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Social workers provide support to vulnerable individuals, families, and communities and serve as policymakers to improve healthcare and social services for all. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a 9% growth for social work jobs between 2021 and 2031, faster than the national average.

Explore this guide to learn more about how to become a social worker.

Featured Online Social Work Degrees

Steps to Become a Social Worker

  1. Complete a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW) or a related field.
  2. Pursue a master’s degree in social work (MSW).
  3. Complete fieldwork requirements.
  4. Apply for state licensure.
  5. Pass an ASWB examination.
  6. Consider additional certifications and credentials.

Social work offers an array of employment opportunities interacting with diverse populations in a variety of settings. The path to becoming a social worker depends on your professional goals and the licensing requirements in the state where you intend to practice.

The steps to a social work career begin with earning at least a bachelor’s degree and fulfilling licensing and certification requirements.

Earn a Social Work Degree

Your level of education determines what kind of social work career and licensing you can pursue. A bachelor’s in social work or a related field typically qualifies you for entry-level positions. A master’s enables you to pursue licensure and clinical positions in areas, such as mental health, child welfare, and school social work. More advanced clinical, administrative, and teaching roles require a doctorate in social work.

Bachelor’s Degree

Earning a bachelor’s in social work (BSW) or a related field, such as psychology or public health, can lead to entry-level employment in the helping professions, including community and family services, casework management, and substance abuse counseling.

Students can complete a BSW in four years depending on program requirements and whether you attend full or part time. Most degrees comprise 120 credits, including fieldwork and internship requirements. A BSW serves as the minimum educational requirement for initial licensure in most states and for entry into a master’s program in social work.

Master’s Degree

Most states require a master’s in social work (MSW) for all clinical positions and for independent practice. This degree typically requires 60 credits completed over 15-24 months. If you have a BSW accredited by the Council of Social Work Education (CSWE), you may qualify for advanced standing that allows you to complete the degree in one year.

The MSW curriculum consists of foundational courses and advanced study that prepares you for a variety of practice area specializations. Expect to complete up to 1,000 hours of fieldwork, including 500-600 hours in your chosen specialization. Most states require an MSW from a CSWE-accredited institution to qualify for licensure and begin social work practice.

Doctoral Degree

A doctorate in social work (DSW) can open doors to advanced clinical, administrative, and leadership positions. Unlike the research-based Ph.D. in social work, the DSW is a practice- oriented degree. Admission requirements vary by DSW program but generally include a CSWE-accredited MSW and at least two years of social work experience. The degree requires approximately 50 credits taken over 3-5 years.

Because DSW students typically hold an MSW and continue to work in professional practice while earning their degree, these programs do not include fieldwork requirements. Most programs involve a capstone project or portfolio presentation. Although a DSW demonstrates considerable expertise in social work, it is not a requirement for licensure or certification.

Complete Fieldwork Requirements

As an integral component of the BSW and MSW degrees, fieldwork helps you apply the knowledge learned in coursework to professional practice, preparing learners for workplace responsibilities.

Social work students gain field experience in an array of settings, such as hospitals, schools, community agencies, and correctional facilities. Placement sites must provide a licensed social worker to serve as the supervisor for the field experience, overseeing and evaluating student performance in the practice situation.

The CSWE requires 400 hours of field experience for its accredited BSW programs and 900 hours for accredited MSW programs. However, each state regulates the profession and licenses social workers differently, including standards for fieldwork and clinical contact hours.

Apply for State Licensure or Exam Approval

Licensure regulations vary by state, but most MSW-holders need a state license to practice. Many states require social workers with a BSW to obtain licenses as well.

Licensure candidates must submit an application to their state board, pay application fees, and receive approval to take the standardized exam administered by the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB). Some states, such as Texas, only consider candidates for licensure after they take the ASWB exam. In these cases, candidates apply for approval to take the exam before applying for licensure.

For accurate information about licensure requirements, check your state board of social work website.

Pass an ASWB Examination

Licensure requires a passing score on the ASWB licensing exam. You must first obtain approval from your state social work regulatory board before you can register for the exam. Once you have registered and paid the fee for your exam level, you can schedule an exam date at one of the Pearson VUE testing centers. The ASWB offers online practice exams to help you become familiar with content areas and question formats.

The type of license required for your scope of practice determines which exam you must take:

Bachelor’s Exam

  • Degree/Experience Required: BSW, no experience
  • Exam Fee: $230
  • Exam Focus: Knowledge and skills for basic, generalist practice

Master’s Exam

  • Degree/Experience Required: MSW, no experience
  • Exam Fee: $230
  • Exam Focus: Application of specialized knowledge and advanced skills

Advanced Generalist Exam

  • Degree/Experience Required: MSW, two years of experience in a nonclinical setting
  • Exam Fee: $260
  • Exam Focus: Advanced generalist social work (including macro-level practice) in nonclinical settings

Clinical Exam

  • Degree/Experience Required: MSW, two years of experience in a clinical setting
  • Exam Fee: $260
  • Exam Focus: Application of specialized clinical knowledge and advanced clinical skills

Consider Additional Social Work Certifications

Although not required, social workers often pursue voluntary certification in their areas of specialization to advance in their careers and enhance their personal and professional reputations. Depending on where you work and your specialization, certifications can boost your earnings and make you more competitive in the job market.

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) offers several professional social work and advanced practice specialty certifications, including credentials for clinical social workers; health social workers; gerontology social workers; and child, youth, and family social workers. Certification qualifications vary, but all credentials require either a BSW or MSW, licensure, and professional experience.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long does it take to become a social worker?

You need at least a bachelor’s degree in social work or a related field for an entry-level social work position. BSW degrees typically take about four years to complete if attending full time. Clinical positions require an MSW and licensure, which can take two years beyond the bachelor’s degree. Accelerated MSW programs can lead to a degree in 12-18 months.

How do I start a career in social work?

Once you earn your degree, you can use your college placement service, government employment listings, online professional communities, and other social media platforms that connect social workers with career resources and provide networking opportunities. Joining a professional association, such as the NASW, provides access to employment centers, job banks, and professional development resources to help you launch your career.

What skills are required to become a social worker?

A social work degree provides the foundational knowledge and organizational and leadership skills necessary to enter social work practice. As one of the helping professions, social work also requires empathy for at-risk individuals and vulnerable populations, good communication skills, and the ability to make informed decisions in difficult situations.

Can I become a social worker without a degree?

For entry-level social work jobs, you need at least a bachelor’s degree. Clinical positions require an MSW. However, if you want to enter a social work-related field without the requisite degree, you might consider becoming a community health worker, childcare provider, case manager aide, or teacher assistants. Volunteer work with nonprofit organizations and community centers also provides a pathway into the field.

Reviewed By: Danielle Golightly, LMSW

Danielle Golightly is a licensed social worker in Michigan with over 10 years of experience. She is currently the family advocate at a child advocacy center where she works with individuals and families from diverse backgrounds. Previously, Danielle served as a victim advocate at the same agency, providing crisis intervention and psychoeducation services to families impacted by child abuse. She has also supervised graduate-level social work students and mentored undergraduates throughout their internships.

Danielle is passionate about child welfare, victim advocacy, and trauma.

Danielle is a paid member of the Red Ventures freelance Education Integrity Network.