How to Become a Social Worker

Life presents us all with challenges, many of which are so unexpected, so disruptive, that it can feel as though we have lost all control. Fortunately, there’s help: social workers who are trained to assess our society’s problems and identify workable solutions. These professionals strive to understand the complexities of the human condition, using that knowledge to help individuals and communities work towards happier, healthier lives.

Choosing a career in social work can be a sound decision in an unstable job market, given the many problems affecting society today. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that overall job growth within the field will grow by 19% in the next seven years, much faster than in typical occupations. Those numbers become even more appealing when we look at specializations. For instance, social workers employed in healthcare can expect an even better outlook, with a 27% increase in jobs. The rapidly changing healthcare environment in the U.S., combined with our burgeoning population, will continue to drive this growth.

Is social work right for you? If you’re considering this career choice, keep in mind that some personalities may find themselves better suited to helping the needy than others. If the sight of injustice stirs you to action, that’s a good beginning. However, the road to a career in social work can be arduous; most professionals hold a master’s degree and have clocked thousands of hours of clinical experience. Additionally, compensation is apt to provide a decent living, but few social workers get rich on the job. With this in mind, consider the following questions as you assess your personal readiness for a career in social work:

  • Are you passionate about change where it betters society?
  • Do you believe strongly that everyone should have a voice?
  • Do you have a strong personal code of ethics?
  • Do your personal or religious beliefs allow you to clearly and fairly assess clients’ situations?
  • Are you able to separate work from your personal life when people you care about are involved?
  • Are you a good listener?
  • Are you a people person?
  • Are you calm and diplomatic in high-pressure situations?
  • Can you handle high levels of stress on a daily basis?
  • Can you exercise patience with children, the elderly, the infirm and their families?
  • Are you willing to work evenings and weekends if necessary?

If you find yourself answering most of these questions in the affirmative, then you may indeed be suited for a career in social work. Because the field is so broad, a wide range of degree programs, specializations and potential career outcomes are available to the aspiring social worker. These professionals are employed throughout the public and private sectors by schools, government agencies, general healthcare facilities, mental health treatment centers and advocacy groups.

Postsecondary Social Work Degree Options

For students of social work, there are degree programs to consider at every level, from the associate to the doctorate. Though each degree has its own associated career trajectory and credentialing benchmarks, it is generally acknowledged that the Master of Social Work (MSW) is the most common degree held by professional social workers. Licensed clinical social workers, a common professional path, must hold the MSW to receive state licensure.

At the undergraduate level, a two-year associate degree and four-year baccalaureate degree both provide the framework for a career in social work.

Associate of Applied Science (A.A.S.) in Social Work or Human Services

While most employers expect a minimum of a bachelor’s degree, a two-year associate degree program can be a suitable place to begin your education. Graduates of such a program will possess the fundamental skills necessary for an assistant-level position in the field. But generally speaking, most two-year degree programs are designed for students to transfer their earned credits into a four-year baccalaureate program. The associate degree is a good option for students who are unsure about their commitment to social work, or those who plan to pursue further education on their employer’s dime.

A typical program awarding an A.A.S. in Social Work introduces basic concepts in psychology and human development. Introductory-level courses in sociology, social work, marriage and family, abnormal psychology and anthropology are typical fare. Core classes in mathematics, statistics and the natural sciences are also common requirements. While it is not necessary to specialize, some programs at this level offer study tracks with emphasis in addiction counseling, clergy counseling or gerontology, to name a few.

Students who successfully complete this degree program will have been exposed to scientific reasoning, critical thinking and quantitative analysis of data, all of which prepare the student for further study in social work or for assisting treatment professionals and other clinicians. Because this program does not require clinical experience, online study from an accredited program may be a useful option for working students.

