How to Become a Social Worker

Updated February 28, 2023

Now is a great time to consider entering the field of social work. Here, you can find the steps and requirements for becoming a licensed social worker.

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Social workers help families access social services, support children dealing with bullies at school, and advocate for patients with health problems. Becoming a social worker requires several years of education and training. Clinical roles require a master's degree.

Prospective social workers must meet education requirements, apply for a license, and complete work experience requirements before practicing. Clinical social workers, for example, must complete two years of clinical experience to earn their social work license.

After meeting education requirements, social workers can practice in schools, child welfare organizations, mental health clinics, and other community organizations.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), jobs for social workers are projected to grow 11% between 2018 and 2028. The field also offers many opportunities for professional advancement. This page explains how to become a social worker, including the steps to becoming a social worker and job opportunities for social workers.

What Does a Social Worker Do?

Career Basics

Social workers help individuals and groups manage problems in their everyday lives. They also work in community organizations to develop programs that assist vulnerable populations.

On a daily basis, social workers conduct client assessments, connect clients with social service resources, and counsel clients on coping skills. Based on social work research, they determine the effectiveness of programs and services.

Clinical social workers treat clients with mental or behavioral issues. They can diagnose disorders and provide therapy to individuals or groups. Clinical social workers also create treatment plans for their clients and coordinate with healthcare professionals on treatment approaches.

Career In-Depth

Social workers pursue a variety of career paths. A social worker's professional environment shapes their responsibilities and daily tasks. Most social workers work in an office setting, but they may also work at schools or hospitals. In some roles, social workers offer counseling online or over the phone.

Government agencies, community organizations, and outpatient healthcare organizations all employ healthcare workers. Nearly half of the more than 700,000 social workers in the U.S. specialize in child, family, and school social work. Other common specialties include healthcare social work and mental health social work.

Social Worker Salary and Job Growth

Many social work careers offer strong salary potential and job growth. According to the BLS, social workers earned a median annual salary of more than $50,000 in 2019. Social workers benefit from strong job demand, with much faster than average growth in the field. The BLS projects the creation of 81,000 new social work jobs between 2018 and 2028

Social worker salaries vary depending on education and experience. Social workers with a master's degree generally earn higher salaries than those with a bachelor's degree. Location and workplace also influence social work salaries. Healthcare social workers earn a median salary of nearly $57,000 per year, while child, family, and school social workers earn a median salary of around $47,000 per year.

Social workers can increase their salary by earning an advanced degree, pursuing an in-demand specialty, or adding professional certifications to demonstrate expertise in their field.

Six Steps to Becoming a Social Worker

Social workers must meet education requirements and apply for licensure before applying for social work jobs. Depending on the career, social workers may need a master's degree. Students wondering how to become a social worker can follow these six steps.

Step 1
Complete a bachelor's degree
Earning a bachelor's degree represents the first step to becoming a social worker. During a bachelor's degree, prospective social workers should take courses in social services, case management, and social work practice. While students do not need to major in social work to pursue opportunities in the field, courses, internships, and volunteer opportunities help prepare future social workers. Graduate programs in social work also require a bachelor's degree for admission.
Step 2
Choose a social work specialty
Social workers often specialize their training by focusing in an area like healthcare, school social work, mental health, or children and families. Selecting a social work specialty helps students build specialized knowledge and stand out on the job market. The specialty may include additional coursework or an internship.
While undergraduates can choose a specialty, many future social workers select a concentration at the graduate level.
Step 3
Complete an internship
Social workers complete an internship as part of the social worker education requirements. At the undergraduate level, the internship or practicum may include placements in social service organizations, schools, or government agencies. Social work students at the master's level complete a more extensive internship within their specialty area.
During an internship, social work students gain hands-on training in the field. They learn from experienced social workers while meeting the requirements for a social work license.
Step 4
Recommended: Earn a master of social work (MSW)
Many social work careers require an MSW. During an MSW program, social work students build advanced training in their field. Many programs offer concentrations in areas like macro social work or clinical social work. Earning an MSW takes two years.
When researching MSW programs, prospective students should consider factors like tuition cost, concentration options, and online courses. After completing their degree, graduates can apply for a clinical social worker license.
Step 5
Earn professional certification
In every state, clinical social workers must hold a state-issued license to practice. While the requirements for a social work license vary depending on the state, they generally include an accredited social work degree, passing scores on social work examinations, and completing supervised practice hours.
Non-clinical social workers may also need a license or certification. Many states offer a BSW social work license for social workers with a bachelor's degree.
Step 6
Find a social work position
After meeting the requirements for becoming a social worker, professionals can apply for social work jobs. Social workers work in a variety of settings, including at government agencies, social services organizations, hospitals, and schools. When applying for social work jobs, candidates should research the required education, certification, and work experience.
Current social work students can look for opportunities while completing their degree. Building a professional network while in school can help social workers transition into the workforce.

