How to Become a Social Worker

The social work profession is a dynamic career choice for those looking to promote healthy growth and change among vulnerable populations. Social workers are individuals who believe in human connection to empower others.

Whether you are interested in working with youth and family, veterans, elders, LGBTQ communities, individuals experiencing homelessness, individuals with mental health needs or refugees, the following guide will help you navigate the process to launch your social work career in a multitude of settings. Below are common steps to take in order to become a social worker. 

Becoming a social worker in seven common steps:

  1. Complete a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work or a Related Field
  2. Pursue a Master’s Degree in Social Work (MSW) or MSW-Equivalent Program
  3. Complete Fieldwork Hour Requirements
  4. Complete the ASWB Examination
  5. Apply for State Social Work Licensure
  6. Choose a Social Work Career
  7. Advance Your Practice Through Continued Learning

If you are not sure what a social worker is, what they do or how much they make, check out our Social Work FAQ at the bottom of this guide.

1. Complete a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work or a Related Field

  • Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) Pathway: If you know right away that a social work profession is your end goal, you could pursue a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) in your undergraduate studies.

    Coursework for a BSW may include the following classes: Intro to Social Work, Social Work Practice, Human Behavior and the Social Environment, and Social Welfare Policy, which may help prepare you for a career in social work and pursue your Master of Social Work (MSW).

    One of the benefits of deciding early on to earn a social work degree is the ability to enroll in advanced standing programs for your master’s degree. These programs typically take a shorter amount of time to complete than a traditional standing program.
  • Non-BSW Pathway: If you are not entirely sure that a social work career is the best option when you start your undergraduate studies, you are still able to pursue an MSW and work in the field without having a specific undergraduate degree in social work.

    It is not uncommon for students who do end up pursuing their MSW to have a different undergraduate degree. Sociology, psychology, political science, women’s and gender studies, human development, early childhood development, and peace and social justice are just some examples of potential undergraduate studies that will serve you well for the future pursuit of an MSW.

While any bachelor’s degree will create social work job opportunities, obtaining a financially stable social work career with flexibility and choice will require a master’s degree.

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2. Pursue a Master’s Degree in Social Work (MSW) or MSW-Equivalent Program

Earning a Master of Social Work (MSW) from a CSWE-accredited program is typically necessary for licensure as a social worker. There are many MSW programs available online and on campus. Some of your best professional growth and learning could happen through your mentorship during your internship experience.

  • Accredited MSW Programs: Whether or not you are pursuing a BSW or MSW, you will want to confirm that the program you choose is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). States typically require applicants to graduate from a program that has CSWE accreditation, if they wish to be licensed and practice as social workers.

    If you attend an accredited program, it means the program is following a set of standards representing best practice when it comes to providing students with an education in social work. It may also ensure that programs are offering a curriculum to students with a core set of social work competencies that will prepare you for actual practice after graduation.

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  • Traditional Standing Programs: Traditional MSW programs typically take two years to complete if you are enrolled full time. Students who did not earn a BSW but would like to pursue their Master of Social Work will apply to traditional standing programs.
  • Advanced Standing Programs: Students who complete their bachelor’s degree in social work are able to apply to advanced standing programs. These programs typically take a shorter amount of time to complete. Coursework that was completed as part of a BSW program may prepare students with a social work foundation.
  • Online MSW Programs: Some students are opting to pursue online MSW programs. Online programs may offer more flexibility to students who have other commitments that make it difficult to get to campus, have little to no access to transportation or who experience location barriers. Any master’s program will require time and energy, so it is important for students to explore all the options to determine what is realistic and practical for meeting their educational needs.
  • On-Campus MSW Programs: Other students pursue on-campus MSW programs, which may offer some hybrid online options as well. For on-campus MSW programs, students are expected to participate in the same accredited coursework that can be found in an online MSW program. Classes are usually held at specified times throughout the year. Some on-campus MSW programs will offer on-campus internship experiences as well.

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3. Complete Fieldwork Hour Requirements

Fieldwork, sometimes referred to as an internship or practicum, is the time when students can apply what they have learned in their courses to working with communities under supervision. This is the time to observe and learn from social workers currently in the field. Be sure you have an understanding of how field placements occur, and take the time to meet and/or complete an interview with your potential field mentor. Typically, MSW programs require students to complete at least 900 hours as part of their field experience, though some may require additional hours. It is vital to check whether these fieldwork hours meet your state board’s licensure requirements.

