What You Need to Know About Majoring in Social Work

Social workers spend their lives helping people deal with difficult situations. They may work in all kinds of environments, from hospitals to schools. However, before social workers can become licensed, they generally complete a social work program that allows them to gain skills and knowledge that’s relevant to the field. This may begin with an undergraduate major in social work.

Choosing a college major is an important and potentially stressful decision that may influence your future career. If you’re considering a major in social work but aren’t sure whether this path is for you, it’s important to do your research. On this page, we’ll dive into the skills you might learn in an undergraduate-level social work degree program and the practical experience you’ll gain while completing that program, to help you make a more informed decision.

What to Expect from Your Major

Majoring in social work may help to prepare you to enter a field with a range of positions and work settings. An undergraduate social work program may provide you with a foundation in social work theory. And you’ll likely complete an internship as part of the program too. The internship allows you to apply academic lessons in real-world scenarios and develop a moral foundation that governs your work.

All social workers abide by a code of ethics developed by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), which includes the following core principles: helping people in need, challenging social injustice, respecting human dignity and worth, recognizing the central importance of interpersonal relationships, behaving in a trustworthy manner, and practicing within defined areas of competence.

Your major will explore these ethical principles and more.

What Will You Learn?

As a social work major, your classes may cover a variety of topics including human rights, social justice, human behavior, and psychology. You may also explore the areas of domestic violence prevention, addiction, and social welfare policies.

According to the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), social workers should be able to demonstrate ethical and professional behavior, engage diversity and difference in practice, and intervene with families, groups, organizations, and communities—among other duties. While enrolled in an accredited social work program, you will be taught these skills, as well as core social work theories that inform best practices in the field.

The CSWE also requires students to complete 400 hours of field education. This fieldwork component, typically a year-long internship in a social work agency, will provide you with first-hand exposure to social work. Depending on the school and program, you may be able to ask to be placed in your area of interest, whether that be child welfare, criminal justice, or services for people experiencing homelessness.

What Do Social Workers Do?

After completing your degree, you may begin to consider the different opportunities to practice your newly-acquired social work skills. For instance, you may target jobs in a private practice, a school, the military, or a nursing home. A social work career can take many forms, like case management, and administration.

Additionally, if you decide to further your education with a Master of Social Work (MSW), Doctor of Social Work (DSW), or Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Social Work, you may find opportunities that allow for more autonomy and go beyond the general scope of practice.

An MSW for example, enables you to treat patients in a clinical setting once you’ve completed the required practice hours and obtained the appropriate license, while a doctoral degree allows you to conduct social work research, analyze policy, or even teach, sharing your expertise and passion with others.

What Can You Do With a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work?

With a bachelor’s degree in social work, you may offer broad services in the field, also known as macro social work. This includes working with communities, organizations, and policymakers to improve social work programs, serving as a caseworker, or running activities and workshops in halfway houses and residential facilities. For many positions in the field of social work, you will need a license in order to practice. Some states offer licensing at the BSW level, while others require a master’s in social work. Because licensing requirements vary from state to state, it’s best to check your state’s specific regulations.

Even if you are required by your state to have a master’s degree, completing a CSWE-accredited bachelor’s program might help to make you a desirable candidate for certain graduate schools—and could even shorten the length of your MSW program down the road. There are schools that offer advanced standing MSW programs for students who have already earned a BSW, allowing them to finish master’s-level coursework in a shorter amount of time than the customary two-year pathway.

Beyond the BSW: Advanced Degree & Career Options

As stated above, a number of states require that social workers have a master’s degree. Licensure titles and requirements differ largely across the country, but in general, you’ll be able to practice in a range of settings after earning a Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW) license—or whatever your state’s equivalent may be.

If you’re looking for a career in clinical social work, which enables you to diagnose mental health disorders and develop treatment plans for patients, you’ll need to earn your Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) license, or your state’s equivalent. This usually requires two years of clinical practice experience and a passing score on the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) clinical exam. Regardless of which license you pursue and where you live, you will likely have to pass the nationally recognized ASWB exam.

The financial cost and time investment associated with a master’s degree may be burdensome for some people. Universities and colleges across the country offer online social work degree programs so you may work full-time while completing your degree. There are also hybrid programs which combine on-campus and online classes. Both of these options eliminate the challenge of relocating closer to the school offering your desired program.

Is a Major in Social Work the Right Fit for You?

Pursuing a career in social work may be taxing at times, but there are also some benefits. If you aspire to treat patients as a clinical practitioner, provide support to schoolchildren, or enjoy meeting people from different cultural backgrounds, you may find that working in this field is a good fit for you. You can help to make a difference in people’s lives, acting out the core values of the profession on a daily basis.

As in any people-facing career, there are a number of ways to manage the emotionally tiring aspects of the job. Some social workers employ boundary setting and others are intentional about practicing self-care.

While personal gratification may matter most to you when deciding to become a social worker, there are other factors to consider. Earning potential may be one of them. How much you make as a social worker however, will vary by location, employer, education level and role. Job outlook is another factor. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment of social workers is projected to grow 13% from 2019 to 2029.

In Summary

Majoring in social work may open up a range of opportunities, from community to individual care. If you envision yourself aiding clients through difficult life circumstances, assessing policies and programs, or providing mental health services, studying social work may be the next step for you.

A bachelor’s degree from an accredited social work program can be a gateway to further education at the graduate or doctoral level. Check out our list of CSWE-accredited online BSW programs to help you find a flexible option that fits your schedule and preferences.

Last updated: September 2020