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How to become a Social Worker

Learn about the requirements for earning a social work license.

Social workers play an important role in society, helping clients overcome specific crises or face new and difficult challenges, such as disabilities, mental illness, job loss or poverty, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). They may assist individuals, families or communities in building new strategies for coping with difficulties or advocate for change on a local, statewide or national level. In fact, more people work as clinical social workers -- who are professionals with at least a master's degree and two years of experience -- than as psychiatrists, psychologists, and psychiatric nurses combined, SAMHSA reports.

Employment opportunities for social workers

More than 607,000 people were employed in the U.S. in 2012 as social workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). They were employed in many different types of settings that included:

  • Child welfare agencies
  • Correctional facilities
  • Hospitals
  • State and local governments
  • Substance abuse centers

In fact, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is one of the largest employers of social workers who have master's degrees, according to SAMHSA, with the department employing more than 10,000 professionals. There are many different types of social work occupations that can be pursued and, according to the BLS, these include:

  • Children and family social workers
  • Clinical social workers
  • Healthcare social workers
  • Mental health and substance abuse social workers
  • School social workers

Education needed to become a social worker

Because social workers need broad educational foundations to be able to effectively help others, a minimum of a four-year education is typically needed. These kinds of programs can help students to learn about social policy, social welfare, and social work research, but also provide them with practicum experiences working at on-site settings with professionals. It may not always be clear how best to become a social worker, but the following degrees may help:

  • Associate: Most of these degrees, which typically take about two years to complete, actually focus in the social services instead of social work, enabling students to become social work assistants or paraprofessionals in the field. Coursework may primarily include psychology and sociology classes, but adequately educate students so that they can later work on completing a bachelor's degree.
  • Bachelor's: In addition to providing students with foundational courses and practicum experiences, elective coursework in areas such as social work with older adults, military social work and victim advocacy may be available. This degree can help prepare graduates for entry-level positions such as mental health assistants or caseworkers, according to the BLS.
  • Master's: The Master's of Social Work (MSW) is needed to become a licensed clinical social worker and gain the skills to treat clients for behavioral, mental and emotional issues. Most of these programs take two years to complete, but students with an undergraduate degree in social work may be able to complete a master's degree more quickly.
  • Doctoral: The Doctor of Social Work, or DSW, could be best suited for social work professionals interested in public policy change, research or innovative perspectives, including how technology could improve services and outreach. A dissertation is often a part of this advanced level program.

The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) accredits both bachelor's and master's degree programs and, as of 2014, had more than 700 accredited programs nationally available to students. In most cases, those working on a doctoral degree in social work already have completed a master's degree in social work and have ideally done so through an accredited institution.

Licensing requirements

All states have licensing requirements that clinical social workers must complete to become employable. These requirements vary state-by-state, but typical steps can include:

  • Having a master's degree in social work, most often through an accredited program
  • Completing a minimum of two years or 3,000 hours of clinical supervised experience after graduation
  • Passing a clinical exam

The Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) has more information on this licensing exam and provides an online handbook that takes licensing candidates through the various steps, including how to register with the ASWB for the exam and even how to make an exam appointment with Pearson VUE. Candidates can also find test prep tips and sample questions.

For those interested in finding out more about how to become a social worker, the ASWB provides a full list of social work regulatory boards by state and province that can offer more licensing details. Once licensed, clinical social workers typically need to complete continuing education (CE) requirements to maintain their licensure. However, just as initial licensing requirements vary state to state, so do these CE regulations; professionals should contact their state regulatory board to ensure that they're complying with any requirements regarding continuing education.


"Social Work Profession," National Association of Social Work,

"Social Workers," Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook,

"Associate in Science Degree: Behavioral Sciences - Emphasis in Social Work," San Di City College,

"B.A. Social Worker," Brandman University,

"Doctor of Social Work," Capella University,

"Accreditation," Council on Social Work Education,

"Exam Candidates," Association of Social Work Boards,

Click on the state in which you wish to gain your social work license to learn more about the licensure process.

Social Work Schools & Colleges

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About SocialWork@Simmons

As the nation’s oldest school of social work, Simmons School of Social Work (SSW) has been training clinical social workers to improve the well-being of individuals and communities for more than 100 years. Co-founded in Boston with Harvard University in 1904, SSW is dedicated to promoting social action and rooted in the belief that all individuals have the capacity and deserve the resources to grow, change, and improve their lives.

  • Online Courses
  • The first elite research university to offer a Master of Social Work degree online.
  • Ranked #11 in U.S. News & World Report's listing of top graduate schools in Social Work.
  • Community field internships and local networking opportunities are available.
  • Multiple program start dates.
  • The National Health Service Corps State Loan Repayment Program will repay student loans in exchange for 2-4 years spent serving communities in need. 
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  • Ranked #8 in the 2013 Best Online Undergrad Programs by U.S. News & World Report.
  • 70% graduation rate– significantly higher than the national average of 59%. 
  • Ranked #2 by U.S. News & World Report for Best Online Bachelor's Programs for Veterans. 
  • Accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), one of six regional accrediting associations that accredit public and private colleges and universities in the United States.  
  • Has a network of 26 campuses.
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  • According to a Walden-sponsored study, 88.2% of graduates are very satisfied or satisfied with their education and more than 85% of students are likely or very likely to recommend the school to others.
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  • Member of the United States Distance Learning Association (USDLA), the Canadian Network for Innovation in Education (CNIE), and the International Council for Open and Distance Education (ICDE).
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Argosy University , Online (campus option available)
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• With 100,000+ students, it's the largest private, nonprofit university in the nation.
• Since 1971, its mission has been to develop Christ-centered men and women with the values, knowledge, and skills essential for impacting tomorrow’s world.
• Offers over 230 programs online, from the certificate to the doctoral level.
• The student-faculty ratio is 25:1, and 42.3% of its classes have fewer than 20 students.
• The average freshman retention rate, an indicator of student satisfaction, is 76.5%.

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