Earning a Master’s in Social Work While Working Full Time? Yes, It Can Be Done

Career DevelopmentEducation

There are a number of reasons that you might continue working while you earn your degree. Usually it comes down to finances; advanced degrees don’t really pay the bills until you actually graduate.

With some programs, such as law and medicine, holding a full-time job while in school is difficult, if not impossible. However, other programs are highly conducive to working and taking classes, and in fact, holding a job can even enhance your studies.

One of those programs is social work. It’s very possible to earn a degree in social work while working full-time. As with any degree program, you’ll have to adjust your schedule and find ways to balance your responsibilities, but your hard work will pay off in spades when you complete your degree and transition into a fulfilling career devoted to helping others.

When and What to Tell Your Boss

Often, managers are supportive when their employees want to further their education — to a point. When an employee wants to study a field other than the one in which he or she is working, there is understandably some concern. If you work in marketing, for example, and want to go back to school for social work, there’s likely to be some questions about your commitment to the company, and an assumption (probably accurate) that you are planning to leave as soon as you earn your degree.

For that reason, it’s important that you approach a conversation about your educational plans with your boss carefully. In some cases, it might be better to keep your plans and non-work activities to yourself; for example, if your company is struggling or making layoffs, telling your boss that you’re studying for a different career could move you straight to the chopping block.

However, if your boss is generally supportive and your company is in good shape, it’s respectful and considerate to mention that you are going back to school. Reiterate your commitment to your current position and the company, and that your studies will not interfere with your work at all.

If your boss asks directly if and when you plan to leave, be honest about your plans, but focus on your reasons for pursuing the degree rather than your career plans. For example, saying, “I’ve always had a passion for helping others, and I want to study social work so I can become better at doing so,” puts the emphasis on your emotional reasons for studying. If you share this passion, your boss is likely to be supportive, and might even identify ways you can help others in your current position.

Once you do finish your degree, though, and you decide to start looking for other opportunities, do provide the professional courtesy of giving appropriate notice. Even if your boss knows it’s coming eventually, you don’t want to “surprise” him or her with your decision and burn a bridge.

Finding a Related Job

While it’s certainly possible to pursue your social work degree while working in almost any field, there are some that lend themselves well to a seamless career transition, and provide opportunities to apply your learning from the very start. Some of these fields include:

Health care. Working in the health care field exposes you to a variety of issues germane to social work, including end of life issues, mental health, advocacy, and family dynamics. While working in a patient care capacity (such as a nurse or health aide) requires additional training and licensure, health care providers and hospitals have a wide range of other positions that can create a “foot in the door” for an aspiring social worker.

Education. Like health care, working directly with students full-time requires training and licensure, but there are some jobs that social work students can hold while studying. Teacher assistant and paraprofessional positions, for example, are often open to those who are still in school, in addition to other school support positions.

Social and human services. Most social and human services agencies, whether governmental or nonprofit, need individuals who can help provide services to those who need them. State human services agents, for example, might help families determine eligibility for benefits or connect them with other services. While these positions may not pay well to start, they are an excellent starting point for a student of social work who wants to make a difference and gain experience and contacts for a future position.

Working and going to school is challenging for even the most prepared student, but thousands of students do it every day. Being up front about your goals and finding ways to make your current job relevant can smooth the transition — and keep your professional reputation intact in the process.