Social workers play an important role in the betterment of society as they assist individuals and communities and empower them to find solutions to life's challenges. Different social work specialties come with specific requirements for education, licensing and first-hand experience serving others. This guide goes over everything there is to know about pursuing the profession, including responsibilities, earnings and the many concentrations across the spectrum of social work.
Social workers offer a broad range of services at the federal, state and local levels. They work with populations from infants to the elderly and may serve diverse cultural groups. Depending on their specialty, these public servants are found in government agencies, community centers, schools, hospitals, hospices, mental health clinics and career centers. Social workers identify those who need help, assess their situations and develop plans to address their needs. Duties may include face-to-face counseling, resource assessment, responding to crisis situations and advocating for the wellbeing of clients.
Social workers begin with an education that introduces them to the code of ethics, policies and opportunities found in the field. They often earn a license to practice, and they may work with others in a group setting or see clients one on one in their own personal practice. Social workers help individuals, families and communities with everything from physical and mental health difficulties to social and financial issues, such as acquiring welfare, social security or other types of funding. In a way, this makes a social worker a jack of all trades in the realm of helping members of society achieve a better quality of life.
Although all social workers share a common goal of helping others, professionals have the opportunity to specialize their services and focus on certain populations. The National Association of Social Workers lists 10 specialty practice sections in the field.
Each specialty may have different job duties. For example, some social workers, such as those in private practice, provide clinical services including one-on-one therapy. Others may have positions with a greater emphasis on developing education initiatives for families, schools or communities. Some social workers lead group sessions in rehabilitation clinics to assist those battling addiction. Others counsel families dealing with domestic violence, poverty or divorce, which may include children or parents specifically or the family unit as a whole. These are just a few of the many roles social workers play in society.
In April 2015, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported a median annual income of $51,930 for healthcare social workers. The top 10 percent of the profession made a median wage of about $76,940 or higher. Income depends upon factors like specialization and where you choose to work. Popular employers include government agencies, hospitals, social assistance, educational services, and nursing or residential care facilities. Most social workers put in a full-time work week.
The highest-earning states for social work vary depending on specialty, but, in general, include Connecticut, New Jersey, California, District of Columbia and Rhode Island.
The map below shows details of the 10th, 50th and 90th percentile earners for each state.
After students discover the basics of what social work entails, they must learn about the steps involved in actually entering and being successful in the field. Here are the general steps you should expect to take as you prepare for your career in social work.
There are numerous career paths in social work. For instance, some social workers interact with all types of people, while others focus on a specific demographic. Child and family social workers cater to families in need of assistance. Geriatric social workers take care of elderly clients and their families, while hospice social workers are there for the transitions that the end of life brings. Social workers might take positions in schools, where they work closely with parents and teachers to ensure students are matched with the right programs. Social workers in healthcare settings might be patient advocates who keep families informed and work to preserve patient rights. Knowing where you want to go in social work should greatly influence your post-secondary education.
A four-year bachelor degree in social work or a related field is required for most entry-level positions. If you already hold an associate degree, you may be able to transfer credits and cut the time to graduation to two years. A bachelor's degree typically prepares you for direct service positions such as caseworkers or mental health assistants.
Nothing is more important in a social work education than actual fieldwork and taking on opportunities to serve others as soon as possible. Even if you can’t find an internship that is exactly in line with your interests, any interaction with clients and the community builds skills necessary to careers in social work. An internship could include working for a local nonprofit health organization, clinic or hospital.
Students who want to become licensed clinical social workers need at least a master’s degree in this discipline. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, virtually any undergraduate major is acceptable for entry into an MSW program. Master’s degree programs incorporate clinical practice with coursework to ensure students are properly prepared for positions in the field.
Depending on the degrees offered, schools might be accredited by a regional accrediting board or other body approved by the U.S. Department of Education. Social work programs can obtain accreditation from specialized organizations like the Council on Social Work Education.
