Social workers can help improve the lives of individuals as well as the communities in which they live and work. For students pursuing this impactful career, gaining experience through fieldwork is a vital step, providing an opportunity to hone the skills necessary to make a difference.
Field experiences allow aspiring social workers to apply their knowledge and competencies in real-world settings — while also familiarizing themselves with the requirements of on-the-job practice.
The benefits of workplace experience in preparing for a career range from gaining a deeper understanding of the profession, to getting a closer look at different jobs. Social work field placements also allow students to engage with their communities before completing their academic studies.
Given the many advantages that on-the-job experience can provide, most social work degree programs — including those that lead to a master of social work (MSW) degree — integrate field placements into their curricula.
What Are Social Work Field Placements?
Field placements offer social work students practical experience with community organizations while integrating that experience into the classroom. For example, Master of Social Work field placements might require hundreds of hours of work in a professional setting, with related courses that allow for discussion about lessons learned in the workplace.
Social work degree programs generally have field placement personnel who help students identify opportunities for experiential work in their communities. These placement officials, along with those in the assigned organization, provide guidance to students while they’re completing their fieldwork.
During field placements, students can apply what they’ve learned in class in real-life settings. This empowers students to expand on their knowledge and get a firsthand look at social work competencies in practice.
Social Work Areas of Focus
As students consider options for social work careers — and the field placements that can provide them with relevant experience — it’s helpful to understand what social work entails. The profession offers opportunities to assist people in a variety of populations and serve in a broad range of roles.
Social workers help people improve their lives by ensuring they can meet their basic needs and providing support to deal with issues such as mental health concerns, medical diagnoses, and unemployment. In addition to providing direct assistance for individuals and families, social workers also analyze the role that society plays in determining their client’s quality of life.
Social work professionals are often based in offices but frequently work in the field, offering assistance at clients’ homes or in clinics or schools. Their areas of focus can include child welfare, substance use, or the legal system.
Some common practice areas that social work degree programs — and their associated fieldwork — can prepare students for include the following.
- Community — Develop and organize social programs designed to improve the quality of life for individuals and families
- Mental health and substance use — Coordinate and offer therapy and rehabilitation services to those facing mental or behavioral health challenges
- Military — Assist service members and their loved ones who are facing challenges during or after their time in the military
- Health care— Assist people in understanding medical diagnoses and navigating the resources to address them
Classes to Support Fieldwork
The experiential learning students gain from a social work field placement is often further supported by coursework. These fieldwork-related courses offer lessons that help students better understand their responsibilities as social workers, and they provide opportunities for sharing and examining their field experiences.
The Benefits of Field Placements
Social work bills itself as a helping profession. The National Association of Social Workers’ (NASW) code of ethics describes the field’s primary mission as enhancing human well-being and meeting people’s basic needs.
Social work field placements align with this focus on helping others, offering benefits not only for students but also for the communities they’re assigned to serve.
Benefits for Social Workers
The experiential learning concept affirms that effective academic education also involves concrete real-life experiences. Following those experiences, the learner reflects on them and considers the lessons learned. Those lessons, in turn, shape future actions. Fieldwork embraces this concept, with aspiring social workers gaining practical experience that can help them build knowledge about effective practices for their future careers.
The experiential learning that forms the foundation of fieldwork offers the following benefits for students preparing for a social work career.
Build an Understanding of Social Work
Fieldwork provides social work students an opportunity to gain a better understanding of the career they’ve chosen and whether it matches their interests and skills. It enables them to explore different approaches to the issues they’re likely to face as they advance in their career.
Apply Skills in Real-World Context
By working in a professional setting, students can apply the knowledge and skills they’ve gained through classwork in the real world. Additionally, classes that complement fieldwork assignments give students the opportunity to learn from each other about their field experiences.
Identify Professional Strengths
Field experience can help social work students identify and build on their strengths. They can learn whether the type of social work they’re planning to focus on plays to those strengths.
Develop New Competencies
Fieldwork also can help students identify particular skill sets they need to develop for the type of social work they’re interested in. On-the-job experience allows them to hone those new competencies.
Learn About New Organizations
Each field assignment offers the opportunity to learn about a new organization. Students can get an up-close look at how the organization operates and what it’s like to work there.
Build a Professional Network
The school, community, and organizational contacts that students make during field placements can help them as they prepare for a social work career. These contacts might include professional mentors who can be an additional source of knowledge about social work as an occupation.
Benefits for Communities
The benefits that social work field placements can offer communities mirror those that the profession itself provides.
In a professional setting, students completing fieldwork can support social work’s mission of addressing a range of issues and advancing various causes, including:
- Providing direct services to clients from various educational, socioeconomic, cultural, and religious backgrounds
- Evaluating and addressing external factors that can affect the well-being of individuals and families
- Promoting social justice and working to end discrimination, oppression, and poverty
While strengthening their professional skills, students in field placements can begin the important work that their social work careers will entail.
Make a Difference Wherever You Work
Social work field placements offer many benefits to students and the communities and organizations they’re assigned to support. By gaining direct experience in professional settings, social workers can learn more about their chosen career and hone newly acquired skills, while also serving others.
If you’re seeking to advance in your social work career by learning in the classroom and in the field, explore Regis College’s online Master of Social Work program. The program offers different tracks to support your academic journey, whether your bachelor’s degree is in social work or another field. The coursework is 100% online, with field placement opportunities in your community.
Explore how the Regis College online MSW program can help you build your social work skills and move your career forward.