How Social Work Students Can Snag a Paid Field Internship

While most social work field placements are unpaid, some notable paid opportunities exist.
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Matthew Arrojas is a news reporter at BestColleges covering higher education issues and policy. He previously worked as the hospitality and tourism news reporter at the South Florida Business Journal. He also covered higher education policy issues as...
Updated on November 1, 2023
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  • Master of social work students must complete 900 hours of field work to become a licensed clinical social worker.
  • Most of these internships, also called field placements, are unpaid.
  • More agencies have begun to offer stipends to social work students in recent years.
  • These paid placements tend to go to more experienced students and can be highly competitive.

Social work students must complete hundreds of hours in internships, leaving many wondering how to earn some money for their work.

The answer is that very few of these required internships — referred to as field placements in social work — offer any pay or stipend. A student pursuing a bachelor's in social work must complete at least 400 required hours of field work, while a master's in social work (MSW) student must complete 900 hours. Students completing a field placement provide many of the same services as full-time social workers, but they usually do so without the monetary benefits.

That's not to say there aren't any paid field placement opportunities, however.

BestColleges spoke with current students, former students, and college faculty about where to look for a paid field placement and how best to secure one.

Pay Varies Across — and Within — Industries

There are few commonalities among types of social work field placements that are paid.

Taylor Gilbert, a medical social worker and blogger for Social Work to Wealth, told BestColleges that paid field placements exist, even if they are hard to find. However, there's no easy, one-stop shop students can look to to identify which ones will be paid.

"I haven't found any common denominator with all of the places that pay," she said.

Still, some trends may help lead students in the right direction.

Government Work

One of the more fruitful places to look seems to be within governmental agencies.

Any center associated with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), in particular, is a good starting point. Gilbert said her first and only paid placement during college was at the local VA hospital.

The frequency of pay may vary by state, but multiple students connected to the Payment for Placements (P4P) movement told BestColleges that they know of social work students who have secured a paid placement at their local VA hospital. Alejandra Luis, a social work student at the University of Georgia, said she's seen all VA internships advertised as paid in her state.

Wendy DuCassé, director of field education at the Saint Louis University School of Social Work, confirmed that VA offices often offer stipends.

She added that state agencies focused on services for children and families also produce many paid internships. These agencies, however, often go by different names in different states. In Florida, for example, it is the Department of Children and Families.

Luis said that based on her talks with fellow social work students at her university, it seems most government-related placements are paid, but not all are.

Nonprofit Work

Getting paid for field placement work at a nonprofit can be hit or miss.

Alex Armanino, a social work student at Hunter College pursuing a master's degree, told BestColleges that she currently interns at one of the largest nonprofits in New York City. Still, her field placement is unpaid.

Pay often varies among nonprofits, she explained, because even large nonprofits may be operating on razor-thin margins. Those with a large funding base may apply those funds to their community work rather than social work students.

Luis added that for the past three years, many nonprofits had been able to use COVID-19-related grants to pay their field interns. However, as those funds ran out, many employers removed this benefit for social work students and made their placements unpaid once again.

"Something we saw in Georgia with the student surveys we did is there is definitely a decrease in the number of sites that paid," she said.

Luis said students should at least ask a nonprofit they want to intern at whether a stipend could be provided. She said some students have successfully advocated for pay on a case-by-case basis.

DuCassé said the stipends from nonprofits often depend on the availability of government grants, which can vary by community. A city that is dealing with an acute homelessness issue, for example, may have received funds to support the homeless community. Therefore, the local nonprofit that supports people without housing may have funds to pay social work students.

Private Practice

One area known among students to rarely offer a stipend is private practice employers, such as counseling agencies.

Paige Philips, a social work student at the University of Denver, told BestColleges that in her experience, private practice employers rarely ever pay their interns. That's not for lack of funds, but it's been a commonality across geographic areas.

Nik Von Seggern, a social work student at the University of Michigan, backed up that claim. They said they only know of one private practice near their university that pays a stipend.

Students in the interpersonal practice track are most likely to intern at a private practice, which means pay is rare for these students, Von Seggern said.

Medical Social Work

Hospitals and other healthcare centers are also known to rarely pay social work students.

