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Advanced Degree Programs: Advancing Social Change
By Josh Hildebrand
Social Work Today
Vol. 23 No. 2 P. 8

Advanced social work degrees emphasizing social justice provide the necessary foundation to affect underserved communities in meaningful ways.

The increased interest in social justice coincides with the increasing number of advanced degree programs offered to social work students seeking to make meaningful changes in underrepresented and underserved communities. The job market has steadily become more competitive, and social work is no exception, so it is especially important for students interested in becoming practicing social workers to pursue advanced degrees. And increasingly, advanced degree programs are emphasizing the role of social workers in fostering social justice.

Movements and organizations such as Black Lives Matter, increased concern about LGBTQ+ issues, and fear about the escalating effects of climate change have brought social justice into the mainstream, and along with it, a growing number of people wanting to focus professionally on addressing those concerns. For example, a study published in Social Science & Medicine found that young people, identified as those 25 and younger, are more likely to experience adverse mental reactions to the consequences of climate change, such as natural disasters.1 Rather than being content to sit idly by, young people are spurred to raise awareness for such issues and attempt to bring about social change, very much in line with the goals and missions of social workers.

According to Jenn Bellamy, PhD, a professor and associate dean for research and faculty development at the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work, “Our current times, particularly the increased call for racial justice over the last few years, has drawn people to social work and other social justice focused programs.”

A Range of Options
Because social work, and particularly social justice work, encompasses an array of special populations and settings, it’s important that prospective graduate students have a clear understanding of the vast options available to them when selecting a graduate program. Social workers can work with families, children, and the elderly. They can also work in specialized sectors such as hospitals, government, collegiate education, and research and human resources.2 Thankfully, most of these options are not program or university specific, so students can enroll in any program from various universities and still obtain the training and complete coursework necessary to practice in their settings of interest.

Bellamy, for example, works to engage men as parents, especially low-income men of color. However, she says, the sky truly is the limit for social work graduate students.

“Students can build a career in social justice that focuses on a broad range of issues,” she says. “I have colleagues that carry out social justice work with tribal communities, prisoners, kids in schools, homeless youth, and lots of other communities and systems. That’s one of the strengths of social work, you can focus on individuals, or global issues, or anything in between.”

To prepare students to help vulnerable populations and advocate for change, the University of Denver embeds all its social work courses, even those about statistics and research, with social justice issues. Other courses have a more deeply rooted focus on social justice issues, such as Power Privilege and Oppression From a Critical Multi-Cultural Perspective, Integrated Social Work Practice for Social Justice, Intergenerational Justice, Restorative Approaches in Social Work Practice, and Genocide: A Social Justice Issue.

Preparing the Next Generation
The term social justice is widely used, but what is it? As a concept it’s existed for centuries, defined by a striving for equality of treatment, rights, and opportunities.3 Thus, it’s an umbrella term under which numerous socio-political movements fall, but its ideals and concepts, as it came to be understood by Western countries, specifically the United States, might best be expressed by struggles such as the Women’s Suffrage Movement of the early to mid-20th century and the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-20th century.

The authors of a study published in the Journal of Social Work Education asked MSW students about their perspectives on social work and its mission to advance the cause of social justice. Of the study’s cohorts, nearly one-half expressed that they had engaged with or were interested in engaging with social activism of any kind.4 This was true regardless of factors such as age or race.

Pari Shah, a PhD candidate from the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work, was attracted to the doctoral program for similar reasons. “I was drawn to the field of social work in general due to the core of social work being focused on human connection and social justice,” she says. “The program centers social justice in conversation and practice—while not always perfectly executed, there is an openness for growth that supports learning and teaching social justice for me as a student and as an instructor.”

Shah has clinical, teaching, and research experience, having obtained her MSW degree. She explains that the level of personalization involved in the doctoral program, the university’s small class sizes, and the professors’ acute attention to detail have greatly influenced her. The program’s values and accessibility ensure the highest quality social justice–focused education for future generations of social work students.

“Social work programs are important due to the explicit values and practices on social justice,” Shah says. “Social workers are trained in a generalizable way, so they are often found integrated in almost all, if not all, of our communities’ systems, schools, health care, child welfare, immigration, policy, social services, and more, allowing social justice to be advocated for.”

In the Field and Beyond
Professors and advisors usually encourage students to pursue internships to take advantage of their educational opportunities. In a field of study such as social work, it’s crucial that students have hands-on training and field placement to supplement learning, hone skills, and provide a realistic view of what’s to be expected when they enter the field professionally upon graduation.

There are two paths available when it comes to field placements for graduate social work students—practicums and internships. Practicums, wherein the student will observe and aid the supervisor in a limited capacity to learn more about the ins and outs of the job, involve more supervision from a licensed social worker. Internships offer more freedom and a less closely observed experience, as these most often take place once most or all the student’s coursework has been completed.5

“The ‘signature pedagogy’ of social work are internships,” Bellamy says. “The settings vary greatly, but the internship experience is essential to social work education. These experiences socialize students to the profession as they are supervised in their work by a social worker and carry out increasingly independent and advanced social work practice. They can take those skills with them into whatever setting they choose professionally moving forward.”

The vast number of concentrations and various career paths could leave prospective students feeling overwhelmed or unsure of what avenue might be best for them. Thankfully, students interested in pursuing their MSW degrees have numerous means at their disposal to help them understand what’s offered.

“Admissions offices at schools can be a formal place to get information, and of course, websites often have a lot of helpful details, but I find that speaking with alumni or current students can be a very helpful perspective to seek out as well,” Bellamy says. “Admissions office staff can connect you with current or former students, and websites like LinkedIn make it easy to find connections.”

According to Shah, who was drawn in by her passion for social justice and discovered her interest in health care systems, it’s crucial for social workers to act on behalf of vulnerable communities. She is slated to graduate in the spring of 2023 and plans to work with clients, combining her research interests with her clinical practice.

Advanced social work degrees are the path to take for those interested in making a difference in communities and society at large. “Social work is different from other social justice programs because of our long-standing commitment to social justice as a whole profession,” Bellamy says. “We actively take down barriers for marginalized people, so they have more access to resources and opportunities, and advocacy is definitely a huge part of that.”

— Josh Hildebrand is an editorial assistant at Great Valley Publishing.


1. Ma T, Moore J, Cleary A. Climate change impacts on the mental health and wellbeing of young people: a scoping review of risk and protective factors. Soc Sci Med. 2022;301:114888.

2. What is a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree? Social Work License Map website. https://socialworklicensemap.com/social-work-degrees/master-of-social-work-programs/what-is-msw-degree/. Accessed February 23, 2023.

3. What is social justice? The San Diego Foundation website. https://www.sdfoundation.org/news-events/sdf-news/what-is-social-justice/. Published March 24, 2016.

4. Mizrahi T, Dodd SJ. MSW students’ perspectives on social work goals and social activism before and after completing graduate education. J Soc Work Educ. 2013;49(4):580-600.

5. Internships and practicums. Social Work Licensure website. https://socialworklicensure.org/articles/social-work-internships/. Published September 4, 2018.