Making sure your placement site is a good fit may help to ensure a more meaningful and worthwhile experience. Similarly, if it is not going well, it’s okay to advocate for yourself to make sure your educational needs and experiences are being fulfilled.

You may discover during your fieldwork that you enjoy working with a population that you had not previously been interested in working with. Be open to stepping outside your comfort zone to optimize your growth and build a more diverse skill set!

  • Traditional MSW Placement Hours: Traditional MSW programs may require 16–20 hours of field placement for about two days a week for the first year and three days a week during the second year. The “field” will be a site currently employing social workers. The specific time will vary depending on the program and site. It will be important to inquire about the structure of internships and the expected requirements. It is not uncommon for programs to require students to travel, so having reliable transportation may be expected.
  • Advanced Standing Placement Hours: Similar to traditional MSW programs, advanced standing placement hours will vary depending on the program. You should expect to complete anywhere between 450 and 900 hours of field work to fulfill your degree requirements.

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4. Complete the ASWB Examination

In order to become licensed as a social worker, most states require applicants to complete the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) Social Work Licensing examination, along with any required jurisprudence examinations. Students may be required to obtain approval from their state’s social work board in order to register for the ASWB Examination. It is best to check with your state board for specific examination requirements.

There are different levels of social work examinations issued by the ASWB—Bachelor’s, Master’s, Advanced Generalist, and Clinical. For each one, there is a minimum educational requirement, and each exam consists of 170 multiple choice questions, with the difficulty and subject matter varying by level. The type of license you pursue essentially determines your scope of practice.

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5. Apply for State Social Work Licensure

Obtaining licensure in social work is one more way to advance your learning, strengthen your expertise and demonstrate your credibility in the field. While not all social work roles require a license, positions that require you to work directly with individuals most often do.

Finding a place of work that will support your licensure application process—whether financially or by offering the necessary practice experience and clinical supervision—may be helpful for you. Obtaining direct service hours under the supervision of a licensed social worker is one of the main components of becoming licensed, as is passing the licensure examinations.

Individual state requirements will vary and are subject to change, including licensure standards, exam eligibility, and appropriate pathways, and may differ based on individual student backgrounds. Students should do their own due diligence and determine the appropriate pathway and license type for themselves.

Below are the key differences between LCSWs and LMSWs.

  • Clinical Social Work Licensure: The clinical social worker license may be pursued if you are currently providing—or would like to provide—clinical services, often in the form of psychotherapy. This licensure may permit social workers to have an independent private practice if they so choose. Those who wish to do so should check with their state’s requirements.
  • Master Social Work Licensure: This licensure is typically pursued if you are not interested in practicing clinically (i.e., diagnosing and treating patients using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5)). Those who work in macro-level practice may have this license. This license will not permit you to have a private practice.

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6. Choose a Social Work Career

  • Clinical Social Work: A career in clinical practice means you will have the ability to assess, diagnose and treat mental illness. It may also allow the opportunity to open your own private practice.
  • Macro Social Work: While a minority of social work students seem to place their efforts on the macro social work track, it is incredibly important. The survival of the social work field relies on people who are working to create policy change to keep resources available and accessible for those who need them most.
  • School Social Work: School-based social workers will have opportunities to interface with not only the students at the school but also their families, school faculty and staff, and community providers. School social workers will often find themselves on a multidisciplinary team working to address a variety of problems that students and schools face—addressing the growing intersection between mental health and education while working to improve student outcomes.
  • Medical Social Work: Individuals who are interested in medical social work typically work in a medical setting (i.e., a clinic, hospital or community health center). All humans face health needs at some point in their lives. Because of this, medical social workers will be exposed to people across the entire developmental life span and on a wide range of life paths. Medical social workers may support patients and their families during times of immediate health crises, or they may see patients on a more consistent basis to help them navigate the complexities of the healthcare system.

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7. Advance Your Practice Through Continued Learning

According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), social workers should pursue 48 hours of continuing education before each licensure renewal period. However, continuing education for licensure renewal is different by state and level of licensure. There are many different types of continuing education that social workers can pursue:

  • Formally organized learning events: Staff development, workshops, courses, practice-oriented seminars, distance education and other training offered by accredited programs of social work education.
  • Professional meetings or other organized learning experiences: Conferences, symposiums and panel discussions.
  • Individual professional activities: Writing papers or books, presenting publications or research findings, reading professional journals/books, preparing for consultation, teaching or training assignments, and independent study, research or tutorials.

