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How to Become a Social Worker

Fast Facts about Social Workers in the U.S.

What Is a Social Worker?

Social workers are professionals who help vulnerable people improve their lives—both individually in a clinical one-on-one capacity and at the policy level. “Social Workers empower people to help themselves. This can mean providing direct services or working for change to improve social systems at the macro level,” said Alyssa Caldbeck, Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW).

What Does a Social Worker Do?

The National Association of Social Workers states, “The primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty.”

Social workers help people tackle life’s challenges, including mental health issues, intellectual and physical disabilities, financial difficulties, relationship problems, substance abuse issues, leaving or changing abusive situations, and rehabilitation after incarceration. They do this by providing counseling and helping their clients access and utilize outside resources.

Social workers typically work full-time, and you should anticipate nights, weekends, and being on-call, especially early in your career or if you work in positions where you are directly interacting with individual clients—emergencies don’t keep regular hours.

Though the goal of all social workers is the same, the daily tasks vary by specific career tracks or jobs within social work.

Social Work Salary and Job Outlook

As of 2019, the median annual salary of social workers as a whole was $50,470, with expected job growth of 11% between 2018 and 2028. Below are the mean pay and anticipated growth for more specific categories of social workers.

Job Title 2019 Mean Pay Projected Job Growth
Child, Family, and School Social Workers $51,030 7%
Healthcare Social Workers $59,300 17%
Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers $51,670 18%
Social Workers, All Other $60,900 6%

Salary data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Job growth data is for 2018-2028 from CareerOneStop.

Types of Social Workers

Social work careers can be divided into three umbrellas: micro, mezzo, and macro. Esther Gillies of the USC School of Social Work states micro social work is mostly with individuals, mezzo work is generally for families or organizations, and macro social work focuses on widespread issues across communities or the nation. However, the three are profoundly interconnected—though social work jobs may predominantly involve one of these types, most social workers frequently find themselves crossing over into all types.

For example, if your job is considered a micro social work position in which you’re working with an individual, you may need to bring in your client’s family members to fully understand what’s happening—transitioning the task to the mezzo level. If you discover the problem you’re working on extends not just to the family, but beyond, you may need to petition and advocate for better resources for their community as a whole—macro social work. Conversely, those who predominantly work at the macro level may need to work one-on-one with community members on occasion—not to provide full services, but to get on-the-ground knowledge about the issues they’re tackling. Your work may go back and forth between the three areas to best assist your client.

Below are just a few examples of careers in social work and the type of social work that is most typical for each:

Clinical social worker
Clinical social workers work one-on-one or with small groups on specific mental health, behavioral, emotional, or other challenges. In addition to providing diagnosis and treatment, they focus on finding people resources to improve their situations rather than strictly in diagnosis and treatment. (Often involves micro and mezzo social work)

School social worker
School social workers are similar to school counselors in that they provide academic and socioemotional support to students in crisis. However, they also work closely with families to find resources to help the entire family unit and collaborate with teachers regarding the needs of vulnerable students. Additionally, they’re frequently involved with child protective services issues—including when a child needs to be removed from their home or enters the school as a part of a foster family. (Often involves micro and mezzo social work)

Social services case manager
Social service caseworkers work with individuals who are parts of specific populations—the elderly, children, developmentally disabled adults, etc.—to help them gain skills and acquire services they need. They’re assigned to specific people who have entered “the system” via child protective services, adult protective services, disability services, or other means. Though they can be employed by nonprofits, they often work for government agencies. (Often involves micro and mezzo social work)

Forensic social worker
Forensic social workers work in the criminal justice and social services systems. They can work one-on-one with plaintiffs, defendants, victims, and even witnesses, diagnosing issues and making sure their clients are fit to stand trial or testify. They frequently function as expert witnesses or consultants and assist probation officers and other experts on rehabilitating released criminals back into society. (Often involves micro and mezzo social work)

Business social worker
Business social workers work with companies to foster positive communication, increase employee morale, and ensure companies are behaving in ethical ways. They study the behaviors of the staff and see what the positive and negative ramifications of actions are, then work with the team to fix issues. Studies have shown that when consumers know companies are behaving ethically, 84% of them are more likely to make purchases, and 55% are willing to pay more for products and services.  (Often involves mezzo social work)

