How Hard is MSW Program – (15 Biggest Challenges & How to Overcome)

Written By: Darby Faubion BSN, RN

Are you searching for a career where you can serve people? Does teaching individuals and families ways to cope with life’s challenges interest you? You may have a degree in social work or want to transition your career to the social work field. If this sounds like you, a career as a Master of Social Work could be a great option. Perhaps you have considered earning a master’s in social work but wonder, “How hard is an MSW program?” In this article, I will share the 15 biggest challenges you will face in MSW program and how to overcome them.


If you are considering becoming a Master of Social Work, it is natural to wonder, “Is an MSW program hard?” Simply put, yes, MSW programs are hard. You learn a lot of content, participate in field experiences, and deal with clients from different backgrounds experiencing different needs. Although MSW programs are challenging, you can succeed with proper planning, time management, and dedication to earning your degree.



An MSW program is hard for several reasons. Things that you find challenging may not be difficult for other students and vice versa. The following are three of the top reasons MSW programs are hard.

1. The coursework is intense:

MSW programs feature in-depth course content, which can be overwhelming at times. You will study diverse populations, trauma and trauma responses, legalities and ethics in social work, statistics, and research.

2. Field experiences can be unpredictable.

One of the things that make MSW programs hard is that all clinical days are different. If you like a job with a predictable routine, you may find social work disappointing.

3. It is hard not to get "emotionally involved."

Social workers see clients at some of the lowest times in their lives. Some situations are heartbreaking. For instance, you may work a case of child or elder abuse or neglect, be called to work an assault case, or counsel groups of children after losing a classmate. No matter the situation, as an MSW, you must learn to remain objective and not become emotionally involved in the case. That does not mean you do not care. On the contrary, you must remain objective because you do care, and you realize that becoming emotionally involved can cloud your judgment.


(The following are the 15 biggest Challenges you will face in MSW Program and ways you can successfully overcome them.)

CHALLENGE #1: Choosing the Right Specialization for Your MSW is Hard.

About the Challenge:

One of the things that makes an MSW program hard is choosing a career path. Many master's in social work programs require students to choose a specialization area before beginning the program. If you are undecided or feel you do not have enough information to choose a specialty pathway, it can feel overwhelming. And the trouble is you usually need to choose this pathway before you begin the program. Yes, you can begin the program while still undecided, but this could put you at a disadvantage if there was a specific career path you wanted.

How to Overcome:

There are quite a few things you can do to help deciding on a specialty feel less challenging. Consider working or volunteering in social work settings. Learn about social work specialties to find one that aligns with your interests. Try to meet and form connections with licensed social workers and learn about their roles. Finally, talk to academic advisors and program faculty to discuss specialty options.

CHALLENGE #2: Sometimes Getting into an MSW Program is Hard.

About the Challenge:

The Master of Social Work degree is a graduate degree and, therefore, often has some strict admission criteria. Additionally, many schools have several applicants, making admission competitive. If you barely meet the minimum admission requirements, you may find it difficult to get into a program.

How to Overcome:

The best way to overcome the difficulty of getting accepted to a top MSW program is to exceed the minimum admission requirements. For example, many programs require applicants to have at least a cumulative college GPA of 3.0 on a 4.0 scale. If you work to get your GPA up to a 3.5 or higher, you become a more appealing candidate. Additionally, get work or volunteer experience relevant to social work. Make sure you get excellent letters of recommendation from social work professionals. Apply early and follow up on your application. Remember, consistency is key.

CHALLENGE #3: Finding a Way to Pay for Your MSW Degree

About the Challenge:

MSW programs can present a financial burden. Programs can cost as little as $40,000 to more than $150,000. Unless you have money saved for the degree or qualify for grants or scholarships, you may feel paying for an MSW program is hard. The financial obligation of MSW programs is often considered one of the main disadvantages of pursuing this degree.