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State-Specific Requirements

As mentioned above, social work licensure requirements vary by state. Official social work state licensing boards determine the requirements and regulations for social work licensure in each state. Because of these distinctions, it’s important that aspiring social workers pay careful attention to the requirements of the state in which they wish to practice—not necessarily the state in which they were born or educated. For more detailed information, visit the website of your state’s licensing board.

Individual state requirements will vary and are subject to change, including licensure standards, exam eligibility, and appropriate pathways, and may differ based on individual student backgrounds. Students should do their own due diligence and determine the appropriate pathway and license type for themselves. 

The information below regarding state licensure requirements was collected from the state board websites in November 2021. Please be advised that laws, regulations and policies may change at any time, so always check with your state for the most up-to-date information.

How to Become a Social Worker in California

To be employed as a regular, macro-level social worker in California, you don’t need a license because there is no LMSW license in the state—there is only the LCSW. However, if you’re interested in clinical social work or psychotherapy, you need to obtain licensure.

Additionally, if you hold a Master of Social Work, you can choose to apply to become an Associate Clinical Social Worker (ASW) with the California Board of Behavioral Sciences (BBS). If you earned an MSW outside of California, you must obtain 18 hours of California law and professional ethics training through a BBS-recognized provider before registering as an ASW. If you earned an MSW in California, there are no additional requirements; the required ethics training hours are already built into accredited social work master’s programs in California.

With an ASW license, you can perform clinical social work under the supervision of a current licensed mental health professional. Registering to become an ASW is one step after graduating from an MSW program and one step before becoming an LCSW if you choose to follow that route.

Key differences like this can change the course of your education, certification and licensure process—so be sure to keep them top-of-mind as you set yourself on the path to becoming a social worker.

As you follow the steps above or those in our guide to becoming a licensed clinical social worker, keep in mind that these are only general steps—there are more requirements than just what’s listed above. And as you examine these requirements on a state-by-state basis, remember to research the details and differences.

How to Become a Social Worker in Texas

In general, prospective social workers must meet requirements in three major categories—education, work experience and examinations—before being eligible for practice. While the Texas State Board of Social Worker Examiners has its own requirements for licensure, it differs from California in that it offers both the LMSW and the LCSW, as well as a Licensed Baccalaureate Social Worker (LBSW) for those without a master’s degree. To become a practicing social worker in Texas, you must apply for a Texas license and meet all of the Texas-specific requirements, regardless of whether you hold a social work license in a different state or jurisdiction. In Texas, exceptions or endorsements are only made on a case-by-case basis.

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How to Become a Social Worker in New York

In New York, the requirements for becoming an LMSW are clearly defined. According to the New York State Education Department Office of the Professions, the following requirements must be met to become a licensed social worker. The applicant must:

  • Be of good moral character as determined by the department
  • Be at least 21 years of age
  • Meet educational requirements
  • Meet examination requirements
  • Complete coursework or training in the identification and reporting of child abuse offered by a New York state-approved provider.

While these do not differ from standard state-specific requirements, the final step does require New York-specific education, meaning a portion of your training must happen in New York state. In addition to meeting these qualifications, applicants must submit the required materials and documentation along with the required application fees. These fees are another factor that will differ by state.

How to Become a Social Worker in Florida

Similarly, to become a certified master social worker in Florida, you’ll need the following:

  • An official transcript: A master’s degree in social work from a Council on Social Work Education (CSWE)-accredited school of social work and a transcript sent in an official sealed envelope from the university.
  • Coursework: Three completed semester hours of graduate-level coursework in eight required content areas.
  • Experience: Three years of experience in the field of social work, two of which must be at the post-master’s level, under the supervision of a certified master social worker or clinical social worker.
  • A passing exam score: Applicants must pass the national Advanced Generalist level examination developed by the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB).

In addition to the above requirements, candidates must submit fees with their application.

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How to Pick a Degree and Career in Social Work

As you explore the different social work degree options available to you, it’s important to take into account your current level of education, along with what social work career path you may want to pursue.

For some, this might mean working in clinical social work, while others prefer a research or teaching position. Keep in mind that your chosen career path will have different requirements such as earning an advanced degree or obtaining licensure. The field of social work offers a variety of opportunities so you should take your time and explore the career options in depth.

To help you get started, explore the following in more detail below.