Bachelor of Social Work (BSW)

A four-year bachelor’s degree in social work qualifies its graduate for entry-level work in the field. It also serves as a useful prerequisite for the Master of Social Work degree, though it is not required for admittance. A baccalaureate program in social work generally includes a combination of liberal arts coursework and a solid immersion in psychology, sociology and natural science courses. Aside from typical general education requirements, students majoring in social work can expect to take courses in:

  • Anthropology
  • Economics
  • Political Science
  • Sociology and Social Welfare
  • Psychology
  • Abnormal Psychology
  • Human Biology
  • Human Behavior
  • Statistics
  • Cultural Diversity
  • Death and Dying
  • Generalist Practice

An internship is a key element of virtually all BSW programs. A field placement in a professional clinical setting spans approximately 400 to 600 clinical hours during the final two semesters of the program. Students are supervised in the workplace and are expected to create and implement an individual capstone project onsite.

Graduates of such a program are prepared for generalist practice with individuals, families and groups in a multicultural society; furthermore, they are ready to advocate for human rights and the pursuit of social justice. They are also uniquely prepared to undertake the MSW program or advanced study in law, public health or industrial relations. Typical job titles for BSW graduates might be:

  • Grief counselor
  • Domestic violence counselor
  • Foster care case manager
  • Community organizer
  • Geriatric social worker
  • Lobbyist
  • Legislative analyst
  • Rape crisis counselor
  • Victim advocate
  • School social worker

Master of Social Work (MSW)

Recognized as the gold standard for working professionals in social work, the Master of Science in Social Work (MSW) delves into social welfare policy, research, human behavior and practice methodology. Most programs encourage candidates to choose an area of emphasis like Advanced Practice, Public Policy, Advocacy, Family Services, School Social Work or Social Administration. Full-time students can generally complete their degree requirements in two years, though many working students elect a part-time option and finish in four years. All MSW students should expect to take courses similar to:

  • Social Welfare Policy
  • Introduction to Clinical Social Work Practice
  • Racism and Cultural Diversity
  • Clinical Practice in Groups
  • Human Neuropsychology
  • Cognitive and Behavioral Therapies
  • Alcoholism, Addiction and Drug Abuse
  • Psychopathology
  • Family Therapy
  • Serving the Aged
  • Ethics in Social Work
  • Social Functioning
  • Assessment and Treatment of Mental Illness

These master’s programs combine classwork with fieldwork grounded in the student’s area of emphasis. The coursework portion of the curriculum may be offered online, but on-site fieldwork is a must for an MSW program. The supervised clinical experiences are designed to promote skills acquisition in addition to supplementing the formal work of the classroom.

Graduates of the MSW program are qualified to practice in schools, courtrooms, law enforcement, religious institutions, hospitals, or for any federal, state or municipal agency. Successful candidates may choose to continue clinical supervision in pursuit of state licensure as a Clinical Social Worker (CSW). Some may also choose to continue their education with a doctoral degree. Holders of the MSW degree could expect job titles such as:

  • Nursing home director
  • Manager of adoption services
  • Addiction therapy counselor
  • High school counselor
  • Patient advocacy manager
  • Supervisor family services
  • Mental health social worker
  • Child welfare advocate
  • Crisis intervention strategist

Doctor of Social Work (DSW)

The Doctor of Social Work (DSW) is the highest attainable academic credential in the field. Designed for advanced clinicians and researchers, the DSW is a professional practice degree; it is differentiated from its more-common cousin, the Ph.D, in that it does not require original research. While it is understood that most candidates for this degree must work while they attend school, this program is academically rigorous and is generally completed in three years at the absolute least. Some programs do not allow part-time attendance. In many, candidates must have already earned the MSW degree and have acquired two additional years of clinical experience. Alternatively, some schools offer a combined MSW/DSW program.

Coursework is highly advanced and builds on the knowledge gained in the MSW program. Standard DSW curricula might include courses in:

  • Psychopharmacology and Psychopathology
  • Cognitive Behavioral Study
  • Epistemology and Clinical Research Methods
  • Neuroscience in Clinical Practice
  • Trauma and Interventions
  • Advanced Clinical Management

As part of the capstone experience, DSW candidates must prepare and defend a paper that examines an issue common in clinical practice, reviews current literature on the subject, suggests an intervention and analyzes potential outcomes. Special interest topics may be explored via the degree program’s elective requirements, often in related departments, such as public health, economics, women’s studies or law. On-site residency requirements are standard in accredited DSW programs; therefore, a hybrid program is likely the only realistic option for students who wish to earn the DSW online.