How to Overcome:

Trying to find a way to afford an MSW program is one of the most challenging things for many students. Although graduate programs are not eligible for federal grants, you may be eligible for federally-funded loans. Additionally, there are several options for scholarships and private grants. Many schools offer work-study programs, which are excellent options, as well.

Take the time to evaluate your finances to determine how much you can afford to pay for your degree and whether you need to work while in school. Talk with financial advisors at each school of interest to you to find out about available scholarships or grants. Apply for as many scholarships and grants as you can find and do it early to improve your chances of receiving one while funds are available.

CHALLENGE #4: Creating a Healthy Balance Between School and Personal Obligations

About the Challenge:

Earning a master’s degree in social work takes a serious time commitment. If you have a job, family, or other personal responsibilities, you may need help finding balance. When you lack a healthy balance between school and your personal life, it can create problems. Your grades may suffer, or your family may become stressed.

How to Overcome:

The first step in overcoming this challenge is acknowledging the need for balance in your life. Look at your personal commitments and job responsibilities and determine how much time each requires. Be honest with your family about your desire to earn your degree and discuss ways everyone can contribute to household responsibilities. When your family helps with things around the house, that frees more time for you to study and complete assignments without being overwhelmed. Good time management is easier to accomplish when goals and tasks are clearly defined. Create a schedule that includes time for schoolwork and personal obligations and stick with it.

CHALLENGE #5: Coursework is in-depth and challenging.

About the Challenge:

The coursework for MSW programs covers a lot of in-depth content and can be quite challenging. You may have trouble adjusting if you have been out of school for a while or have trouble focusing on tasks.

How to Overcome:

The best way to overcome this challenge is to prepare. Be honest with yourself about which classes may be more difficult for you. If you feel concerned the work will be too much, start part-time, which would allow you to become acclimated to student life. It may only take a semester or two before you have a pattern of study established and feel like you can take on a heavier course load.

CHALLENGE #6: MSW Programs Can Be Emotionally Taxing

About the Challenge:

One of the biggest challenges of MSW programs is the emotional toll it can take on a student. In addition to rigorous coursework, your field training experiences may involve working cases of abuse, neglect, or other trauma. The emotional toll associated with handling difficult cases can feel overwhelming.

How to Overcome:

Although there is no way to prevent experiencing emotional situations while in an MSW program (or later in your job), it is possible to learn ways to cope. Every person deals with emotional situations differently and recognizing your patterns of response and coping will help you cope effectively. Your fellow classmates can be a source of encouragement and strength while dealing with issues that make MSW programs hard. Instructors and clinical preceptors have been where you are and understand the highs and lows of a social work career. If you feel yourself struggling, reach out to them for guidance.

CHALLENGE #7: Field Experiences Are Often Rigorous.

About the Challenge:

The coursework in the curriculum for an MSW program is hard enough, but when you add in the field experience requirements, it can be more challenging. Although the field placement requirements were revised due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Council on Social Work Education still requires master’s social work programs to include at least 765 field practice hours.

How to Overcome:

The key to dealing with the challenge of completing required clinical time is to know the requirements ahead of time and prepare. Find out how many hours of field practice you must complete and the timeframe in which it must be completed. Ask questions about where field experiences occur and who arranges sites and preceptors.

You will find this challenge, and many others that make an MSW program hard, can be easily overcome by simply addressing the issues before they become overwhelming or burdensome. Finally, draw on your passion for social work to stay inspired and encouraged when things get tough, reminding yourself that earning your degree will be worth the hard work.

CHALLENGE #8: You May Need to Locate Your Own Preceptors.

About the Challenge:

Depending on your program’s guidelines, you may need to locate preceptors for your clinical training in your MSW program. Although the school will approve or deny your request for a preceptor, you may still be responsible for identifying prospective preceptors. If you do not know where to begin or do not have contacts in the social work field, you may find it difficult to locate appropriate people for this task.