Preparing to Become a Social Worker: Schools and Programs

To meet social worker education requirements, prospective social workers must hold a bachelor's degree. Students interested in clinical roles must hold an MSW degree to apply for a clinical social work license.

Fortunately, prospective social workers benefit from many options when it comes to earning a social work degree. Most liberal arts and research institutions offer bachelor's degrees in social work, and a growing number of schools offer online social work degrees. For example, Columbia University and the University of Southern California both grant online MSW degrees.

When researching social work programs, prospective students should consider factors such as the total cost of the degree, the length of the program, and enrollment options like online courses or part-time status. Some schools admit students at several start dates per year, while others enroll a cohort of social workers for fall start dates.

Prospective social workers can also research financial aid opportunities and internship requirements.

Social Work Requirements

There are general social worker requirements that apply in all states, but it's important to understand that prospective social workers will also have to meet the specific licensing guidelines in their state. These requirements can vary significantly from state to state.

Social work students who earn their degree in one state but choose to work in another should review the requirements in their target state and be sure they meet those specific social work requirements.

Requirements for employment in social work generally include:

There are general social worker requirements that apply in all states, but it's important to understand that prospective social workers will also have to meet the specific licensing guidelines in their state. These requirements can vary significantly from state to state.

Social work students who earn their degree in one state but choose to work in another should review the requirements in their target state and be sure they meet those specific social work requirements.

Requirements for employment in social work generally include:

A bachelor's degree in social work or a closely related field: A BSW prepares students for an entry-level job.
A master's in social work: If you want to become a clinical social worker, chances are good that you may be required to complete an advanced degree in social work.
Supervised experience: Another common requirement is that you spend time getting hands-on experience in the field during your education. Nearly all colleges and universities include internships and supervised fieldwork as part of the social work curriculum.
Licensing: All 50 states require clinical social workers to be licensed. Licensing rules may vary by state, but these rules typically require supervised work experience and successful completion of the Association of Social Work Boards clinical exam.

Social Worker Academic Courses

Social work learners study current social problems, the social services system, and the methods of social work. During a bachelor's degree, social work majors build foundational training in the field through coursework like social work research and case management. An MSW degree builds on that training while incorporating advanced coursework in specialties like healthcare social work or school social work.

A social work curriculum builds critical thinking and research skills. Learners also gain hands-on training through projects and internships. While exact courses vary depending on the program, the following list represents a sample curriculum for a social work degree.

Foundations of Social Work

Many social work programs begin with an introductory course that offers a survey of the field. Students learn about social welfare organizations, social services, vulnerable populations, and major social issues. Coursework also explores social work practice, including evidence-based methods. This course prepares students for upper-division social work courses.

Social Work Practice

Social work majors learn about generalist social work practice, including working with individuals, groups, and communities. Students explore core concepts in the profession, ethical principles in social work, and social work theories. This course may incorporate experiential or lab components to build social work skills.

School Social Work

School social work courses introduce students to the practice of social work in educational environments. Learners explore the role of social work interventions in school, vulnerable populations, and school social work ethics. Topics can also include designing programs and the delivery of school social work.

Social Work Statistics

Social workers rely on statistics to evaluate programs, propose changes to services, and monitor client outcomes. This course covers the statistical concepts used in social work research, including probability theory, hypothesis testing, and confidence intervals. By learning about social work statistics, students can evaluate data and design their own research projects.

Case Management

Case management courses emphasize the skills and practices needed to manage client cases. Topics may include the client assessment process, care planning, and coordinating service delivery. Students also learn about team-based approaches in case management and evaluating client outcomes. This course may also examine theoretical models in case management, cultural sensitivity in client interactions, and advocacy.

Accreditation for a Social Worker Program

Prospective social workers should always check a school's accreditation before applying to social work programs. In the social work field, accreditation can affect graduates' job opportunities and their ability to obtain a professional license. In most states, candidates for social work licensure must attend a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Accreditation (CSWE).

CSWE-accredited programs meet the highest standard for educating social workers. This independent accrediting agency establishes educational standards and evaluates programs to make sure they follow the best practices in the field. The CSWE grants accreditation to BSW and MSW programs, including online social work programs.

