Military Social Worker

Military social workers help members of the armed forces reintegrate into civilian or professional life after a deployment, injury, or personal crisis. These professionals also provide social service support to families of veterans and active-duty military personnel. Aspiring social workers enjoy strong job prospects. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects an 11% increase in social work jobs between 2018-2028, far outpacing the national average for all occupations.

Military social workers qualify for many roles in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), which is the largest employer of advanced social work degree-holders in the country. The federal government also considers military social workers part of the Armed Forces' Allied Health network, making them eligible for military retirement benefits.

What Does a Military Social Worker Do?

Military social work jobs have a core set of responsibilities focused on supporting and empowering active service personnel, veterans, retired military members, and their families. These professionals provide case management and counseling services while advocating for clients within the VA system. Military social workers also connect clients with helpful resources and services.

Military social workers also help veterans affected by physical injuries access benefits, counseling, therapy, and other forms of rehabilitative support.

In many cases, military social workers assist service personnel, veterans, and family members who need emotional and psychological support. Military deployments and exposure to dangerous and violent situations can potentially lead to issues like post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, depression, anxiety, and suicide. Social workers with specialized training in these issues help clients reclaim control of their lives.

Issues like domestic violence, spousal abuse, and child abuse also frequently touch military families. In these instances, military social workers advocate for victims, guiding them to the protective and legal resources they need. Military social workers also help veterans affected by physical injuries access benefits, counseling, therapy, and other forms of rehabilitative support.

How Do I Become a Military Social Worker?

Education Needed to Become a Military Social Worker

Earning a bachelor's degree is the first step toward becoming a military social worker. Students interested in this career path usually pursue bachelor's degrees in social work, but other relevant majors include counseling and psychology. After obtaining a bachelor's, aspiring military social workers typically pursue a master of social work degree.

Master's programs with concentrations in military social work are relatively rare, so many students use electives to gain relevant career training, taking classes on topics like substance abuse counseling, family counseling, and the psychology of trauma. Students can also use practicum and internship requirements to gain experience in the field.

While a master's in social work is the most direct educational path into this career, alternatives do exist and not all of them require an advanced degree. Those with only a bachelor's degree can pursue certificates in military or veteran social work. However, entry requirements for these certificate programs usually include a bachelor's degree in social work, so aspirants considering this path should choose their undergraduate majors accordingly.

Prospective undergraduate and graduate students can choose from programs that offer traditional in-class learning, online learning, or hybrid formats that blend the two. The following table summarizes the key differences between undergraduate and advanced social work degrees:

Bachelor's Degree in Military Social Work

A bachelor's degree in social work examines the theoretical and practical aspects of social work from a generalist perspective. Learners study topics such as social welfare, social policy, psychology, and social justice. They also complete field experiences. Full-time students usually earn their degrees in four years.

Master's Degree in Military Social Work

Master's degrees in social work allow students to concentrate on a particular area of social work. Like bachelor's degrees, master's degrees in social work give students practical experience in field settings. Full-time students can usually graduate in 18 months to two years.

Doctoral Degree in Military Social Work

Heavily shaped by self-directed study and research projects, doctoral degrees in social work offer the greatest depth of specialized study. These programs focus more on social work research than practice, making this degree ideal for aspiring university instructors or research professionals. Full-time students typically graduate in 3-4 years.

Accreditation for Military Social Work Programs

Students pursuing a career in military social work should only attend an accredited school. Military social work jobs require state licensure, and while licensure requirements vary among jurisdictions, they invariably include a relevant degree from an accredited institution.

Accreditation is a third-party endorsement from an independent agency that holds national or regional authority. National accreditation usually applies to for-profit schools and vocational institutions, while regional accreditation typically applies to nonprofit, liberal arts institutions. Regional accreditation is generally considered the more prestigious of the two.

Programs within a school may receive programmatic accreditation. The Council on Social Work Education (CWSE) is a well-known accrediting body for social work programs. This endorsement signals high academic quality, giving students a boost in the job market and an advantage in the licensing examinations required for professional licensure.

Licensure and Practicum Requirements to Become a Military Social Worker

State licensure is required for professional practice as a military social worker. Requirements vary by state and typically depend on whether a candidate wants a non-clinical or clinical license. Non-clinical social workers -- also known as direct social workers -- act as case managers or coordinators, connecting clients with community resources. Clinical social workers provide counseling and therapy services to clients.

