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, in a multitude of settings, the following guide will help you navigate the process to launch your social work career.
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 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 Bachelors of Social Work (BSW) in your undergraduate studies.
Coursework for a BSW will include classes the following areas: 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 to pursue your masters of social work.
One of the benefits of deciding early on to obtain 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, Peace and Social Justice, are just some examples of potential undergraduate studies that will serve well for later MSW pursuit.
While any bachelor degree will create social work job opportunities, obtaining a financially stable social work career with flexibility and choice will require a master's degree.
Obtaining a masters in social work (MSW) is necessary for licensure as a social worker. There are many MSW programs available both 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).
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 social work education. 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, post-graduation.
Sponsored Schools with Social Work Degree Programs (MSW) Online
Traditional Standing Programs - Traditional MSW programs typically take two years to complete if you are enrolled full-time. Students who did not obtain a BSW, but decide they want to pursue their masters 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 a part of a BSW program may prepare students with a social work foundation.
Online MSW Program - 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 experience location barriers. Any masters 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 receive the same accredited coursework that can be found in an online MSW program. Classes are usually held as specified times throughout the year. Some on-campus MSW programs will offer on-campus internship experiences as well.
Fieldwork, sometimes referred to as internships or practicum is the time where students can apply what they have learned in their courses in 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 about how field placements occur and that you have had time to meet and/or complete an interview with your potential field mentor.
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 can use this time to work with a population that you thought you were not interest and come to learn you actually love. Be okay with 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 and therefore 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. It can be expected that anywhere between 450-900 hours of field work may be required to fulfill your degree requirements.
Obtaining licensure in social work is one more way to advance your learning, strengthen your expertise, and demonstrate your credibility in the field. Social work positions where you will work directly with individuals will often require a license. There are some other roles that do not require you to be licensed.
Finding a place of work who will support licensure is ideal to help mitigate the cost either financially or by offering the appropriate practice experience and clinical supervision needed for licensure. Obtaining direct service hours under the supervision of a licensed social worker is one of the main components of becoming licensed, next to licensure examinations.
The Social Work License Map provides information about licensure, state by state. Some states a few different levels of licensure while others may only have one. Be sure to check your preferred state of licensure for more requirements.
Master Social Work Licensure - This licensure is typically pursued if you are not interested in practicing clinically (diagnosing, utilizing the DSM V and addressing mental health). Those who work in macro level practice may have this licensure. This licensure will not permit you to have a private practice while a clinical licensure will.
Clinical Social Work Licensure - The clinical social worker license should be pursued if you are currently or desire to provide clinical services, often in the form of psychotherapy. This licensure will allow social workers to have an independent private practice if they so choose.
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 this tract, 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 it most.
School Social Work - Social workers who are in schools will have opportunities to interface with not only the students at the school, but also their families, school staff, as well as community providers. School social workers will often find themselves as part of a multidisciplinary team working to address a variety of problems students and schools are faced with. The intersection between mental health and education is becoming more inseparable each day.
Medical Social Work - Individuals who are interested in medical social work typically work in a medically based setting (i.e. a hospital, community health center). All humans will have health needs so this is a great way to be exposed to people across the developmental lifespan and those on a variety of life paths. Medical social workers support patients and their families during the immediate crisis; illnesses or tragedies or may see patients on a more regular basis to help them navigate the sometimes complex health care system.
6. Advance Your Practice Through Continued Learning
According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), social workers should pursue 48 hours of continued learning before each licensure renewal period. However, continued learning 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 trainings 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 researched findings, reading professional journals/books, preparation for consultation, teaching or training assignments and independent study, research or tutorials.
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 affects of recent trauma. Other important traits include time-management, 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 for professionals interested in improving and empowering communities and organizations on an individual or group level. Social workers are helpers, aiding those in crisis or people with family, relationship, or occupational problems.
Social workers help individuals examine these issues and look for external, environmental factors that may be contributing to particular problems, such as the individual’s home and community or larger societal influences at play.
Social workers work in a variety of settings including schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and community centers. There are three scales: micro, mezzo, and macro social work. Micro-level practices involve working with individuals, mezzo-level practices work with groups, and macro-level practices can involve communities, states, or countries.
What does a Social Worker do?
A social worker’s day to day varies depending on who they work with, where the 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 or 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.
The time it takes to become a social worker depends on an individual’s educational commitment. 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 doctorate 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.
Guide to Social Work Credentials
Social work licensing varies depending on the state and the individual’s area of interest or expertise. For example, in order to become a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), you must complete a CSWE-Accredited MSW program, complete licensing and examination requirements, then apply for state licensure in order to practice.
Social workers are in high demand. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment of social workers will grow 11% by 2028 as of May 2018, which is over twice as fast as the average growth rate. The BLS projects there will also be 81,200 new social workers in the workforce by 2028.
Social Work Volunteering Opportunities
If you’re interested in learning about social work before making the decision to change your career, you may want to consider volunteering opportunities. Volunteering is a great way to get a better understanding of social work, help others, and figure out if social work is the right career for you. Volunteermatch is a great place to start.