  • Differences between micro, mezzo and macro social work
  • Various MSW program concentrations
  • Online degree programs vs. on-campus
  • Admission requirements to consider
  • Advanced degrees
  • Salaries

Micro, Mezzo and Macro Social Work

While researching different social work degrees and licenses, you’ve likely come across the terms micro, mezzo, and macro social work. Here’s a definition of each one—and how they translate to different applications in the field:

  • Micro social work: As the most common type of social work, micro-level social work involves direct interactions with clients—whether that’s working with individuals to help them find housing, health care, and access to other social services, or providing diagnosis and treatment for individuals facing mental health challenges or substance abuse. Micro-level social workers can practice in a wide range of settings, including individual homes, schools, nonprofit organizations, police departments, and military bases.
  • Mezzo social work: While micro-level social work is practiced on the individual level, mezzo-level work zooms out slightly to focus on groups. The smallest form of group social work exists on the family level, but it can also extend out much further to entire organizations and communities. Prospective social workers interested in creating small-scale change—whether social, cultural, or institutional—may be particularly interested in mezzo-level social work as it allows them to engage with influential groups and group issues.
  • Macro social work: Macro-level social work zooms out even more, involving intervention and advocacy on the largest scale—across communities, states, and even entire countries. Working well beyond the individual level, macro social workers intervene in large-scale systems and social issues. Macro social work can take a variety of forms, from proposing law and policy changes on the local, state, or federal level to organizing campaign and activism efforts across states, nations and the entire world.

For many aspiring social workers, one discipline stands out as a path of most interest. But as you begin to think about your own future in social work, keep in mind that it can be just as valuable to understand how these categories overlap and intersect as it is to know the major differences between them.

Social Work Concentrations

In MSW programs, you may have the option to choose a concentration. This helps narrow down your educational focus in what can be a very broad and diverse field. Some of the concentrations in online MSW Programs include the following:

  • Individuals and Families: Learn how to provide direct clinical services to individuals and families to improve their mental health and well-being.
  • Organizations and Community: Learn how to work with and provide services to entire communities and organizations of varying types—from private institutions to public companies and nonprofits.
  • Policy Practice and Advocacy: Learn how to manage organizations and systems to create policies that advance social, economic and political change and how to advocate for mental health and well-being on a larger scale.

These are only a few concentrations across the micro, mezzo, and macro levels. Depending on the specific social work program you choose, there may be a whole host of other concentrations to consider.

Online vs Non-Online Degrees

As you decide on a social work degree, there are many factors to consider. One question that students often find themselves asking is whether they should choose an online or an in-person program. Online social work degrees are ideal for people who require additional scheduling flexibility and are unable to relocate or commute to a physical classroom (due to a full-time job schedule, familial obligations, or other caretaking responsibilities). While online education can offer flexibility, it does require self-discipline and strong time management skills. For others, an on-campus education may be preferred. A more rigid class schedule can be beneficial to students who prefer a structured learning environment or simply find that they work better in a classroom setting. Ultimately, this is a personal decision—hinging first and foremost on your individual learning style and life circumstances.

GRE and GPA Requirements for Online MSW Programs

Every online MSW program has its own unique requirements regarding minimum applicant GPA and whether candidates are required to take (or receive a certain score on) the GRE. For the most part, the GRE will either be required or the GRE isnot required by a school. But in some cases, the GRE requirement can depend on your GPA—and whether you make a certain qualifying cut-off. In general, many online MSW programs have a standalone minimum GPA requirement. Some, by contrast, simply list a “preferred” or “expected” GPA, and others don’t have a requirement at all. GRE and GPA requirements are school-specific. And remember, the requirements don’t necessarily reflect the quality or competitiveness of the school—just their application priorities.

Advanced Social Work Degrees

Advanced social work degrees—whether a Doctorate of Social Work (DSW) or a Ph.D. in Social Work—are terminal degrees that denote the highest level of education and expertise in the field. DSW and Ph.D. in Social Work degrees are both post-master’s degrees, and can lead to a range of prestigious, specialized professions in the field. While DSW degrees are more clinically focused, usually leading to a career in social work administration or clinical social work, a Ph.D. in Social Work typically leads to a position in research or higher education (though it can translate to a clinical setting as well). Specific admissions requirements will vary by university program, but generally, advanced social work degrees require the completion of a master’s-level program as well as a certain amount of professional social work experience.

Highest-Paying Social Work Jobs

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for social workers in May 2020 was $51,760, with the highest 10% earning more than $85,820.

