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
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)
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.
- The completion of a two-year master’s degree program,
- Two years, or 3000 hours of supervised clinical experience.
- 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
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
Some healthcare social workers specialize in geriatric social work, hospice and palliative care, or medical social work:
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 hospitals||29%|
|Individual and family services||18|
|Ambulatory healthcare services||13|
|Hospitals; state, local, and private||11|
|Nursing and residential care facilities||9|
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|
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|
Job Outlook for Social Workers
|Social Service Specialists||95,500||108,200||12,700||13.3||11,700|
|Healthcare Social Workers||184,900||209,300||24,400||13.2||20,400|
|Substance Abuse Social Workers||124,000||142,500||18,500||14.9||14,000|
|Social Service Managers||174,200||200,700||26,500||15.2||18,300|
|Social Service Assistants||417,600||487,100||69,500||16.6||59,100|
|Social Work Teachers||16,600||18,100||1,500||9||1,700|
Social Worker Resources
- Association of Social Work Boards
- The National Association of Social Workers (NASW)
- American Board of Examiners in Clinical Social Work
- Association for Community Organization and Social Administration