The scope of social work is broad enough to address the entire spectrum of societal challenges. Even so, most of the day-to-day duties of any social worker involves community-level advocacy and the kind of one-on-one support that gives them a real understanding of the struggles many American families experience every day.

Being this close to the community comes with the realization that societal problems can’t always be addressed from the top down. At the same time, bringing meaningful change to the lives of individuals and communities means first developing high-level policies to ensure the right resources are in place to serve them.

It’s not surprising, then, that one of the very first concepts that social work students explore is how problem-solving strategies are developed and deployed at the micro-, mezzo-, and macro-levels. The three-tiered approach ensures that individuals and families have direct access to the right kind of services and supports, that the needs of broader population groups are always considered, and that policy-level measures are established and enacted with entire communities in mind.

Mixed ethnic group of business professionals networking

In the face of new political pressures, unexpected public health threats, addiction crises, and a level of socio-economic disparity that’s become impossible to ignore, today’s social workers need entirely new ways of approaching community-building and problem-solving, both at the policy-level and where the rubber meets the road in the lives of people in the community. 

Aimed squarely at the most pressing issues of our time, these are the nine Master of Social Work tracks that are teaching them how to do it.

1. Child Welfare 

child welfare volunteer

Struggling under the weight of generational poverty and the societal ills so often associated with it, far too many children have an uphill battle at exactly the time in their lives when they should be given every opportunity to grow and thrive. According to the Children’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in 2020 nearly four million referrals were made to Child Protective Services agencies for possible child maltreatment. There were more than 600,000 victims that year — far too high a number in any society.

This continues to put child welfare services front and center for most social services agencies.

Child welfare social work covers a broad range of ages, from infancy to young adulthood. That means social workers serving this population see everything from abuse and neglect issues to homelessness and poverty to truancy and teen pregnancy.

In the most difficult cases they encounter, where abuse and neglect have been reported, child welfare social workers step in to provide front-line intervention, victim advocacy, and counseling services. Working in collaboration with state child protective agencies, family courts, and law enforcement, child welfare social workers do the very difficult work of investigating suspected cases of abuse, and advocating for the best interests of the child while operating within the bounds of parental rights. 

Working with victims of abuse of any kind requires a unique level of compassion and care. That’s the sort of thing that comes naturally to anybody drawn to a field like child welfare. But the assessment skills and legal knowledge to investigate a claim and make the right call on something as potentially life-changing as a removal order is something that can only be learned through a graduate degree in social work from a top university.

Aurora University is one such school, dedicated to turning out MSW graduates with the blend of skill and compassion it takes to make a real difference in the lives of at-risk kids. Experiential learning is a big part of the student experience here. Working side-by-side under the guidance and mentorship of skilled social services professionals allows students to fine-tune their skill and judgement, giving them the confidence they need to make the right decisions in high-consequence situations after graduation.

We had the privilege of speaking with Dr. Brenda Barnwell, DSW and dean of the College of Education and Social Work at Aurora University. Barnwell believes that learning through a combination of coursework and fieldwork is vital to being properly prepared for a career in victim advocacy and child welfare. As Dr. Barnwell explained, “That training in the social work courses help actually make them work-ready for child welfare.”

2. Military and Veteran Social Work

military veteran social work session

From providing mental health screenings to helping clients find career counseling and healthcare services, military and veteran social workers are there to advocate for and support active duty and former service members. They get involved at the individual and community levels to ensure military families thrive while a parent is on active duty. They are also there to ensure vets have access to the resources they need when making the transition to the civilian world, or even years down the road in post-service life.

One of the key roles of social workers who serve the veteran community is to simply educate struggling vets and connect them with the many college, career, medical, and housing benefits they have earned during their years in service.

Many join the armed services motivated by patriotism, a sense of duty, and an abiding desire to help people. But service members and vets all too often suffer from feelings of isolation that can make it difficult for them to access the help they need, even when those services are readily available. This sense of isolation only compounds the effects of mental health problems, trauma, substance abuse, and depression that are so prevalent among service members and vets. According to the National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics, in 2020, veterans accounted for 10% of the total adult population but made up 16% of the homeless population.