Local program manager
Social workers who create, implement, and manage programs for individual organizations, like domestic violence nonprofits or health care centers. Their initiatives work at the mezzo level because their initiatives affect the staff and clients at large and also in specific towns or counties. They may also address issues with discrimination within organizations, similar to the work done by human resources professionals. (Often involves mezzo social work)

Advocate or lobbyist
Advocates and lobbyists work for nonprofits, governments, and other entities to speak for those who may be unable to speak for themselves—those in vulnerable populations who need access to resources. Their work is done at every level, from their local communities all the way through international human rights organizations. The aim of an advocate or lobbyist is often to alter or enact policies or changes in the law that will benefit the community they represent. (Often involves macro social work)

Researcher
Usually working at universities, these professionals analyze societal problems and attempt to find solutions to them. Their research is used to inform lobbyists, advocates, and those at the mezzo and micro levels about how to best effect change. (Often involves macro social work)

Common Employers of Social Workers

Individual and Family Social Services Agencies

This is a broad term encompassing a variety of services provided through nonprofits and other agencies—including some overlap with governmental facilities. It includes, but isn’t limited to, the following:

  • Adult services: provide activities planning and other supports in activity centers, adult daycares, senior citizen organizations
  • Child services: support adoption services, provide child counseling, and create programs for youth centers
  • Family services: work one-on-one with clients or management for assistance programs for those with children or in family counseling, as well as help those in dangerous situations find emergency housing
  • Refugee services: find housing, employment, and language services for refugees, as well as help them navigate the legal system
  • Offender services: work with rehabilitation and self-help agencies and parole and probation offices to help formerly incarcerated people rebuild their lives

Federal Government

  • Department of Defense: assist military members with mental health and accessing any necessary resources
  • Department of Health & Human Services: provide services at the macro level regarding community health, epidemics like HIV/AIDS, and mental health
  • Department of Homeland Security: work with groups like FEMA to assist those who have experienced large-scale trauma or natural disasters, as well as in immigration or law enforcement capacities
  • Department of Justice: help federal-level offenders reintegrate into society and analyze policies
  • Department of Veterans Affairs: support former military members in finding resources to help them with mental health issues like PTSD, get them into appropriate housing, and assist with job searches
  • Social Security Administration: review applications to ensure social security program eligibility, perform outreach, and manage a variety of equity and advocacy programs

State and Local Government

  • Children and Family Services: help families through struggles with finances and relationships, work with children who are involved with the foster care system, and find resources for victims of human trafficking
  • Criminal Justice: work with the court system to ensure there is equity in law enforcement, help individuals rehabilitate, and provide expert witness testimony
  • Health and Human Services: help people with disabilities or other challenges get access to resources and navigate the welfare system
  • Public Libraries: help patrons find jobs or disability resources

While your best option for finding jobs at the local level is to search specifically within your local government’s websites, USA.gov provides an easy way to find many of the available local jobs.

Health Services Providers

  • Doctors’ offices: handle reports of suicidal thoughts or issues like abuse or assault
  • Emergency rooms and urgent care clinics: provide services to people who are injured due to abuse or assault and help those who are ill because they can’t afford traditional doctor visits
  • Hospitals: ensure those with illnesses and injuries have access to resources to help pay for care, help them find appropriate rehabilitation or hospice services, and investigate possible abuse
  • Retirement and nursing homes: ensure elderly people are receiving proper support and care

Educational Institutions

  • Daycares and K-12 schools: work with students and families to get resources they need
  • Colleges and universities: conduct research and teach

Differences Between Social Workers and Related Occupations (Therapists, Counselors, Psychologists)

Social workers, therapists, counselors, and psychologists all work to help people better themselves and their lives. All four provide psychotherapy to help clients improve their lives, but the end goals are often different.