Some states require social workers to be licensed or certified. Since regulations vary from one state to another, get information about your state's requirements from the Association of Social Work Boards. Working as a clinical social worker may require a license where you live. Licensing regulations typically call for a master’s degree, supervised clinical work--a minimum of two years or 3,000 hours--and a passing grade on the pertinent exam.
Once students have their degree(s) and certification(s), it’s time to enter the profession. As with an internship, depending on the community and availability, your first job in the field may not be the exact position or concentration you intend to pursue. In the beginning, it is important to gain as much relevant experience as possible. Classroom instruction is important, but time spent in the community can be even more transformative. As you grow comfortable with your skills and your role, you can continue seeking your ideal career.
Returning to college to add a post-graduate degree is one way to advance in the social work field. Many public service organizations require employees to take part in continuing education. Advancement and rank promotions can be pegged to years of service, work performance and formal advanced training. In some cases, you may want to change fields. For example, with additional post-graduate work, you might move from performing family assistance casework to a position as counselor, staff director, facility manager or administrator.
If a student is considering a career in social work, there are many different routes he or she can take, each of which presents its own set of opportunities. Educational commitments might last anywhere from two to ten years, depending on how much education and training the student wishes to pursue. What’s most important is figuring out the ideal career situation, which will then enable the student to choose an appropriate academic path.
|Career Goal and/or educational needs||Associate||Bachelor’s||Master’s||Doctorate||Online|
|I need a program that doesn’t take long to complete so I can start working in the field right away.|
|I want opportunities beyond entry-level social work jobs, ideally in a concentration I choose.|
|I'm looking for flexible class times so I can keep my job while I earn my degree.|
|I'm looking for managerial opportunities or the chance to start my own practice.|
|I prefer to focus primarily on research or education as a social work career.|
|I hope to work at higher levels of management in a clinical or organizational setting.|
According to the National Association of Social Workers, more than 600,000 people in the U.S. have a degree in social work.
If a student has decided on a career in social work, the next step is figuring out which course of study to take and how far he or she wants to go in academia. A student can enter several different types of degree programs, which teach basic to advanced skills and tools used in social work.
An associate degree in social work provides the fundamentals for careers in the field. Students learn about the history and development of social work over the centuries as well as the code of ethics required. Courses introduce the basics of psychology, human development, anthropology, sociology, and mental health and also explore critical issues in contemporary society, such as poverty, discrimination, obesity, and other poor health conditions. Having an associate degree in social work can lead to entry-level careers such as a social services assistant or case manager assistant.
General overview of social work for those interested in this field or related careers. Examination of fundamental aspects of social work includes professional values, information and skills in both historical and contemporary contexts.
Exploration of how humans develop physically, cognitively, culturally, and socially over their lives. Analysis of how these processes of development work together to create a unique personality.
Broad overview of major psychology disciplines and topics. Students learn the foundations of psychological theories, particularly as they apply to a future in social work.
Basic survey of many conflicts and problems that exist in modern society. Students learn to formulate hypotheses when observing and analyzing social issues.
If a student wants to further his or her education in social work, a bachelor’s degree is the next step. In addition to foundational knowledge, a bachelor’s degree delves into more specific topics involving certain populations and the social issues the world faces today, such as children and the law, how to navigate the health care or social security systems, or how to combat addiction and mental illness. Students learn not just the theory behind social work but actual practices to put into play to interact with and help clients and communities as a whole. A baccalaureate also means tackling the complete liberal arts background required, along with more specialized courses. A social work degree at this level can help graduates achieve more advanced positions than they could with an associate degree.
This course teaches the foundations for conducting research and analyzing statistics and outcomes. Students learn how to perform their own studies and draw conclusions by determining the relationship of statistics and research methods.
Curriculum tackles different aspects of the law, both civil and criminal, and how these affect and apply to children. Topics include juvenile court system, wardship and dependency, and legal ramifications of divorce and custody changes.