According to Joe Oleck, LCSW and lecturer of social work at Aurora University, military social work is vital to serving veterans and their families who may struggle to find the resources and support they need. Social workers familiar with the struggles that veterans go through, and who may even be veterans themselves, are in a unique position to make meaningful connections with the veteran population. As Oleck puts it, military social workers are, “…integral to really building a rapport with a very closed-off community that doesn’t often look for help or ask for help.”

Military and veteran social workers make in-roads with this community, working to build trust and fostering a sense of camaraderie and respect that makes vets and service members feel more comfortable asking for the support they need. 

Oleck describes the AU Online MSW-Military and Veteran Social Work program as, “…a clinical track that goes more into the treatment side.”

As Oleck explains, exploring social work from a clinical perspective prepares practitioners to employ a care-focused approach to helping clients confront, “…mental health issues that veterans and military personnel suffer from… it goes into depth in terms of the neurobiology behind PTSD and traumatic brain injuries, and then treatment options for that.”

Equipped with this kind of specialized interdisciplinary training, social workers can coordinate with the Department of Veterans Affairs, community-based organizations, and medical facilities to provide life-affirming and life-saving support to former and active duty service members.

3. Forensics

court justice layer discussing forensics

Forensic social work is a relatively new branch of social work, but it has already established itself as a vitally important area of practice. Historically, as individuals from marginalized communities navigated civil and criminal court proceedings, they did so alone. Some struggled with enough English fluency to fully understand their rights under the law, and almost all faced an uphill battle in trying to find representation.

Today, however, these communities can rely on forensic social workers to advocate for their rights and to help them find the resources they need to make the legal process work for them.

With a working knowledge of the legal system, forensic social workers are able to help disenfranchised people connect with paralegals who can assist with many basic legal services, and even find attorneys in specialized areas of law to represent them in court.

Dr. Brenda Barnwell explains that the Aurora University MSW-Forensics track, “…has coursework that allows students to experience what mediation is like as a social worker… and how to reach vulnerable populations in a few other capacities that may include situations that would result in being a part of a court system.” 

Forensic social workers offer the kind of advocacy and support that vulnerable populations need to make their way through complex and often intimidating legal processes that might otherwise leave them feeling bewildered and alone. They intervene to help children during contentious custody hearings, offer mental health evaluations, and provide testimony during mediation, advocacy, or arbitration proceedings. They even serve as educators and consultants for law enforcement agencies, attorneys, correctional systems, and legislators.

4. Addictions

young homeless addict in tunnel

Substance abuse disorder has reached epidemic proportions in America. From dense urban centers to forgotten rural enclaves, the opioid crisis has left its mark on every corner of the country. The emergence of the powerful new drug fentanyl — originally used as a cheap adulterating agent but now a primary drug-of-choice for many users — has sent addiction rates and overdose deaths skyrocketing.

Amid this grim set of circumstances, social workers who specialize in the disease of addiction are crucial, not only to curbing the rise of drug abuse, but also the co-morbidity, crime, and death-counts associated with addiction. 

Social workers who specialize in addiction can be seen at every level using every tool available to stem the tide, from the advocacy and policy work that helps secure funding for addiction services to the design and implementation of assessment models, interventions, and treatment plans.

Aurora University is one school that’s dedicated to preparing job-ready addictions social workers, offering a career- and licensure-focused MSW-Addictions track available online and at all AU campus locations. Through a program that teaches a care-informed approach to addictions treatment, AU students are able to qualify for the credentials necessary to bring hope to those suffering with addiction and mental illness. As AU’s Dr. Barnwell explains, “Our students who go through that process can actually sit with the Illinois Certification Board to take an examination to become a Certified Alcohol and Other Drug Counselor (CADC) after they complete their degree.”

Dr. Barnwell describes the licensing exam component as, “…very complementary to much of the clinical work that social workers do because addictions fall into many categories of lives.” Even though the AU program is specifically designed to prepare students for the Illinois CADC exam, the addictions coursework aligns with the educational requirements for similar credentials in other parts of the country.

