6 Tips for Success in Your Online Social Work Program

By Rebecca Newman, MSW

Last Updated: 12/29/2020
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MEET THE EXPERT

Rebecca Newman

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Rebecca Newman, MSW, LCSW is a psychotherapist and writer, specializing in eating disorders, anxiety, depression, infertility, substance abuse, grief and loss, gender and sexuality, trauma, and adjustment to life changes. She earned a BA in Creative Writing from Oberlin College and an MSW from the University of Pennsylvania, where she received the John Hope Franklin Award for Combating American Racism. She works as a clinical supervisor and psychotherapist for an academic hospital system in Philadelphia.

Online learning, whether your initial choice or the result of the pandemic, requires a different set of skills than in-person learning. In a discipline with the word “social” in its name, the idea of socially distanced or completely virtual social work courses may sound counterintuitive. However, there are ways you can make the most out of an online social work degree and benefit from it just as much as you would a traditional program. From the seemingly simple to rather specific, here are six ways to make your online social work program work for you.

1Keep Current in Content Relevant to Your Studies

One of the best parts of a social work education is how relevant it is to everyday life, individuals and their families, and current events. Being an effective social worker requires staying current on events related to social welfare and services, from funding at your municipal level for services all the way to national advocacy for major policy change. Choose reputable news sources that report on issues related to social programs, funding, program evaluation, advocacy, and social change, and stay up to date on current events and how they are impacting people in your community and beyond. Whether you’re getting your online bachelor’s degree in social work or you’re working on your PhD, staying attuned to the social issues in your area and beyond can be a good way to supplement the social aspect of a traditional course.  

2Utilize Student Geographic Diversity to Your Benefit

When students are pursuing a degree from the same institution in the same geographic location, individuals are able to learn about issues that face that particular community through hearing about their peers’ field placements. However, if you are in a program where the majority of students are learning and completing their field placements remotely, this is a great opportunity to learn about social issues that face a variety of communities. Take advantage of this benefit to hear about circumstances that present challenges to individuals in rural versus urban communities, remarking how different parts of the country or the same state will have disparate needs from one another, and more interestingly, different mechanisms for service delivery. Take note of these differences or disparities and incorporate them into your studies and research. Even after you have identified your area of interest or specialization, it will be helpful to learn how that service is delivered elsewhere in the country, and perhaps you can even bring some of those ideas to your field placement or eventual employer!

3Begin to Understand Systems

The time when you have the guidance of faculty and fellow students is an excellent opportunity to explore the nature of systems on a local and national level that will affect your career for years to come. Between your engagement with current events and curriculum, discuss the structures of power, privilege, and oppression that form some of the barriers to access that the individuals whom you and your colleagues serve may experience. This is a good time to reflect on workplace dynamics in past and current workplaces, as these tend to replicate themselves over time, and more importantly, workplace dynamics tend to mirror those of the population they serve. While you’re engaged in coursework and field placements, get curious about others’ experiences in the field, from your instructors to colleagues, to learn as much as you can for when you launch your own career. Even if you’re only enrolled in a relatively short, two-year master’s in social work online, the understanding you’ll gain of different social systems will serve you for years to come.

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4Engage with Thoughtful Advocacy

Advocacy has always been a central part of social work, and in 2020 and beyond, it’s impossible to ignore the cries for systemic change in many aspects of people’s lives. Even though you may not have as much direct contact with your cohort as you might through in-person instruction, you can still band together with your colleagues to begin meaningful advocacy efforts and form the values that will play a role in your overall career. Perhaps you want to begin volunteering at a local organization or utilize social media as a way of amplifying important messages to your network. You will also have the benefit of feedback from individuals who are engaging in advocacy in other geographic areas and can dig into their experiences as a way of better understanding and exploring your own values.

5Make Connections in Your Desired Area

As you continue along in your virtual studies, the job market begins to loom closer and closer. Begin contemplating where you’d like to work, both in terms of setting, population served, and geographic area, and start making connections early in those domains. Utilize your institution’s alumni network and career services to identify individuals who may be good liaisons for you while seeking employment and engage in your own searches via LinkedIn or other professional platforms to form prospective vocational connections. Especially if you are planning to relocate upon completing your degree and seeking employment in a new region, begin making these connections early. Even if you’re working on your online PhD in social work and are already employed, making valuable connections can help you when it comes time to seek career advancement or change.

6Establish Your Self-Care Routine

During your years of social work education, it might seem like you can’t turn a corner without hearing someone talking about the importance of self-care. While it can seem like a cliché, understanding how to take care of your emotional and physical needs as you embark on a career in service to others is essential to longevity, sustainability, and ultimately, success. Balancing an online social work program, your field placement, and other vocational pursuits can seemingly leave little time for personal care. Maybe you’re fully focused on your earning your advanced degree and feel that self-care comes second to your online DSW program. Although that’s an understandable way to feel, the burnout that looms when personal care is pushed to the wayside can have devastating impacts on the quality of our study and ultimately, our grades and test scores. Choosing to prioritize things such as sleep, diet, healthy relationships, and some much-needed relaxation may make the difference between an A and a B.

Embarking on a career in social work remotely can be daunting, as it’s a career founded on the essential nature of human connection and support. While keeping these suggestions in mind, you can make the most of the time in your program to form some of the relationships and habits that will bolster your success in your career.