How to Become a Social Worker

Social workers help their clients cope with difficult situations such as addiction, the loss of a loved one, academic or behavioral issues, and unemployment. In a society that is constantly bombarded by these and other complex problems, more and more segments of the general population need assistance and guidance.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects 16% growth for social work jobs through 2026 -- much faster than the national average. Bureau of Labor Statistics

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects 16% growth for social work jobs through 2026 -- much faster than the national average. Social workers may work directly with individuals and families or with community groups. They might also work as policymakers, influencing the field's direction and growth through laws and regulations. Use this guide as your first step in exploring this challenging yet rewarding career path.

Whether they work on the micro, mezzo, or macro levels, social workers begin by identifying the problem facing their clients, or the community or social work field in general. For example, clinical social workers diagnose mental illnesses, while school social workers call out bullying behaviors, and social work leaders advocate for legislative or regulatory changes.

After identifying or diagnosing the problem, social workers guide their clients toward the services they need. If existing laws do not support the services that certain segments of the population need, macro-level social workers use their training and influence to craft policies and rules to remedy the situation.

A social worker's professional life is often as varied as the populations and communities they serve. However, entry-level social workers generally require the same set of skills: excellent communication and analytical capabilities, strong interpersonal and organizational skills, and well-developed problem-solving abilities. They must also build and maintain a reliable network of private and government service providers to help them assist their clients in a timely and efficient manner, and recognize areas in which they can improve.

What's the Difference Between a Social Worker and a Counselor?

Both clinical social workers and counselors must be licensed in the state where they practice.

Clinical social workers, like counselors, can work directly with clients in one-on-one, family, or group therapy sessions. However, clinical social workers and counselors provide different services. Counselors focus on helping their clients cope with a specific mental health disorder or issue, such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. Clinical social workers typically provide a wider range of services, in addition to clinical therapy.

Counselors might help their clients work through their psychological or emotional problems through treatment interventions, while social workers provide similar one-on-one assistance in addition to referring their clients to a range of outside support services. Both clinical social workers and counselors must be licensed in the state where they practice. They must also have at least a postsecondary degree, and a minimum of two years of supervised clinical practice.

All states require social workers to obtain licensure before practicing. However, each state has specific regulations on how to become a licensed social worker. It is important to find out the licensure requirements of the state where you wish to pursue your career in social work -- from educational requirements to test scores, and the number of required field supervision hours. To date, there is no reciprocity agreement that exists between states. Licensed counselors who want to move between states must are required to submit the same licensure materials for review in their receiving state (including their background information, supervision record, and transcript) as they did in your original state.

Earn a Degree

Recent graduates with a bachelor's degree in social work qualify for certain entry-level social work positions, including case management aide, rehabilitation case worker, or community outreach worker. You would typically need a master's degree in social work to advance in the profession and qualify for positions such as mental health counselor, marriage and family social worker, or child welfare agent. In addition to a master's degree, most states require clinical social workers to undergo a minimum of two years of supervision by a state-licensed social worker before they can practice independently.

Bachelor's Degree
Like many undergraduate programs, a bachelor's degree in social work requires 120 credits and usually takes four years to complete. Students sharpen their communication and organizational skills, and learn about the community resources and national programs they can help their clients access. A bachelor's degree in social work requires students to complete a certain number of supervised field hours. Many programs offer specializations in fields including child welfare, mental health, substance abuse, and school social work. A bachelor's degree is the minimum educational requirement for initial licensure in most states.
Master's Degree
It usually takes 15 to 24 months for students to complete a master's degree in social work, with most programs comprising at least 60 credits. If you already have a bachelor's degree in the field, you may qualify for advanced standing, which allows you to complete your master's coursework in just one year. After coursework, students must undergo another 500 to 600 hours of supervised graduate fieldwork hours in their area of specialization. In most states, a master's degree in social work qualifies degree holders to become a licensed master social worker (LMSW), a licensed master social worker advanced generalist (LCSW-AG), or a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW).
Doctoral Degree
Research-oriented social workers who wish to pursue a doctoral degree in the field often enroll in a doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.) degree in social work, which emphasizes the research aspect of social work. Doctoral students who wish to earn a more practice-oriented degree usually enroll in a doctor of social work (DSW) program. Earning either degree usually takes three to five years of full-time study and the completion of 60 to 70 credits. Ph.D. students often take longer to complete their degree than DSW students, because they have to submit a research-based dissertation that breaks new ground in the field.

Accreditation for Social Work Programs

The Council for Higher Education Accreditation recognizes the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) as the foremost accrediting body for social work programs in the United States. Accreditation is a voluntary process, whereby schools or programs undergo a self-evaluation to show that they meet the academic standards of the accrediting body in their field.

For schools offering online social work degrees, CSWE requires full access to the digital program for accreditation.

