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In the United States, MSW degrees must be received from a graduate school that has been approved by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) should the graduate seek future licensure. The MSW typically requires two years of full-time graduate study in combination with two years (900–1200 cumulative hours) of internship,[5] also referred to as field practicum, education, or experience. While some students obtain a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) before pursuing a master's, most MSW programs accept applicants with undergraduate degrees in a broad range of liberal arts fields. Some MSW programs provide BSW graduates with an advanced standing option, allowing them to complete an MSW in a shorter period of time (typically 1 year).

Most MSW programs allow students to choose a clinical or direct practice track, which focuses on direct practice with clients, or a macro practice track, with a focus on political advocacy, community organizing, policy analysis and/or human services management. While the clinical track tends to be more popular, there has been a resurgence in community practice concentrations recently. There are also opportunities at many universities to obtain joint degrees, such as an MSW and a Public Administration degree, MSW and Public Health, or MSW and Law. The MSW practice scope has broadened in recent years to include the specialty practice areas of geriatrics and work with veterans. In some schools the curriculum is based on a generalist model which integrates the facets of the various practice areas within social work.

The MSW is considered a terminal practice degree in the field of social work. The DSW (Doctorate of Social Work) and Ph.D in social work are the final degrees offered in the field of social work. There is no inherent difference between the DSW and the PhD; there are few DSW programs available in the United States.

Though Master of Social Work is by far the most common degree title used by graduate social work schools in the United States, it is not universal. For example, Columbia University School of Social Work offers an M.S. degree in social work, the School of Social Service Administration of the University of Chicago confers an M.A. degree, and the University of Texas confers the MSSW (Master of Science in Social Work) degree. The Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University confers the MSSA (Master of Science in Social Administration) degree.

Clark Atlanta University's Whitney M. Young School of Social work is also credited with creating the administration of social work from an Afro-centric perspective. Clark Atlanta's school of social work has also had various stalwarts in the profession affiliated with it such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Dorcas Bowles, Whitney Young, Hattie Mitchell, Naomi Ward and Rufus Lynch.

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