Begin to make your impact
Social work demands patient problem solvers devoted to the health and well-being of both individuals and their communities. If you fit the description and seek a career making real social change, a career as a social worker might be perfect for you.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of social workers is expected to rise 12% from 2020-2030, above the national average across all U.S. occupations.* Now is an excellent time to begin earning the education you need to join a growing, rewarding career field.
Take these 6 steps to become a social worker:
1. Understand what a social worker does
Social workers provide assistance to individuals, families and communities to address problems in their everyday lives. They can work in a “macro” role directly coordinating with organizations or policymakers, or a “micro” role focusing on individuals and their families.
The job description varies—social workers can have a wide variety of duties:
- Find those in need of help
- Work with people in all stages of life from birth to end of life
- Assess their situation: what they need, who supports them, what their goals are and develop interventions and strategies to help
- Collaborate with community resources to offer a network of care and refer clients accordingly
- Diagnose and treat mental, behavioral, and emotional health problems
- Maintain clear case files and records
- Raise awareness and advocate for solutions at the local, state, or even national level
- Navigate crisis situations, such as child abuse, family and community violence, or health emergencies
In general, there are two basic categories of social workers (duties will vary by job—there can be overlap):
Clinical social workers (CSW) and Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSW) can diagnose and treat mental, behavioral, and emotional disorders.1
These professionals provide direct support to individuals, families, groups, and communities to develop strategies to deal with difficult situations.
These social workers provide services at all levels, including supervisory positions. They may draft grant proposals, balance budgets or put together policies for social service organizations.
They provide services at all levels, addressing a variety of social problems through micro, mezzo, and macro systems to bring about organizational and community change.
Skills to succeed in social work: Social workers are problem solvers with excellent communication, interpersonal, and organizational skills. You’ll need to be comfortable under stress, adaptable in dynamic situations to successfully facilitate effective solutions for diverse populations.
Your resilience and persistence in the face of unpredictable results defines your success in social work. While things may not always go your way, you’ll discover intense fulfillment when they do.
2. Consider a potential specialty
While nothing is set in stone before you even begin your education, it’s never too early to begin considering what kind of social worker you’d like to become.
There are three unique types of social workers explicitly identified by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS):
Mental health and substance abuse social workers are typically LCSWs who help clients deal with addictions or mental illness.1
A caseworker in this field must be capable of facilitating support groups or “step” style programs. Demand for mental health social workers is expected to rise rapidly over the next decade, with the BLS predicting an employment increase of 15% from 2020-2030.
Healthcare or medical social workers help clients adjust their lifestyle in response to injury, illness, or disease. Healing requires more than physical diagnosis and treatment—social workers can help people manage a significant change in day-to-day life.
According to the BLS, medical social workers most often work in hospitals, but can also work in individual and family services, home health care services, or nursing care facilities.
These types of social workers work closely with children, adult, and/or elderly clients to provide those who are most vulnerable with the community support they need.
Some social workers may focus on children, helping to facilitate adoptions, find foster families, or attempt to reunite families. Others may assist in finding housing, seek adult protective services, or apply for benefits such as food stamps.
If you have a good idea of what specialty is right for you, you can potentially look for educational programs with concentrations in these areas to best prepare you for career success.
We’ve developed our master’s degree program in accordance with these popular categories, and offer concentration options in Mental Health, Medical, and Children, Family, and Aging Services.
3. Earn undergraduate education
If you have yet to earn a college degree, or you currently hold an associate degree, you’ll first need to earn a bachelor’s degree before entering the field of social work.
If you have already earned a bachelor’s degree, you can begin working towards earning a master’s degree and step towards becoming a social worker.
- Do I need a bachelor’s degree major in social work? No, you don’t need to have majored in social work at the bachelor’s level to apply for a master’s degree program in social work.
- Can you be a social worker without a bachelor’s degree? In the case of entry-level, nonclinical jobs in the social work field (not “Social Worker”), a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW) is commonly the minimum educational requirement. However, in a nonclinical role your scope of practice will be limited, and you will not be able to become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) without an MSW.
Prior college education in human services, psychology, community health, sociology, education, or criminal justice represent a logical foundation for a career in social work. But it’s not required. You can begin your graduate education without a social work major at the bachelor’s level.
Your potential career possibilities as a social worker expand greatly once you’ve earned a master’s degree.
4. Complete a master’s degree program
The biggest step to become a social worker is earning your master’s degree.
There are a few key things to keep in mind as you’re looking for the Master of Social Work (MSW) program that’s right for you:
- Full-time/part-time flexibility. Commit full-time and you can complete your degree in as little as 2 years. But you may also elect a part-time extended option that will likely take around 4 years to complete.
- Online vs. in-person. Are you interested in distance learning, or do you prefer to take classes in a live school environment?
- Career-focused study. Does the program emphasize developing career-focused skills, and how well is it reflected in the curriculum?
- Availability and start date. Some programs are highly competitive with few available seats and/or enroll new students less frequently.
Our online program offers several start dates throughout the year, featuring three unique specializations with options for both full-time and part-time study.