  • Social workers help clients find outside resources, like job training and parenting classes, so they can gain independence and no longer need the assistance of the social worker. Other related occupations often focus on treatment that occurs over many months or years.
  • If social workers work with people who have lifelong disabilities, the goal may be to see the clients less often as time goes by, but not have a total separation. Therapists, counselors, and psychologists tend to aim for long-term treatment methods.
  • Unlike most other mental health professionals, social workers often work to improve communities as a whole, not solely the lives of individuals.
  • Some social workers can sometimes diagnose mental health issues if they have a psychology background or are licensed clinical social workers, but that task is often reserved for therapists and psychologists.

Personal Traits of Social Workers

The National Association of Social Workers has established a code of ethics with six core values they expect all social workers to share: service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence. To embody these values, social workers need to have certain personality traits.

Social workers need to be empathetic and nonjudgmental.
As a social worker, you’ll likely meet people from all walks of life. Some of them may be from cultures or have beliefs and orientations that are different from yours. Some may have committed crimes or have addictions. Some may be unable to care for their children. Many face negative judgment and a lack of empathy from the world at large. Social workers need to leave any biases at the door and see the people they work with as individuals who are trying to better themselves. Listen, learn, and help.

Social workers need to be aware.
You must be mindful of the phrasing and body language of both you and your clients to create productive collaborations. Practicing active listening is a crucial skill as well—it not only shows you care, but it allows you to ask the right questions based on the smallest nuances of conversation. Additionally, being aware of your relationship with your client will help you understand where the boundaries need to be drawn.

Social workers need to be careful.
Social work has “one of the highest rates of injuries and illnesses of all occupations,” according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is likely because you’ll work with people with mental illnesses or who are in emotional situations, such as at risk of losing their children to foster care. Additionally, many clients will come from high-poverty situations or live with illnesses or disabilities that make them prone to being sick, meaning they could pass illnesses on to you. Be fully versed in how to effectively defuse rising emotions, the ethical and legal ways to defend yourself physically, and appropriate hygiene and immune system care.

Social workers need to be organized.
Chances are, you’ll have many people or even many communities on your caseload at any given time. Paperwork needs to be done quickly and correctly, resources need to be accessed promptly, and, perhaps most importantly, you need to be prepared for each meeting with a client or potential resource representative.

Social workers need to be lifelong learners.
Socioeconomic research is continually bringing new issues to light, and laws are changing as a result. Social workers need to stay on top of their game, taking continuing education courses, networking with their those in relevant fields to understand what changes are being made, and remaining open to feedback from managers, peers, and clients.

Do You Need an M.S.W. to Be a Social Worker?

When deciding whether to get a Master of Social Work (M.S.W.), you need to consider your future career—not all positions require the degree. If you want to become a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), you’ll need an M.S.W. However, some jobs—such as caseworkers or mental health assistance positions—only require a bachelor’s degree, such as a Bachelor of Social Work (B.S.W.). In rare cases, an associate degree will be acceptable, but you won’t likely work directly with clients with that degree alone.

How to Become a Social Worker

To become a social worker, you will need to acquire a degree and, in most cases, earn licensure. Like most health-related careers, you should ensure your chosen degree program is accredited—otherwise, you may not be eligible for licensure. Requirements for specific types of social work will vary by state, so check with your state’s board—usually a board of psychology or health—to find out what you need to do.

Associate Degree in Social Work

An associate degree in social work provides a basic introduction to the field, including courses in psychology, sociology, and social work courses. You can earn an Associate of Arts (A.A.), Associate of Science (A.S.), Associate of Applied Science (A.A.S.), or Associate of Social Work (A.S.W.), depending on your institution.

If you opt to immediately enter the workforce after earning an associate degree, most jobs in social work available to you will be in an administrative or assistant capacity.

Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work

A bachelor’s degree in social work, which includes a Bachelor of Social Work (B.S.W.) or Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) or Bachelor of Science (B.S.) with a social work concentration or major, provides a more in-depth education in the field than an associate degree. The coursework includes not only psychology and sociology classes, but also courses in areas such as social welfare, diversity issues, human behavior relating to society, and ethics and practice in social work. These programs take around four years to complete and often require 400 to 600 hours of fieldwork experience in addition to coursework.

