical frameworks taught by classroom instructors and apply them to real-world problems. When observing experienced professionals, students have a chance to critically analyze and reflect on specific intervention methods. When interacting with clients, student interns draw from their theoretical knowledge to determine the best way to handle an individual case and develop a plan of action.

Gaining Insights in the Field

In the classroom, M.S.W. students learn about the characteristics of trauma-informed care. During field education, however, interns may experience the trauma-informed approach in action. During such experiences, students are able to process their experiences with their field instructors, and their assumptions are often challenged in ways that help them grow in insight and compassion.

At first, for example, a student intern may perceive a client as uncooperative. The client may miss appointments or respond to efforts to develop a rapport with suspicion or rudeness. With a qualified field instructor at their side, however, the intern learns to recognize and empathize with clients, as well as find alternative approaches to meeting these clients’ needs.

Developing Specialized Skills in Specific Areas

Social work field experience complements classroom curricula by giving interns opportunities to develop specialized skills.

While in the classroom, M.S.W. students learn general methods for interviewing clients and performing strengths and needs assessments, among other things. However, each specialty area of social work requires a unique approach and specialized skills that student interns learn in their field placements. Consider the following scenarios.

Applying the Best Strategy for a Particular Age Group

Social workers take different approaches to different age groups. Suppose a social worker’s field assignment involves working with individuals diagnosed with attention-deficit / hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The social worker would approach the assignment with the understanding that ADHD can extend throughout the lifespan and it manifests differently in children and adults. While school-age children with ADHD may have trouble sitting still in class, adults living with the disorder may report feelings of inner restlessness while appearing outwardly calm.

Understanding the differences between age groups with ADHD can help social workers recognize symptoms of ADHD and prepare strategies to address them.

For example, the recommended therapy for children with ADHD is often medication, while for adults it is often cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). For children with ADHD, a social worker’s treatment plan often includes input from parents or teachers. For adults with ADHD, social workers often offer counseling that includes the person’s significant other or spouse.

Applying the Best Strategy for the Type of Care

Interns placed at a veteran’s hospital will gain specialized knowledge about how to help clients manage post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) resulting from combat experience. They will also become familiar with the system of benefits and resources available to veterans. Interns working at hospice centers, on the other hand, will develop in-depth knowledge of end-of-life care and strategies for helping the dying and their families navigate late-stage illnesses.

Feedback and Guidance From Field Supervisors

Students benefit greatly from the opportunity to receive guidance and feedback as they practice their new skills, consider which theoretical frameworks to use in various situations, and handle crises.

Reinforcement and a Space for Reflection

The expert opinions and advice from field supervisors help reinforce and illuminate concepts for interns. They also create a supportive environment in which interns can reflect on treatment decisions and ask clarifying questions.

From Theory to Practice With Shared Experiences

As experienced practitioners, field instructors can explain the applications of theories in practice. They can also share their own experiences to help give direction to an intern’s career goals. Additionally, feedback and guidance from field instructors help interns identify their strengths and weaknesses.

Social Work Field Placement Logistics

Master of Social Work programs vary when it comes to field placement requirements. For example, the Council on Social Work Education requires M.S.W. students to complete a minimum of 900 hours of field education. Since this is the minimum requirement, many programs require more. In general, M.S.W. students can expect to spend around 1,000 hours in total in their field placements.

Most students complete these hours over the span of two years if full time. Typically, programs require M.S.W. students to complete more hours in their second placement year than in their first placement year. Most M.S.W. students do not complete all of their hours in a single field placement. Usually, they log their first 300 or so hours at one organization and their remaining hours at a different one.

Plan a Rewarding Career in Social Work

Social work field placements help bridge the gap between classroom instruction and real-life social work practice. These inspiring hands-on learning experiences teach emerging social workers the specialized skills and knowledge they need to thrive in their careers.

Explore how Virginia Commonwealth University’s online Master of Social Work offers aspiring social workers rewarding and rich social work field placements that help build their careers.