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Utility of a University of California MSW vs a Cal State MSW?


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As I understand it, and correct me if I am wrong, it does "not really matter" where one gets one's MSW from,to paraphrase some of the posts I have read on here, as so long as one networks effectively, studies their coursework effectively, and does their field work enthusiastically. Now with that possibility in mind, aside from the prestige of being able to say that one graduated from a UC with a MSW in hand, what could getting a MSW from a UC give me that a Cal State could not at MUCH cheaper tuition? All I can tell from my (albeit limited) perspective is that a UC MSW would come with extra student loans attached to it. Am I incorrect with this inference, or is there some sort of benefit to a prestige school in say Macroscopic Social Work or something to that effect? Thank you all for an outstanding and especially helpful forum.

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This might not answer your question entirely, but I thought I would offer my experience.


I just graduated from the macro concentration at UC Berkeley, and am now working in Los Angeles doing a mixture of community organizing, policy work, applied research, and management for a city-county agency responsible for coordinating homeless services throughout L.A. County. While I had a job offer from my second-year field placement, I had no desire to stay in the Bay Area. However, I still retain a research associate position with a team from the School of Public Health, doing statewide research and technical assistance (the experience and network from which I strongly believe helped me obtain my current job).


I applied to and was accepted at two other programs in California (UCLA and USC), and several out-of-state programs. Since I was macro-focused, I wasn't drawn to the Cal State system--mostly because I don't believe the majority of Cal States offered a macro concentration, and also because reputation/'prestige' did matter to me. Overall, as problematic as it is, I feel reputation matters more for macro than clinically focused practitioners; but that is one person's opinion, and there is plenty of evidence to the contrary.


Ultimately, I chose Berkeley for the following reasons: reputation, the structure of its fieldwork program, and overall opportunities. Also, there is a high density of MSW programs in Southern California, so students end up competing for all of the same field placements and I wanted more control and flexibility in that process. I also discovered that I did not have it in me to move out-of-state; though I didn't like the Bay Area, no other programs struck me the way Berkeley's ended up doing. 


Honestly, I cannot really remark on how my experience compared to students in direct practice concentrations at my school or elsewhere. I knew someone who was in the forensic social work program at CSULA (she left before completing the first foundation year, for personal reasons), and it sounded really intense--a very heavy workload on the academic side. Berkeley was much more flexible, and instructors did not expect us to do all of the reading, but to focus on and engage with that which interested us most. You already had a bunch of high/over-achievers in the room, but it was impossible to do everything so we all learned to set our own priorities for learning and professional growth. I did well academically, but was much more into my fieldwork and research. I learned a lot from the folks in my cohort, who were incredibly intelligent, passionate, and talented folks, some of whom I definitely consider part of my professional support network (after an intense first day at my new job, I had a pep talk with one of my fellow grads).


Only you can determine what your priorities are and what you want out of a program; what was important to me in my selection process may not be important to you at all. But one thing I would suggest you look into is the strength of each program's network, and to gauge whether there are opportunities (even outside the department) that are in alignment with your professional/academic interests. And talk to current students.


Also, not to be reductive, but: trust your gut.

Edited by briefinterviews
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Aw man oh man briefinterviews! I think you helped me confirm my suspicions that those interested in macro work are actually helped in their career aspirations by the prestige of where they get their MSW. But at the same time the utility of far cheaper tuition at a Cal State calls to me! Such things to wring my head over!


When you graduated from UC Berkeley, how much debt did you bring with you, if you do not mind me asking?


And did you feel that the macro concentration at Berkeley focused more on actual community organizing and advocacy or more on *research* in social work? I have read that research is emphasized more at the UC MSW's, is this true?

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I don't know my exact loan amount at the moment, but it is a pretty penny. Thankfully, I do not have any debt from undergrad. I had $20k+ in work study, income from a research job that supplemented that amount, and a fellowship, but I am still carrying not-an-insignificant amount of debt. My living expenses in the Bay Area were expensive. I could have offset some of that, but I made the choices I felt I needed to make at the time regarding my housing, and I am content with those decisions. Housing is what will ultimately get you, though--what is happening in the rental market up there is nothing short of a crisis, and I am glad I got out when I did. Ultimately, though, I am not very concerned about the debt because of PSLF; however, there have been some recent proposed changes to PSLF that institute a cap for future borrowers, which is worth keeping an eye on if that is a repayment option that appeals to you.


Berkeley was more research-oriented, but that was a plus for me and something that also contributed to my decision to matriculate. We took a semester-long research methods course and then a year-long research seminar. There were also courses on community organizing, and a policy practice class that is universally adored by MAPpers, but for a school with such a rich history of social justice, I actually found that aspect wanting a bit. At least in some of the dialogue that was (or wasn't) taking place in some courses. 


FWIW, I see a tendency on this board of people in search of The Perfect MSW Program, which just doesn't exist. There are going to be things that frustrate and disappoint you, and it's important to go in with your eyes wide open and being able to manage your expectations. Whatever you aren't getting in one setting (e.g. the classroom), does not mean you cannot find it in other places (e.g. in field, in the community, in your cohort) to round out your experience and lay the foundation for your life-long learning. Personally, I was very interested in exploring and bridging the gaps between research, policy, and practice to advocate for structural change, and I can say that through a combination of different experiences through my graduate program, that is exactly what I got to do. 


But I digress--ultimately, you will have to decide where cost factors into your equation, and determine what your priorities are.

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