Job opportunities open to those with a B.S.W. or equivalent may include caseworker or case manager, mental health assistant, or activities director at places like rehabilitation centers or specialized educational institutions.

Master’s Degree in Social Work

Master’s degrees in social work—M.S.W. degrees—are required if you hope to work in a clinical capacity or specialize in a particular area. Your curriculum will vary based on your concentration, but it will generally include advanced classes in ethics, law, and counseling. These degrees typically take approximately two years to complete and require an internship, though they may take a bit longer if your undergraduate degree is in a different field.

With a master’s degree, the social work world is your oyster. Many people work in micro positions, providing assistance to individuals and their families. Others opt to work in leadership roles at places like rehabilitation centers or nursing homes. Some choose to work in governmental positions as well, helping individuals or communities to improve their situations. Many of these positions require licensure, especially if you want to work in a clinical capacity.

Doctoral Degree in Social Work

Having a doctorate in social work allows you to further narrow your focus and prepare for high-level roles or positions in academia or government. You could earn a Doctor of Social Work (D.S.W.) or Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.), depending on your program and career goals. Doctoral programs typically take around four years, inclusive of coursework and a dissertation or capstone project. They often allow you to tailor the curriculum based on your needs to a certain extent, but you’ll frequently take the most advanced possible classes in theory, research, and policy. Having a doctorate opens the door to positions in research, academia, management, and policy development.

Online Degree in Social Work

Social work bachelor’s and graduate programs are frequently available online, though you’ll need to complete any internships or clinical work at a specific site. The curricula and caliber of professors in online programs are the same as those for on-campus degree programs; the primary difference is in how information is presented. Online courses occur on a learning management system (LMS), a website exclusive to your class on which you can view lectures, participate in discussions, and submit assignments. Many offer flexibility than on-campus programs do not, as they are frequently asynchronous—meaning classes don’t meet at specific times. You can study on your own schedule, though assignments and exams will still have due dates.

Obtaining Your LCSW License

Most states require social workers who work with clients to be licensed with an LCSW, particularly if they work in a clinical capacity. To become licensed, you generally need to earn an M.S.W. from a Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) accredited school, pass examinations, and complete supervised fieldwork. Requirements will vary by state, so make sure to check with your state’s licensing board.

Social Worker Associations and Job Resources

  • American Clinical Social Work Association: This group represents clinical social workers, from graduate students to seasoned professionals. They provide networking opportunities, publications, and advocacy information, as well as liability insurance for graduate student members—malpractice suits can happen even to interns. ACSWA is also available to help clinical social workers with any issues using the Clinical Social Worker Bill of Rights.
  • Council on Social Work Education: CSWE focuses on improving social work education in the U.S. This accreditation agency offers publications for the enhancement of social work educators’ and students’ success, provides information about advocacy and policy, and holds an annual meeting that changes location each year. Members include school faculty and directors, students, and individual practitioners.
  • National Association of Social Workers: With over 120,000 members, this is the largest social work organization in the world. As a member of the International Federation of Social Workers, they not only work on issues in the United States but also worldwide. They focus on promoting an understanding of standards, ethics, and policies in social work and advocating for change. Members have access to publications, professional development resources, legal information and assistance, advocacy information, and liability insurance.
  • National Organization of Forensic Social Work: NOFSW focuses on supporting forensic social workers in professional development, including standards and best practices, continuing education, and helping them advocate for people in the court system. They do a great deal of work focusing on equity and anti-racism within the court system as well. They have a yearly conference, publications, and other resources forensic social workers may find valuable.
  • School Social Work Association of America: The mission of SSWAA is simple: “Connecting, empowering, and equipping School Social Workers to provide evidence-informed services.” They strive to ensure every school has a social worker and offer professional development opportunities, news about legislation, and a variety of other resources. Members at all levels, including students, have access to liability insurance through them.
  • SWHELPER: This news website helps social work students and professionals stay up to date on issues and policies in the field, as well as provides resources for individuals seeking the aid of social workers. SWHELPER offers publications and articles and has a social work career center that includes job listings from around the country.