These are the median annual wages for social workers in 2020, categorized by social work specialization:

  • Healthcare social workers: $57,630
  • Child, family and school social workers: $48,430
  • Mental health and substance abuse social workers: $48,720
  • Social workers, all other: $64,210

Similarly, these are the median annual wages for social workers in 2020 categorized by industry:

  • Local government, excluding education and hospitals: $57,660
  • Ambulatory healthcare services: $52,850
  • State government, excluding education and hospitals: $49,860
  • Individual and family services: $43,820

Of course, your social worker salary will depend on a number of factors—including experience, level, location and individual performance. All the same, this information can help you get a sense of industry-wide trends. Learn more in our FAQ guide on the highest paying social work jobs.

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Traits of Successful Social Workers

Successful social workers are strong communicators and very empathetic. They understand the importance of active listening, especially with patients who are experiencing stress or the effects of recent trauma. Other important traits include time-management and organization skills, discretion, and information management.

Resources for Social Workers

To aid your success in social work, we’ve gathered some resources for social workers that may be useful. You’ll find everything from state licensing boards to social work organizations and associations. We’ve also included social work blogs, occupational information and helpful guides for students currently enrolled in an MSW program.

Social Worker FAQ

What is social work?

Social work is a career path rooted in social justice, ideal for professionals interested in improving—and empowering—communities and organizations on the individual or group levels. Social workers are helpers, aiding those in crisis or those facing family, relationship or occupational challenges.

Social workers help individuals examine issues related to mental health and well-being, pinpointing external or environmental factors that may be contributing to particular problems—such as the individual’s home and community or larger societal influences.

For more information on what social work is—and the impact that social work practice can have—check out our new guide to social work or the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). 

What does a social worker do?

A social worker’s day-to-day activities vary depending on who they work with, where they work and their specialty. For example, a licensed clinical social worker may work at a hospital and help individuals or groups work through emotional, mental or behavioral issues.

After assessing an individual’s or a group’s needs, social workers develop treatment plans including counseling, interventions or role playing. It is an iterative process: The social worker will determine the efficacy of treatment and make adjustments.

Social workers help a variety of people. Some social workers specialize with particular groups such as victims of domestic violence, children, the eldelry and people with substance abuse problems. Be sure to check out our guide to different types of social work.

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How long does it take to become a social worker?

The time it takes to become a social worker depends on an individual’s educational commitment, i.e., the type of social work degree pursued. Entry level social workers typically hold a bachelor’s degree in social work, which takes about four years to complete. Experienced social workers typically earn a master’s or doctoral degree in social work. A traditional or advanced standing Master of Social Work program can take as little as one and a half years to complete full time or two and a half years part time.

What should I know about social work credentials?

Social work licensing varies depending on the state and the individual’s area of interest or expertise. For example, some states such as New York, Texas and Florida may have licensure requirements for master social workers while others—such as California—only require licensure for clinical social work.

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How much do social workers make?

Salaries for social workers vary depending on where they work and their specialty. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), social workers earned a median salary of $51,760 per year as of May 2020. The top 10% earned over $85,820, and the bottom 10% earned less than $33,020.

What is the Job Outlook for Social Workers?

Social workers are in demand. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment of social workers will grow 12% by 2030 as of May 2020, which is faster than the average growth rate for all occupations. The BLS projects there will also be over 89,000 new social workers in the workforce by 2030.

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Can I volunteer as a social worker?

Yes! If you’re interested in volunteering opportunities related to social work, you can look into local social work clinics or get more information about opportunities through resources like VolunteerMatch. By volunteering as a social worker, you may be able to help others while gaining industry exposure and beneficial knowledge. In addition, if you’re interested in learning more about social work before committing to a degree or career change, volunteering can be an appealing option.

Is a master’s degree in social work worth it?

There is no short answer to the question of whether an MSW is worth it, and while it’s ultimately up to you and your career goals, you may want to consider the following pros and cons.

An MSW may lead to greater career options, is often required for licensure and may lead to a higher earning potential. However, graduate degrees are also associated with increased student debt and usually require at least one to two years of study. In the long run, an MSW has the potential to boost your job outlook and earning potential while allowing you to work more closely with individuals on the clinical level.

Can I start a career in social work even if I’m older?

Absolutely. The median age of a social worker in the United States is 42 years old. In fact, social workers enter the field at all different ages, according to a Profile of the Social Work Workforce report. The same report detailed the top 20 degrees held by social workers in the United States in 2017, illustrating how a background in psychology, sociology, criminal justice, foreign languages, nursing, human services and other fields can lead to a career in social work. In sum, it’s never too late to start a career in social work.

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Last updated: January 2022