Social work licenses expire every 2-3 years, and professionals need to meet continuing education requirements to renew them.

Requirements for non-clinical practitioners include a bachelor's degree in social work or a bachelor's degree in a related field and a social work certificate. Clinical social workers need at least a master's degree. These core educational requirements qualify candidates for state licensure examinations, which all aspirants must pass to earn their licenses. Social work internships and practicums, which all CSWE-accredited degrees require, help prepare candidates for licensing exams.

Licensees can transfer valid credentials to some other states through reciprocity agreements. Social work licenses expire every 2-3 years, and professionals need to meet continuing education requirements to renew them. Requirements vary, but many states demand 10-30 hours of continuing education during each renewal period.

Optional Certifications for Military Social Workers

Military social work professionals can earn optional certifications. These certifications endorse a candidate's expertise in a specific practice area, which makes them more competitive in the job market.

Academy of Certified Social Workers (ACSW)

Applicants with a master's degree in social work and current membership to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) can apply for this general certification after accruing two years of employment under a credentialed supervisor and 20 or more hours of continuing education.

Military Service Members, Veterans, and Their Families -- Social Worker (MVF-SW)

This NASW certification is an entry-level option for social workers interested in military specializations. It's an ideal credential for bachelor's degree holders with two or more years of military-oriented work experience.

Military Service Members, Veterans, and Their Families -- Advanced Social Worker (MVF-ASW)

Licensed social workers with accredited master's degrees qualify for this certification if they have two years of professional experience with veterans and military personnel or their families. It also requires 20 hours of continuing education, including at least 10 on military-related specializations.

Military Service Members, Veterans, and Their Families -- Clinical Social Worker (MVF-CSW)

This certification signals advanced clinical, behavioral, and mental health expertise. Certificate holders can diagnose and treat psychosocial disorders commonly experienced by veterans. Candidates need a master's degree, three years of relevant professional experience, and 30 or more hours of continuing education training.

Employment and Salary for Military Social Workers

Military social workers enjoy an excellent employment outlook thanks to overall growth in the profession and increased awareness of the unique reintegration needs faced by veterans and active-duty personnel. Though military social work is already a specialized field, practitioners can further distinguish themselves in the job market by concentrating in areas such as:

  • Military family counseling
  • Military-to-civilian transition support
  • Crisis intervention
  • Substance abuse counseling
  • Mental health counseling

The VA is the nation's largest employer of social workers with master's and doctoral degrees. The federal government announced the agency's largest-ever proposed annual budget for the 2019 fiscal year, largely to provide more funding for veterans' healthcare services and social support programs, making the VA an excellent place to seek employment. However, thousands of military social work jobs take place through other organizations, including military bases, faith-based organizations, and government agencies.

Pay rates for military social workers tend to line up with the national median for all professions, and salaries usually rise with experience. The following table summarizes salary information for military social workers at various stages of their careers:

Average Salary by Experience Level for Social Workers (MSW)
0-12 Months $42,000
1-4 Years $45,000
5-9 Years $49,000
10-19 Years $53,000
Source: PayScale

How to Find a Job as a Military Social Worker

The federal government is the largest employer of military social workers, but state and local government agencies, nonprofit groups, and private hospitals and care clinics also employ many military social work professionals.

The internship and practicum requirements of accredited bachelor's and master's in social work programs allow students to make professional connections that may lead to employment. Students can also reach out to their school career centers for job assistance. Additionally, professional organizations often provide job listings for prospective social workers, while MVF certifications boost competitiveness in the job market.

Military Social Work Resources

  • CSWE Specialized Practice Curricular Guide for Military Social Work This regularly updated curricular provides an in-depth review of the ethical standards, academic background, and competencies needed to succeed as a military social worker.
  • The National Association of Social Workers NASW is the largest social work organization in the United States. Members benefit from access to continuing education and professional development opportunities as well as a job board.
  • Association of Social Work Boards ASWB is a regulatory agency that develops the standards used by state certification boards in examination and licensing protocols. It is the authority for current, professional best practice guidelines.
  • Association of Veterans Affairs Social Workers Social workers employed by the VA can join this professional organization, which provides networking and peer mentoring opportunities as well as other free or low-cost professional and educational resources.
  • Clinical Social Work Association Military social workers with clinical licenses can list their services through this professional organization, which maintains an exclusive job board and detailed information on social work standards, care guidelines, and best practices.