After checking for CSWE accreditation, prospective students should also research the school's accreditation status. Students at accredited colleges and universities qualify for federal financial aid programs, and credits earned at an accredited school are more likely to transfer.

The U.S. Department of Education maintains a database of accredited schools and programs.

Social Work Concentrations

Social workers can specialize in many areas, including clinical social work, school social work, and healthcare social work. A specialty helps social work students focus their training and prepare for specialized careers after graduation.

A BSW degree provides foundational training in many social work fields. Learners can then focus on a specific field during an MSW degree.

Depending on the program, social work students may choose a concentration for their degree or select electives to design a specialization. School social workers, for example, take courses in conflict mediation, case management, and mental health assessment for adolescents.

Depending on the MSW program you choose, you may be offered a number of concentrations to choose from. Some common concentration options include:

In addition to coursework, social work students complete an internship or practicum in their specialty area. School social work students may meet the practicum or clinical requirements at a local school, for example. By choosing a specialty, social workers can increase their job opportunities and pursue careers in specialized work environments.

Social Worker Certification

Applying for a license is one of the final steps to becoming a social worker. Clinical social workers must hold a state-issued license in every state. Most states also require a license or certification for other social workers, including social workers with a bachelor's degree.

Licensure requirements vary depending on the state. In most states, candidates must meet social worker education requirements and pass an exam. Clinical social workers must hold a master's degree and complete several years of supervised clinical experience to earn their license.

The Association of Social Work Boards administers social work licensure examinations. In addition to licensure, social workers can pursue professional certifications in a specialty area.

Components of a Successful Social Worker Career: Skills, Credentials, Tools, and Technology

Successful social workers share several characteristics. They bring certain skills to their career, stay current on licensure, and use helpful tools and technologies.

Social workers rely on strong interpersonal and communication skills to interact with clients and promote healthy relationships. Social work also requires organizational and problem-solving skills to manage client relationships and solve problems. Social workers also benefit from strong emotional skills, including patience and compassion.

In addition to holding any required licenses, social workers can also demonstrate their skills by pursuing a professional certification. NASW Social Work Credentials include options for certified case managers, certified school social workers, and certified social workers in healthcare.

These advanced practice specialty credentials help social workers advance in their careers. Social workers can also strengthen their careers by researching technology in social work practice and following trends in the profession.

Social Worker Professional Organizations

Professional organizations provide resources on how to become a social worker and help social work students transition into practice. These organizations offer networking opportunities through conferences and events, provide professional development resources, and host career centers with job boards. Many also offer discounted memberships for students and scholarship opportunities.

Social Worker FAQs

What exactly does a social worker do?

Social workers help people access social services and cope with problems. Clinical social workers can diagnose and treat behavioral disorders.

What are the different types of social workers?

Social workers specialize in many fields, including clinical social work, school social work, child and family social work, and healthcare social work.

What qualifications do you need to be a social worker?

Social workers need a bachelor's degree in the field. Many roles, including clinical positions, require a master's degree. Social workers must also hold a license in most states.

How much schooling does a social worker need?

Social workers need a bachelor's degree, which takes four years. In addition, clinical social workers must hold a master's degree, which takes two years.

How long does it take to become a licensed social worker?

Social workers will need at least a bachelor's degree for licensure, which typically requires about four years of study to complete. To become a clinical social worker, you will need a master's degree in social work, which typically takes between one and three years to earn after your bachelor's degree. You will also need about two years of supervised work experience, according to the BLS. So, the time required to become a social worker varies, but it could take between four to eight years including your supervised hours.

Resources for Social Workers

Journal of Social Work Education

This peer-reviewed journal publishes research on social work and social welfare. Readers can review articles on current issues in social work, problems in social work education, and innovations in social work practice.

Association of Social Work Boards

The ASWB operates the social work licensing examinations required for becoming a social worker. These examinations test candidates on their social work practice. The association provides handbooks to prepare social work students for the examinations and offers information about testing accommodations.

Council on Social Work Education

Founded in 1952, CSWE accredits social work programs in the U.S. The council promotes quality social work education while also offering professional development resources and setting professional standards. CSWE also creates programs and tools to help social workers. Prospective social workers can visit the council's website to find accredited social work programs.

Social Work Today

A bimonthly publication for social work professionals and students, Social Work Today offers in-depth content on behavioral health, professional practice, and social work ethics. Social Work Today also publishes articles on social work education, including an education guide and continuing education resources.

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