How to Become a Social Worker

How to Become a Social Worker

Although most social workers need a bachelor’s degree in social work, clinical social workers must have a master’s degree and two years of post-master’s experience in a supervised clinical setting. Clinical social workers must also be licensed in the state in which they practice.

Bachelor Degree in Social Work (BSW)

There are more than 936 bachelor’s degree programs accredited by the Council on Social Work Education.

A bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW) is the most common requirement for entry-level positions. However, some employers may hire workers who have a bachelor’s degree in a related field, such as psychology or sociology.

A BSW prepares students for direct-service positions such as caseworker or mental health assistant. These programs teach students about diverse populations, human behavior, social welfare policy, and ethics in social work. All programs require students to complete supervised fieldwork or an internship.

Typical Classes Bachelor’s Degree Classes in Social Work

A typical Social Work Curriculum from California State University at Los Angeles includes the following core classes:

  • Field of Social Work
  • Writing and Computers in Social Work
  • Human Behavior and the Social Environment I : Prenatal Through Early Adolescence
  • Human Behavior and the Social Environment II: Late Adolescence Through Old Age
  • Social Work Research Methods
  • Culturally Competent Social Work Practice
  • Interviewing Skills for Social Work Practice
  • Social Work Practice with Individuals and Families
  • Social Work Practice with Groups
  • Diversity and Intersectionality in Social Work
  • Social Welfare Policy and Social Services
  • Community Organizing

Master Degree in Social Work (MSW)

Some positions require a master’s degree in social work (MSW), which generally takes 2 years to complete. Master’s degree programs in social work prepare students for work in their chosen specialty by developing clinical assessment and management skills. All programs require students to complete a supervised practicum or an internship.

A bachelor’s degree in social work is not required in order to enter a master’s degree program in social work. Although a degree in almost any major is acceptable, courses in psychology, sociology, economics, and political science are recommended. Some programs allow graduates with a bachelor’s degree in social work to earn their master’s degree in 1 year.

Typical Master’s Degree Classes in Social Work

There are more than 200 master’s degree programs accredited by the Council on Social Work Education.

Here is a typical 2-year (4 semesters) curriculum from USC where 60 Total units are needed to graduate

Year 1

Semester 1 (Fall): 15 Units

  • Human Behavior and the Social Environment (506)
  • Social Work Practice with Individuals, Families and Groups (544)
  • Science of Social Work (546)
  • Policy and Advocacy in Professional Social Work (536)
  • Applied Learning in Field Education (589A)

Semester 2 (Spring): 17 Units

  • Policy in Integrated Care (638)
  • Research and Evaluation for Social Work with Adults and Older Adults (635)
  • Assessing Wellness to Improve Recovery in Integrated Care (637)
  • Applied Learning in Field Education (589B)
  • Integrative Learning for Social Work Practice (588)
  • Diversity, Social Justice, and Culturally Competent Social Work Practice (630)
Year 2

Semester 3 (Fall): 14 Units

  • Explanatory Theories of Health and Mental Health (644)
  • Social Work Practice in Integrated Care Settings(643)
  • Advanced Applied Learning in Field Education (699A)
  • Integrative Learning for Advanced Social Work Practice (698A)

Semester 4 (Spring): 14 Units

  • Advanced Practice with Complex Social Work Cases (647)
  • Advanced Applied Learning in Field Education (699B)
  • Integrative Learning for Advanced Social Work Practice (698B)

Doctoral Degree Programs in Social Work (DSW)

Some universities offer doctoral programs in social work, where students can earn a Doctorate of Social Work (DSW) or a Ph.D. Most doctoral programs in social work require students to have a master’s in social work and experience in the field. Many doctor’s students go on to work as post-secondary teachers.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Most states have licensure or certification requirements for nonclinical social workers. Requirements vary by state.

