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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, http://www.socialworkers.org/pressroom/features/general/profession.asp

"Social Workers," Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/social-workers.htm#tab-6

"Associate in Science Degree: Behavioral Sciences - Emphasis in Social Work," San Di http://www.sdcity.edu/AcademicPrograms/ProgramsofInstruction/SocialWork/DegreeRequirementsego City College,

"B.A. Social Worker," Brandman University, https://www.brandman.edu/program/ba-social-work#curriculum

"Doctor of Social Work," Capella University, http://www.capella.edu/online-degrees/dsw-social-work/courses/planner

"Accreditation," Council on Social Work Education, http://www.cswe.org/Accreditation.aspx

"Exam Candidates," Association of Social Work Boards, http://www.aswb.org/exam-candidates/

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

How to become a Social Worker by State

Social Work Schools & Colleges
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            • Ranked #11 in the 2015 Best Graduate Schools in Social Work by U.S. News & World Report.
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            • Regionally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) of the North Central Association (NCA).
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            • Ranked among the Best Online Bachelor’s Programs in 2015 by U.S. News and World Report.
            • Lets undergrad students try classes before paying any tuition.
            • Has an average class sizes of 18 for undergraduate and 13 for graduate-level courses.
            • Offers numerous scholarship opportunities that can help students save up to $750 per term on their tuition.
            • Tends to educate degree-seeking online and campus-based students who are adult learners with families and students who work while pursuing higher education.
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            • Designated a 2015 Military Friendly School by Victory Media for the 4th consecutive year
            • Listed on the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll in 2013, for the sixth consecutive year
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            • Does psychology interest you? See if Grand Canyon University could be a good fit for your journey in discovering the human mind!
            • GCU offers a Bachelor of Science in Psychology and a Master of Science in Psychology with an emphasis in either General Psychology or Industrial & Organizational Psychology.
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            • Ranked 33rd among the Best Grad Schools for Social Work in 2015 by U.S. News and World Report.
            • Founded in 1904 as the nation’s first institute of higher learning to offer training for clinical social workers.
            • Provides a rigorous education, including a nationally accredited Master of Social Work (MSW) Program and PhD in Social Work.  
            • Offers inventive programs with hands-on experience.  
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            •  Ranked one of the Best Online Bachelor’s Programs in 2014 by U.S. News & World Report.
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            Argosy University , Online (campus option available)
            • Designated as a 2015 Military Friendly® School by Victory Media, publishers of G.I. Jobs®.
            • Each program is designed to instill the knowledge, ethical values, and interpersonal skills of professional practice and to foster values of social responsibility.
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            • Features a competency-based MBA program that allows students to test out of subjects based on prior professional experience.
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