Many people who want to help others and make a difference in society are drawn to social work careers. But they are familiar mostly with one type of social work, specifically, child and family social work or school social work.
Social work is much broader than that; there is a broader range of social work careers than most imagine.
This guide to social work careers explains its different roles and options. Whether you are a student just starting to think about careers or an experienced worker looking for a new start, discover the possibilities today to find your dream career.
What Does a Career in Social Work Look Like?
Social workers provide support and referral to resources for people experiencing major difficulties. They must be experts in dealing with people who are struggling and knowing which community resources to access.
For example, in working with a homeless client, they may need to know different shelters available; resources for healthcare, substance misuse, counseling, trauma-informed care; how to access food and translation services; and where to enroll in job preparation.
While graduates with any educational background, like an online bachelor’s degree in social work, can have a career in social work, there is a distinction between social workers and clinical social workers: Clinical social workers are licensed to treat mental health conditions.
States require clinical social workers to have a master of social work (MSW) from an accredited program to earn a social work license as a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) or as a licensed master social worker. Depending on the state and the role, nonclinical social workers may also need licensing.
Both a bachelor of social work (BSW) and an MSW require fieldwork. After graduating with an MSW, an aspiring clinical social worker must perform fieldwork under an LCSW’s supervision before applying for a state license.
Micro, Mezzo, and Macro Social Work Practice
As the name suggests, social work does not take place in a vacuum but within a societal environment. While a great deal of social work involves helping individuals adjust to their society, another important part involves making society more responsive to individual needs.
Different social work careers and career paths have different focuses on micro, mezzo, and macro work.
- Micro Social Work Practice: Micro social work practice focuses entirely on the individual and their needs. This is typically one-on-one work, though a social worker may have several clients as part of their micro social work practice.
- Mezzo Social Work Practice: Mezzo social work practice is between micro and macro (mezzo is Italian for “middle”). A social work career in mezzo practice might involve both micro work with individual veterans, for example, and work with community organizations to support veterans.
- Macro Social Work Practice: Macro social work practice emphasizes change at the strategic level to address needs or prevent needs from becoming crises. For example, a macro social work career might be building a community coalition to help veterans transition to civilian life with limited or no work directly with veteran clients.
Featured Online Master’s in Social Work Programs
Types of Social Workers
In addition to the macro, mezzo, and micro social work practice, social workers specialize in a particular type of client and practice. While child and family social workers and school social workers are the most familiar, there are many more options for social work careers.
You can work with whatever population you want to and in a variety of roles like assistant, administrator, case worker, or test administrators.
Child and Family Social Workers
Child and family social workers typically work for a government agency or nonprofit that provides child and family services. They work to ensure that families are safe and functional by providing advice and referral to other services. They may also intervene in cases of child abuse or neglect or domestic violence.
School Social Workers
School social workers generally work in schools. Their primary role is to help children who are having difficulty adjusting to school or experiencing other difficulties. They might address bullying, help children with special needs, work to ensure a culturally competent environment, and help develop policy or programs to ensure better outcomes.
Healthcare Social Workers
Healthcare social workers help people navigate the healthcare system or address other needs of people who receive treatment from the healthcare system. They may have specialties within healthcare, such as addressing violence, homelessness, or the needs of sick children.
Mental Health and Substance Use Social Workers
Mental health and substance use social workers help patients find and receive the treatment they need for mental health or substance misuse issues. They may also work with clients to address accompanying issues, such as family conflict.
Explore Social Work Careers
Each of these social work careers offers the opportunity to make a difference. Your own interests and life experience can help you choose the right direction, and you can explore further during your studies and fieldwork.
Child and Family Social Worker
Child and family social work is the most common social work career and what most of us think of when we think about social workers. While helping children and families can be deeply satisfying, making high-stakes decisions about families, such as recommending a child be separated from a parent or guardian, can be traumatic.
Median Salary: $49,150 according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS, May 2021 data)
Clinical Social Worker
Clinical social workers are licensed by their respective state to provide mental health services, so they can provide counseling and referrals. Their qualifications must include an MSW, passing the licensing examination, and a period of supervised practice. Clinical social worker career settings include hospitals, schools, private practice, government agencies, and nonprofits.
Average Salary: $60,310 according to Payscale (April 2023)
Forensic (Criminal Justice) Social Worker
If you are interested in law and the justice system, a criminal justice social work career may be a good match. Criminal justice social workers work with people involved in the justice system, either as offenders or victims, and members of the justice system such as police, attorneys, and judges.
They may serve as expert witnesses, provide support to survivors, help families when a member is arrested or convicted, and help offenders in rehabilitation.
Average Salary: $47,350 according to Payscale (April 2023)
Gerontology Social Worker
Gerontology social workers specialize in caring for older adults, especially older adults who have physical or mental health conditions or who are living in poverty. They help connect their clients to needed services, while trying to help them maintain independence as long as possible.
They may work for government offices, hospitals and health systems, or for nonprofit organizations that serve older adults. As the number of older adults increases, gerontology social work career opportunities are likely to increase.