5. Healthcare 

healthcare nurse at home with patient in wheelchair

The American healthcare system was already an overwhelming place to navigate even before the COVID-19 pandemic. With difficult-to-decipher hospital billing statements, murky rules around insurance coverage, and increasingly complex and expensive treatment options, social workers were a vital resource for many patients.

In recent years, though, the strain of frequent spikes in patient admissions combined with staff shortages have made hospitals, clinics, and long-term care facilities less welcoming than ever to those on the margins.

Healthcare social workers serve both patients and their families. They offer emotional support and provide counseling, or offer referrals to outside services when needed. Their work often extends beyond medical facilities, helping to coordinate transportation, home health assistance, and follow-up care even after patients are discharged. Sometimes they simply act as expert liaisons between medical service providers and patients who may struggle to understand the condition they were diagnosed with and the treatment options available to them.

Healthcare social workers can be a critical support to health facility staff, as well. Overwhelmed nurses and allied health professionals sometimes need the same kind of key interventions as anybody else does.

Healthcare social workers can find positions in all sorts of facilities and organizations these days. They are just as likely to be found in children’s hospitals as in hospice care organizations, general medical and surgical hospitals, or substance abuse detox centers.

The AU MSW-Health Care track is one example of a program that prepares social workers for collaborative positions in all those settings and more. With the emphasis on interdisciplinary internship placements and role-specific skills training, the AU MSW-Health Care track prepares graduates capable of helping people at their most vulnerable.

6. Gerontology

gerontology support

As better healthcare services came together with the epic population growth of the Baby Boom, more and more people are now enjoying longer, fuller lives. This makes services aimed at helping the growing population of aging Americans foundational to the health and well-being of nearly every community in the country.

According to the Census Bureau, by 2034, older adults are projected to outnumber children. And by 2040, the number of adults over 65 will be nearly twice what it is now.

Yet for all their health and longevity, that population is one of the most in need of social services. Everything from emerging health and cognition problems to the psychological implications of loss and bereavement affect this population group disproportionately.

Social workers offer a lifeline to the aging through direct counseling, treatment coordination, resource referrals, and hospice planning. They fill in the gaps where absent family or indifferent bureaucracy might not be there to help. Sometimes, they offer the precious gift of simply listening for a while to older people who all too often feel forgotten.

It’s particularly important for social workers dealing with these issues to get broad, hands-on experiences in the field when preparing for this role. Classroom training gets students only so far when working with people who have already lived through life experiences that are still decades away for most graduate students.

Alison Arendt, MSW, LCSW and associate professor of social work and director of graduate studies at Aurora University, stresses the importance of experiential internship placements in their program. “The internships are very expansive in number with the types of opportunities, so sometimes students are in hospitals. Sometimes they’re working specifically with pediatrics or again with older adults in a more gerontology-focused setting.”

Working in home health, hospitals, and long-term care and residential facilities, gerontological social workers need to be familiar with all the medical and psycho-social issues unique to this group. AU’s MSW-Gerontology track is one program that offers exactly the kind of preparation it takes to be able to deliver the compassionate assistance older adults need.

7. Leadership Administration

leadership admin group meeting

Social work is a profession that requires leadership at every level. Whether working one-on-one with clients or building an organization to offer help to hundreds, social workers in every role need an education that helps them step up and take charge.

At the intersection of social work and organizational leadership, the study of leadership administration introduces a specific set of skills to social workers who want to lead the way and promote equitable access to social services. With this kind of training, graduates may aim to guide governmental agencies, nonprofits, or even businesses in a way that best serves different communities.

In leadership and administration roles, social workers will give clear direction on strategic developments and delegate tasks to other qualified professionals, marshaling talent and resources to accomplish organizational goals.

In all areas of social work, those jobs are going to be more important than ever in the coming years. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of social workers overall is expected to increase by 12% between 2020 and 2030. That’s going to bring nearly 90,000 new social workers into the field in just a 10-year period and each one of them will need an inspiring, highly educated, and compassionate leader backing them.