An introduction to this complex and intricate arena gives students the tools to navigate health systems while coordinating and providing care for others. Emphasis is typically on certain groups such as economically disadvantaged communities.
Students discover how social work can assist chemically dependent individuals and/or their families, particularly from oppressed or marginalized communities. This includes studying specific types of addiction and ways to intervene and prevent further problems.
A master’s degree can open up still more opportunities in social work, particularly for clinical careers. In this program, students learn more advanced theory and practical guidelines to enable them to work more autonomously, for example, through their own practice. Coursework focuses on building strong professional foundations and enhancing existing knowledge and skills needed to handle populations with various vulnerable life conditions. Field instruction is also a crucial component. This allows students to work part-time for a social service agency in their chosen concentration, gaining valuable hands-on training and direct exposure to daily work. With a master’s degree, graduates may be able to take on more supervisory roles.
This course focuses on the welfare of a wide range of populations, both currently and historically. Students learn about different services and agencies available and policies in place to provide assistance for populations in need.
This course takes an in-depth look at human behavior and how and why social behaviors have evolved. Students analyze the evolution and interaction of individuals, families, organizations and communities as well as theories of personality, health, behavioral disorders, family dynamics and organizational behavior.
This course offers a more thorough and analytical approach to address social and cultural diversity, both theoretically and in practice. In learning to work with oppressed and vulnerable populations, students discover how to empower them to help themselves.
This course provides a broad spectrum of knowledge and skills related to social work in healthcare. Students examine healthcare delivery systems from historical, social and economic perspectives, particularly as they affect specific populations, such as women, children and people with mental illness.
79% of licensed social workers who are active practitioners hold an MSW.
A doctoral degree in social work does not lead to a higher level of licensing, but it can open other doors for advancement. This is particularly true for careers in research, social work education, or higher-level administrative positions. There is a choice between two types of doctorates in social work: the Doctor of Social Work (DSW) and the PhD. The DSW is generally seen as emphasizing practice, while the PhD is commonly thought of as research-focused.
Both social work doctorates offers the highest educational recognition in the field, in addition to a toolbox full of skills specially honed by a doctoral candidate's dedication to further exploring and advancing the field. The knowledge acquired by PhD candidates stretches far beyond that of master’s level studies in depth and complexity, especially in a chosen concentration. Examples of the high-level skills doctoral students develop are discussed below.
Those with doctoral education become a resource for colleagues and can earn increased trust from community leaders. This degree can prepare educators or policy analysts or lead to highly inventive research, including emerging and cutting-edge intervention strategies and how to apply them in practice or a community setting.
With a doctorate in social work, graduates can lead research teams at universities and for various organizations, including the government. Also emphasized in doctoral programs are managerial techniques needed by administrators of public and private social service organizations.
Social work research is complex, and those who have earned a doctorate have probably come up with ways to conduct extensive and innovative research projects. These programs offer experience in testing populations and drawing insightful conclusions to provide answers to questions that others may have missed.
A PhD candidate has likely not only learned about the policies and program administration related to social work--he or she has also navigated those channels many times. By this point, s/he knows how to get optimal results as quickly as possible and how to use policies to the advantage of the community s/he serves.
Once a student decides on an academic path, the next step is to choose a particular concentration. The specialties within social work are numerous and varied. Below is a breakdown of some of the most common options.
Social workers are the most common clinically trained mental health professionals in the United States. Their work is more necessary than ever: About one in five adults in the nation is identified as having a mental illness, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. This concentration focuses on psychosocial assessments of common mental issues and illnesses and developing and implementing treatment plans to help individuals and families. It also delves into mental health policies and healthcare delivery systems. Students may be able to secure an entry-level job with a bachelor’s degree, but a master’s offers more opportunities and autonomy. Clinical positions generally require post-graduate supervised experience and a license.
Sees patients in a clinical setting, usually in private practice or in a shared practice with other social workers, psychiatrists or mental health professionals. This generally entails long-term care over time with regular--sometimes emergency--appointments.