All states require clinical social workers to be licensed. However, some states provide exemptions for clinical social workers who work in government agencies. Becoming a licensed clinical social worker requires a master’s degree in social work and a minimum of 2 years of supervised clinical experience after graduation. After completing their supervised experience, clinical social workers must pass a clinical exam to be licensed.

Because licensing requirements vary by state, those interested should contact their state board. For more information about regulatory licensure boards by state, contact the Association of Social Work Boards.

Social Work Licensure

Licensure is an important part of becoming a social worker. Requirements vary from state to state, but all clinical social workers must be licensed to practice. Positions in education and healthcare social work are generally only open to those with licenses.

  1. The completion of a two-year master’s degree program,
  2. Two years, or 3000 hours of supervised clinical experience.
  3. Pass the standard licensing exam is a four-hour, 170-question, multiple-choice exam designed and administered by the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB).

What Does It Take to Be a Successful Social Worker

  • Communication skills – Clients talk to social workers about challenges in their lives. To effectively help, social workers must be able to listen to and understand their clients’ needs.
  • Empathy – Social workers often work with people who are in stressful and difficult situations. To develop strong relationships, they must have compassion and empathy for their clients.
  • Interpersonal skills – Being able to work with different groups of people is essential for social workers. They need strong people skills to foster healthy and productive relationships with their clients and colleagues.
  • Organizational skills – Social workers must help and manage multiple clients, often assisting with their paperwork or documenting their treatment.
  • Problem-solving skills – Social workers need to develop practical and innovative solutions to their clients’ problems.
  • Time-management skills – Social workers often have many clients and administrative responsibilities. They must effectively manage their time to provide adequate service to all of their clients.

What do Social Workers Do?

Social workers help people cope with challenges in their lives. They help with a wide range of situations, such as adopting a child or being diagnosed with a terminal illness.

Social workers may work with children, people with disabilities, and people with serious illnesses and addictions. Their work varies based on the type of client they are working with.

Some social workers work with groups, community organizations, and policymakers to develop or improve programs, services, policies, and social conditions. This focus of work is referred to as macro social work.

Advocacy is an important aspect of social work. Social workers advocate or raise awareness with and on behalf of their clients and the social work profession on local, state, and national levels.

Typical Social Worker Responsibilities

  • Identify people and communities in need of help
  • Assess clients’ needs, situations, strengths, and support networks to determine their goals
  • Help clients adjust to changes and challenges in their lives, such as illness, divorce, or unemployment
  • Research, refer, and advocate for community resources, such as food stamps, childcare, and healthcare to assist and improve a client’s well-being
  • Respond to crisis situations such as child abuse and mental health emergencies
  • Follow up with clients to ensure that their situations have improved
  • Evaluate services provided to ensure that they are effective
  • Develop and evaluate programs and services to ensure that basic client needs are met
  • Provide psychotherapy services

Social Worker Specialties

  • Child and family social workers protect vulnerable children and help families in need of assistance. They help families find housing or services, such as childcare, or apply for benefits, such as food stamps. They intervene when children are in danger of neglect or abuse. Some help arrange adoptions, locate foster families, or work to reunite families.
  • Clinical social workers are also called licensed clinical social workers —diagnose and treat mental, behavioral, and emotional disorders, including anxiety and depression. They provide individual, group, family, and couples therapy; they work with clients to develop strategies to change behavior or cope with difficult situations; and they refer clients to other resources or services, such as support groups or other mental health professionals. Clinical social workers can develop treatment plans with the client, doctors, and other healthcare professionals and may adjust the treatment plan if necessary based on their client’s progress. They may also provide mental healthcare to help children and families cope with changes in their lives, such as divorce or other family problems.

