How to Become a Social Worker

There is no better time than now to become a social worker. Professionals in the field address social ills through diverse specialties. Whether you want to work with children in public schools, with elderly individuals in care facilities, or in various healthcare branches, social work provides several fulfilling employment opportunities.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 16% employment growth for social workers between 2016 and 2026, much faster than the 7% projected growth rate for the economy as a whole. This projected growth is partially attributable to the continuing demand for social workers who specialize in working with children and families. Moreover, the increase in healthcare facilities around the country has stoked demand for social workers to assist aging populations, mental health patients, and substance abuse patients.

What Does a Social Worker Do?

It is helpful to think of the various responsibilities social workers have. All social workers deliver specialized care, helping individual patients address a particular challenge or obstacle in their lives. At the macro level, social workers may also institute large-scale organizational change.

Typical day-to-day social work duties include identifying, evaluating, and addressing client needs in individual, group, and community settings. Client care often involves helping people cope with daily challenges, and many social workers work with mental health specialists, such as counselors and psychologists.

School social workers often collaborate with teachers, parents, and administrators to improve students' academic performance and support their social development. Healthcare and mental health social workers find employment in hospitals, clinics, and clients' homes. Social work careers often center on helping clients transition from care facilities back to their daily lives.

How to Become a Social Worker

Bachelor's Degree in Social Work

A bachelor's degree in social work is the field's minimum credential. Social work bachelor's programs provide a comprehensive overview of the field. Students typically learn about case management, community and program organization, and utilizing community resources. Undergraduate social work students acquire essential skills for client advocacy, crisis response, and treatment design.

Students who earn an online degree in social work often focus on one area of specialization. Commonly offered specialties include child and family services, geriatrics, hospice, and school social work.

Many states require social workers to hold a master's, so it is important to determine your state's licensing requirements when choosing an online bachelor's degree in social work. That said, some social workers may practice without licensure.

After completing an on-campus or online bachelor's degree in social work, graduates find employment in school settings, child and family case management, mental health, and substance abuse recovery.

Master's Degree in Social Work

Earning a master's degree in social work helps students develop specialized skills within their area of expertise. The specializations available in many master's programs are comparable to those in bachelor's programs. Master's seekers may specialize in children, youth, and families; mental health; hospice; or aging adults.

Master's degree programs focus on advanced practical skills while reinforcing knowledge obtained during undergraduate studies. In most cases, students who enter a master's program without a bachelor's degree in social work must complete additional coursework.

Students earning a master's degree in social work typically take courses related to social welfare policy, human behavior and the social environment, social work practice with groups and families, and psychopathology. Some traditional and online social work degrees require students to complete fieldwork or a clinical practicum.

An online social work master's degree prepares graduate students to work in many healthcare positions. Healthcare social workers are active in hospitals and clinics, helping patients access specialized care, treatment resources, and decision-making support.

Clinical mental health counseling positions also require a master's degree. Specialty certifications in clinical, healthcare, and school social work are reserved for master's holders.

Earn Your License

Licensure requirements vary by state, but all clinical social workers and most master's-level social workers must be licensed regardless of location. Many states prefer bachelor's holders to obtain licensure as well.

Licensure titles differ between states and can indicate different practice types. The licensed social worker (LSW) is a common designation which can signal baccalaureate or master's-level credentials. The highest-level practitioners typically receive the title of independent, clinical, or independent clinical social worker.

Licensure candidates must submit an application and take a standardized exam, which typically costs approximately $300, including registration fees. In most states, social workers must renew their license every two years.

How to Become a Social Worker - Select Your State

How Long Does It Take to Become a Social Worker?

Earning an online social work degree typically requires 120 credits and four years of full-time study. Full-time students can expect to spend two additional years earning a master's. Social work graduates may also spend additional time preparing for and passing a licensure exam. Additional factors that may extend a student's time in school include enrollment status, fieldwork or practicum requirements, and program structure.

In individually paced courses, distance learners fulfill course requirements at their own pace and maintain minimal interaction with their instructors. In cohorts, students will take classes in a prescribed sequence with a designated set of classmates.

Accreditation for Social Work Degrees

It is important for students to earn an accredited social work degree online. Accreditation demonstrates that a given school or degree program meets established standards in quality and rigor. Schools may be regionally or nationally accredited.

Regional accreditation is the academic gold standard, as it involves a more rigorous evaluation process. Regionally accredited schools typically offer academically oriented programs. Typically, these institutions only accept transfer credits from other regionally accredited schools.

Nationally accredited schools are often more career-focused. They usually offer fewer areas of study. It is difficult to transfer credits from a nationally accredited school to a regionally accredited institution.

Students seeking an online social work degree should select a school with regional and programmatic accreditation. The Council for Social Work Education (CSWE) accredits social worker preparation programs. Most states require social work licensure candidates to possess a CSWE-accredited degree.