5. Research certification and licensure1
Once you’ve graduated with a master’s degree in social work, it’s time to work towards certification and licensure in the state in which you plan to practice.
Every state has their own set of requirements to become an LCSW and practice, so you’ll need to research the rules in your state.
You’ll need to take the licensing exam from the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) to begin the process.
Learn more about what you need to do in your state to get your first license.
Frequently Asked Questions
Yes, you can potentially leverage your education and experience in nursing into a career as a social worker. You may choose to stay in the healthcare field as a medical social worker.
You'll want to consider a Master of Social Work degree program to earn the new skills in knowledge to succeed in the field and position yourself best when applying for jobs.
Learn more about the RN to social work pathway and discover some of the primary differences between each career path.
A bachelor’s in psychology can help you build a good foundation for future social work education, and you can potentially find entry-level jobs related to social work with a bachelor’s degree.
However, to become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), you will need more than a psychology bachelor’s degree—you will need to earn a Master of Social Work.1
Expect a higher education requirement for some teaching jobs in social work programs at different types of colleges and universities.
According to the 2020 Annual Survey, 89.8% of full-time faculty in social work programs hold a master’s in social work, with 48.9% holding a research-focused doctorate in social work. In addition, over half of full-time faculty hold a license in social work.
Every institution will have their own expectations for education, but earning your master’s degree and becoming licensed is a good first step to increasing your qualification to become a professor, assistant professor, instructor or lecturer.
Educational and licensing requirements can vary by state and employer across both jobs. The disciplines are distinct enough to demand separate master’s degree curriculums.
The primary difference between clinical social workers and mental health counselors is the scope of their duties and the education required to perform them. Generally, counselors focus solely on mental health issues, while clinical social workers carry a wide variety of responsibilities including and beyond mental health care.
Becoming a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) includes more involvement in managing your clients’ support network and larger community. While clinical social workers can potentially adopt a direct, active role in diagnosing and treating mental health issues, it’s not the sole purpose of the profession as it is for mental health counselors.
While the field of social work has evolved to become more diverse and specialized, core master’s degree courses prepare you for a wide variety of job possibilities.
Choose the MSW specialization best reflecting the social work career path you want to walk.
Job titles can vary widely with overlap across each specialty. Your choice of specialty today doesn’t necessarily preclude you from pursuing job possibilities in other areas.
- Behavioral Health Therapist
- Mental Health Social Worker
- Psychiatric Social Worker
- Psychosocial Coordinator
- Residential Therapist
- Substance Use Disorder Clinician
- Suicide Prevention Specialist
- Victim Advocate
- Home Health & Hospice Social Worker
- Hospice Social Worker
- Medical Social Worker
- Oncology Social Worker
- Residential Treatment Coordinator
- Social Work Case Manager
Children, Families, and Aging
- Adoption Social Worker
- Adult Protective Services Worker
- Child Protective Services Supervisor (CPS Social Worker)
- Domestic Violence Advocate
- Family Protection Specialist
- Family Resource Coordinator
- Family Service Worker
- Foster Care Social Worker
- Gerontology Social Worker
- Pediatric Social Worker
- School Social Worker
- Veteran Affairs (VA) Social Worker
- Youth Specialist
You will study a variety of topics in a social work master’s degree program. Our class topics include:
- Human Behavior in the Social Environment I and II
- Generalist Social Work with Individuals/Groups
- Generalist Practice with Organizations/Community
- Social Work Research Methods and Application
- Social Policy and Services
- Advanced Clinical Social Work Theory and Practice
- Advanced Psychosocial Assessment & Clinical Diagnosis
View our full MSW program curriculum.
The average salary for a social worker depends on several factors, including where they work, the state in which they practice, how long they have practiced, and chosen specialization.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics provides average salary estimates for three different types of social workers:*
- Child, family, and school social workers earn an annual average salary of $54,880 per year ($26.39 per hour)
- Healthcare social workers earn an annual average salary of $62,310 per year ($29.96 per hour)
- Mental health and substance abuse social workers earn an annual average salary of $57,800 per year ($27.79 per hour).
According to the CSWE’s most recent Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards, the 9 Social Work Competencies are listed as such:
- Demonstrate Ethical and Professional Behavior
- Engage Diversity and Difference in Practice
- Advance Human Rights and Social, Economic, and Environmental Justice
- Engage in Practice-informed Research and Research-informed Practice
- Engage in Policy Practice
- Engage with Individuals, Families, Groups, Organizations, and Communities
- Assess Individuals, Families, Groups, Organizations, and Communities
- Intervene with Individuals, Families, Groups, Organizations, and Communities
- Evaluate Practice with Individuals, Families, Groups, Organizations, and Communities
How long it takes depends on what education and experience you’ve already earned.
If you have already earned a bachelor’s degree in a non-social work major, you can potentially complete an MSW program in around 2 years and prepare to become a social worker.
If you have already earned a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW), you may qualify for faster programs designed for students who have already completed some social work undergraduate coursework.