How to Overcome:

The most important thing about locating preceptors is to know your school’s guidelines for choosing and getting approval for preceptors. Talk to the clinical director of your program early in the program to find out what the school looks for in preceptors. Ask if the school has contracts with preceptors or social work facilities that they prefer students to utilize. Finally, do not wait to get the process started. Once you know where to look and which questions to ask, begin talking with possible preceptors to find ones willing to train you. Then you can present your options to the clinical faculty for approval.

CHALLENGE #9: Paperwork Seems Never-ending.

About the Challenge:

The role of an MSW requires you to have excellent written communication skills. In MSW programs, you will learn about different types of documentation, interview techniques, and research related to social work. The curriculum for your program will include writing assignments and projects. If you hate paperwork or feel your written communication skills could be better, you could find this part of the program challenging.

How to Overcome:

If writing is not your strongest skill, admit that and find ways to improve your technique. Familiarize yourself with APA and MLA formats. Learn to find and cite credible sources, as this will be required for almost every writing assignment while in the MSW program. There are hundreds of free online writing courses to help you improve your writing skills. You could consider taking one of these courses (or more). Remember, anything you do to better yourself and broaden your skill set is a step in the right direction to becoming a great Master of Social Work.

CHALLENGE #10: Overcoming Personal Biases

About the Challenge:

Even the best among us has personal biases. One of the challenges of social work, and something you must learn in an MSW program, is how to overcome personal biases. For example, if you or someone you know experienced abuse or trauma, it could be easy to be judgmental toward alleged abusers. Allowing personal feelings to cloud your judgment could lead to problems with your cases and may do more harm than good.

How to Overcome:

The first step in overcoming personal biases or overwhelming feelings is to acknowledge them. If you need help with separating your personal experiences from your clients’ experiences, talk to your instructor and/or preceptor. If you remain open and honest about your feelings, you can learn ways to cope and implement professional judgement. Doing so is beneficial to you and those you serve.

CHALLENGE #11: Working While Enrolled in an MSW Program is Hard.

About the Challenge:

An MSW program is hard academically and can also be expensive. If your family relies on your income, it could be difficult or even impossible to consider reducing your work time or quitting work while in school. The added burden of paying for your program could make it even more necessary for you to work while enrolled. However, because of the time commitment required for the program, it may be difficult to continue working.

How to Overcome:

You have two options when it comes to overcoming the challenge of working during your MSW program: you can quit your job, or you can make it work. I know that sounds kind of dry, but the simple fact is, you will either work or you won’t. To deal with the challenge, you must first assess your financial obligations and your sources of income. Be honest with yourself about what you can handle when it comes to balancing work and school. Then, talk with your employer and academic advisor and discuss options for scheduling to help you find the best solution.

CHALLENGE #12: Learning to Use Research for Practice

About the Challenge:

Social work is about so much more than talking to clients or coworkers and acting as a mediator. In social work programs, you will learn to use databases and research to identify individuals at risk and come up with possible treatment plans for their situations. If you do not like research, you may find MSW programs hard.

How to Overcome:

If you want to become a Master of Social Work, you must overcome your dislike of or inexperience with research. Consider volunteering for social work research projects to give you experience and help you develop research skills. Sometimes the only way to overcome a challenge is to keep working until the challenge is no longer a challenge. Remember, any goal worth reaching is worth working for!

CHALLENGE #13: MSW Programs Require a Serious Time Commitment

About the Challenge:

It can take one to four years to complete the typical MSW program depending on whether you choose to enroll as a full-time or part-time student. Some part-time students may extend their programs even longer. If you have personal, family, or work obligations, the time commitment required can make MSW programs hard.

How to Overcome:

Carefully consider the responsibilities you have outside of school to determine how much time you can devote to school. If you must work or have small children or elderly family members to care for, a part-time program may be the best option. The objective is to succeed in the program and earn your Master of Social Work degree. Even if you must extend the total time in school to accommodate other obligations, the long-term benefits of earning your degree will be worth it.

CHALLENGE #14: Learning to Communicate with Difficult Clients

About the Challenge:

In social work, every client is different, which means personalities, tempers, and communication skills vary significantly. The MSW is often the one to set the tone for the client/social worker relationship. Being effective in practice means you must learn methods of deescalating tense situations and demonstrating therapeutic communication skills.