Average Salary: $57,000 according to Payscale (April 2023)
Forensic Social Worker
Forensic social workers may specialize in civil practice, especially as it affects vulnerable populations, like children, people with disabilities, or refugees. Some forensic social workers focus on family law, such as protecting children’s interests during a divorce or other family civil litigation. Like criminal justice social workers, they may function as expert witnesses as well as advocates and care providers.
Average Salary: $47,350 according to Payscale (April 2023)
Hospice and Palliative Social Worker
Hospice and palliative social workers have some overlap with gerontology social workers, but they serve only those who are in the last months of their lives. They may help both the person who is dying and their family or loved ones. This is a social work career for those who are comfortable talking about death and who would not be unduly upset when a client dies.
Average Salary: $56,950 according to Payscale (April 2023)
Medical Social Worker
Medical social workers work with medical patients, typically in a hospital or clinic. They may provide counseling and connect patients, particularly patients who are homeless or have a substance use disorder, with other services upon discharge. An increasingly common medical social work career role is acting as a violence interrupter. When a victim of gang or other systemic violence is treated in a hospital, the medical social worker takes advantage of the opportunity to try to stop the cycle of revenge violence.
Average Salary: $59,310 according to Payscale (April 2023)
Mental Health Social Worker
While all social work careers address and support a client’s mental health, mental health is the primary priority for mental health social workers; they typically work in mental health settings. Because of this, many mental health social workers are LCSWs, so they are licensed to provide counseling. Many mental health social workers have professional training or certification in substance use care.
Average Salary: $57,800 according to the BLS (May 2021 data)
Military Social Worker
Military social workers help members of the military, both active duty military and veterans, and their families. They may provide care if a service member is seriously injured, missing, or killed, provide resources to families of service members on deployment, and support veterans transitioning back to civilian life. They may work on military bases, in Veterans Affairs facilities, or in other organizations that serve members of the military and their families.
Average Salary: $83,500 according to Federal Pay.org (May 2021 data; Please note that salary is based on rank.)
School Social Worker
School social workers help children and families when the child is struggling with some aspect of the school environment. They may also work at the mezzo level to help make the school a safe, healthy environment. They might address the needs of students with learning problems or problems with interpersonal interactions, who have a difficult home environment, or who are recent immigrants or refugees.
Multilingual skills can be helpful for this social work career.
Average Salary: $51,060 according to Payscale (April 2023)
Other Careers in Social Work
If you are interested in a social work career but none of these specialties pique your interest or earning an MSW does not fit your current plans, there are other options. With a BSW, you can still work in these fields, typically supporting an LCSW, or working as a case worker or case manager.
There are also administrative roles in social work, either general or specialized, such as program or initiative impact evaluation.
Starting Your Career in Social Work
Social workers are in demand and the BLS projects that the number of social work jobs will increase 9% between 2021 and 2031, due to retirement and turnover. This is faster than the average job growth rate.
Social work careers can be emotionally demanding and social workers must maintain their own mental and emotional well-being when faced with situations such as child abuse or other trauma. However, for those with the ability to face these situations and maintain their emotional balance, intervening in these situations is uniquely rewarding.
Social workers must also excel at collaboration. Many social workers are part of a team and in complex situations; they must also partner with or maintain relationships with other organizations.
While many social workers started their academic work with a BSW, many MSW programs will accept students with other undergraduate degrees, putting students with a BSW into an accelerated track.
However, MSW programs tend to prefer applicants who have at least some experience in a social work environment, if not directly as a social worker. During your school years, you will see many different social work careers firsthand, either from practitioners or as part of your fieldwork.
While an MSW can be expensive, there are many social work scholarships and other financial aid for students planning on social work careers.
Frequently Asked Questions About Careers in Social Work
How long does it take to become a social worker?
Many social work careers start with a four-year BSW degree. To become a licensed clinical social worker, you must earn an MSW and have a period of supervised work. An MSW typically takes two years, though students with a BSW may be eligible to complete it in one year.
You will need to complete supervised social work, typically two years, and may be required to pass an exam before earning your license. Check your state’s regulations.
What kind of salary can I expect as a social worker?
Social workers earn a median $50,390 per year or $24.23 per hour, according to the BLS. Salaries vary significantly by workplace, something to consider when planning a social work career. Social workers in government agencies (other than schools or hospitals) earn a median $61,190, while those working in individual and family services earn a median $46,640.
What is the best degree to become a social worker?
The fastest way to become a licensed social worker is to earn a BSW and then an MSW. There are other social work career paths too. However, many MSW programs consider students from a variety of educational backgrounds and undergraduate degrees. They may require or strongly prefer candidates with experience in a social services work environment.
What settings do social workers typically work in?
Social workers work in almost any field where people may be experiencing crises or need assistance. Common settings include schools, hospitals and health systems, clinics, military bases, nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations, and private practice. Social workers may also work with people who are homeless or experiencing a substance use disorder.