In addition to the self-study, CSWE accreditation involves a site inspection for on-campus programs. For schools offering online social work degrees, CSWE requires full access to the digital program for accreditation. Earning your social work degree from a college or university with an accredited program is important.

Most states require license applicants to hold their degrees from CSWE-accredited programs. In addition, the U.S. Department of Education courses financial assistance only through accredited schools and programs. If you plan to apply for some type of financial aid from the government, make sure you enroll in an accredited program.

Licensure and Practicum Requirements to Become a Social Worker

Most states recognize four common levels of social work licensure, though they may be called by different names, and requirements may vary for each type of license. Make sure to check the social work licensure requirements in the state where you intend to work.

In most states, graduates of accredited social work programs who have completed the required number of undergraduate internship or practicum hours are eligible to sit for the licensed bachelor of social work (LBSW) exam. This exam is administered by the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB). There is usually no work experience or on-the-job training required to take the LBSW exam.

To become an LMSW, you must first complete a master's degree in social work and pass the ASWB master's exam. Most states do not require LMSW candidates to have supervised postgraduate work experience. However, if you wish to become an LMSW-AG, most states require that you undergo a minimum of two years of supervised non-clinical experience. A clinical social worker must be an LCSW in order to engage in independent practice. An LSCW must have a master's degree in social work and pass the ASWB's clinical exam.

Each state has its own criteria for license renewal, as well. Most require social workers to renew their license every two years, and only after completing a minimum number of additional qualified education units. Renewal fees generally range from $100 for LBSWs to $300 for higher-level licenses. If you want to obtain social work licensure in a new state, the receiving state will evaluate your qualifications according to their standards. However, ASWB test scores are transferable between states, so you do not have to retake the exam for your license level every time you relocate.

Social workers serve a diverse group of clients with demographics that cut across variables such as gender, age, race, religion, and social and economic status. Because of this, prospective social workers may choose among several different areas of focus as they pursue their degrees. To apply for an entry-level position in any of the fields below, you will need at least a bachelor's degree in social work. However, to move up in the field or establish an independent practice, you must have at least a master's degree.

Median Annual Wages for Social Workers by Concentration
Healthcare Social Workers $54,870
Child, Family, and School Social Workers $44,380
Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers $43,250
Social Workers, All Other $61,980

You can usually begin your social work career with a bachelor's degree in the field. However, earning a master's degree opens up more career options and improves your earning potential. Licensing requirements in some states may also require license applicants to hold a master's degree. Where you choose to work will impact your career options and salary expectations, as well. States that have a great need for social workers in a particular practice arena often offer higher salaries and more options for career advancement. As shown in the tables below, employment options and salary expectations vary between different social work areas.

Average Salary for Social Workers by Experience Level
Entry Level $40,000
Mid Career $46,000
Experienced $51,000
Late Career $55,000
Average Salary for Social Workers by Industry
Hospitals; State, Local, and Private $58,490
Local Government, Excluding Education and Hospitals $52,900
Ambulatory Healthcare Services $48,340
State Government, Excluding Education and Hospitals $46,120
Individual and Family Services $40,800

How to Find a Job as a Licensed Social Worker

As stated above, BLS projects 16% growth for the social work profession from 2016 through 2026, so social work graduates can expect a robust job market waiting for them. The Child, Family, and School Social Work arena employs the highest number of social workers (306,370). Despite the positive job market, it still helps to have additional certification in your prospective arena of social work. This is true for most social work fields, but especially so in areas such as addiction, mental health, and geriatrics.

If you are still building your resume, make sure to include any social work-related volunteer work you have done, plus the fieldwork you completed for your bachelor's degree. You can find professional networking opportunities in LinkedIn and the websites for organizations like the International Federation of Social Workers and the Network for Social Work Management. Social networking is another way to keep up with the latest trends and issues in the field.

  • American Council for School Social Work This organization serves as a resource for school social workers all over the country in terms of providing professional development opportunities and the latest news and research findings in the field.
  • Association for Community Organization and Social Administration This administration addresses issues confronting advocates, community organizers, nonprofit administrators, and policy makers. ACOSA provides its members with networking opportunities, industry information, and research results for social work students, recent graduates, and seasoned professionals.
  • Clinical Social Work Association CSWA publishes position papers on topics that impact clinical social work practice. The association also keeps members up-to-date on legislative changes that affect their practice, and maintains a national job board where members can look for work opportunities and post their resumes.
  • National Association of Social Workers NASW offers social work credentials to qualified members, continuing education units and professional development resources, and a career center where members can look for social work jobs from across the country.
  • Society for Social Work Leadership in Healthcare SSWLHC's Leadership Institute conducts leadership seminars for local chapters. These provide opportunities for healthcare social work professionals to develop the skills they need so they can direct and influence changes in the healthcare field both on the policy and practice levels.