Should I get an MSW?
August 28, 2009 9:57 PM   Subscribe

Should a law school dropout get an MSW?

I just dropped out of law school before my 2nd year because my heart wasn't in it. I genuinely went to law school to do public interest work, but it immediately became clear to me that huge loans, mediocre grades, and a bad economy were going to make it very difficult for me to go that route. The competitive and adversarial nature of law was also wearing me down.

I did enjoy working on social work type issues with my indigent clients and have been thinking that maybe I'd like to get an MSW and pursue a career in social work. But I'm hesitant to blindly jump into another grad program.

I know that there are a lot of smart social workers on Metafilter, so I'd really welcome learning about your careers and/or getting an MSW. What are the pros and cons of being a social worker? I think I would be less interested in therapy, and more interested in case management type jobs. It seems like the field is really broad, so it's a little confusing to me what a career in social work could be. Thanks!
posted by annie_oakley to Education (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
There are SO MANY paths in social work; my wife is a social worker for a hospice, doing field work at patients' houses (and nursing homes et al) where she helps the families with everything they need as well as tend to the patients' psychological situations. It's a trying job, but rewarding. Social work is either working with kids or adults, and those we know who work with kids seem to be frustrated -- at least when my wife did social work with children, she had difficulty helping people who didn't want to be helped. Most kids resisted assistance. Adults are usually more receptive towards being 'socially worked,' as we flippantly call it.

Thing is? You probably could do a LOT of good with a law degree. I can't tell you the number of times she'll come home, describe some problem, and I'll try to get a lawyer friend or my dad (ex lawyer) on the phone to figure out some wacky, crazy solution that usually involves seeking out legal aid. Here's the current head-scratcher: patient dying, horribly abusive spouse has kids in another state. How to get kids away from abusive spouse before patient dies? What happens after patient dies? Wrinkle: illegal aliens. Wrinkle II: she's dying in days, not weeks. Yowza. You could do a lot for a woman like that with a law degree.
posted by incessant at 11:54 PM on August 28, 2009

I dated a woman who was getting a MSW. She later came to regret having earned it, I think, because she didn't realize how little she would earn with it.

I would research salaries associated with people who have MSWs and see if that is sufficient for you. And I would do this before you go to get the degree.
posted by dfriedman at 11:56 PM on August 28, 2009

I'm in nursing school so take this with a grain of salt.


I would definitely advise shadowing a social worker if possible. I didn't do this with nursing and wish I had. Not because I wouldn't have ended up in school, but because I would have had a lot better information going in.

Also, have you thought about nursing? The money is much better than being a social worker. I personally think that being a social worker may be more interesting and you have more of a chance for problem solving, but it looks likely that there's going to be good paying work for nurses, depending on your area.

I totally get the dropping out of law school thing. My brother went to law school, I thought he'd be doing some public interest law, he's a corporate lawyer and miserable. I guess that was his original goal, but I think that's the way a lot of people end up.
posted by sully75 at 5:52 AM on August 29, 2009

From my friends and family who do this work it can be very rewarding personally. It is not easy work because you are dealing with many people in crisis, but it is rewarding when they improve. It does not pay well. I think these are things you already knew, and if you did not then you might want to do a lot more research before going down this path. Public interest law to social work is a well tread path. You might even find someone here who has done it. Public interest law is one of those things that fools people. It seems attractive to some law students who aren't into the whole competition aspect of law school and would rather help people than compete with them. In the real world there are so many very competent lawyers, mostly who did compete, who are independently wealthy and want to do this work making many of the best public interest law jobs actually quite competitive. For the average law student this leave jobs like public defender etc. which are still very interesting and rewarding, but also very demanding and the pay is awful.
posted by caddis at 6:13 AM on August 29, 2009

I'm a new law school graduate, but my father is the director of a county's social services division, and started out as a social worker. This may have changed since he started, but you may not need a MSW to be a social worker. He started with a psych masters and, if anything, was overqualified for the job. I'm honestly not sure what the requirements are now. Shadowing a social worker is probably a good idea, though it may be hard in some instances due to privacy concerns on the part of those being helped by the social workers. That said, it seems like a pretty personally rewarding career, though you need to deal with a lot of government bureaucracy; there's never enough money to go around.

