Career Options for Social Workers

Explore Social Work Careers

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Social work is a career that is in many ways defined by the challenges faced by everyday people in their everyday lives, and by underserved populations and communities in need. A career in social work means reaching out to those individuals and communities, listening to their problems, and offering solutions. It also means working to alleviate longstanding inequities and other social ills, through political activism, policy initiative, and programs organized around principles of fairness and equity. As the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Occupational Outlook Handbook succinctly puts it, "Social workers help people solve and cope with problems in their everyday lives, while clinical social workers also diagnose and treat mental, behavioral, and emotional issues."

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) offers a more nuanced view of social workers, breaking their role down into four distinct functions:

  1. Helping people obtain tangible services
  2. Counseling and psychotherapy with individuals, families, and groups
  3. Helping communities or groups provide or improve social and health services
  4. Participating in legislative processes

The NASW goes on to use somewhat broader strokes to explain the noble and sweeping aims of the profession: "Social workers help individuals, families, and groups restore or enhance their capacity for social functioning, and work to create societal conditions that support communities in need." In practical terms, that means confronting some of society's most pressing, challenging, all too common problems and setbacks, including poverty, physical and mental illness, unemployment, addiction, abuse, trauma, and divorce. Or, on a day-to-day basis, careers in social work can simply amount to implementing programs that mitigate potential social crises incrementally, on the street level, while helping regular people navigate the stresses of everyday life.

Social work careers take shape in community centers and clinics, schools, governmental agencies, and non-profit aid organizations. They encompass working with children and combat veterans, the elderly and the disabled, the jobless, the homeless, the hungry, and others who need food stamps, housing, and employment assistance.

What Does a Social Worker Do?

Social workers assist people in coping with and overcoming a wide array of difficulties in life, from finding healthcare, housing, and jobs, to establishing stability and empowerment through physical wellness and emotional grounding. If psychologists and sociologists are engaged in the clinical research and scientific analysis that informs our approach to providing such assistance, and licensed counselors and therapists are available to offer guidance to people who have access to such treatment, then social workers are the ones tasked with going out into the community, finding people in need, and leading them on the path to a better quality of life.

The nature of social work requires a distinct set of personality traits, professional training, and acquired skills. Social workers have to be adept at communicating across cultures, empathizing while making complex and sometimes difficult decisions, and offering advice and counsel to people who are in the midst of hardships. They need to know how to clearly navigate the intricacies of federal, state, and local social assistance programs, the healthcare system, and the communities that they service. And they have to understand the emotional, behavioral, and psychological components of human interaction in the modern world.

NASW emphasizes that, "Only those who have earned social work degrees at the bachelor's, master's or doctoral levels -- and completed a minimum number of hours in supervised fieldwork -- are professional social workers." Within that realm of professional social worker, there are different career paths and job designations. For example, child and family social workers provide outreach and services to at-risk children and families in need, and may be called upon to help intervene in cases of domestic violence and abuse. School social workers spend their time in the educational system, working with students who may be struggling to stay in school, and assisting teachers and administrators in implementing programs that improve educational outcomes. There are also social workers in the healthcare system that work in tandem with medical professionals to provide assistance to patients and their families in times of need.

Social work also has an administrative component, which can encompass organizing political campaigns to address social issues, overseeing community-wide social improvement initiatives, and working with community leaders to come up with new programs and policies that attack problems like drug abuse and addictions, hunger, and poverty. And there is a special class of social workers -- known as clinical social workers (CSWs) -- who are licensed to diagnose and treat emotional and behavioral disorders through counseling and referrals to other healthcare professionals. Indeed, as NASW points out, a study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) found that, "Social workers are the nation's largest group of mental health services providers. There are more clinically trained social workers -- over 200,000 -- than psychiatrists, psychologists, and psychiatric nurses combined."

The BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook offers an overview of where social workers are employed, as illustrated in the chart below.

Social Worker Employment by Sector:

State and local government41%
Health care and social assistance36%
Educational services15%
Religious, grantmaking, civic, and professional organizations5%

How Long Does it Take to Become a Social Worker?

Careers in social work generally begin with a four-year bachelor's degree. There are bachelor's degree programs in social work, commonly known as a BSW. While a BSW is not considered a requirement for pursuing a master's degree in social work, it does have the advantage of adequately preparing students for entry-level work in the field, or what the BLS terms "direct-service positions," such as caseworker and mental health assistant. "These programs teach students about diverse populations, human behavior, and social welfare policy," the BLS explains, and commonly require students to complete a supervised internship to prepare them for entry-level social work.

For full licensure as a social worker, or certification as a CSW, a master's degree in social work, or MSW, is a requirement. Students who have earned a BSW, or a bachelor's degree with a major in psychology, sociology, or any number of related fields, are qualified to enroll in a MSW program, which are designed to be completed in two years. An MSW degree should also include an internship or practicum. And that experience may be counted toward the 3000 hours or two years of supervised clinical experience that are required to qualify for the Association of Social Work Boards licensing exam. So, in total, it can take up to eight years to reach the top tier of qualifications for most careers in social work.

What Do You Study in a Social Work Degree Program?

As an undergraduate, the courses you take in preparation for a career in social work can vary quite a bit, depending upon whether you're simply working toward entering a master's degree program in social work or a BSW. If it's the former, a strong grounding in the liberal arts with a couple of introductory courses in psychology and sociology is fine. If it's the latter, then the core courses of the major will be geared toward the principles and practices of social work. In addition to an intro to psych class, here are some of the typical subjects that are covered:

  • Introduction to Social Work, Social Policies, and Social Programs
  • Social Work Assessment and Counseling with Individuals and Families
  • Models of Human Behavior and Social Development
  • Analytical Methods in Social Policy
  • Social and Economic Justice and Diversity
  • Ethics of Social Work

At the master's degree level, the coursework delves deeper into the politics of framing social policy, the methodologies of social work research, and the practice of social work in various paradigms. This is also the point at which specialization is encouraged, and students can choose to focus on child and family social work, healthcare social work, school social work, child and family social work, or clinical social work. Here are some examples of courses students can expect to encounter at the master's degree level:

How Much Do Social Workers Earn?

As in many professions, what you earn as a social worker tends to be tied to your educational level and experience in the field. It can also vary from region to region, and from sector to sector. For example, according to BLS data, there's currently a greater demand for social workers in healthcare, mental health, and substance abuse, where job growth is expected to be 19 percent from 2014 to 2024. Some of those jobs will likely be at the lower-paying entry level, but the demand for social workers looks to be robust across the board and at all levels in the field. In fact, the most recent numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that overall employment in social work could increase by as much as 12 percent from 2014 to 2024.

Here's a breakdown of the latest BLS data on annual salaries in social work, from the Occupational Employment Statistics dated May 2014:

Career Total Employment Hourly Mean Wage Annual Median Wage
Counselors, Social Workers, and Other Community and Social Service Specialists2,159,870$24.23$46,060
Social Workers678,780$26.05$50,470
Social Workers, All Other58,410$29.69$61,230
Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers117,770$24.84$46,650
Social and Human Service Assistants404,450$17.81$35,060
Child, Family, and School Social Workers327,710$24.53$47,390
Healthcare Social Workers174,890$28.51$56,750
2019 Occupational Employment Statistics and 2018-28 Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics,
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