Graduates of this doctoral program are qualified for the highest level of practice, and are expected to meld advanced social and behavioral science knowledge with the most current thinking on clinical best practices. These professionals are educators and industry leaders in research, education, policy, planning and administration who will continue to fine-tune the practice of social work throughout their careers.

Certificates, Certification and Licensing

The terminology used to describe professional credentials is admittedly confusing; for example, licensure and certification are often conflated. It’s important to distinguish between these terms because they each indicate a professional’s specific level of education or specialization.

Licensure indicates that a professional has met legal requirements mandated by the government or the state. In law or accounting, for example, professionals must pass the bar exam or the CPA exam before they can legally practice. Practitioners in social work are required by every state to pass the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) certification exam. Some states may add additional requirements.

There are four types of licensing exams that potential social workers may take; they depend on level of education, number of years of postgraduate work experience and individual career goals. These exams, given by the ASWB, are used in all states but California, which has it’s own exams for social work licensure. However, as previously stated, additional requirements will vary by state.

Exam Degree Level & Work Experience Licenses Awarded
Sources: Association of Social Work Boards “About licensing and regulation” and “Levels of Practice Regulated
Bachelor’s BSW LSW, CSW, LBSW, LSWA, LSWI, PBLSW, LABSW-IP, RBSW, PSW, SW, SSW
Master’s MSW with no postgraduate work experience LSW, CSW, LCSW (certified), LCSW (clinical), LGSW, LMSW, CMSW, LMSW-I, LMSW-CC, CAPSW
Advanced Generalist MSW with 2+ years of postgraduate work experience LISW, LCSW, LSW, LMSW-M, LAMSW, CSWM, LSW-A, LISW-AP, LAPSW, LMSW-AP, LASW, CISW
Clinical MSW with 2+ years of postgraduate clinical work experience LCSW (certified), LCSW (clinical), LISW, LICSW, LSCSW, CSW-IP, LCSW-C, LMSW-C, PLCSW, LMHP, LISW-CP, CSW-PIP

The Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) provides data tables that illustrate what requirements must be filled for licensure, what titles each education level is eligible for and how much each license costs.

Professional certification is granted by a professional or regulatory body that recognizes a practitioner’s ability to specialize in a particular area of interest. In medicine, this would be the equivalent of a specialty board certification. In social work, credentials can be bestowed by the National Association of Social Workers or similar non-profit professional organizations.

Certificates in social work refer to concentrated, short-term educational offerings that focus on an area of emphasis. For example, a county case worker who holds a BSW may take a certification course in social welfare policy in order to better understand workplace challenges. After the course, the student may professionally reference the certificate, but it is not a stand-in for professional licensure. Certificate programs like this are commonly offered at the post-graduate level for any student who desires specialized knowledge. Depending on the school, certificates may be offered in:

  • Family Systems
  • Violence against Women
  • Trauma Response
  • Child/Adolescent Mental Health
  • Gerontology
  • Senior Services Management
  • Housing
  • Adoption
  • Crisis Intervention

Specialization in Social Work

The needs of society are so vast, and the body of knowledge so large, that aspiring social workers would do well to choose an area of special emphasis. While generalist practitioners do have an important role to play in the field, social workers who specialize may find it easier to focus their educational and career goals around a particular area in the industry. There are as many potential specializations as there are job titles for social workers, and the educational offerings in these areas vary from school to school. Read on for a glimpse of what it is like to work in one of these specializations.

School Social Workers

School social workers work with children and their families to overcome barriers to education. Through individual counseling with the student and family, as well as potential collaboration with other faculty and school administrators, a school social worker attempts to identify any issues that impede the student’s learning. Obstacles can include a learning disability, a need for glasses, vision adjustment, substance abuse by a parent or bullying in class. Once the issues are assessed, the social worker develops a strategy to address each variable and implements it within the school. On a broader scale, school social workers develop contingency plans for situations like threatening weather, or death or illness within the school family.