Elana Metz, a San Diego State University social work student, told BestColleges that students don't have a license and, therefore, cannot bill insurance companies for their services. So, health systems are reluctant to pay students for their work.

"Healthcare is very corporate, and so when they do the math, they just see that having student interns is expensive," she said.

DuCassé shared the same analysis that social work students practicing in medical settings rarely get paid.

One exception, she added, was at VA hospitals. These centers are known to offer stipends to students more often than not.

Other Paid Field Work Options

Even among the rare paid placements, there is little consistency in how agencies pay their social work students.

Institutional Scholarships, Grants

Students may work at an agency that doesn't pay its interns, yet still receive a stipend.

This is often thanks to scholarships and grants that a university pays directly to its students. At the University of Georgia, for example, Luis said her institution offers fellowships to social work students so that they can be paid through the university.

She added that Case Western Reserve University, a private institution, pays its students directly through scholarships. This includes students completing a field placement outside of the university.

Wendy DuCassé said her institution, Saint Louis University, offers a one-semester stipend for social work students to help offset the cost of tuition, fees, and other expenses.

Institutional aid for social work students, however, is rare. It is one reason why P4P has been campaigning for colleges and universities to pay their social work students directly, rather than asking financially capped nonprofits to foot the bill.

Philips added that social work students may be able to get paid through federal work-study programs. Students who qualify for federal financial aid can have a portion of their stipend paid by the federal government.

"The only caveat is that it takes a lot of paperwork," she said.

Work-study usually applies only to nonprofit work. These nonprofit organizations are required to apply to make their internship a work-study program, which they may not have the capacity, know-how, or funding to do.

Additionally, a nonprofit participating in a work-study placement must put forth 30% of the total funds that will be disbursed to the student, Philips said.

Quid Pro Quo

Some paid field placements come with stipulations.

Luis said that she knows of a paid internship with the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities that provides a $10,000 stipend. Participants must, however, commit to working at the department after graduating for a time equal to however long they worked there as a student.

Philips said she knows of two other field placements in the Denver area that provide stipends between $10,000 and $14,000 for the year. These also require students to work at the agency post-graduation for at least two years.

Students must balance the value of a stipend while in school versus the work commitment post-graduation.

It Doesn't Hurt to Ask

Another lesson that current and former students shared was that it doesn't hurt to ask potential internship sites if they can establish a stipend.

"Talking about money is taboo, and getting paid as social workers is seen as taboo, too," Gilbert said. "But we need to have those conversations and force the issue."

Luis said she heard of one such case where a fellow social work student applied for an internship and asked for a stipend. Now they are being well paid for their continued work as a student.

Advice for Finding a Paid Field Placement

It's worth reiterating that the vast majority of field placements are unpaid. In a poll of University of Michigan social work students, P4P found that 85% of students were in an unpaid placement, Von Seggern said.

That makes the few paid internships extremely competitive.

"Close your eyes and pray that someone isn't more qualified than you," Von Seggern said.

It may be challenging for undergraduate students to secure a paid placement. Even graduate students may struggle to beat other candidates for a coveted paid internship.

Professors may try to give students paid options, but those options are limited.

Philips said she explicitly told her professor that she prioritized paid placements. However, when her professor provided five suitable options, only one was a paid opportunity.

That's despite the University of Denver working with a database of over 900 potential placements, she said.

Social work students also stressed that the best placements aren't always paid. While students may go into a search for a field placement with the goal of being paid, they may find that the internships most aligned with their career interests are unpaid.

"It was definitely a hard choice choosing between a paid internship and an unpaid internship," Kailey Caruso, a student at the University of Denver, told BestColleges.

Nonetheless, DuCassé recommends that students be open with their school's director of field education. If a paid placement is a necessity, a student may be able to work with their institution to find the best option.

That doesn't always mean the school will find a paid opportunity, but perhaps there are other ways the student could balance work, life, school, and their field placement requirement.

"It's a challenging conversation to have because we don't have all of the answers, but we know it's necessary to have it because the need is there," DuCassé said.

"If we look at this through an equity lens, consider the needs of our communities and organizations, and are serious about graduating social workers and introducing them to the profession, we have to be open to reimagining our approach to this."