The interdisciplinary training and expertise social work administrators are known for allows them to skillfully coordinate efforts between administrative staff, healthcare workers, and other human services professionals in specialized roles. They also work directly with leaders of other organizations, both in the private sector and government. Social work leaders have a big-picture understanding of exactly what social services organizations do, and are skilled at expressing the importance of that work when in talks with stakeholders and decision makers.

Dr. Barnwell offers that, “If students are toying with the idea of maybe an MBA or an MPA, they might lean heavily into that leadership administrative track.” An MSW with a leadership track offers training in many of the same skills that MBA and MPA programs are known for, from administration services in diverse communities to strategic communication tactics to organizational governance.

Whether students go on to pursue a joint degree, like the dual MSW/MBA or dual MSW/MPA offered at Aurora University, or decide to go for the MSW-Leadership Administration track, learning about the administrative side of social work is time well-spent for any social worker.

8. School Social Work

school social worker working with young boy in wheelchair

People who have the right level of compassion and energy for social work also tend to be people who work well with kids. It’s no surprise, then, that school social work is one of the most popular tracks for MSW students across the country. 

Schools are the one place that kids from every socioeconomic background are likely to intersect, bringing together all the positivity and challenges that are found within any community. As issues like poverty, abuse, and untreated mental illness pose serious risks to disenfranchised students across school systems, school social workers identify the best possible ways to reach and support the students who need help.

It’s a role that is integral in supporting at-risk and marginalized student populations. But it can also be a lot of fun. Watching children grow and expand their social skills, overcome problems, and go on to fulfill their potential is enormously rewarding. And helping them along that path is one of the most fulfilling roles that social work has to offer.

In individual, group, school-wide, and even policy-development settings, school social workers ensure that students are able to develop the academic, emotional, and social skills they need to succeed in school and life. According to Dr. Barnwell, some social workers are, “…individuals who become a part of a school system and might work with students who are receiving special education services, while others focus more on providing school-wide initiatives.”

As fun and rewarding as school social work is, it’s also an area of practice that requires a unique level of sensitivity. Training is key. There’s no denying that programs like AU’s MSW-School Social Work track are preparing exactly the kind of compassionate professionals Illinois schools need today and in the future.

The Aurora University School Social Work track offers a curriculum approved by the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE)and is only available to students who will be working in Illinois schools.

9. Generalist

general manager at food drive

It’s no secret that many MSW students want an opportunity to serve the full range of population groups, often drawn to social work because of the fact that it’s so diverse.

For that reason, many MSW students choose not to pursue a specific concentration, specialization, or track. Instead, they opt for a generalist approach that promotes general social services training to build the core communication, advocacy, and counseling skills that all social workers need.

With those skills honed to a high level, students have the choice to engage with any population and community and explore the full spectrum of service solutions. 

Even in MSW programs like the one at AU that feature several distinctly focused tracks, future social workers have the option to pursue a more generalized social work education. In a generalist program like this, students get the kind of exposure to different specializations that might ultimately help them focus in on their interests and discover where their natural skills and inclinations may lead.

Alison Arendt, associate professor of social work at Aurora University, says, “…in a traditional program of 60 credits, four of the courses they take are elective courses, and then they have two internships along with the required courses.” As a master’s-prepared LCSW, Arendt recognizes the benefits of being able to select electives freely. According to her, “Electives could be chosen as they wish, they don’t have to select them based on a track menu. They can take one in one area, one in another area and maybe do a sampler.”

The Generalist track has an important place in the field of modern social work, giving each student an opportunity to explore what the field has to offer and how they can make a unique contribution to it.

The Military and Veteran Social Work track is available exclusively through Aurora University Online (AUO). All other tracks are available both on-campus and through AUO’s flexible online programs. The Aurora University MSW program is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE).

With editorial contributions from Aurora University College of Education and Social Work faculty:

Dr. Brenda Barnwell, DSW – Dean of the College of Education and Social Work
Alison Arendt, MSW, LCSW – Associate Professor of Social Work, Director of Graduate Studies
Joseph Oleck, LCSW – Lecturer of Social Work