Sees patients in a hospital setting, which may mean providing more acute care on an on-call basis. For example, someone may arrive in the emergency room after a failed suicide attempt or threaten to commit harm to themselves or others.
Sees pediatric patients, usually in a clinic or school setting. Handles child-specific illnesses, behaviors, and temperaments that can arise in either normal or stressful situations for the child.
While this concentration can overlap with mental health, it may present an entirely different set of mental, physical and emotional instabilities that a social worker can guide the addict through. This sometimes means helping patients work through withdrawal periods. The social worker may meet with patients who struggle with addiction currently, or she may assist recovering addicts who are trying to fix their problems while avoiding the substances they were once addicted to. Depending on the setting a student wants to work in or the types of interactions she wants to have with patients, an associate, bachelor’s, or master’s degree can help her enter this field.
Works with patients to identify the reasons behind their addictions and the best ways to confront and beat the addiction. May meet one-on-one with patients or lead group discussions.
Teaches groups and individuals how to prevent an addiction from forming. May assess patients for risks and begin preventative treatment or lead classes with exercises enabling clients to take action themselves.
Works in a clinical setting seeing and treating patients with long-term addictions. Develops treatment plans for dealing with withdrawal and preventing relapses while uncovering physical, mental and emotional triggers that must be avoided.
Social workers can train to work specifically with children and/or their families to support them during difficult times when they might struggle with various social issues, such as poverty, homelessness, domestic violence, and divorce. Social workers can help coordinate medical care, resources, and services as well as perform assessments and provide counseling. They may also work with specific groups of people within the family unit, such as children or pregnant women. These positions usually require a bachelor’s degree or higher, often a master’s degree.
Listens to children in a school setting and guides them in finding the services and resources they need while also ensuring they are in a positive mental state. May include everything from regulating poor behavior in the classroom to helping graduating students find suitable universities.
Advocates, assesses, and provides therapy for children dealing with social issues or who are in stressful situations, such as those in families dealing with abuse or divorce. May involve arranging to remove children from dangerous situations and placing them in foster homes.
PAdvises the entire family to help each individual work on relationships with other members. May mediate in situations like divorce or addiction and help the family recover as a unit.
Social workers can focus on specifically helping individuals as they approach old age and begin dealing with unique issues they hadn’t experienced as their younger selves. Social workers can coordinate medical care in a hospital or clinic, or in the home. They can provide emotional and behavioral therapeutic care if their clients develop a mental disorder or other emotional or social problems. Social workers may also help their clients devise solutions for financial issues, such as finding employment or living on a fixed income, and coordinate the government or community services that can provide aid. An associate degree is usually enough to work with the elderly in a nursing home setting, but more specific types of care require a bachelor’s or master’s degree.
Works with older adults to solve the problems they experience and develop at an older age. Can be general assistance, ranging from physical and mental health to financial and social wellbeing, often delivered in a nursing facility or at the client’s home.
Provides mental and emotional therapy for clients suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s. May cover everything from memory and cognitive issues to depression and grief.
Provides end-of-life care, typically in the client’s own home. May include physical and mental healthcare or coordinating anything else that might make the patient more comfortable despite chronic ailments.
This concentration is dedicated to determining the needs of a specific community and devising solutions using resources from both local and external sources, such as grants, state or national organizations, or the government. A community health social worker can help people navigate the complex web of financial, social, and educational services available. Some positions are possible with an associate degree, but the more complex the job, the higher the degree that is needed.
Works in a community center environment, helping clients find the best health, financial and social programs to provide assistance. Offers mental healthcare guidance in individual and group settings.
Provides a wide range of care to disaster-struck victims of a community. May include mental health therapy for grief or depression or coordinating social services to help clients rebuild their lives.
Enables community members to gain the educational and job-related opportunities they need to succeed in the workforce. May coordinate with local businesses and organizations to provide knowledge and skills important for employment.