The Council for Higher Education Accreditation maintains a directory of accredited schools and recognized accrediting bodies.

What Are the Most Common Social Work Careers?

  • Program Director: Program directors for nonprofit organizations secure funding. They must be wise planners and strategic spenders. Program directors oversee client needs, coordinate with other companies, and supervise organization managers, coordinators, and staff.
  • Entry-level Salary: $45,073
  • Degree Level and License Requirement: Bachelor's, optional
  • School Social Worker: School social workers typically work with elementary and secondary school students. They assess social, psychological, and external factors that affect children's scholastic and social progress. They ensure that students receive necessary support, sometimes from outside organizations. They may also work with and counsel parents.
  • Entry-level Salary: $44,363
  • Degree Level and License Requirement: Bachelor's, LSW recommended
  • Social Worker: Social workers help patients and their families address daily and prolonged ailments. They often work with patients to ease their transition from a healthcare facility back to their regular routines. They may also help patients adjust to new lifestyles, medications, and treatments. Some social workers organize educational outreach and support groups within their communities.
  • Entry-level Salary: $40,666
  • Degree Level and License Requirement: Master's, LSW
  • Case Manager: Case manager clients include sick or elderly patients, individuals struggling with substance abuse, and former convicts transitioning back to the workforce. Case managers help clients improve their quality of life. They may create treatment plans, locate support groups, and help clients access employment resources. Case managers are typically excellent communicators with strong time management and organizational skills.
  • Entry-level Salary: $35,908
  • Degree Level and License Requirement: High school diploma/associate's, optional
  • Licensed Clinical Social Worker: These healthcare professionals provide counseling and therapy services. They may work in rehabilitation centers or private practices. Maintaining a large network of healthcare contacts helps clinical social workers provide informed and personalized care to clients navigating the path to recovery.
  • Entry-level Salary: $50,005
  • Degree Level and License Requirement: Master's, LCSW
  • Social Services Director: These directors oversee social services staff, organizational projects, and client admissions and transfers. They integrate care strategies for residents, implement treatment plans, and maintain records of facility operations. Many are skilled financial planners who have previous management experience.
  • Entry-level Salary: $47,134
  • Degree Level and License Requirement: Bachelor's, optional
  • Social Worker (MSW): These social workers help clients cope with problems in their daily lives. They work with children and families, as well as in school systems. Some choose a healthcare-focused career path, working in clinics or hospitals. Clinically licensed social workers may focus on mental, emotional, and behavioral issues.
  • Entry-level Salary: $43,427
  • Degree Level and License Requirement: Bachelor's, master's (clinical), LSW
  • Mental Health Therapist: These professionals work in various healthcare fields. Mental health therapists include clinical psychologists, family and school therapists, and clinical social workers. These professionals use psychoanalysis and cognitive behavioral therapy to help patients address mental health challenges. They may work within an organization or maintain a private practice.
  • Entry-level Salary: $40,947
  • Degree Level and License Requirement: Master's, LSW

How to Find a Career in Social Work

Aspiring social workers may access state-specific employment information, online communities that connect social workers to current events, and international organizations that serve vulnerable populations. Online professional communities connect social workers to career resources, job boards, and networking opportunities.

Offline resources may include local colleges, universities, medical facilities, and social service organizations. A phone call or email may be enough for degree seekers to secure a meeting with an experienced practitioner. Social work experts can provide critical insight on students' career goals and professional trajectory.

Students earning a social work degree online may locate career information through news platforms and social media -- especially Twitter, Facebook, and social work blogs. Distance learners may also consult the organizations listed below.

Social Work Career Resources

  • The Clinical Social Work Association: The CSWA is a national individual membership organization that includes clinical social workers, early career professionals, emeritus members, and student members. The organization provides a job board and professional resources for social workers. The CSWA also monitors legislative issues that affect clinical practices.
  • American Clinical Social Work Association: ACSWA members include graduate students, young professionals, and senior practitioners. This clinical community offers online resources including news updates, career tips, networking tools, a community blog, and publication access.
  • National Association of Social Workers: THe NASW is the world's largest membership organization for social workers. Members may use extensive online resources including job boards, career advice, news feed, and conference information. This organization also provides opportunities for professional networking and political advocacy.
  • The Association of Social Work Boards: The ASWB is a nonprofit managed by the social work regulatory boards and colleges of all 50 states, several U.S. territories, and 10 Canadian provinces. ASWB members serve on committees to improve the quality of public social services. Members may also attend social work conferences and networking events.
  • American Academy of Social Work & Social Welfare: The Academy disseminates information regarding social work research, scholarship, and practice. It monitors policy issues related to the field and works with non-government entities to promote the public good. The Academy also recognizes significant contributions to the social work field.
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