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:
- Helping people obtain tangible services
- Counseling and psychotherapy with individuals, families, and groups
- Helping communities or groups provide or improve social and health services
- 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.
Social Work Career Paths
Steps to Becoming a Social Worker
Because of the serious and often sensitive nature of social work, becoming a social worker requires cultivating a unique set of skills through rigorous and targeted study and training. We’ll get into the details of social worker education and training below. But first let’s outline the basic, most direct steps to becoming a licensed professional in this expanding and rewarding field.
- Earn a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW), or a BA/BS in a related field, like psychology or sociology
- Enroll in an accredited master’s degree program for social work (MSW)
- Complete two years/3000 hours of supervised training as a social worker
- Pass the Association of Social Work Board’s (ASWB) licensing exam
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.”
Types of Social Workers
To help clarify the role of social workers, the OOH defines several areas of specialization and sub-specialization in the field. Here’s a breakdown of some of the specific jobs that are open to those considering a career in social work:
- Child and Family Social Workers specialize in helping families and children in need of assistance. This can include everything from arranging adoptions, to assisting in foster family placement, to intervening in cases of child abuse, as well as counseling families in the midst of a crisis brought on by divorce, illness, unemployment, or substance abuse. They may work in schools or in local, state, or federal governmental agencies, as well in private practice and community clinics.
- Clinical Social Workers provide first-line treatment to individuals and families struggling with mental, behavioral, and emotional disorders, through counseling and therapy. They may refer clients to other healthcare professions, help coordinate various healthcare and psychological service for a client, and then monitor and assess treatment plans in tandem with doctors, psychologists, and other service providers. Clinical social workers find employment in government agencies, the healthcare industry, research and policy institutions, and the private and non-profit sector.
- School Social Workers play a vital role in providing counseling and developing programs for students at all levels of the educational system, from primary, secondary, and high school, to college and university. Some of the hot-button issues that social workers address through their work in schools are bullying, truancy, substance abuse, and learning disabilities.
- Healthcare Social Workers are integral to the functioning of hospitals and medical clinics. They work with doctors, nurses, and other allied healthcare professionals to help patients understand difficult diagnoses, and offer the tools and information needed for patients to adjust their lifestyle, diet, work schedule, and housing. Within the healthcare sector, there are three areas of further specialization for social workers:
- Geriatric Social Workers, who offer counsel and assistance to elderly patients and their families.
- Hospice Social Workers, who help patents with chronic and/or terminal illnesses cope with the difficult transition from hospital to palliative care, whether it’s in a critical or long-term nursing facility, or at home.
- Medical Social Workers, who work alongside doctors and nurses in hospitals to help patients and their families link to community service agencies and plan for post-treatment challenges.
- Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers are trained to work with patients suffering from the effects of various emotional, behavioral, and health issues, including alcohol and drug dependency and abuse.
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 government
|Health care and social assistance
|Religious, grantmaking, civic, and professional organizations
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.
Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work
A bachelor’s degree is the minimum educational requirement necessary to begin working as a social worker at an entry level. There are two-year associates degree programs in social work, but they primarily serve as a stepping stone to the completion of a four-year BA or BS in social work.
The four-year bachelor’s degree in social work, often designated as a BSW, prepares students for 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. “All programs require students to complete supervised fieldwork or an internship.”
Coursework in a typical BSW program should cover the following:
- 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.
Master’s Degree in Social Work
While a BSW is a fine way to attain entry-level positions, most jobs for social workers, particularly in the realm of healthcare and education, require the completion of a two-years master’s in social work (MSW) for full licensure. For most MSW programs, a bachelor’s degree in almost any discipline is acceptable. The BLS’s OOH does point out that undergraduate coursework in the behavioral sciences (psychology and sociology) is recommended. Classes in economics and political science can be helpful as well.
As part of a master’s degree in social work, students learn clinical assessment skills and are expected to develop an area of specialization in social work. For example, a master’s program may allow students an opportunity to focus on social work with adult and aging populations, children and families, or community and business organization. Or, it might allow for specialization in healthcare social work, school social work, or substance abuse and mental health social work. And, there are programs that divide the work of social workers between direct practice with families/individuals, and management/public policy practice in communities.
Whether you’re looking into a master’s or bachelor’s degree program in social work, it’s important to inquire as to whether the school has been accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), the non-profit national association that is recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation as the sole accrediting agency for social work education. As of June 2015, the CSWE listed 506 accredited baccalaureate programs, and 238 accredited master’s degree programs in social work.
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 13 percent from 2019 to 2029. 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.
Here’s a breakdown of the latest BLS data on annual salaries in social work, from the Occupational Employment Statistics dated May 2019:
|Hourly Mean Wage
|Annual Median Wage
|Social Workers, All Other
|Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers
|Healthcare Social Workers
|Child, Family, and School Social Workers
|Social and Human Service Assistants
2019 Occupational Employment Statistics and 2018-28 Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS.gov.
Getting Licensed as a Social Worker
Licensure is an important part of becoming a social worker. Requirements vary from state to state, but all clinical social workers must be licensed to practice. Positions in education and healthcare social work are generally only open to those with licenses.
The basic requirements for licensure are the completion of a two-year master’s degree program, plus two years, or 3000 hours of supervised clinical experience. The standard licensing exam is a four-hour, 170-question, multiple-choice exam designed and administered by the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB). The ASWB also offers a bachelor’s level exam, but it does not confer the status of clinical social worker.
The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) offers additional certifications, which can be helpful for job placement and advancement in the field. And there are also PhD programs in social work for those interested in upper level jobs, including teaching and research positions. The NASW provides further information on certifications and continuing education in social work.