Generally, schools prefer social workers who have at least earned a master’s degree. Additional licensure by the state allows the social worker to counsel children in case of emotional difficulty or mental illness, further increasing hireability.

The BLS Job Outlook
Median Pay, May 2012: $41,530
Total Employment, May 2012: 285,700

Projected Job Growth, 2012 to 2022: 15%
Projects Total Employment, 2022: 328,800

Family Social Workers

Social workers who target their efforts at children and families can serve their clients in schools, family clinics or community outreach programs. These professionals can address shifts in family dynamics that may seem small yet have an enormous effect on children. Social workers identify familial stressors like financial problems, physical or mental illness, addiction, or unhealthy relationships, any of which can undermine a child’s need for stability. In many cases, these professionals oversee entire families, managing efforts to relieve poverty, malnutrition or housing concerns. These social workers often liaise with multiple agencies to help their clients get the assistance they need.

Social workers who focus on children and families are usually required to have at least a bachelor’s degree. As always, state licensure with its requisite master’s degree allows the social worker to accomplish more on the job and appear more attractive to employers.

The BLS Job Outlook
Median Pay, May 2012: $41,530
Total Employment, May 2012: 285,700

Projected Job Growth, 2012 to 2022: 15%
Projects Total Employment, 2022: 328,800

Health Care Social Workers

Social workers who specialize in healthcare work for hospitals, public or private health care institutions, retirement centers or hospice facilities. These professionals work closely with patients, establishing their rights within the healthcare system and developing strategies to deal with their unique circumstances. This requires collaboration with doctors, nurses, patients’ families, and medical staff. Healthcare social work also affords social workers opportunities to provide social services to ailing patients and their families in times of crisis or trauma. On a larger scale, healthcare social workers work to educate the community about public health issues.

Most social workers in healthcare have earned the MSW. It should be noted that healthcare professionals who hold undergraduate degrees in related fields, like nursing or public health, may be especially suited for social work within the parameters of a healthcare facility.

The BLS Job Outlook
Median Pay, May 2012: $49,830
Total Employment, May 2012: 146,200

Projected Job Growth, 2012 to 2022: 27%
Projects Total Employment, 2022: 185,500

Behavioral Health Social Workers

According to a recent report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, mental illness now affects nearly one in five Americans. Social workers specializing in caring for the mentally ill make a unique contribution to the fight. This clinical branch of social work requires aspiring professionals to become skilled at administering psychosocial assessments that help gauge a patient’s mental or behavioral health; this assessment can also include external forces in their lives that may be exacerbating a diagnosis. Licensed clinical social workers are also equipped to provide counseling to patients in this setting.

As with most clinically-rooted social work positions, most employers expect applicants to hold the MSW. Additional specializations in the form of degree program concentrations of postgraduate certificates are considered bonuses and only add to a social worker’s appeal to employers.

The BLS Job Outlook
Median Pay, May 2012: $39,980
Total Employment, May 2012: 114,200

Projected Job Growth, 2012 to 2022: 23%
Projects Total Employment, 2022: 140,200

Gerontological Social Workers

In recognizing that older adults have different needs than their younger counterparts, gerontological social workers provide assistance to seniors in a number of settings. This can include informing patients of their rights and taking steps to ensure autonomy and independence for as long as it is safely possible. Accessing resources for this patient population presents its own challenge, as these patients are unlikely to be technologically savvy and will require considerable assistance. Other job duties include the assessment of a patient’s capabilities and managing long-term care, financial planning and advanced care strategies.

Gerontology is one of the few specializations in social work that can be earned with only a bachelor’s degree. As the Baby Boomers continue to age, many of them joining the ranks of the elderly population, there will be an ongoing need for social workers skilled in senior care.

The BLS Job Outlook
Median Pay, May 2012: $43,330
Total Employment, May 2012: N/A

Projected Job Growth, 2012 to 2022: N/A
Projects Total Employment, 2022: N/A