    Many clinical social workers work in private practice. In these settings, clinical social workers also perform administrative and record keeping tasks, such as working with insurance companies in order to receive payment for their services. Some work in a group practice with other social workers or mental health professionals.
  • School Social Workers work with teachers, parents, and school administrators to develop plans and strategies to improve students’ academic performance and social development. Students and their families are often referred to social workers to deal with problems such as aggressive behavior, bullying, or frequent absences from school.
  • Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers help clients with mental illnesses or addictions. They provide information on services, such as support groups and 12-step programs, to help clients cope with their illness. Many clinical social workers function in these roles as well.
  • Healthcare Social Workers help patients understand their diagnosis and make the necessary adjustments to their lifestyle, housing, or healthcare. For example, they may help people make the transition from the hospital back to their homes and communities. In addition, they may provide information on services, such as home healthcare or support groups, to help patients manage their illness or disease. Social workers help doctors and other healthcare professionals understand the effects that diseases and illnesses have on patients’ mental and emotional health.

Some healthcare social workers specialize in geriatric social work, hospice and palliative care, or medical social work:

  • Geriatric Social Workers help senior citizens and their families. They help clients find services, such as programs that provide older adults with meals or with home healthcare. They may provide information about assisted living facilities or nursing homes, or work with older adults in those settings. They help clients and their families make plans for possible health complications or for where clients will live if they can no longer care for themselves.
  • Hospice and Palliative Care Social Workers help patients adjust to serious, chronic, or terminal illnesses. Palliative care focuses on relieving or preventing pain and other symptoms associated with serious illness. Hospice is a type of palliative care for people who are dying. Social workers in this setting provide and find services, such as support groups or grief counselors, to help patients and their families cope with the illness or disease.
  • Medical Social Workers in hospitals help patients and their families by linking patients with resources in the hospital and in their own community. They may work with medical staff to create discharge plans, make referrals to community agencies, facilitate support groups, or conduct follow-up visits with patients once they have been discharged.

Where Do Social Workers Work?

Although most social workers work in an office, they may spend time visiting clients. School social workers may be assigned to multiple schools and travel around the school district to see students. Under-staffing and large caseloads may cause the work to be stressful.

Social workers may work remotely through distance counseling, using videoconferencing or mobile technology to meet with clients and organize support and advocacy groups. Distance counseling can be effective for clients with paranoia or social anxiety and for clients who live in rural areas.

Social workers accounted for about 650,000 US jobs in 2014. The largest employers of social workers include:

State and local government, excluding education and hospitals29%
Individual and family services18
Ambulatory healthcare services13
Hospitals; state, local, and private11
Nursing and residential care facilities9

Primarily, social worker can be found in the following work environments:

  • Hospitals, primary care settings, and clinics, including veterans clinics
  • Senior centers and long-term care facilities
  • Settlement houses and community centers
  • Mental health clinics
  • Private practices
  • State and local governments
  • Schools, colleges, and universities
  • Substance abuse clinics
  • Military bases and hospitals
  • Correctional facilities
  • Child welfare agencies
  • Employee assistance programs

Social Worker Pay by Specialty?

The median annual wage for social workers was $61,190 in May 2021. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $29,900, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $79,800.

Social workers, all other$61,190
Healthcare social workers$60,840
Child, family, and school social workers$49,150
Mental health and substance abuse social workers$49,130
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor,

Social Worker Pay by Industry

Median annual wages for social workers in May 2021 were as follows:

In May 2021, the median annual wages for social workers in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

Local government, excluding education and hospitals$61,190
Ambulatory healthcare services$58,700
State government, excluding education and hospitals$48,090
Individual and family services$46,640
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor,

Job Outlook for Social Workers

Title20202030Change%Yearly Demand
Social Workers335,300377,40042,10012.636,700
Social Service Specialists95,500108,20012,70013.311,700
Healthcare Social Workers184,900209,30024,40013.220,400
Substance Abuse Social Workers124,000142,50018,50014.914,000
Social Service Managers174,200200,70026,50015.218,300
Social Service Assistants417,600487,10069,50016.659,100
Social Work Teachers16,60018,1001,50091,700
US Department of Labor

Social Worker Resources

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