Sully75 mentioned nursing; as far as day-to-day life goes, SW may be a lot tougher or a lot easier, depending on how well you do dealing with personal drama. It can also be a boon in SW to be a bit of a cynic, since you'll run into a lot of people who will feed you a lot of BS, and you need to be able to cut through all of that in order to do your job well. Good luck.
posted by craven_morhead at 7:37 AM on August 29, 2009

I have an MSW. But I never wanted to do direct practice, and have worked in non-profit management for about 10 years now. I've ended up in the area of development (fundraising), and interestingly, I've know three attorneys who left law to work in non-profit development.

An MSW is a very flexible degree. The program I was in had a direct practice track (for people who wanted to do traditional social work and/or become an LCSW) and a macropractice/policy track which focused on non-profit management.

Salaries run the gamut depending on the area of the country you are in. You could make as little as $22k as a case manager in the South, or well over$100k as senior management staff at large NGO in the northeast.

I've always been pleased with my decision to get an MSW, and and far as grad programs go, I think it's one of the easier ones to complete.
posted by kimdog at 8:48 AM on August 29, 2009

I'd recommend trying to get a case management job and try it for a year or two before you decide to pursue your MSW. A lot of places only require a bachelor's degree to do case management. You won't be able to call yourself a social worker because you don't have a social work degree/aren't licensed as a social worker, but you'll at least get to experience what case management is like before you make any decisions about grad school.
posted by whatideserve at 8:55 AM on August 29, 2009

I have an MSW - as others have mentioned, it leads to a very broad range of opportunities. While I have left direct service work to become part of management in the non-profit sector, at our organization we have:

-MSW doing clincial supervision
-MSWs doing clincial casework plus community development/partnership
-MSW doing human resources work
-MSW doing social marketing work

So, the choices are pretty much open with the degree. Lots of factors should be part of your decision, however - the salary, the type of work (it can be very, very draining and I know quite a few social workers who quit the profession after a few years), the paperwork (often the largest complaint of the staff), the number of years you already have invested in your law degree versus the time it takes to start over.

I would strongly suggest finding an agency/organization that does the type of work you are interested in and volunteering/shadowing someone there - find out if it is for you before making the big decision. Law and social work have many points of intersection (and I have wished many times we had a lawyer willing to work for/volunteer with us), so don't think that doing one precludes the others.
posted by never used baby shoes at 9:53 AM on August 29, 2009

I'm currently in my second year of social work grad school.

What people have said above about money may be true. I'd be careful about putting a ton of money towards the degree, because you're probably not going to be rolling in the dough. I go to a city school, which is MUCH cheaper than the private schools, and I think I'm getting a much better education because the accessibility means that my classmates have a wide variety of experiences in the field (and in life) to share.

If you can get the degree from a good school that isn't that expensive, I believe that it can really help you in whatever field you choose. We need more social workers in all sorts of jobs!

I say go for it. If you want to talk more, MeFi mail me! Good luck!
posted by iliketolaughalot at 4:38 PM on August 29, 2009

My friend from college is a former social worker who got very burnt out by the profession. She wants to do something else now.

I would just work for a few years now and see what seems interesting to you. Don't commit to a new career path just yet.
posted by anniecat at 2:56 PM on August 30, 2009

I just wanted to thank everyone for chiming in with their experiences and bits of advice on getting a social work degree. Dealing with the aftermath of dropping out of law school and figuring out where to go next has been pretty difficult for me, so I really appreciate everyone's responses so far.
posted by annie_oakley at 3:36 PM on August 30, 2009

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