If a student is trying to earn a social work degree while working or attending to other responsibilities, an online program may be a strong option. However, online schools have their own benefits and drawbacks, so when it comes time to selecting an online social work degree, students should keep these factors in mind:
While accreditation is not required, unaccredited schools may not qualify for financial aid programs and degrees may not be accepted by other institutions for transfer credits or even by future employers. Therefore, it’s important to be sure the program is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education. On the institutional level, a school should be accredited by an organization that is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.
Social work offers so many different concentrations that no one school can cover them all. You don’t want to tie yourself up in a degree program involving an area of social work you don’t want to pursue for your career. Do your due diligence to pick a degree program you can actually apply to your future.
At the very least, the faculty members should have a master’s level social work degree. Some may also have a Master of Public Administration or MPA, which enables social workers to dig deeper into the government and nonprofit management aspects of the field. Ideally, faculty should have completed doctorates and thus have done the extensive research and fieldwork needed to demonstrate best practices in the domain of social work. This includes new systems and policies, evolving diagnostic and treatment methods, and ways to formulate solutions for problems that could emerge as time goes on.
Along the way to becoming a full-fledged social worker, students develop many related skills, earn credentials, and become familiar with using a variety of tools and technologies.
In addition, social workers must have superior organizational and information management skills. They may be responsible for managing multiple clients or projects and often must maintain detailed records. Social workers should possess discretion and a good understanding of ethical standards. Those employed in clinical work, in particular, may be privy to sensitive data that must be kept confidential. The ability to find resources — and to potentially think outside the box when doing so — are also key attributes. Social workers need to have a thorough knowledge and understanding of the policies involved in coordinating services for clients. If a social worker is trying to secure government or nonprofit funds for a group or individual, she must know the proper channels to go through, the paperwork that needs to be completed, the approvals she needs and other aspects of the process that clients may not be familiar with.
BSW: Bachelor of Social Work, an undergraduate degree
MSW: Master of Social Work, a graduate degree
Licensing per state requirements:
ACSW: In addition to being formally educated and licensed, social workers can earn ACSW credentials issued by the National Association of Social Workers. This certification demonstrates knowledge and experience to meet or exceed expectations in social work beyond the state level and at the national level as well. These credentials are voluntary, but with them, social workers are recognized for leadership, competence and dedication to the field.
Billing software is also crucial for managing a social worker’s practice. From insurance and paperwork to patient bill reminders and taxes, the right technology can help make sure all of the financials are managed on a daily basis. This means no surprises for anyone involved, including social workers, clients and staff.
Social workers are a hot commodity in the 21st century and should continue to be in-demand members of society. The BLS expects healthcare social workers to see 27 percent growth in job opportunities from 2012 to 2022. This is especially true in light of the passage of the Affordable Care Act, which has expanded access to healthcare services for many Americans.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in four adults experiences mental illness in any given year. Because social workers are the most common type of mental health professionals available to the community, this occupation will be more important than ever to solve the evolving issues that come with tending to the needs of an expanding populace.
To see more on employment or job growth for social workers, select a state below.
Job Growth for Social Workers by Specialization, 2012-2022
|Mental Health and Substance Abuse||22.8%|
|Child, Family and School Social Workers||15.1%|
If you like the idea of social work but are looking for a slightly different career path, you have plenty of options. Other careers usually come with their own educational trajectory. In any of these professions, you’re still getting to the very core of social work: helping others make major life improvements.
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
Occupations related to social work can offer you some of the aspects of social work you enjoy along with other opportunities to use your knowledge and experience to serve others. Average annual salaries in 2014 for similar professions are shown below.
According to Payscale, the highest-paying skills for social workers are hospice, psychiatric, assessment and group therapy.
Armed with the knowledge you need to make an informed decision about your education, put that information to work by searching through the many schools available. To find the program you’re looking for, you can explore this list of schools offering social work degrees.