How to Overcome:

The old saying, “Practice makes perfect,” is true. The best way to learn therapeutic communication and improve client outcomes is by taking every possible opportunity to work with clients from different backgrounds and with different experiences. Talk to preceptors and instructors to find out how they handle tough situations. Make the most of your field experiences by observing preceptors as they relate with clients. The more you work with clients, the more confident you will become with your communication skills.

CHALLENGE #15: Trying to Maintain a Good GPA

About the Challenge:

Top social work schools will have high standards, including maintaining a good GPA. Most programs require students to maintain at least a 3.0 throughout the program. With a rigorous curriculum and busy field learning experiences, you may feel you do not have enough time to study like you want. Unfortunately, if you do not keep your grades within the program’s requirements, you could lose your spot in the MSW program and be forced to start over and/or remediate.

How to Overcome:

The best way to stay within the GPA requirement is to start at and maintain a steady pace of learning. It is easier to retain information when you learn small chunks of material over time, instead of cramming content the night before a test. Dedicate time to studying every day. If you find your grades falling, seek advice from your instructors and academic advisor before they get too bad. Remember your instructors want you to succeed. So, do not fret about asking for their guidance.


"How hard is MSW program?” is often the first question prospective social work students ask. Some students find the programs exceptionally challenging while others feel the program is easy. The challenges students face varies depending on previous professional and academic history. If you genuinely desire to become a Master of Social Work, you can take the information provided about the 15 biggest challenges you will face in MSW program and how to overcome them, featured in this article to help you prepare for success.


1. How Long Does MSW Program Take?

MSW programs can take one to four years to complete, depending on whether you pursue the degree part-time or full-time.

2. Is It Normal To Struggle In MSW Program?

Yes, it is normal to struggle while in your MSW program. MSW programs have in-depth curriculum and significant time demands for field experiences. However, if you plan your schedule carefully and devote sufficient time to studies, you can succeed.

3. Which Year Of MSW Program Is The Hardest?

Although opinions vary, many students feel the second year of an MSW program is hard. This year is often referred to as the specialization year and involves a lot of fieldwork.

4. What Are the Hardest Classes In MSW Program?

It is a matter of opinion which classes make an MSW program hard. Some of the most difficult classes include Differential Diagnosis and Statistics.

5. How Many Hours Do I Need To Study In MSW Program?

The time you need to study while in an MSW program depends on your learning style and how well you retain information. Typically, college professors recommend spending two to three hours for each credit hour you are enrolled in each week. For example, if you are enrolled in 10 credit hours, you should plan to spend 20 to 30 hours devoted to studying each week.

6. Is It Hard To Work During MSW Program?

It makes be difficult to work while in an MSW program. I recommend carefully considering your financial obligations to determine how much you need to work. Then, discuss your schedules with your academic advisor and employer to see if there is a way to continue working while in the program.

7. What Percent Of MSW Students Drop Out?

The graduation rate for MSW programs varies, with most reporting a 15% attrition rate.

8. Is It Common To Fail MSW Program?

Although some students fail in MSW programs, the number varies. Approximately 85% of students complete the program, which means 15% leave the program, some because of failing grades.

9. What Next After Failing MSW Program?

If you fail in an MSW program, the next step depends on what you want for your future. If you truly want to earn the degree, schedule an appointment with your academic advisor and faculty to discuss where things went wrong and what you can do to improve. Then, apply to begin again. Conversely, if you fail in the program and feel the timing is not right, you could consider a different career path or take some time off from school to give yourself a break.

Darby Faubion BSN, RN
Darby Faubion is a nurse and Allied Health educator with over twenty years of experience. She has assisted in developing curriculum for nursing programs and has instructed students at both community college and university levels. Because of her love of nursing education, Darby became a test-taking strategist and NCLEX prep coach and assists nursing graduates across the United States who are preparing to take the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX).